They learned to follow leaders
Who lead us to disaster
They listened when their teachers said
It was just a passing matter – Zero Option, OB’s greatest punk/speedmetal band
Ellen and I moved to OB from Baltimore in the winter of ’77. I’d first visited San Diego in ’73. Somehow, while still in Balmer, I got ahold of an old address for the OB Rag, and wrote to that old address looking for likeminded folks to live with. Sometime later I got a call from Norma, and after we talked for a while, she invited us to live with her and Bill on Cape May.
That summer we took off in Ellen’s green VW bug and explored the wilds of California, hiking and camping in National Forests and Parks all the way north from San Bernadino to Stanislaus. We got so far out there that it was shock to have to fight for a parking space in the lot in downtown Yosemite.
It was August by the time we reached our northernmost campground in Stanislaus National Forest. It had been hot and dry the whole way. Not a drop of water had fallen from the sky the whole time.
The Yosemite Falls were just a dribble. While driving into Stanislaus we’d heard on the radio that the drought had become threatening. Trees might spontaneously combust–they might even explode!
But they didn’t.
Back in OB, living at the beach, water as far as you could see looking west, all the hot dry warnings seemed like just another dire warning that you could still shrug off.
Only when the Santa Anas kicked up in the fall did those hot dry threats insinuate themselves back into your psyche again.
We hadn’t heard of Global Warning yet. Gas and rents and good times were all available and affordable and abundant. Winter was a time to gather around fire rings near Tower Two or at Red House and dance the night and the blues away.
And yeah, it was necessary, right, but still kind of a drag when those winter rains came though.
Now, three decades on, the fires are seasonal disasters you expect, and fear and absolutely can’t ignore anymore. Yeah, the surf’s still up, but this one’s made of fire, cascading in sets hardly anyone can ride out any longer. Nah, can’t just shine it on.
And even though I’ve been on the other side of the continent most of the time, I still wait expectantly each summer now to receive that email from Denny letting us all know he’s OK…
Two years, three months, and one day after Hurricane Katrina struck the US Gulf Coast, I was in New Orleans. Mardi Gras was still almost 10 weeks away, but I was already in costume. It consisted of a hazmat suit, a respiractor, well worn boots and gloves, and a defiant disposition.
After becoming suitably adorned, I entered Rosemary’s house, which had taken on too many feet of water in the Great Flood of August 29, 2005.
This part of my task wasn’t difficult, because since then someone had made off with her front door. Not only that, but said person or persons had added several feet of trash, literally on top of her own storm debris, to fill some of the empty space in the house.
When the floodwaters came, Rosemary initially went to a friend’s home to ride it out. Unfortunately this house was in a low spot too, and they had to hastily evacuate to the Superdome as the high waters came rushing towards them.
Rosemary was there for three days, and it’s still painful to listen to her tell about some of the things she witnessed and lived through there.
Then they put her on a bus to nowhere. That is, nobody, not even the bus driver, knew where they were going.
At a brief rest stop along the way, Rosemary ran into a neighbor. Now they were already becoming strangers. Because they could only exchange a few hurried words, then rush back to their buses for fear of being stranded.
Eventually the bus dropped Rosemary off in Oklahoma. Not becasue she had any family or friends there. Just because.
She still resides there, working as an advocate for “the underclass,” just as she had in New Orleans. When I met her at the end of November, she was back in town to apply for her Road Home money.
This is a Louisiana program administered by a bureaucratic, barely competent private company to distribute begrudgingly granted federal funds (in an amount roughly equal to what the US spends in Iraq every two weeks) to property owners to compensate them for damages from what people here simply refer to as “The Storm.”
Rosemary was here at this particular time because the deadline to apply was fast approaching. The newspaper reported, after the deadline had passed, that 10,000 homeowners hadn’t applied in time. No compensation for them except the blues. Too late. Just because. Because they haven’t been able to get home yet, in many cases. At least a third of New Orleans pre-K population hasn’t gotten back.
The same kinds of injustices are still being visited others of the Katrina diaspora. Public housing residents have mostly been barred from returning to their homes, and now four major projects are slated for demolition, starting in mid December. A homeless encampment across from City Hall has doubled in recent weeks, and the City Fathers and Mothers are hatching plans to evict this troublesome specter. FEMA has decreed that those still living in their formaldehyde haunted trailers have to get out soon too. The cost of housing has nearly doubled since The Storm. Ain’t no room in no inn now how.
Back in Rosemary’s house, I waded over the debris towards a closet in the back of the front room. It was like wading against a rip tide in OB. But I made it to that closet, and scooped out the folders and manilla envelopes that I’d volunteered to get for her, because no one else would. It was the least I could do for a sister writer.
Later, as I sat on the steps, removing my costume, breathing in what passed for fresh air, I looked over Rosemary’s little, out of the way old neighborhood, tucked away not far from a major intersection north of downtown.
It looked pretty much the same as it did after the floodwaters had receded, except two years, three months, and one day later.