August 29, 2005

The view from my apartment building toward the Mississippi Sound, with the condo tower's first floor washed away. I was terrified that it was going to collapse.

The view from my apartment building toward the Mississippi Sound, with the condo tower’s first floor washed away. I was terrified that it was going to collapse.

I wrote this in the hotel in Monroeville I mention , actually the day after Katrina, mainly so i could email it to friends instead of repeating the story over and over.

The day after Katrina I made it to a little hotel in Monroeville, Alabama, a hundred and fifty miles from Biloxi, making my way along back roads and around lots of downed pines. The Indian guy who I guess owned the place was watching CNN while he was checking me in, unaware that I was probably the first of many refugees he was going to see (and probably not have a room for) in the next couple weeks. I felt like I should have been dripping wet, seaweed in my hair or something. And so the story won’t build up or take a different spin, I’m getting it down once, because everybody’s going to be asking me, and if they ever think I’m not a complete idiot they can refer to this and remember that I am.

Despite dire warnings Sunday night from a good friend who works at the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency and how they were ordering body bags for the Coast, and despite a spirited effort from my boss Theresa that afternoon to pick me up and evacuate with her husband and kid to her mom’s house in Mobile, and despite watching the late news early Monday and noticing a decided skew of Katrina to the east, toward the Mississippi Gulf Coast, I decided to ride out the storm, mainly based on a neighbor in my apartment building telling me that during Camille water “only got up to the steps” of the apartment building I live in. That’s…”only to the steps…” For anyone who doesn’t know where I live–lived–it’s an old cement, 2-story, 8-unit building a block and a half from the beach in Biloxi, almost directly across from Beau Rivage, the big building you’ve probably been seeing on the news. I did, in a last minute effort, move most of my precious, precious electronics into my big, walk-in closet, blew up an air mattress, laid in some cookies, a couple candles and a bottle of Glenlevit and made me a fort. I went to sleep on my real bed for a couple hours and woke up around 7 a.m. to some pretty forceful wind and rain. I turned on the TV one more time to hear how I should not have been where I was, how New Orleans was doomed, and how most of the big stuff that was going to hit the Coast would be over with around noon. I unplugged my new 32” Panasonic flat screen LCD TV and put it in an elevated place of honor in my fort. I made a bowl of steel cut oats I never touched and almost by the time I decided the winds dictated manning the closet the power went out.

What I finally walked out of my front door to.

What I finally walked out of my front door to.

I took a Xanax. I laid down on my mattress. After laying there about an hour the winds got even worse and the phone started ringing (my ring tone on my Palm Treo is Tubular Bells from The Exorcist). So that was good, I still had phone service and was talking back and forth to my brother Larry in Orlando and my sister Betty and her husband Andrew in Eritrea, Africa. I think at first I was probably making it sound like a suspense story and trying to convey a bit of excitement to the whole thing. That’s before during one of my forays to the living room to look out the window, and seeing the Gulf of Mexico about halfway up Croseus Street and starting to surround my slightly-above-sea-level apartment building. I think I was talking to Andrew and I know it was at that moment I got scared. I went back to my closet for some pep talk from Betty and Andrew and then back out, to see that the water had now engulfed the building and had risen to a foot or so below my windows. I was talking to Andrew, telling him not to tell Betty as I didn’t want it to scare her. Then it was back to the closet for what would be the rest of the day.

I starting taking swigs of the scotch. I heard the water and looked down and saw it creeping through the floorboard. I’m pretty sure I was still on the phone at this point, the point I decided I could now mentally let go of all my stuff and concentrate on my life. I was talking to Andrew because I remember going to the bathroom side of my closet (too hard to explain-use your imagination) and wringing water from the floor (probably around 3 inches) with a towel into the sink and asking him if Katrina’s eye was still a perfect circle Oh Shit. I thought it was pretty futile but between rhythmically doing that and talking to him it allowed me some focus, like taking a deep breath when I take off in a plane. Unexpectedly, the wringing appeared to work and I swore the water was actually starting to recede, along with part of my fears and by this time much of my sobriety. I have this totally cool remote control, a Kameleon, that lights up when it feels a vibration (it knows you’re coming). I had laid it on a shelf with some other gadgets and noticed it had started to sporadically light up, not a good sign, because it would only do that if the entire building was shaking.

That’s pretty much when all hell broke loose. The last thing I remember before the phone cut out was my sister telling me that no matter what I heard or how hard the wind was blowing Do Not Leave The Closet. She even told me to expect the roof to “go”, which I then, horrifically, expected. The next couple hours were sheer hell and terror. In Biloxi, where I was, trust me, it was the wind. I took one last peek outside the closet, coinciding with the glass above my window unit air conditioner blowing out. That’s when my bedroom began to, literally, suck. This was the picture for the rest of the afternoon: me, pulling on the closet doorknob as hard as I could (it wouldn’t lock anymore after one particular nasty gust sucked it open and ripped out the back-set) with one hand and taking swigs from the bottle of scotch with the other. Noble, huh? Heroic. (I changed the bottle of scotch to a Bible the other day in relating a synopsis to a cashier, who gave me the discount at Winn Dixie even though I didn’t have my card. And in reality later I used my foot to scootch over a metal ice cream stool to sit on). There’s actually a mirror in there and I could see my silhouette, clutching and swigging. I remember deciding I was growing a mullet and needed a haircut. A couple times the closet door popped open but I got it shut again, hoping that if I kept a completely flat profile on the outside the storm “just wouldn’t notice”. I heard a constant, horrible howl, broken only by the sound of even more terrible swells of wind, rattling the building (and lighting up my cool remote, which I used as a barometer to measure gust strength.) There were horrible thuds coming from the hallway and ominous crumbling sounds from the bedroom. It was just like that scene in the odious movie Signs, the one where advanced aliens kept banging on the wooden door and couldn’t get in. It went on and on, well past the promised relief of noon, then past 1, then past 2. I don’t know at what point or at what time there was enough pause in between gusts to crack open the door and have a look-see, but eventually there was, and I was surprised to see the crap I piled up on my bed still piled up on my bed. The blinds were blowing like crazy but it was actually dry in the bedroom itself. I imagined taking a nap on my bed when it was over. Also at this point I decided I might actually make it through the whole thing, and took back the Lord’s Prayer I had mechanically recited earlier just in case, and became a big, bad, avowed atheist again.

