Part II: Wherein We Take a Hit from Rita and I Cook


Editors' note: In the first part of Polydactyl's series The Summer of Storms, she gives us David Rovics' song New Orleans and so much more. In Part Two: Wherein We Take a Hit from Rita and I Cook, she shares personal, moment-by-moment reactions and observations as Rita bears down.

As we cleaned up from Katrina, there were a good number of fist-shaking moments.

We heard the stories, such as the one about the Red Cross center that was doing the vouchers was patrolled by Blackwater Security...right up to the point that a guard drew an automatic rifle on an old woman that was in the process of passing out in the Louisiana heat and humidity. She had not "complied" with an order to fall back in line. Fortunately, there was a local sheriff's deputy on the scene as well who diffused the situation. Shortly after that, the sheriff's office got the security contract for the remainder of the term. Or see Jeremy Scahill and Amy Goodman's description of Blackwater Security at work in New OrleansOverkill: Feared Blackwater Mercenaries Deploy in New Orleans.

There were more such moments to come -- and soon. Two days later, Hurricane Rita hit southwest Louisiana, east Texas and central Louisiana. It was a hard knock on my community, already hosting the Katrina displaced and now sheltering Rita evacuees while being buffeted itself. It was an odd combination of lack of resources that followed...5 days without power at home, but power to my office, though no water and nary a bag of ice or gallon of gas to be found for almost a week. Talk about being stuck! But at least I could write, this was my Rita roundup, started the Monday after the storm, as I was hunkering down in my office:

September 26th 2005 or so
Personal journal

Glad to report that we are all well and with no physical damage that time, patience and money won't fix.

My husband, The Norseman, and I were able to leave our jobs about 3 p.m. Friday afternoon to finish battening down things at the house. It had started to rain about 1 p.m. and by 5 p.m., it was picking up pretty hard and the winds were gusty. It was a bit difficult to leave not knowing what was about to transpire, but all that was to be done had been done and it was off to the safer brick house of the Norseman's folks.

It had been overcast all day, barely getting to 85 degrees Fahrenheit, so sitting on the porch nursing daiquiri around 9 p.m. in the ever freshening winds was quite pleasant. Normally, it would still be around 90 degrees Fahrenheit at that hour down here in the sweltering south. By 10 p.m., they had about 4 inches of rain in advance of the storm from the outer bands.

One of the really cool things about this experience was the simulcasting of the Norseman's TV station on several radio channels -- this was a great bit of cooperation between the station and the radio market, plus the news/weather folks did a pretty good job of presenting non-visual play by play.

We lost power at about 11:30 p.m. -- since I was in bed by 11:00 p.m., I'm not exactly sure about the time. With landfall projected for between 3 and 6 a.m., I didn't see much point in staying up all night and figured that I would be better `for the worst' if I had some sleep. As it turns out, it was a pretty restless sleep, as I was kept awake by lots of howling winds, pounding rain and a storm door outside of my room ripped from its hinges about 4 a.m. So much for storm doors....

I got back up for good about 5 a.m. and paced around a bit, the Norseman's mom had made some coffee and I headed back to the porch for a rocking chair and a smoke. It was all horizontal rain and howling wind in the dark...I guess the darkness was the worst part about it...still almost two hours before daylight. Listening to the radio accounts of the storm's progress was not encouraging, but any news was good news, as it kept you from speculating. The TV station had just finished installation on a new radar and weather graphics package, so the coverage was top notch. And just to give `props', our guys were closer than National Weather Service on predicting landfall. With the daylight came the unnerving visuals of the storm...trees bent over, leaves turned inside out by the wind and immeasurable blowing rain and tree debris.

When the going gets tough, I cook, if for nothing more than a time killing distraction, the sense of doing something and the sustenance with which to gird our loins against the strengthening storm. We had brought a camp stove and stand with us and a snorkel so that it could be fired up from a 5 gallon propane bottle instead of the usual 'hikers' size. As I was amassing bacon and eggs all around, much to my dismay, the Norseman jumped in his truck to go and check on his brother down the road. He didn't say that he was leaving and didn't call when he got there, so I was a bit hot under the collar until his return. He brought his brother's whole crew over with him (and out of a 100-year old farm house with a bad tin roof), so we were now ten in our brick safe house of first resort.

