Monday, May 28, 2007

On a sudden island

Gentilly Boulevard in New Orleans
Photo by

Heavy rains saturate a shaken city

By the time I leave school around 3:15 on Wednesday, May 23, the rain had almost completely stopped. Heavy rain and wind pounded the roof of the modular trailer where I teach preschool in St. Bernard Parish for hours. The severe weather was loud enough to wake-up some of the young children napping, children who have a reason to fear storms. Rain flooded the sidewalks surrounding the trailers, turned the outside play area into the swamp it once was, and led most of the teachers to believe that bus departure would once again, be late.

But everything at the end of the school day happens on time, including my departure. I expect roads around the school to be flooded with as much as a few inches, but as I drive I see nothing. I definitely anticipate having trouble getting out of St. Bernard, which borders the Lower Ninth ward of Orleans Parish, connected to the rest of the city by the rusted, disturbingly bouncy Industrial Canal bridge, but all I see are some deep puddles lining the sides of Judge Perez Drive, which turns into North Claiborne at the Parish line.

I am surprised, then, by the sudden traffic jam on the bridge. Maybe there is an accident or some construction ahead? Maybe the National Guard, which patrols the area, is attempting to make an arrest or deal with a threat? There are certainly no ships attempting to cross the Canal, a situation in which the drawbridge opens its mouth wide in an extended yawn, backing up automobile traffic forced to wait at the edge of its lips for extended periods of time.

As the wheels of my white 2002 Saturn SL2 slither across the corrugated metal mouth of the bridge, I look around me at what was once Hurricane Katrina Ground Zero, the Canal where a barge famously slammed into the flimsy levee wall of the Lower Ninth ward, inundating the area with flood waters and waves not unlike a tsunami. In my rear view mirror, I can see the western part of the levee where the barge hit, and the former neighborhood next it, now a flattened green space, comprised of empty lots, foundations with stairs to nowhere, and the crumbling remains of former homes. Everyday, in my commute to and from St. Bernard, I pass through the Katrina flood zone— first through the Parish towns of Chalmette and Arabic, then through the New Orleans neighborhoods of the Ninth Ward, Gentilly, and Lakeview, all in different stages of recovery almost two years after what locals call "the storm."

Ground Zero slowly leaves my rear view mirror as my car crosses the mouth of the bridge, which curves over the Canal like a giant frown. The rain returns. Suddenly I see something completely unexpected in front of me.

Flood waters and waves— lapping against the outer lips of the bridge where it meets Poland Avenue, running parallel to the east side of the levee. Water consumes sidewalks, the median New Orleanians call "neutral ground," and all of Poland Ave. The current runs against cars struggling to cross this sudden unwanted river.

The scene rivals what I saw in videos and photographs of the Katrina levee breeches, which happened right here, and though those breeches brought unfathomable heights of water into these neighborhoods, this flood water, which looks to be just short of a foot, is quite unlike anything I’ve ever had to drive through.

I am suddenly very aware of my car’s close proximity to the ground. SUVs, vans, and even a tour bus—which no doubt came to the area to show tourists the Katrina damage—are struggling to navigate this Poland River. There are no shoulders to pull up on, no higher ground anywhere in sight. I have little choice but to try to cross the water or come to a complete stop on the narrow bridge and risk an accident.

I call Hazim in a mild panic. It’s now 3:40pm, and I know he still has classes at his school, located Uptown, on higher ground, much closer to the Mississippi. I leave a voice mail telling him that I don’t know if my car is going to make it across the sudden river ahead. Just as I hang up, the water comes.

I expect the water to come into the car, to make my wheels spin out, to have trouble steering, to float away with the current, but none of this happens. I press my foot lightly on the gas, clutch the steering wheel tightly, and follow the car ahead of me in a slow passage through the waves. Once I pass Poland, I’m back on North Claiborne, one of the main thoroughfares of the city, which is also very flooded on this side of the bridge. Water laps against the front steps of the Katrina-devastated homes which line the road, houses still marked by spray-painted body counts on their facades. Parked cars along the narrow road make it impossible to pull over, and the flooding is actually worse along the sides. I follow traffic down the middle of the one-way road, through several inches of floodwater. Suddenly everything is pretty much dry as we reach a street called Desire.

