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Living with Gustav

Jim Gabour
1 September 2008

Turkey and ducks and Gustav gumbo

"I am prepared to eat and drink well in adversity. What else is there to do."

It's a boy, this time.

Tropical Storm Gustav wobbled unsteadily through much of the Caribbean, but as hurricane Gustav approaches Cuba he has recovered his macho nature and his track is straightening. The storm-centre now seems to have its sites firmly set on the Louisiana coastline, a ragtag string of barrier islands still completely unrecovered from the Katrina-Rita one-two punch three years ago.

All the various media and governmental information outlets vary on their opinions of the final track - where this thing will finally come ashore, each saying they expect a last-minute veer east or west as it approaches the Gulf coast. One thing on which they are in agreement, though, is that New Orleans is getting a piece of it.Jim Gabour is an award-winning film producer, writer and director, whose work focuses primarily on music and the diversity of cultures. He lives in New Orleans, where he is artist-in-residence and professor of video technology at Loyola University. His website is here

Many of Jim Gabour's articles for openDemocracy are collected in an edition of the openDemocracy Quarterly

For details of Undercurrent: Life after Katrina, click here

Which is probably why 7,000 national guardsmen armed for war are at this moment pouring into the city, their mission more weighted toward protecting people and property from the human bad guys such an event generates, than from the storm itself. I just walked to my neighbourhood hardware store to find all the employees wearing pistols. They had already had an attempted robbery earlier in the morning – the thieves knew a hardware store would be doing booming business on a pre-hurricane Saturday – but the owner was already wearing his gun and when they saw him coming out of his office they ran off.

The store was closing right behind me until after the storm. No one wants to risk his life to sell a handful of wood screws. But the after-effect of the robbery attempt is that the rest of the neighbourhood is now left with no nearby source for material with which to secure their homes.

Overhead, helicopters whose numbers are reminiscent of scenes in Apocalypse Now are this moment scurrying to and fro, hauling massive sandbags and equipment to the three places where, we have been told, the levees and floodgates cannot yet handle the surge of another massive storm.

It has been three years and a day since, on 29 August 2005, Katrina violated this city. We are not yet safe, and the world has tired of our story.

I am staying this time, as I refuse to go through the fourteen-hour hell-in-a-tiny-car evacuation scenario I endured escaping the night before Katrina. In 2008 I have two full propane-tanks for my outdoor stoves, a generator with ten gallons of fuel, four hurricane-lamps and oil, three flashlights, a battery-powered TV and lots of batteries, and sufficient reading material.

Plus half a case of Wild Turkey bourbon.

I am waiting until the last minute - tomorrow, Sunday 31 August - to get up on my ladder to install the heavy and cumbersome plywood storm shutters, because it is such a huge ordeal. I must be absolutely sure Gustav is truly headed this way before I make myself once again get into major emergency carpentry.

Actually, I’m just getting too old for this.

The streets are already almost deserted, and we have been informed that the US mail is now cut off until further notice. I am to teach my classes online Tuesday-Wednesday, as the university and student body have already been evacuated elsewhere - though that assumes I will have electrical power and the internet here in New Orleans.

The only good storm news is that all my old hunting comrades and drinking buds down the bayou in St Bernard parish are getting the hell out because their levees are among the protection structures not yet completed. The prolific sportsmen of St Bernard and Plaquemines parishes all have freezers full of wild game left from this spring. When the last storm hit and the electricity was shut off, months worth of frozen bounty rotted. The power outage seems likely again, so they are completely emptying their freezers of serious goods.

The bottom line on that is yesterday afternoon I picked up a large bag of wild duck breasts, venison, and wild boar sausage from my down-the-bayou connection at Tujague's (thank you, David & Lisa), so I intend a hurricane party with some serious chow coming up Monday to divert myself with cooking a massive meal as the Thing gets near.

I am already getting hungry. The Louisiana State University (LSU) college football game has been moved to a 10am start for the first time in history, and also moved to the obscure ESPN Classics channel which neither I nor Tujague’s have, so I am headed around the corner to a friend's house in just a few moments to celebrate the return of our favorite sport. I am sure they are already into bloody mary’s and screwdrivers.

