Waited until the storm’s winds died down, leaving behind unbearable heat and a swarm of mosquitos in its wake that seemed to only grow more intense at nightfall. Waited as the around-the-clock radio coverage told us about outlying towns being evacuated amidst rising floodwaters. Waited as we heard about gas stations running out of gas and people fighting over bags of ice. Waited as reports of arriving repair trucks flooded the airwaves.
As New Orleanians tend to do, we made the best of those first few days. We joked while grilling the chicken we had to cook before it spoiled, then sat around and commiserated about this minor inconvenience over glasses of wine. Around day four, things started to get real. I woke up in tears that morning, exhausted and frustrated after a fitful and sweaty night’s sleep during which the temperatures hovered in the mid-90s. I spent the morning tossing out the food that had spoiled in my powerless refrigerator. It got to the point that I sought refuge in my car in order to cool off and recharge my phone; a good idea until I woke up the next morning and realized I’d drained my car’s battery. We contemplated getting a hotel room to get relief from the sweltering heat, too bad for us everyone else had that idea also, making any available hotel room a hot commodity. There wasn’t a single room in the city open, save for a few pricey options near the French Quarter. And with my money going to gas for the car and ice for our food, $200 a night wasn’t an option for us. Still, as Facebook friends and family started dotting my newsfeed with notes that their power had been restored, we felt hopeful that this would be over soon.
Entergy New Orleans, directed customers to a map on their website that showed which neighborhoods were without power and could allegedly provide an estimate of when it’d be restored. My phone once again came in handy, allowing me to check the website to see that my neighborhood had been reduced to a bunch of jagged red lines, indicating that our power was still out.
My roll-with-the-punches attitude was gone, quickly replaced with frustration at the lack of progress and communication. The heavy coverage we had been able to receive on the radio had been replaced by its regularly scheduled programming. Trust me, nothing will piss you off more than having to hear a Lil’ Wayne song while searching for updated news. Whenever we were lucky enough to find some information on the radio, it was mostly centered on Southern Decadence, the Big Easy’s version of Pride Weekend. Tons of tourists were rolling into the city, likely not even realizing the situation at hand and, on the surface, everything was business as usual. The city’s prime attraction, the French Quarter, had been cleaned and powered up as if Isaac had never happened. Suddenly I felt marooned inside my own house.
Everyone on our block passed the time on our respective porches in an effort to beat the heat. We exchanged gossip about repair truck sightings nearby and which neighborhoods had gotten power already. We talked more with our neighbors in those few days than we ever had in the entire three years I’ve lived in this house. Venturing to the supermarket to purchase more ice produced the same results, as total strangers struck up conversation, all in an effort to find out the updates that the city and Entergy seemed unequipped to provide.
How could a city that brings so much joy to visitors prove itself so inept at taking care of its own residents, we wondered? How could 60% of the city still be without power, yet the only information being fed to us was how successful Southern Decadence was?
I normally take pride in the Crescent City’s ability to persevere through disaster and still find reasons to celebrate. Even in the wake of the devastating blow dealt by Katrina, New Orleans was still able to dust itself off and triumphantly stage a Mardi Gras celebration a mere six months later. I can still recall how proud I was at my city’s refusal to stop finding the joy in life, even when many wondered what on earth we still had to smile about.
But this was something different. Mardi Gras 2006 was like a purging for the city, a reminder of the resilience of culture and a strong middle finger up to that thing that threatened to destroy us. Anyone who’s ever been can tell you how it consumes the city, taking hold of everyone in its path. While I’m sure that Southern Decadence provided the same outlet for those in attendance, its a small concentrated event that took place within days, not months later. Each evening the celebration kicked off for them, brought with it the stark realization that we’d be sweating it out yet another night. The blocks before and after mine had been restored, yet ours still remained in the dark.