Desire is a cross street which runs parallel to Poland, a few blocks closer to the center of New Orleans, away from the levee. Here, traffic resumes to a pretty normal state. I feel relief, turn up the volume on my stereo (which happens to be playing Arcade Fire’s melancholic “Neon Bible” album) and contemplate which way I should take to get on the highway home, unsure if there is flooding elsewhere.

I take a right on Franklin Ave., thinking that in my experience, this road to the highway tends to retain less rain in sudden storms. I’m right for awhile. Even as the rain starts to really slam down on my car, this road, which takes me through the neighborhood of Gentilly, is nothing like North Claiborne or the Poland River I just passed. I smile and think about the panicked message Haz is going to hear on his phone. All is well until I creep closer to the I-610 ramp in the left turn lane.

A small lake, full of lapping waves sits at the bottom of the ramp I’m poised to turn left into. I see a Ford Explorer struggle to drive through the lake and up the ramp; this water is at least as deep as the Poland River. I do a U-turn instead of driving into baby Pontchartrain and pull over on the side of the road.

Suddenly I'm keenly aware of how most of the city is below sea level, and how hard it is to find so-called higher ground. How the hell am I going to get on the highway without a boat?

I call Haz repeatedly. It’s now 4:00. He should be done with school by now. I breathe quickly and feel my hands, still clutching the wheel, get a little shaky. I turn off Arcade Fire.

I go back down Franklin, away from the highway, and turn back on Claiborne, this time turning right on Elysian Fields Ave., which I expect to see flooded. It's not. Once again, it’s fine until the highway ramp, where a miniature lake at least as deep as Franklin’s baby Pontchartrain has formed. This time, instead of turning around, I plow straight ahead, past Humanity Street and towards the University of New Orleans (UNO) on the real Lake Ponchartrain.

UNO isn’t far from our apartment in Lakeview, so I figure I can potentially get around the floodwaters, avoid the highway, and take local roads home. Traffic is moving slow. So far there is no flooding on my side of the road, but a river with a steady current is forming on the other side of the neutral ground.

New Orleanians never refer to neutral grounds as medians. The term "neutral ground" is just as historic as jazz, Mardi Gras, and good food. The phrase was coined on Canal Street, with the median that marked the "neutral ground" (safe zone)
between the historic French and American parts of the city, where Rue Royal in the French Quarter turned into Camp Street, for example. Neutral grounds are actually less divisive today; they tend to be very wide, well-manicured patches of grass, often big enough to function as yards or parks.

I contemplate pulling onto the neutral ground to get out of the water, which suddenly surges at me and the other crawling cars around the Gentilly Boulevard intersection. The rain is rapidly tap dancing on the car again, just as Haz calls me. He can hardly hear me in the rain. My voice is shaking. I scream as a large truck passes, dunking my car in water for a few brief seconds. On the side of the road, water rises above the tires of a parked Land Cruiser.

Pull over, Haz says. You’re going to damage the car. Calm down, pull over.

Stubbornly I try to proceed past Gentilly, but the water is getting higher, the current stronger, and as the Filmore intersection approaches, I decide I have had my fill of flash flooding. I pull up on the curb of the neutral ground, which might as well be the sandy banks of an island oasis. There are one or two other cars here on this sudden island; the drivers talking on their cell phones, looking anything but frazzled. I park next to these cars, facing the opposite side of the road, where water has swallowed half of a fire hydrant.

I keep talking to Haz in the tap dancing rain, suddenly relieved and a little giddy. I turn on WWOZ, New Orleans’ publicly funded jazz radio station, and feel like I’ve somehow survived yet another New Orleanian initiation ritual. This experience brings new meaning to those bumper stickers everyone has on their cars post-Katrina: New Orleans. Proud to Swim Home.

Haz and I swim home through much shallower waters about an hour later, when he meets me on my island in the middle of Gentilly with our much higher Saturn SUV. By the time he reaches me, much of the water on what was the worst side of Elysian Fields Ave. has drained. I follow him home in my little white boat of a car through dry roads of City Park. The rains start to stampede on us just as we reach our apartment.

The news later tells us that 8 inches of rain fell on Gentilly and the Lower Ninth ward that day. The flash flooding wasn’t an issue with faulty pumps, clogged drains, or bad levees (though those certainly exist) so much as it was an issue with a dark rain cloud that hung over the area for hours, lacking the initiative or know-how to move elsewhere.

I can’t really blame that cloud. I don’t want to leave here either, even if I do occasionally have convert my car into a makeshift boat and swim home.