Welcome to the weekly annotations for Royal Street. On Wednesdays, until we get the Preternatura Book Club started back up, I’m annotating one chapter a week from Royal Street. If you’ve read it, you can cross-check the annotations with the book. If you haven’t, well, I hope it will at least be an interesting behind-the-scenes look at post-Katrina New Orleans and what personal things got pulled into the novel.
Unlike chapters 1-3, chapter four isn’t available online, so I’ll be referring to page numbers and paragraphs and lines from the print version of the book. After today, these notes will be archived under the “Easter Eggs” tab, above.
This is a really short chapter, but there a few things worth noting, which I’ll talk about in really general terms.
One thing that is referred to several times in the chapter is phone communication. The morning after Katrina hit, the electricity was out but the phones were still working–both land lines and cells. Shortly after the levees failed, both land and cell lines went down. So as long as DJ was in Alabama, she was in the same situation I found myself in. I’d evacuated to Shreveport, and was able to call people outside New Orleans from my cell phone with its 504 area code because my phone would use local towers. But nobody could call me because they couldn’t route through 504 (N.O. metro). But I didn’t think about this and was confused that nobody was calling to see how or where I was. It was two or three days before it finally hit me, and I began calling friends and relatives, who were crazy with worry, not knowing where we were. So when DJ’s phone rings late in this chapter, it freaks her out a little…but of course it’s the Elders, who don’t need such mundane things as cell towers in order to make calls.
Tish, Gerry’s significant other, evacuates to Houston–where a lot of New Orleanians went. The Tulane president, for whom I worked as a speechwriter, had been trapped on campus during the storm and was finally airlifted out three days afterward (boy, did he have some stories!). He flew to Houston, where the university was basically resurrected out of a hotel room, bit by bit. Ironically, a few weeks after Katrina, Hurricane Rita headed toward Texas and Houston had to be evacuated…so they all got to do it all over again.
The Winfield Walmart is mentioned in this chapter as a private joke for myself. Shortly before Katrina, my then-80-year-old mom moved in with me, and the woman loves a Walmart. As a result, I now hate it with a passion usually reserved only for mortal enemies. Hate it. Hate hate hate.
DJ’s experience watching the destruction of New Orleans on TV was basically mine. I watched 24/7, trying to get any snippet of information about my neighborhood and whether or not my house had survived, how much damage the university got, and wondering where the hell the federal help was. The media, individuals with boats, state fisheries and wildlife personnel, and the Coast Guard got in there fast, but it took a week before the National Guard was sent in and before FEMA arrived with even so much as a bottle of water. So mixed with all the grief was a LOT of outright fury. The Republican president and the Democratic governor and mayor were playing political power games while people drowned and died of heat stroke and dehydration. The day after the storm, while people were drowning and chaos was ruling the streets, the FEMA director was emailing jokes to colleagues about what to wear to a party, and the secretary of state was shopping for shoes and seemed confused when confronted with a question about New Orleans. It was such a fiasco. Don’t get me started.
HERE’s a decent article on the problems.
By the way, one of my heroes after Katrina was NBC’s Brian Williams. He put everything out there in reporting the storm, even staying in the Superdome with the refugees and refusing to leave the city afterward until he finally came down in dysentary, which tells you a lot about what conditions were like. He came back repeatedly afterward to report on the city’s recovery and did more than anyone, in my mind, to keep the plight of the city in front of the public.
There is an AWESOME three-piece video that Brian did “in his own words” afterward that’s now on YouTube. If you have the time, it’s really well done. Here are the three parts:
Fats Domino’s “Walking to New Orleans” was my ringtone for several years. Fats is a New Orleans institution. He was trapped in his home in the Lower Ninth Ward by the flooding before finally being rescued and taken to the dismal New Orleans Superdome, where nobody knew where he was. He isn’t in the best of health anyway, but eventually they got him out and he survived it. His home was destroyed, along with all the historic memorabilia, gold records, his piano, etc.
That’s it for this week! Check back next week for Chapter 6!