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Location: New Orleans, Louisiana, United States

L. E. J. covered Hurricanes Katrina and Rita (2005), and the 2010 British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico for Consumer Affairs.com. He is a contributor to Gambit Weekly, New Orleans Magazine, SCAT, Baton Rouge Advocate, Advocate Magazine, The Times-Picayune, and Country Roads Magazine, and the books FRENCH QUARTER FICTION (Light of New Orleans Publishing), LOUISIANA IN WORDS (Pelican Publishing), LIFE IN THE WAKE (NOLAfuges.com), and more. Johnson is a former Merchant Seaman, and columnist at Les Amis de Marigny, New Orleans; and African-American Village. Attended Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, and Harry Lundeberg School of Seamanship at Piney Point, Maryland. Winner of the Press Club of New Orleans Award for Excellence, 1991, and given the Key to The City and a Certificate of Appreciation from the New Orleans City Council for a Gambit Weekly story on murder in the French Quarter.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Below the Level of the Sea, Part One / September 2009

Yours Truly in a Swamp
September 2009

Photo Credit: Melanie Pleash

Reprinted from Les Amis de Marigny, New Orleans

Below The Level of The Sea

Part One

by

Leonard Earl Johnson


* * *

Katrina and Rita are the names of two giant hurricanes that arrived in that order, in 2005. They ate coastal Louisiana. Then they spit it out gutted and changed forever.

"The great New Orleans hurricane of ought-five," L. A. Norma dubbed Katrina even before it crossed Florida and spun out into the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

Rita came three weeks later, and blew towns like Cameron and Pecan Island off the map. Rita took her landfall two hundred miles west of New Orleans, near Lake Charles. New Orleans people usually don’t know it, but Rita was the bigger storm. Big enough to lift the entire Gulf of Mexico and blow out New Orleans first feeble efforts at closing Katrina-breached levees.

L. A. Norma evacuated early with friends bound for Shreveport. "At the first gathering of weather forecasters," she now beams.

"After those storms flooded and re-flooded New Orleans, I blinked twice and flew off to Los Angeles. My children live there. You might say, I got a three month evac-u-cation on the wind."

*
* *

Elected to stay
What, me worry? Did we not have the government team of Nagin, Blanco and Bush watching over us?

By the time I saw coastal politicians on every television channel warning against staying, it was almost too late to leave. The whole City had shut down. Nearly everyone with private cars had left.

Mayor Nagin said to the approximately ninety-thousand of us still in Town: "Write your social security numbers on your arms with indelible ink."

Sagacious talking-heads came on between the politicians speaking of ten-thousand body bags "rumored" to be stockpiled by The City.

Yikes! Frantic phone calls. Someone at the airport said, "Last plane done gone." Amtrak and Greyhound’s reservation numbers said services in-and-out of New Orleans were suspended till further notice.

Saturday's sun broke over a blue and beautiful day. Winds were calm. We rode Featherbike to Union Station and found it boarded up. We saw no one on the way to the station. On the ride back to Squalor Heights a lone police car passed heading Uptown along Tulane Avenue. At Canal and Basin four young tourists from Chicago asked, "Which way to Storyville?" We asked if they knew about the storm.

"We came down to see it," they chimed, "on the last train from Chicago!"

They were second-year Northwestern University film students. They booked rooms at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, "Right next to the Superdome," where they clearly expected to be safe. "The mayor and his staff are staying there."

We never heard how the students weathered The Storm, but the Hyatt was severely damaged and four years later has yet to reopen.

In the aftermath, Mayor Ray Nagin was re-elected to office. Governor Kathleen Blanco was not. President George W. Bush left the White House and moved into, not "the" big house in Texas, but a huge house in Dallas.

"Where he will doubtless shelter future storm victims," Norma says. She also says, "Governor Blanco was replaced with the G. O. P.'s 'Governor Lapdog Millionaire' helicoptering like a president to religious rallies."

* * *
Back at Squalor Heights, phone calls offered shelter in Meridian and Memphis and San Francisco and Chicago and Washington and more. We told them all, "No, we are staying. Squalor Heights sits on the highest ground around and survived many storms before this one. Besides, if it gets too bad we will go to the Superdome."

Katrina took landfall on Monday, August twenty-nine, fifteen miles east of The City. Landfall is the arrival on land of the storm’s eye wall. A lot of storm comes ashore ahead of the eye.

* * *

Landfall was exactly seven days after my sixty-second birthday, and a last ten-cent martini lunch.

Ten-cent martini lunches are events organized erratically by fifteen or more ne’er-do-well writer bums who gather for high flying lunches-on-a-dime, at Bacco, in the French Quarter. The lunches are normal prices. The dime is for endless martinis, a libation that has filled many a writer’s inkwell. Before The Storm they happened often. Afterwards not so much. There was one recently. More on it later.

The last ten-cent martini lunch before The Storm was great fun. We gathered at the bar, then filled a long table in a domed dining room with Tuscan-mellow lighting (or was it the martinis?). We drank, ate, drank more, and sang songs we knew and didn’t. What a party! There was not a thought given to the coming Storm. We partied as though the Gods would not mind our hubris. Alas, they did.

Lunch disbanded with plans to regroup on Saturday at the Spotted Cat, on rue Frenchmen. Washboard Charley was playing.

Friday we phoned Dave Parker, a tattooed scribe studying at the University of New Orleans. "Is the Spotted Cat still on?"

"We’re in Baton Rouge," he said, "and won’t be in Town."

"What are you doing there?" we asked.

"Escaping the storm. Haven’t you heard, Katrina’s headed to New Orleans as a category five."

We had not heard. We had stopped listening after Katrina crossed southern Florida, went into the Gulf and turned back towards northern Florida.

The television came into focus and the mayor began to speak. "If you are going to stay, take an indelible magic marker. . ."

* * *
Copyright, 2009, Leonard Earl Johnson
* * *



Be Safe This Hurricane Season


Get a Frank Parsley original magnet of LEJ's fat face to scare off hurricane vermin from your refrigerator.


"It'll keep bugs out'a your ice-box, next time, sugar!"
~ L. A. Norma

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Leonard Earl Johnson
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302 Jefferson St.
Lafayette, LA 70501