Now, the Norseman's dad had a small generator, but it was tasked with recharging the refrigerator and two deep freezers. So, we huddled by radios most of the morning and I kept my daughter, the Peach, and three of her cousins busy playing gin rummy. I am a card player of the first order, but somehow, these little ruffians bested me big time...I was a card shy of gin more times than I can count. After beating their aunt/mom like a drum became boring, they reverted to a house game that is sort of like "Go Fish," but has some rather cut-throat improvised rules. I set about rigging my satellite radio up with a rather intricate system of inverters and improvised antenna extensions and we had XM programming for the rest of the day. They were broadcasting wall-to-wall Rita updates along with government messages on a Red Cross channel.

As for the storm itself, the thing that surprised all of us the most was that the winds actually got stronger after the eye passed north of us. Everything that I had ever heard was that the wind and rain is heaviest when you are in that NE section of the storm. Not.

So, when the bulk of the storm was past us around Noon, we figured that it would be all downhill from there. At that point, there were six big oak and hickory trees down that we could see, but all were in where they were only an inconvenience and not a real hazard. But, the winds became stronger and the rain stayed steady.

The Norseman and his brother went back over to the farm house and cranked up a little generator. They also cleared a tree from his neighbor's driveway to their mobile home so they could leave. With the winds heavier than ever, I would not have picked that time to be relocating, but then my calmer-heads-prevailing attitude was definitely not the attitude that was in the majority it seems.

When they came back from the farm house, they brought over several pounds of venison, so I got back into cooking-mode and began to whip out a serious sauce picante. This is not a thing to be rushed, so I was definitely in my element. Busy with cooking, I could look out off the porch into the storm knowing that of all the things that I could be doing, cooking was the most productive. Then, those antsy boys, the Norseman and his brother decided that 4 p.m. was enough storm for them, and even though the winds were as heavy as they had been all day, that they had waited long enough and were going to drive the 15 or so miles over to Casa Poly to check on the house.

The Peach was in tears for fear of ill-winds striking her father and uncle and I was steaming mad arguing what difference would a couple more hours make. But, sometimes there is just no talking sense to that hard-headed lunk and his equally determined brother. The phone line was dead at the brick house and the cell towers were all down, so there was no communicating with them once they left. It was a jaw clenching, tooth grinding 90 minutes before they got back. But, the report was good when they did.

Trees littered the roadway, some having been sawed clear earlier in the day, power lines strewn all about and no signs what-so-ever of any emergency or utility company vehicles. When they got to the top of our driveway, they had to get out of the truck. There were two trees crossing various locations on the mile driveway, but the house, the Norseman's workshop and the carport were all intact. Whew. The boathouse and dock were above water with their roofs intact. Whew. Some rat had stolen our generator. Boo. Hiss. All the cats were accounted for. Yippee. They made it back to the brick house without incident. Huzzah.

The sauce picante was coming along nicely, but the venison does not want to be rushed into achieving maximum tenderness, so the sauce and I simmered away to the tunes of XM radio, rehashing the alternative hits of the eighties --songs from Elvis Costello, the Clash, and the Stranglers...all bringing back tons of memories. Big time blasts from the past like Haircut 100, XTC, Bananarama, Madness and Ian Drury kept me laughing and thinking of back in the day.

I was ordered to put on the rice as the tribe was becoming restless and the feeding of the troops was in order. Last check...tender enough, so time to change pots on the single burner. I'm thinking that it is all good, right up to the point that the Norseman's mother lost her cool (not altogether unusual) and refused to eat. But things escalated from there and it became clear (as mud) that the tribe was no longer welcome and that it would be best if we cleared out. I still don't know what the hell happened, but all of us split around 7:30 p.m. The wind was still blowing about 35 MPH with gusts slightly higher and the rain was more or less just off and on, so first we went to the farm house and waited for the rain to slack.

Then, in two vehicles, the Norseman, the Peach and I headed back to the lake. The Norseman said that unless there were newly felled trees we could take a shortcut through the neighbor's driveway across part of our yard and to the driveway where we park. The trip home was a bit of a white knuckle adventure dodging tree debris in the sheer darkness mixed with blowing rain. When the Norseman said that the debris at our house was shin-deep, I thought he was exaggerating, but he wasn't.