I am prepared to eat and drink well in adversity. What else is there to do.

Daydreaming our way through hell

"I am not abandoning my home on the word of these fear-mongers, even if what they say is true."

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1 September 2008 dawns gold and luminous, pale blue skies accented by light fluffy clouds moving east to west. It is much cooler in my yard than it has been for the last week, a light breeze ruffling the bright green leaves of the avocado and fig trees, and dropping the humidity to levels not usually seen in New Orleans until the bliss of late October.

It is a gorgeous day.

It is a gorgeous day in hell.

And the media are stoking the fires.

I knew things were getting grim when my Sunday newspaper was thrown into my yard on Saturday at 1pm. I guessed that the Times-Picayune had decided to give their employees time to evacuate their families and secure their homes. I opened the plastic covering to read the front-page headline: “Gustav Takes Aim”, but looked no further. I suppose I was thinking that if I just left it unread, then it would actually grow Saturday and Saturday night’s developments within it while I slept.

That did not happen. Reading it this morning, I found that the day-early newspaper was a pastiche of outdated material that had been far surpassed by the rising storm-surge of broadcast, cablecast and internet news. And of course by the dozens of messages lodged in my Blackberry urging me to leave.

Forgive my indulging fancy at a time like this, but from decades of living in New Orleans, I find acute crises can often be defused by creative daydreaming. I cannot help but imagine this day imbedded in the 19th century. Without electricity I would be enjoying a beautiful quiet Sunday with the prospect of a tasty wild-game gumbo and the company of neighbours for dinner and bourbon drinks.

In 1808 I would not even be able to imagine the terror barrage of five local and three national television news outlets devoted exclusively to my fate, funneled through a screaming, hyperventilating two-dimensional image in my living room.

In 2008 eight rabid meteorological soothsayers inhabit my home, each trying to outdo the others in fright-content to get my attention, thereby upping their ratings and their revenues. At this point, each is predicting a heavier and more terrifying doom on the quarter-hour.

In 2008 the media thrive on my fear. For the television producers there is no calm. There is no profit in quiet. There is no time for useless daydreaming when there is a need to magnetise plasma screens, to lock a captive viewing public to an intricate description of its present fate of sure misery. This is reality TV at its most grotesque.

Government officials and news-actors want me to embrace self-doubt, want me to experience an overwhelming sense of helplessness and come to them for succour. However, today I feel no sense of urgency, even though the weatherman’s warning has allowed me to raise the storm-shutters earlier than I would have in the 19th century. I am not abandoning my home on the word of these fear-mongers, even if what they say is true.

It is my own peculiar mindset, though one shared with many of my long-time neighbours. I left in advance of the worst of Katrina, but most other nearby home-owners actually stayed for the storm, then left after the flood when for a time they could no longer sustain anything approaching a decent human life in New Orleans.

I was reinforced in this feeling of Old World community yesterday, bicycling to Tujague’s, my watering-hole of choice, which itself has run a straight and true course in the same location since 1856.

You wouldn’t think anything dark at all was on the imminent horizon, not from the feel of the room. When I entered, Steve the owner was much more excited in my opinion of the quarterback situation at LSU. The football game had been moved up to the earliest starting time in the school’s history, 10am, due to the traffic diversions for hurricane evacuation, but all that was on Steve’s mind was how well the Tigers’ backfield was doing. Then he smiled, told me I looked a little peaked from stress and led me to the back dining room for a “consultation”. Paul the bartender smiled knowingly and motioned that I should go along.

Turns out Steve had purchased through eBay (his first-ever attempt) an antique “Violet Ray Machine”, a static-electricity-producing device that was used by doctors to treat a variety of illnesses at the turn of the 20th century. The set has a dozen or more small glass tubes that fit into a probe to produce any number of different colors and methods by which static electricity can be applied to the human body. The sparkling light emanating from the machine was very impressive off the white linen tablecloths in the darkened dining- room. He told me that he and his brother had found one as children and played with it until they wore it out, making diverse electrical arcs. He also told me that, when a few days ago he tried to buy some updated fittings for the old machine, he found that the contemporary sex-toy crowd had now found other more provocative uses for the violet ray, and he was too embarrassed to proceed further.

