My city was gone

We gathered around news photos of New Orleans, stunned, knowing we would never find our home the same again.

Published September 2, 2005 1:09AM (EDT)

"See? Right here. That's where the levee broke."

The photographer pointed to a shaded segment on the marked-up New Orleans map, then to the image on his glowing laptop screen. On the map, the breach looked like any other line on the regular suburban grid -- an inch or so from the blue expanse of Lake Pontchartrain, right next to the colorfully named 17th Street Canal. On the laptop screen, however, it was a different view altogether -- a huge gash in a retaining wall caused water to surge into the low-lying lakefront neighborhoods, looking like an uncomfortably urban version of Niagara Falls.

"It's totally dry here," he said, pointing to a square section of the Bucktown neighborhood. "And on the other side of the canal, it's all under water. It's like filling up an ice cube tray."

The image was one of thousands the photographer shot that day -- most from the jump seat of a chartered helicopter. He'd been up before dawn to meet a Texas-based chopper pilot and cruise the day-after detritus of Hurricane Katrina.

Crowded in tight around the screen, our little group of New Orleans refugees scanned every photo that flashed by, fixated on every mouse click. These weren't the first images we'd seen of the city's worsening post-storm predicament, but they were the first images to provide any kind of real context.

A group of about 15 friends -- couples, singles and young families -- had left New Orleans when the storm threatened and fled to St. Martinville, La., a tiny town in the rural Cajun country. In 2004, many of us evacuated to this small southwest Louisiana town as houseguests of mutual friends with a special knack for emergency hospitality.

When last year's Hurricane Ivan threatened New Orleans, we laid low as the storm smacked the Florida panhandle, and waited for the "all clear" signal to return to New Orleans. Last year, it was a long weekend of near misses and easy relief. This year, we looked for any clue to tell us when and if we'd be able to return.

The pictures flashed by at 10-second intervals. Familiar landmarks like the arena-turned-refuge stood out in stark relief, while other neighborhoods -- the poverty-stricken Ninth Ward, the historic Faubourg Treme -- required time to decode from underneath 12-foot layers of liquid camouflage. In the hardest-hit parts of town, it was nearly impossible to make out the usual locators -- street markers, architectural flourishes or business signs.

"Wait! If that's Tulane Avenue, then what's that?"

Chris Poche, one of the audience, tried to place the photo of a highway overpass rising briefly from the water with entry and exit ramps completely submerged. Elevated highways and cloverleaf onramps stood out against a uniform sheen of levee water.

Most of us had seen these scenes earlier in the day, pumped in a continuous feed through the various news channels. Katrina's last-minute break to the east had spared most of southwest Louisiana's vital infrastructure, so if you were lucky enough to make it out of the city, you could watch continuous video of the aftermath, with 12 minutes of commercial interruption for every 48 minutes of unfolding tragedy.

New Orleans residents are well acquainted with the perpetual media drone, especially during hurricane season. Predictions, comparisons, updates and warnings are all part of the June-to-November tropical storm season -- as are the filler features spelling out the worst-case scenario that would wipe out the city for good. It's the stuff that local TV stations trot out during July sweeps and CNN dusts off whenever a storm sneaks past Key West.

Over the years, we've learned which outlets to trust, which local weathercasters combine quirky screen presence with solid information, and to roll our eyes at the annual parade of slicker-clad Weather Channel strivers willing to risk their lives for a few minutes of screen time.

We are not, however, accustomed to evacuating New Orleans, only to find whole swaths of the low-lying city awash in lake water and hurricane runoff, with desperate residents waving desperately from their rooftops.

We watched the laptop screen slideshow with rapt attention as images of Coast Guard helicopters, flatboat rescue volunteers and flattened oak groves filled the screen. The photographer told stories for each frame, and the refugees sat rapt, crying quietly at the images of those not lucky enough to evacuate.

Over the course of an hour or so, we got to ask the photographer questions -- to see if he saw anything that could give us hope for the city, even as news from the wire grew bleaker with every hour. There were two breaks in the levee by nightfall. After dodging Katrina's deluge from above, New Orleans' remaining population (many too poor to leave) faced a rapidly rising water from below.

Every once in a while, a gasp of recognition would come up from the group. "If that's a ball park, then it must be Tulane. And if that's Tulane, then that's got to be Broadway. Can you zoom in here?"

A few clicks later, tiny pixels became larger squares, then recognizable shapes. "Wait! That's our house," screamed Kiki Houston, a denizen of the city's Uptown neighborhood. "And the sycamore tree's still standing!" For a few seconds, a sense of hope electrified the group as we saw a pixelated likeness of a familiar New Orleans scene: a fleeting image of home.

After days of dread and evacuation, after days of round-the-clock coverage and rumors, that little Photoshop zoom provided just a bit of hope, something to get us through the mind-numbing hours of disaster coverage, press conferences and a death toll that will only climb in the coming days.

As time passed, the audience thinned, but a few of us stayed around to look at more of the helicopter pics -- images of highway bridges dismantled by waves, boats tossed inland like bath toys, submerged houses visible only by roof crests clad in rainbow-colored shingles.

Abstracted to pure geometry, there was something oddly beautiful about some of the pictures. But the huddled families on the roofs, a single abandoned car on the broken roadbed brought the tragedy home.

By Pableaux Johnson

Pableaux Johnson is a food and travel writer (still) based in New Orleans. His most recent book is "Eating New Orleans: From French Quarter Creole Dining to the Perfect Poboy" (Countryman Press, 2005).

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Hurricanes Natural Disasters New Orleans