It was simply amazing even in the dark. The house was rather hot and still, but we piled in, lit two hurricane lamps and reassembled the satellite radio. Shaking that 16 lb. bag of cat chow was enough to get the cats' attention and before long we had a giant cat love-in in the house. I had had about enough drama for the day, so I was all for hitting the sack. It wasn't going to be a comfortable sleep, but Sunday was going to be a long day.

I was up before daylight, tossing and turning in my own funky grit and grime, the kind of uncomfortableness that is only soothed by getting the hell up. The morning air was remarkably cool, but very still and I knew that the coolness wouldn't last. There are only a few creature comforts that I require and neither of them speaks very well of me: coffee and cigarettes. So, I went to the van where all my cooking supplies had been hastily evac'd from my mother-in-law's the night before. Out came the "cowboy coffee pot", an old-style grounds percolator, and a fresh pack of Camels.

The daylight showed what the darkness had hidden...a load of tree debris and that the two trees obstructing the driveway were not ours, but had been lifted, root-ball and all, from the neighbor's yard. Both were white oaks about 90 feet tall...enough firewood for three families through the winter. Each tree was of such a diameter that when we cut a section out from above the root-ball that the three of us could not reach our arms around it. We cut very small sections at a time, rolling them off the driveway to clear it...about six hours of saw time. It'll be months before it is split and hauled off.

By noon, it was already 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Noon gave us a good glimpse of what will be ahead of us this week. I don't anticipate having power back for another 4 or 5 days. In fact, I have not seen a single utility truck since before the storm. We continued to clear debris and the Norseman and his other brother, the mechanic, worked all afternoon trying to get this other, old broke-down generator to run, but it was not meant to be. If Natedog couldn't get it to run, then it just wasn't going to happen. The only thing that was worse than the heat was the suddenly dislocated yellow jacket wasps. We all got stung at least once, but the worst was poor, laboring-over-the-generator, Natedog, who took a sting to his throat when one got into his beer. The weird always happens to Natedog.

So, suffice it to say that the day was long, but the hot night Sunday night was dreadful. The Peach had been so good and self-entertaining all day, curled up with a book on the front porch, lapfuls of kitties and the radio. Hardly a discouraging word all day, but the darkness took its toll on her patience and the prospect of a hot night on the couch (next to the open screened door) was not to her liking. We were all filthy with sweat, sawdust and bug guts (did I mention that every manner of bug known to man decided to descend on us?) and I advised that a cold spit bath was better than none at all. We stayed outside until we were basically asleep in our lawn chairs and headed for the bed around 11:30 p.m. It was still 88 degrees Fahrenheit in the house at that time.

Monday morning, the sky was clear as a bell and the humidity was already on. The water pressure had disappeared over night; I wasn't up for making the cowboy coffee, so I hustled my little flock for our trip into work. I had to see if all of my servers had made the trip into this week and the Norseman had 1,000 things going on at the station that he had let slide over the weekend (although he had been given a free pass by his boss not to come in until Monday).

We had not had a newspaper since Friday, had no power at home, and the TV station quit simulcasting fairly early Sunday morning, so we were definitely out of the loop in terms of what was going on in Alexandria. We quickly discovered that all hell had broken gas, no water pressure, spotty electrical service, 25,000 additional evacuees AND the mayor had fired his chief of staff, utility director and city planner.

I started assessing the situation in my office and making sure that all the servers were healthy, etc., when the property management guy called me up and said that the bank building's only water supply was what was held in the gravity tanks in the penthouse. Not good. When they were warning about a water shortage, I thought it was the run of the mill usual drought thing combined with loss of electric, but of the seven water wells that serve the community, NONE of them are on line. Water boil advisories are on for what little water is dribbling out of the lines and that is it. Not enough pressure to fight a fire, the hospitals are closed to all traffic except major emergencies, and the Mayor shut the city down at noon. All businesses were to close, no exceptions. As I write this, I am in my office illegally (subject to a $1,000 fine), but for as long as the bank was going to run the air conditioner, I was going to stay.