Steve intends to play with it, scaring the regulars, for the next few days. He said he needs a diversion, as he intends sleeping in his restaurant until Wednesday. We did not discuss why.

As I returned to the bar, I noticed there were more bicycles outside the front door. Two wheels are the preferred mode of transport in the Vieux Carré and Faubourg Marigny, even among the more elderly (i.e., me) inhabitants. The diversity of those standing at the bar – the few chairs in the room were only added in the 1970s – reassured me once again about the character of the full-time residents of the city. Leaning against the cypress bar with me were Ashton, a critical-care surgical nurse; William, a master woodworker; Gilmer, a Honduran busboy with a wicked sense of humour in two languages; and LJ, an antique copper-pot tinner.

LJ recently lived through six weeks of the summer with no electricity in his French Quarter apartment during repairs to the 200-year-old building. He thought nothing of it. Every day he showered in cold water then caught the bus to work refinishing and polishing giant copper cauldrons from the 1800s. His bus driver – the route used to have mule-pulled, and then electric, streetcars until the 1960s - and he have become friends during LJ’s daily travel, so the RTA man holds the bus for LJ if he is late to his regular stop. In the evenings the tinner rides the same bus back into the fringe of the Quarter, then walks to Tujague’s where he daily consumes his dinner in the company of these very friends. The lack of electricity this summer did nothing to alter this. LJ has no TV or computer. He does not need 2008 to live a full life.

Most of the regulars who now stand at the bar, pay once a month for what they eat and drink at Tujague’s. There is a handwritten book where the bartenders record individual charges, and from that they pay when a sufficient amount has accumulated. There are two major items not on the menu that are only offered to regulars. On Mardi Gras day these same habitués are invited into the upstairs dining room where they may eat and drink – and use bathrooms - all carnival-day free of charge.

This afternoon as I climb a ladder in rising winds, fastening heavy sheets of plywood to my upstairs windows, I take comfort in thinking about such communal comfort, in the bonds that make bearing the crises worthwhile.

In between carpentry efforts, I daydream while pulling splinters from my fingers. And thus I ignore the howls emanating from my television, from the internet, from the media-terror-magnified approach of yet another disaster.

I fasten shutters, tune my generator, secure propane tanks, put new batteries in my flashlights and oil in my lanterns. I fill bathtubs with potable water. I will cook my gumbo.

The five-percent solution: how it was

"The government, in demanding mandatory evacuation, basically stated that if you stayed and got into trouble, the governmrnt wouldn't help you. I did not see that as a change in current policy, so I stayed."

Depending on the supplier of the hyperbole, 1-2 million people fled New Orleans and the Gulf coast this weekend, 95% of the population. The government estimates that there are possibly 10,000 people still hunkered down in scattered areas of the city. There is still no electricity in two-thirds of the city, and less in outlying areas. The army has sealed off all approaches to New Orleans, as the city is deemed "unsafe for habitation" for the time being, and there is a dusk-to-dawn curfew in place. Violators are said to be shipped directly to the dreaded Angola state penitentiary.

The fear of looters is thick in every voice, in every conversation. We all remember the Katrina images and reality. There are many more bad guys than there are of us left in the city, in spite of the soldiers and the New Orleans police department (NOPD). I have given in to this fear, and my neighbour has loaned me an old but quite serviceable Colt .32 automatic. I take it upstairs and put it near my bed. I don't want to see it, just know of its presence.

I am still here and quite comfortable, as are at least three families in my immediate neighbourhood. The government, in demanding mandatory evacuation, basically stated that if you stayed and got into trouble, the government wouldn't help you. I did not see that as a change in current policy, so I stayed.

I have found that when you live through days you greatly anticipate or dread, events usually get jumbled by the over-amplified mind. I knew I would be asked about this experience, and I wanted to be able to tell the story truthfully, so I kept notes on life with Gustav.