Right outside my apartment, destroyed hotel and a boat sitting in the middle of everything.

Right outside my apartment, destroyed hotel and a boat sitting in the middle of everything.

I’d say around 3 p.m. there were enough breaks (and still enough bad gusts to send me skittering back to the closet) to step out into the other rooms. I had noticed in the closet that it was starting to drip water from above and indeed this was happening all over the apartment. But the other windows had held. The carpet was drenched but everything else was intact, including my beloved books. Outside though, was another story–I saw an at least five-foot-high pile of debris surrounding the building, and all down the street. Around 4 p.m. I was able to open my front door, to discover piles of styrofoam “rubble” from somewhere, and lots of glass. The front entrance and back entrance of my building had been totally blown away, supporting frames and all.

About 4:30 I went back into my closet and conked out. I woke up at 6. It was still extremely windy and reddish water was dripping all over me, and when I realized it was also dripping on my Burberry shirts I “mopped up” the ceiling, my first effort at disaster recovery. I got up and made jaunts outside my apartment building.

Trust me, what you’ve seen on the news cannot begin to convey the utter, utter destruction in Biloxi. My building stood, though almost every window in every other apartment was blown off and it was obviously there was something going on with the roof. I wandered around a bit in zombie-like trance, then went back inside and laid down on my incredibly comfortable bed, my $100 pillow and under my Ralph Lauren down comforter.

Within minutes I woke because of a shimmering light from outside and people screaming in Mexican (OK, Spanish, I know). I got up, ran out and saw a car on fire in my parking lot. I ran back in, got the one thing I would take if pressured to pick the One Thing I Would Take–my laptop–and waited for my apartment building to burst into flames, a fitting end I thought, to my retarded “survivor” story. And trust me, I didn’t care at this point. From out of nowhere a fire truck arrived and extinguished the blaze. I went back in, back to sleep and woke up to a whole new day.

All the rest you probably saw ad nauseaum on TV and in the papers. I’m just telling you what it was like to go through Katrina, all your morbid curiosity really wants to know. I was not brave. I thought for awhile I might die, but with as numb as I’ve become since both my parents deaths last year, it was No Big Whoop. I was stupid, admittedly, for staying despite all the warnings, but then too this isn’t a let-this-be-a-warning story. Stay through hell if you like.

What I was, however, was cruel to the people that I know love me, and to the people I love, especially to my sister Betty. My anguish over finding out I had made her cry and think I was dead resulted in me bursting out in tears over the purchase of yet another cool gadget, a Sony Cybershot, at Best Buy in Mobile a couple days later. The deep concern from my brother Larry, who I spent that Friday night with in New Orleans, wondering if these would be the last couple days of the city as everyone knows it, also touched me. Or hearing that my other brother David gave more than a rat’s ass. Or all the touching text messages I got in the next couple days (R U OK?). They were wonderful, several surprising. I never knew I was so popular. And loved.

Honestly, I haven’t changed much. I always knew it was great to be alive, but right now it all feels more like a sad, poignant epilogue rather than a beginning. And so far, I’m not much nicer. When I went came out of my apartment Tuesday I was dreading having to save someone. It was tempting to hang around and wait for the all the news crews–I would have liked to have ’em get me in the middle of a pile of rubble, clutching my iPod high and cursing God for trying to take away the “things I now knew mattered!” It would have provided nice balance to the ones they always show wandering through what’s left of their house, weeping, and Thanking Him for sparing their lives, along with a waterlogged photo of a loved one.

After retrieving my untouched new car (a two-toned silver Subaru Baja, with XM Radio) from the covered lot I had moved it to Sunday night (the one brilliant thing I did during this whole mess) and shoving it full of my saved stuff, I drove here to Monroeville, home of Truman Capote and Harper Lee. To me, survivor’s guilt feels like I should have gone at least two days without air conditioning. Though to hand it to myself, I didn’t bitch about the lousy service at the Pizza Hut buffet that night. A couple days later Harrah’s, the company I worked for, sent me to Chicago and put me up at House of Blues to do some work with our agency. Five days after Katrina I was doing fins-to-the-left and fins-to-the-right at a Jimmy Buffet concert in Wrigley Field, and eyeballing at Neiman Marcus the Ermenegildo Zegna stuff I could get with my $2,000 FEMA check (not much).

It was something, huh? There’s a bit of Scotch left in the bottle that I was swigging from, I snatched it yesterday from the apartment when I went back in to Biloxi to pick up my eye glasses, and anything I thought sentimental. But as I looked around at all the displaced, wet furniture and strewn books and especially into my wretched little closet with its deflated air mattress, I decided it was all too sentimental and left with just the scotch and the glasses.I’d like to finish that bottle on my deathbed, in a dramatic flourish, with a toast to life. It’d be cool to keep it around and make that the absolutely very last thing I ever do.

For what’s it’s worth, I’m really glad there’s still some left.