You look at the pictures and it's hard for your mind to get around it, your brain doesn't quite believe what your eyes are taking in. A major American city is...gone. The death toll is likely to be in the thousands. Damages in the tens of billions. A day ago it looked like New Orleans had dodged a major bullet. It got hit on the richochet.
I think back to last year, when Hurricane Ivan dumped half a foot of rain here in Pittsburgh and we had our worst flooding in decades. I got cut off from my home, stayed at work till 9PM hoping for a route home, and finally drove away from the rivers to spend the night at my brother's house. I was never in any danger, even though my building is right along the Allegheny, but I was pretty scared driving in the dark, my subconscious constructing fantasies of submerged roads and sweeping currents that would pull my car off Ohio River Blvd and deposit me in the drink.
I didn't get home for a day, and then I had to deal with traffic detours for a month because Etna and Sharpsburg had suffered horrendous flooding and that's the route I take to work. And so when I look at the scale of the flooding in New Orleans and Mississippi, my brain isn't quite getting around it. Floods are scary. I expect the feeling is the same for people who go through an earthquake--you expect the ground to be there, beneath your feet. When, suddenly, it ISN'T, when instead it's shifting around like gelatin or it's under ten feet of water, everything you once believed to be absolute and true is suddenly open to question.
Life becomes surreal, the most mundane details of everyday life are shown to be anything but mundane. The light switch you flick without thinking now just makes a clicking noise, without illuminating the room. And that room, where perhaps you whiled away the evening watching TV, is now a pool. And your house, which you dreaded having to paint in the spring, is just a pile of haphazardly scattered debris. And it all happened over the course of a few days.
Reading all the news you do get a sense that people believed a disaster of this scope couldn't happen HERE. In some Third World country, sure, you get a big storm and thousands die because they aren't prepared. They don't have the infrastructure, the transport, the medical facilities. But here, hey, we have levees and dams and building codes and interstate highways and the National Guard. And all those things are, of course, worthy of being proud of. But, as the world learned last December when the tsunami hit, the forces of nature are capable of producing destruction that dwarfs even nuclear weapons. Apply that terrible force at the wrong time, and we can but tremble before that might and run for our lives. I have tremendous sympathy for those who are suffering, and who will be suffering for a long, long time.
I went to New Orleans about 4 years ago with a big group of friends. I got way, way, way too drunk that first night, made an ass of myself, and was sick the rest of the weekend. We went to Pat O'Brien's, had beignets at the Cafe du Mond, had a very good meal together at a nice restaurant. My wife and I took a trolley and toured the Garden District and walked through an above-ground cemetery that was perhaps the hottest spot I've ever stood in (120 degrees, easy, with all those stones soaking up the heat). I think my fondest memory (since I either don't remember much about that first night or I've tried mightily to repress) came on our last full day there, when my friend Scott and I went hunting for a place that had oysters. My stomach was by this point settled enough for me to sip a few beers and digest food, and we left the bar we were in and prowled Bourbon Street looking for bivalves. We walked all over the goddam place, and the only places we found were either jammed or looked like you needed biohazard gear before going inside. We gave up, headed back to our bar, an oyster po'boy looking like a consolation prize...and then we saw that the bar right next to ours had a raw bar. If we'd turned right instead of left, we'd have saved ourselves half and hour.
We split about 5 dozen on the half-shell, I think 3 raw and 2 steamed, since Scott wasn't sure if he'd like them raw. We ate them up and chased them down with cold beer, while everyone else watched us with varying degrees of disgust. I friggin' love oysters. And I think I've only had them once since that trip to New Orleans. I didn't have as good a time as I might have, thanks to getting poisoned (probably literally) that first night, and I've always wanted to go back and do less drinking and more eating. It's terrible to see that New Orleans might never be the same again, that it might never welcome back the people who love to visit, and that those who lived their lives there might have no choice but to find a lesser, but drier, piece of ground to call their home.