11:40pm, Sunday 31 August

Rains and winds just starting. I am ready. Generator and propane-tanks are secure, so I can keep and cook food. Phone and laptop charging, so I can probably write in the dark. I am completely exhausted from having spent a day securing heavy plywood over second-storey windows, and being emotionally pummelled by media predictions, and in my stupor I wonder if this has become the core of my life, eating and communication.

5:00am, Monday 1 September

Winds rising. I have heard what sounded to be something landing in my front yard and automatically go to investigate. "The newspaper has arrived", my still-asleep mind formulates. "You need to read the newspaper." Of course nothing of the sort has happened. Even assuming the paper would send their home-delivery people out in the teeth of the storm, who would they be delivering to? Those few stragglers and banditos now boarded into their houses? The newspapers would just be flying debris.

There will be no newspapers until the city reopens.

6:00am

The wind has begun to howl and the house to shake. This is especially apparent upstairs where the movement is exaggerated by the height and my bed swaying from side to side. Tigger, the ancient one-eyed three-legged toothless orange tabby, does not like this phenomenon, and has come downstairs. Usually a loving creature, he is unsettled by the ongoing roar of the storm - he undoubtedly remembers Katrina - so we put a blanket in his cat-carrier box and he snuggles in like it is own personal safe house. Within ten minutes he is content and snoring, which sounds like bird-chirps, I swear.

7:00am

I turn on a television, looking to find location of the storm. Trying to see if it has hit land yet and when we can expect the worst. The radar is there and the meteorologists are pointing and exclaiming, but on each of the channels I finds that the station's logos obscure the top quarter and bottom third of every screen. I can't see the actual weather-radar, because the stations are trying to imbed their names in my subconscious, and those of the people who record ratings.

I go to the internet and get to see the radar. I see Gustav at the coast, getting ready to come onshore. The National Hurricane Center is predicting a westward move along the coast, which will imperil my brother Bill in Baton Rouge, and Bob over in Cajun country, in Lafayette. Later in the day, the storm is to continue northwards as a category one and pass directly over my parent's home in Alexandria. I call each of them.

8:00am

There is a huge musical chord in the air. I remember this phenomenon, but can't quite remember the source until I open the front door a wedge and brace against it to listen. It is the electrical, cable and telephone wires, each with a different tension, each vibrating to produce a distinct separate deep note. Gustav sings to the city he tries to destroy.

9:00am

Gustav is weaker today but now stalling, sitting on us, eye still partially offshore, so... it is getting stronger again.

Starting to lose trees - two down in my backyard just crashed into kitchen at the back of the house. Wall held intact.

Going back upstairs to look off balcony and survey damage, I can feel the house continue to shudder and literally move side to side.

Bad bad bad winds shaking the house, lots of rain, but shutters holding well. Nowhere near the doomsday predictions of yesterday, and we somehow still have power, though it is not stable and comes and goes without regard to wind or anything else. The lights go on and off as I walk across the room, then alternate again. Since the house is boarded up and really dark inside, I decide to start carrying lantern.

Jim Gabour is an award-winning film producer, writer and director, whose work focuses primarily on music and the diversity of cultures. He lives in New Orleans, where he is artist-in-residence and professor of video technology at Loyola University. His website is here

A selection of Jim Gabour's articles in openDemocracy:

"This is personal" (23 April 2007)

"Cutting loose" (4 May 2007)

"Mahatma 189" (11 May 2007)

"Undercurrent" (22 June 2007)

"Cry Oncle!"(12 July 2007)

"Lessons in the classics" (6 August 2007)

"The recurring anniversary of wilderness" (28 August 2007)

"Native to America" (26 September 2007)

"Number One with a bullet" (22 October 2007)

"The upper crust" (8 November 2007)

"Windfall" (17 December 2007)

"Jesus pulls a right cross" (25 February 2008)

"Show me some ID, so I can kill you" (30 April 2008)

"Ruling Louisiana" (25 July 2008)

Winds are really only in the 70mph range so far, though they are reporting gusts in the 90s. One of those just hit. It was like a bus slammed into the side of the house.