The city is running 16 official shelters including three medical needs centers (none of which have running water) and dozens of non-official (non Red Cross) facilities where folks are starting to feel the pinch. There is no gasoline to re-evac anyone, no ice (the big ice plant in Leesville was demolished) and spotty electric. We could use some of that wonderfully well-timed FEMA response about now with 18-wheelers of ice, water and MRE's. Ahem. I'm sure they are headed for Texas about now.

So, all the schools are closed; all the businesses are supposed to be closed; you can't buy gas; there is no ice; and I'm sure that I'll be needing to ditch everything in my fridge this evening when I get home before it starts to stink. I had held out hope for a miracle in the form of a replacement generator (dirty thieves will get theirs in the end) or hoards of utility workers descending on my neck of the woods. I guess not. But, all in all, we really did come through it practically unscathed -- a bit of roof damage, but it is mixed in with some pre-existing roof damage...and with the exception of all the yellow jacket stings, no one has been hurt.

La-de-dah...I'm just waiting on the Norseman to wrap up his day at the office. I expect that mine will stay closed tomorrow which means a hot, sweltering day at the lake house with no water or electric. His office will remain open with porta-potties stewing in the southern sun...good thing he has a well exercised bladder, strengthened by many years of professional beer drinking.

New International Times blogger Cascadia and I were pretty much on target with Rita heading for the Louisiana side of the field projection and all of the network/cable news-types were stationed in Galveston, Houston and Beaumont. Only the cats in Beaumont saw the real action. My poor mates in Holly Beach, Johnson Bayou and Cameron are all goners. Smart folks most of them, always heeding evac notices, but they will have nothing to return to. Holly Beach is nothing but jagged little pilings jutting out of the water where houses used to be. What little I have seen of the western Louisiana coast is just dreadful. It is not much better in Lake Charles, some 30 miles inland.

I haven't been on the internet except to post this from the workhouse, so I really can't speak to what else is going on in the region. All I know is that I am safe and facing the same physical discomforts as hundreds of thousands of other people. What I don't have to worry about is being psychologically separated from what is "mine." They have started to tow away the vehicles that ran out of gas that now line the city roads and interstate. I know that if I had been in "flight mode," I wouldn't want to return to find that my car disappeared. I know that if I had been evac'd to Houston from Katrina and then evac'd again for Rita, I would be feeling more than just a little displaced.

So, while old Poly may be a bit grouchier than usual and wondering where she is going to buy another carton of smokes (a REALLY big concern right now), I know that no matter how hot I am, or how thirsty or hungry I am, this is a short term thing for me. Some folks will be facing months upon months of uncertainty, deprivation and that crippling sense of `where do I start.'

That is the thing that before Rita struck gave me the most grief....'where do we start' in rebuilding our state. It is going to be one of the largest "chicken and egg" questions of our time. The entire southern portion of Louisiana has been wiped off the map; the midlands have been wiped off the economic map, and the northern part of Louisiana is threatening to secede and join Texas. All the hotels are doing evacuee-only business; retail is non-existent due shortages and transportation issues. Re-housing is a joke. Where there are houses, there are no jobs. And where there are jobs, there is no housing. Evacuees want to be re-evacuated to somewhere with electricity and water, but there is no gas. Our mayor went nuts and cut everyone loose in his administration, then shut down the city. The FEMA and Red Cross offices in Alex shut down for lack of water and haven't said when they will reopen or when they will begin receiving truckloads of actual supplies instead of just pushing paper.

So, chicken and egg questions of the rebuilding aside, the remaining big questions are how long will the American's newly found self-compassion last? Will this administration be held accountable for breaking the economy? And what is going to happen with a full month remaining in the hurricane season?

More hurricane hopscotch anyone? You can take my next turn.

The questions I raised in these posts at New International Times were to stay with me, haunt me, and circle around overhead as I tracked the monies collected by the profiteers.

ePluribus Contributors and Fact Checkers: Welshman, JeninRI, Standingup, Kfred, Vivian, Greyhawk, roxy and cho
about the author: Polydactyl dons her blogger's hat in Central Louisiana between shifts as a wife, mom, cat-herder and computer healer.
photo and song credits: Sheldon Morton, Polydactyl, G. Fesmire/dp design, David Rovics