This week marked 10 years since all of us who have reached a certain vintage watched an American city drown on live TV. Time sure does fly when you're trying to forget images of unspeakable desperation and horror.
The Observer and colleague are currently working on a cover story for next week for which we tracked down and talked with a few folks from the New Orleans area who resettled here following Katrina, far from the reach of what King Lear called ye hurricanoes. Talking to people who lived through it brought it all back to Yours Truly: watching it unfold on CNN, one of those events like Pearl Harbor or 9/11 or the Kennedy assassination that are to Memory Lane as the lonely crosses, appointed by fake flowers, are to the more tangible highways we traverse. When people remember moments like that, they are prone to starting sentences with: "I'll never forget ..." in a kind of dreamy, almost disbelieving way. That's understandable. It's one of the truisms of life that the days when things run smooth and steady are entirely forgettable. Those days pile up and blow away like leaves. What is heavy stays. And so we say: "I'll never forget ..." because we won't, and can't.
The Observer lived in Lafayette, La., for two years, leaving in the spring of 2001. Junior, in fact, was born on the bayou there. He showed it regularly as a boy by being partial to foods that would have sent us screaming backward at 5 or 6: boiled crawfish, fried oysters and Tabasco sauce by the gallon. It is not only because south Louisiana is his native land that we love that place and New Orleans, only about two hours away from Lafayette over an elevated freeway built through the heart of the Atchafalaya swamp.
No, we loved New Orleans a long time before we came to live in south Louisiana. The Observer made a trip to New Orleans a couple of times while we were in college, and came to love it. We found it to be a dreamlike place, where one could be convinced that anything could happen, myth and reality all balled up together like the greasy paper that once wrapped a po' boy.
We've known New Orleans only as a tourist and visitor, but the sense we got from the place is that it is a city that has always existed with fingers crossed, running on the belief that the levees will hold, that the pumps won't fail, that the hurricanes will veer, and that the good luck will keep on coming. We'll never forget: Back when we lived in Lafayette, The Observer watched a documentary on PBS about what could happen if the good luck ran out. "Filling the bowl," they called it, the entire city laid waste by a toxic brown soup 10 feet deep in places. Watching it then, it seemed impossible. Such is the optimism of human beings. Even after we've built large parts of a major metropolitan city below sea level, in a place that averages 64 inches of rain every year, we want to believe that whatever has never happened simply cannot happen. If it could, surely it would have happened before now.
We watched it unfold on television, in a dry apartment in Little Rock. The hurricane, then the flood. We saw. People sweltering on rooftops. Families wading water. Floating bodies. We imagined what we would do. We cried some. We donated what money we could afford. Junior caught enough glimpses of the coverage that we got a note from his preschool teacher later in the week, saying that he'd been dog-paddling his sleeping mat around the floor during naptime, pretending to be adrift, beckoning his classmates aboard so he could save them.
For a whole lot of reasons, The Observer hasn't been back to New Orleans since Katrina. We tell people it's because of the difficulty or traveling with a child, and that it's not exactly a kid-friendly town. But that's not really it. The reality is: We're afraid we'll find it changed. Scarred. Less colorful. Less dreamlike. Less of a place where anything might happen and more of a place where something did happen. Something horrible. The grayer we get, though, the more we know what it means to miss New Orleans. We may have to amble back that way this winter. Ten years is far too long.