Shouting now to converse amidst the constant roar - I am quite sure I heard the close passage of a tornado a few minutes ago, but I couldn't get the door open to look. Which undoubtedly was just as well. By all instructions I should have been cringing under the stairs. The oft-quoted freight train sound analogy is true, by the way. It sounded like the Kansas City Southern was right outside the door. But when it is gone there is still a constant level of noise, a howling. I consider using earplugs. The TV startles me as it blathers on briefly when power returns, then becomes quiet as we lose power again. It is almost a relief. It is hard to find any real information amidst all the "news".

Gustav's eye is just barely on shore, so we are hoping the worst will probably be over in three-to-four hours.

Survival seems likely.

10:00am

Electricity just back on once again. It is toying with me, lights and TV and stereo - the Gregorian chant CD on the sound system was to calm things, but is now sounding more and more like funeral-home music - on and off all morning. I have been living out of my Blackberry - head in rather a whirl.

Between gusts I just went go to my office in the cottage behind the big house. I notice there is voice mail, and play it: and listen to an earlier automatic message from our beloved chocolate-city mayor telling me to get out of town.

10:30am

Storm still slowly moving west-northwest. Hopefully Gustav will shortly realise he is unwelcome and just go away, possibly migrate to Texas to visit our president, George "There is a Storm in Louisiana, so I'll go to Texas" Bush. On CNN there is footage of Bush in jeans and cowboy-shirt sitting amidst FEMA people, reading a statement. I do not turn on the audio.

10:45am

Call my parents again to make sure they have prepared for the storm to arrive at their house later in the day. My sister Christee is there with them. My 95-year-old father is clearing the yard of possible wind-projectiles, including his favourite bird-feeders, which hang from the pecan trees in his large wooded backyard.

11:00am

Two avocado trees out of four down now in my backyard. Large crashing noises as they fall on the wooden fence separating my yard from my neighbour's. At least they fell north, rather than south like in Katrina, when the broken limbs crushed my favourite fig tree.

We are now in the relative quiet between bands of rain, though the wind is still impressive, and blows in gusts where you must alternate bracing and leaning into wind with quickly correcting to upright so you don't fall flat on your face. This is another Gustav game, though less frightening than some of the others.

On a positive note, with the rain temporarily halted I gathered sixty-two avocados, which I did not have to climb a ladder to harvest. A massive Gustav guacamole alert now in effect

11:30am

I have not yet moved into Wild Turkey bourbon consumption, though it is almost noon. I find this admirable restraint, in the face of such meteorological insanity.

12:30pm

My neighbour Tom calls to tell me he has been out in the street, and that there is an electric line down in front of my driveway, lying across a parked car. And that two doors down an oak tree has been uprooted and is lying across the main power-lines. I go into the street to reconnoitre.

There is indeed a very charred copper-wire, most of its insulation burned off, laying across the entrance to my driveway and, just beyond, wrapped around a silver car belonging to my across-the-street neighbour, who evacuated. I carefully walk around it, then inspect the uprooted tree which is putting pressure on the lines and possibly triggered the breaking.

Just as I reach the middle of the street up drives a Humvee inhabited by two very armed national guardsmen.

They do not immediately think looter and draw guns. They ask if I need help, and I explain about the electrical wire and falling tree. They call it in, but warn me that in their work order the report goes through the company then the battalion (etc) until reaching the proper civilian authorities, and they suggest I just call in the emergency directly to the utility company.

They get out of their vehicle inspect the situation and are very cordial. I am intrigued - for two years after Katrina all we saw were raw recruits, young men and women just out of their teens, who all looked as frightened as we were, and inevitably always had their guns at the ready. Of course the situation was substantially more dangerous and the looters and gang members lurked on every corner. This is a personable and affable captain who is a company commander, and his sergeant-major, and they are quite happy to stop and talk.

They tell us they have seen almost no one in their entire day of patrolling, and that our street is one of the few they have driven down that actually has power. They also tell me that situation could ironically change, as when the electric company comes to fix a problem they usually shut down the neighbourhood, sometimes for long periods of time, sometimes days, until the neighbourhood rehabits.

They also call the electrical line wrapped around the car a "looter alarm". "If that line is still live, you'll know if someone tries to steal it", says the officer.

