evacuating new orleans

evacuating new orleans


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



whether ivan hits new orleans, mobile, pensacola are anywhere else along

the gulf coast,  poor people are going to suffer tremendously, just as zora neale

hurston described in the conclusion of their eyes were watching god.



evacuating new orleans

 Kalamu ya Salaam 


just outside of baton rouge the traffic slowed to a crawl. once past baton rouge, everything was fine. some of us were leaving, some of us were staying. i was not in new orleans when betsy hit in 1965–but have stayed for every other hurricane since 1947. this is the first time i’m evacuating. i was following my wife nia and her daughter, secret mbaye, and secret’s two young daughters, headed to houston to stay with nia’s brother’s voris. habib, secret’s husband who is senagalese, decided to stay, as did nia’s son kendall. i have two children living in new orleans: one, mtume, the older, decides to evacuate; tutashinda, decides to ride it out with his wife, four children and his mother. like mtume says, in an informal poll, it’s about half and half who is leaving, who is staying. there doesn’t seem to be any logic to it. on monday night i told nia i had a bad feeling about this one–not so much that it was going to hit new orleans, but rather than wherever it hit it was going to do a lot of damage. many of you may remember my previous hurricane reports: one where we rode it out at the hospital where nia works, the second when my car was flooded as i was trying to get home. we live on the west bank of new orleans, which is divided by the mississippi river. the east bank is the main part of the city. i live six blocks from the river, which may seem very dangerous to folk who don’t know new orleans. actually the closer you live to a major levee, the safer you tend to be from flash flooding, which happens frequently down here. however, if there is a direct hurricane hit, well, no place is safe. a little after six a.m. tuesday morning, 14 september, while we were packing the car, nia asked me did i smell something. i say, yeah, but i didn’t see a fire. shortly afterwards while making a second trip to the car, my neighbors were standing outside and a fire truck was two doors down the street. behind my neighbors house on the edge of his property-line, a tree branch fell on a power line and caught fire. the firemen were waiting for the utility company to arrive and cut the power before trying to put out the fire. the tree, whose branch was burning, was listing badly.

my next door neighbor said he had been trying to get the guy on the other side of him to deal with the tree for a long time, and then boom, well, really more like sizzle-snap the power went out as the branch either completely fell or burned through the power line. now we had no power and even if i had been inclined to stay, without electricity two days before ivan’s impending arrival, there really was no good reason to do stay–with all that was going on, who knows when power would be restored. just like ivan’s threatened arrival, like we say in new orleans creole, comme si, comme sa (maybe yes, maybe no). the utility company might restore power in the next hour, or it might be after ivan before we got power back. i’m not a christian, but like most humans under stress, i do believe in signs. the first thing i packed into the car was the g5 computer, the two laptops, the cameras, and a critical hard drive (it has the rough edit for a new movie we are doing, plus final cuts of a bunch of other movies). the second thing i packed was music. then finally i put in my travel bag with a change of clothes and my travel kit. also packed in some of nia’s stuff and we were on our way. i’m driving down the expressway listening to music on the third day of a fast (water only on sunday, juice and water on monday, water on tuesday). usually, i have to fight off some type of serious malady once a year or so. my regimen is to fast, vitamin c, and monitor myself. i have a strong constitution, so even though i haven’t eaten in two days, the six hour drive to houston goes smoothly. i have $21 dollars in my pocket and a bunch of quarters i keep in the car; about $18 in the bank; and, am waiting on a long delayed check from the orleans parish school system, which they said they would finally release on monday and mail to me. ok. i check my post office box before i leave, no check, but there are some cds i had ordered. folks, don’t be concerned for me. i’m ok. but all along the gulf coast, particularly in new orleans, we have bunches of poor people who have no way to evacuate. i’m hoping for the best. most of the tv reports concentrate on businesses and beach side residences, which are mostly high income areas. but please think of people in trailer parks, think of folks living in what amounts to shanties and who are service workers for the gulf coast casino enterprises. think of the migrant workers in florida. the people who can’t afford to board up their homes, if, they are fortunate enough, to have a home. people who have one old car and a family of six or seven folk. people who are dependent on state medical care. here in houston the cable weather channel has been on all day. not once have they shown the poor. they’ve shown surfers delighting in the waves. they’ve shown hotel and restaurant owners. small business people. you know folks, this is part of our task as revolutionary artists, if nothing else, we can raise questions. we can speak up for those who have no voice. at a time like this, i ask that you think about the poor–i’m fortunate and i know it. my poverty is temporary and self-selected, in that i knew when i joined the program that the pay would be spotty. my wife is a professional, so i had a back up source to get out of town. some of us have no back up. new orleans mayor ray nagin urged everyone who could to evacuate the city–well, what about the one hundred fifty to two hundred thousand poor residents would could not evacuate–had no transportation and certainly not enough supplies to last a week without utilities, stores and a job. the last time there was a hurricane, the superdome was used as a shelter. predictably there were a lot of problems, neither the city nor the people were prepared to deal with the hurricane. we watch these hurricane reports on tv, often without ever realizing that in most cases there is very little preparation to help poor people survive these natural diasters. if the city of new orleans had to be evacuated, it couldn’t. and a tidal surge of water over-flowed the levee, the superdome would be help as the results of flooding would be totally catastrophic. i don’t believe the situation is hopeless or that we can pray away danger. new orleans has been lucky, but sooner or later there’s going to be a direct hit. whether ivan hits new orleans, mobile, pensacola are anywhere else along the gulf coast, poor people are going to suffer tremendously, just as zora neale hurston described in the conclusion of their eyes were watching god. by monday night, the walmart near us was sold out of bottled water. i have my suspicions about other cities along the gulf coast, but i know for sure the city government has no provisions to take care of literally well over a hundred thousand poor people in times of natural disaster. that the richest country in the world has no adequate government plans to assist those who do not have adequate ways and means to survive a hurricane, well, that’s capitalism. think about the people. do whatever you can. if you believe in prayer, pray. if you are into meditation, meditate. if you have friends in harm’s way, contact them, offer them aid. sometimes just a phone call of concern makes a big difference. take a lesson from cuba–they went all out to pull together. used the media to explain what was happening. mobilized the government to provide support and supplies. . . . i don’t need to preach… just want to make mention of how important it is for us to support each other. be strong, every little thing is going to be alright!

posted summer 2004; check e-drum ( archives for exact date

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On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family that’s about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrina’s inexorable winds is the voice of Ward’s narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her family’s raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brother’s “blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt.” Her father’s hands “are like gravel,” while her own hand “slides through his grip like a wet fish,” and a handsome boy’s “muscles jabbered like chickens.” Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isn’t usually just metaphor for metaphor’s sake. She conveys something fundamental about Esch’s fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, what’s salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.—


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