Boils next time

A fire rages through a block. Rebuilding is never done. It gets wearying. First published Feb 4th 2006
Jim Gabour
27 August 2010

By the time you read this, these words will have been edited, proofed, turned into ones and zeroes, spellchecked again.  And quite possibly in the process have become quite readable.  Unlike many of my other missives, written in passion and the haste to get them out of my system, which I e’d into the world without a second thought.  Only a sigh of relief, to be rid of them.

But this time I am writing with pen to paper, and though it is rather a foreign process, it is allowing me to vent once again, and thus, retain my sanity, even while living full-time in my home.  

In New Orleans.

Did I mention that I am writing by the light of a solitary lamp powered by the gasoline-fueled electrical generator outside?  A device which also allows both my neighbor’s and my own refrigerator to keep working?


The generator is noisy, but it does allow me the comfort of knowing that my freezer and refrigerator full of food will not spoil immediately.  These days, we have to stock up with large quantities of foodstuffs when we make the long trek cross-town to the distant supermarket.  It is quite an expedition, and not taken lightly.

Today’s was your standard start to a Saturday morning in New Orleans.  Get up, turn on the lights, and discover that there are none.  Along with no heat.  These power interruptions are such a regular occurrence that I no longer take the trouble to set electric clocks, in the house or my office.  I consequently live in a neo-modern world, each room of which is festooned with sets of blinking numbers.

Luckily this morning I still have my backup coffee-maker, an old Cajun four-piece four-cup French-drip pot which I have lovingly possessed for over thirty years.  I haul it down, boil water – gas stoves are a necessity here – and head out to find a newspaper.

Who knows, Bush may have been here again.

But as I approach the front door I hear a siren, then another.  And another, and another.  It was only yesterday that the venerable Coliseum Theatre burned to the ground, aided by high winds and low water pressure.  Even with helicopters working in tandem, hauling eight-hundred-gallon bags of water from the river to dump on the fire, the theatre burned and disappeared from the earth quickly and finally.  Another bit of our soul gone.

So when I open the door to my home and walk into a wall of smoke and an audio cascade of even more approaching sirens, I become more than a touch uneasy.

There sound to be dozens of fire engines approaching closely, and as the smoke clears in a breeze, I see that there are.  Dozens.  I see them wheeling into the neighborhood, one-by-one, roaring up at the end of my street, dropping into a rubber-burning screaming halt just two blocks north.

Less than a minute later, the deafening thud of approaching helicopters makes me duck.  They are flying really low, less than a hundred feet up, and they are carrying the same bags I’d heard were used at the Coliseum.  Each of the aircraft is hauling a large round orange sack, suspended from its bellies at the end of a long tether.  A spray of water is blowing from the upper mouth of each bag as they move into position, again just to the north of me, and prepare to drop their water.
There is most certainly a fire.  Nearby.

I throw on an old warm-up jacket, hop on my bike, and sprint up the street, which is rapidly filling with people in their pajamas and robes.  Two blocks away, just above Rampart street, people are stumbling into the mouth of a rock-strewn driveway on the eastern side of the street.  There is a large open space in the center of the block and it is directly behind the fires, which are now coming from the upper stories and roofs of at least three buildings.  The row of century-old shotgun houses face Mandeville street, the next parallel street east, but the rear of the burning houses intrude well into the block very near Marigny street.  My street.

Luckily, for me at least, the wind is coming strongly out of the north-northwest, and is blowing the flames straight down the block.  Unluckily for the rest of the houses on that side of the street.  The fire is literally leaping from wall to wall.  I can see flames blowing horizontally from the upper windows of one house like a blowtorch, directly into the shattered windows of the next, and then out the other side of the second house.
There must now be at least a hundred firefighters on the scene, and more arriving by the minute.  They do not look like actors in a movie.  They look like tired old men, just awakened from sleep.  Which is exactly what they are.

I spot half a dozen of them standing precariously on the roof of one house, fully equipped with oxygen bottles and grappling gear, hacking at the side of the adjoining building, flames just a few feet away and coming closer every time the wind slackens.  I lose sight of the firemen as another eight hundred gallons of water falls directly on them from the sky.