1:00pm

I call the electric company and report the downed line. They do not seem excited, or responsive. The operator is clearly not in New Orleans or even Louisiana.

1:30pm

Call parents again. My father is enjoying himself - he is excited to be involved in the storm drama. He left the house during the height of hurricane Rita without telling us, to go on an ice run. When I asked him about the danger of being in the car in hundred-mile-an-hour gusts, he said, "You shouldn't worry, son. I just drove with my emergency brake on."

3:00pm

Many broadcast pictures of water coming over the top of the new industrial- canal levee, twenty blocks east of my home, with much speculation on whether the new Corps of Engineers' structure will hold to its mission. My stomach begins to hurt.

But there is conflict much more serious than the prospect of another flood. It is a matter of dire terminology. The Corps of Engineers insist that the water leakage be called a normal term: "sloshing". The news media call it "overtopping", a much more frightening concept. They are serious.

It is something else, however, that causes my stomach to rebound and me to guffaw: the first person the local NBC affiliate calls to a phone interview when the industrial canal starts overtopping is the disgraced politician David Vitter. They don't get their own wonderful joke: who else is better qualified on the subject of "overtopping" than the Washington call-girl-employing senator?

4:00pm

First Wild Turkey. Life becomes somewhat less tense.

5:00pm

Things are indeed calming. We feel we have survived the worst, though we are all still edgy. Tigger comes out of his box, eats, takes a dump, goes back in the box, snores.

But announcements are brewing. The television now reports that no one will be allowed back into the city for at least a day, probably a number of days. There is something wrong with the water and the sewage and there is a lack of power, and thus no access to food or gasoline in a wide radius around the New Orleans. Hospitals are barely functional on generators. The governor says that the decision on reopening the city is being left to our self-deluded mayor.

7:00pm

Still no electrical-repair truck, but we still have power.

We have reassessed our food, water, toilet and fuel situation. We are comfortable and safe, though there is still the question of who is roaming this near-empty city. It is very dark out there. And quiet.

8:00pm

Call parents for a final time this evening to make sure of their safety. They are playing poker by flashlight with my sister Christee. My folks live on Boeuf Trace ("Cattle Trail") a hundred yards from Bayou Robert, 200 miles northwest of New Orleans. Right in the projected path of Gustav.

Their once-primitive street used to flood with every storm until it was tied into city sewage, but it is now concrete-surfaced, with gutters, and floods only a few times a year. Boeuf Trace retains a country feel - there a duck-crossing sign by the bayou end of the road because of the dozens of resident and migratory ducks that live there and raise duck families.

The parents say they will be heading to bed soon as everyone is tired from dealing with the weather, and they have already won all my sister Christee's money.

8:30pm

I actually watch a last news report, hoping to see radar, to get a factual idea of where the storm is now, and whether we will be subject to more of the intense bands of rain that spiral out from its centre.

There is no radar. The media are trolling elsewhere for excitement and viewership. The newsman reports one arrest for looting and one for stealing gasoline. Enough. I don't care where the storm is any longer. I don't want to remember or envision looters. I go to bed.

9:00pm

I am in bed with book and bourbon nightcap when I hear a loud noise at my front door. I jump out of bed and try to throw on clothes. I look for the .32. This is it. The Bad Guys are here. I pull the pistol from its case, put my finger on the safety and make my way downstairs, careful in case someone has already gotten in the house. The heavy cold metal of the gun in my hand makes me hugely nervous.

I reach the bottom of the stairs. The door is still secure. Tigger is standing there, looking rather guiltily in the corner. He has once again tried to climb onto the house's mojo altar and knocked over a large glass-enclosed votive candle, which then crashed to the floor and banged loudly against the door. I show Tigger the pistol, but he does not seem impressed with my manliness or danger. He goes back to his box.

I sit on the stairs for a moment feeling a fool, then go to bed determined to sleep and rid myself of this badly-produced TV drama.

And so I do sleep, dreamlessly.

10:00am, Tuesday 2 September

The crisis is reduced to game-shows with a crawl running beneath on safety issues and the fact that the city is still sealed against entry.

I am already here and, for another day or two, I will remain part of the five-percent solution.

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