NEW ORLEANS—They carried nothing and they were headed nowhere. All they had was a view of what they had left behind.
They walked out of New Orleans in twos and threes, searching for dry ground.
They found it on the elevated lanes of U.S. 90 south of town. The high road gave them a clear look back.
White smoke mushroomed from one end of downtown, black smoke from the other. Helicopters circled like buzzards. The flayed roof of the Superdome looked like a rotten orange.
And from there all the way back to the highway, everything that God and man had built was ruined—every light pole snapped, every tree uprooted, every house crushed or flooded or swept down the street.
One of the walkers stopped at the edge of the highway and stared down at the city.
Then he spit over the side.
The center of the storm hit here. But really Hurricane Katrina blew through the whole country, and it's still blowing.
It floods us with sympathy for the ones still stranded—and fury at the ones looting TVs and shooting at rescue workers.
It peels off our human skin and reveals the animal just underneath, whether we're scrounging for a swallow of water or getting into fistfights at the gas pump.
And it shreds our mental list of things that can't happen here.
Patients died in New Orleans when rescuers couldn't get to a hospital called Charity. Dozens drowned in Mississippi at an apartment complex called Quiet Water. Old women closed their eyes for the last time on the home field of the New Orleans Saints.
"I helped 63 days out in Texas with the space shuttle recovery," said Bill Shetley of Weaverville, N.C., who was waiting on a bus to help give out food in New Orleans. "That was sad work. But this you don't know where to start. It's all over everywhere."
And everywhere, people are searching.
In Baton Rouge, evacuees at a shelter wandered through a crowd of thousands, looking for family.
In Meridian, Miss., a woman at a hotel pay phone punched the same number over and over, praying: Please pick up. Please pick up.
In New Orleans, TV stations scroll messages from viewers across the bottom of the screen: "Tyra Jones. She lives off Lapalco Blvd near the Seven Eleven. Her 7-year-old son and family want to know she is safe."
The rest of us are searching, too. We watch the chaos in New Orleans and wonder: What would I become if I were there? We look at the people picking through the remnants of their lives and wonder: What would I do if everything I knew were gone?
The thoughts tumble inside our heads like the world tumbles around the survivors down here. Everything comes from odd angles, at weird times, in unexpected places.
The one constant sound is the thuk-thuk-thuk of helicopters, even at 3:30 in the morning. Every piece of debris feels slick with oil. So many trees have been chain-sawed to clear roads that the interstate smells like Christmas.
We're not built to make sense of it all. Not this fast.
We know a few things now. We know that Katrina punished the ones who chose to ride it out. We know that our government's reflexes weren't quick enough. We know the recovery will come in layers—days, weeks, months, years.
We know that this isn't something we can just walk away from, like those folks up on the highway.
We have to walk toward it.
Due south of New Orleans is a little strip of fishing towns on the bayou along Route 1. A bunch of men in the village called Golden Meadow worked together on a shrimp boat. Katrina sank the boat. On Friday, the men tried to get it back.
The boat was tangled on something underwater, so Steven Dantin put a knife in his teeth and dove underwater to cut the boat loose from a dock. Billy Jarreau jumped in and lashed ropes to a tugboat. A bunch of men on the dock grabbed at the side of the boat and tried to pull it upright.
Insurance might have towed the boat out and bought a new one. But Steven wouldn't have it. It was his daddy's boat.
His wife, Candace, ran the video camera. She wasn't sure they needed it.
She didn't figure they would ever forget.
"This is the way it is for everybody," she said. "Now we've got to start from the bottom again."
(Tommy Tomlinson is a columnist for The Charlotte Observer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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