“These guys really are heroes,” is all I can think.  Yeah, I know.  But, Christ, just look at those guys!  

People all around me are standing about in clusters with their mouths open, watching the firefighters risk their lives for someone else’s property.  We start into conscious life only occasionally, each time to simultaneously point at yet another burst or explosion.  I can see the faces around me.  Neighbors, all wondering if this fire in a gale wind can be stopped before it jumps the next street south and moves into that block.  And on into mine.

Thinking this, I pedal one block in that direction, where the fire is headed.  The firemen from three trucks have formed their vehicles into a line down the street, directly in the path of the fire.  They have of course thought of the same possibility that I imagined.  The smoke is blowing directly in their faces, and the heat is already so intense that I have to stay half a block away and watch them stand there, feet set and hoses in hand.  Knowing that they have only the small amount of water stored in their trucks with which to stop the flames.

They can see by the water’s short arc on the giant crane hose to the north that there is barely enough pressure to maintain that stream.  So there is definitely not enough for all these pumper trucks to tap into the neighborhood fire hydrants.  

It is that way all over the City.  Thus the choppers have been brought into use.  These men know that, if the five hundred gallons they each have is not enough to stop the fire’s advance, they will have to evacuate quickly, very quickly.   The drivers are in fact already in place in each truck, waiting.

The helicopters are now in a rhythm, dropping a load of water every ninety seconds.  I know this because the gentleman standing next to me is timing them.  They are remarkable.  We are all in awe of the pilots, getting so close to the fires, and we now see them so frequently that we have come to note their individual characteristics.  The red and blue chopper gets much much closer to the flames before dumping, but even so, the orange flyer is more accurate, in spite of the rising wind.
One of the bystanders says he heard that the fire was started in the storm-ruined furniture store on the corner, by squatters.  Once out of control the wind took it to the house immediately behind it, then the next.  And the next.  By the time I get near enough to see for myself, the fire is consuming its seventh building.  Only two are left between it and the fireline at the street.

That is when the tanker trucks arrive, three at a time.

The pumper drivers scramble to hook up to the new tanks and begin to spray, into the wind.  And finally, this additional water coming from the south begins to slow the fire’s progress.

And then it is out.  The fire is out.  We are left staring at three-quarters of a block filled with charred blackened totems.  

The houses in this neighborhood are either made entirely of old-cut cypress or of stucco set on cypress beams.  Cypress wood is wonderfully resistant to water.  And equally susceptible to fire.
The owner of the last house to burn, a gorgeous two-story Greek Revival mansion, had just completed hurricane restoration on his home last week.

The water here now has no pressure and lots of smell.  It stinks with chlorine.  Friends have told me that you can bleach clothes clean by leaving them overnight in a tub of tap water.  Drinking it is not an option, though I have found that a kettle of water boiled and left standing for a few hours becomes a great deal less offensive.

As I ride my bike home, one of my neighbors yells out to me:  “If you think this is bad, wait until the boils get here.”  I laugh and smile and wave as I pass, but I am confused thinking of it as a water reference, and don’t get the joke until I am almost home.

You see, day before yesterday a pair of tornadoes ripped through town, one heavily damaging the airport, and another running top to bottom through Lakeview, completely destroying the very few houses that had survived the flooding caused by the 17th Street Canal breach.  Then yesterday, with the wind and dropping water pressure, the fires started.  Today there is no electricity, and the phones only receive, and we can’t call out.

Boils and a plague of locusts cannot be far behind.

A person could get depressed.

They do.  Our suicide rate is skyrocketing.  During one single week in October, eight doctors, unknown to one another, took their own lives.  They could not stand the memory of what they had seen along with maintaining themselves in a malfunctioning and defective environment.  
This place we call home on a daily basis.

Months have passed now, but the quality of life here has actually begun to slide downward again.  A few weeks ago the US president said he saw people here “with a spring in their step again”.  I wonder if he can have really left his airplane.

That said, my electricity just came on.  I guess I will go shut down the generator, power up the computer and process these words.

Process these words about New Orleans.


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