After the Tree book project

Woman-made Disaster (excerpt)

“My husband is not at home; he has gone on a long journey.” — Proverbs 7: 19

It was the whistling and rumbling of a dozen trains speeding along rusted tracks—a long screech that, from its womb, delivered a God-like bass. And then it changed into warring choruses of clashing brass cymbals and roars of thunder upon thunder, whirling around our little green house that sat alone in the middle of pine trees. Six years old, I ran to the living room window, expecting to see angels and chariots descending from the heavens. Get away from that window, my mother screamed, but my brain had shut my body down; it could not process what my eyes were absorbing.

The source of the sound was the wind, and while I had never seen wind before, this time it had a definite shape and was coming directly towards me. The materials that clung to it—leaves, dirt, clothing—gave manifest to its form and its fury. My mother yanked up my frozen body and, carrying me under one arm and my sister Dena under the other, ran to the bathroom and placed us in the tub for safety. The tornado spun around our house, leaving it unscathed, then tore through other parts of DeRidder, ripping off roofs and siding, lifting cars and vans and trees. Our house survived, yet the real storm was inside of us, a family being torn apart by marital strife. Less than a year later, my mother packed two trash bags—one filled with toys, the other with clothes—and left my father for good.

Five years ago, when Hurricane Katrina swallowed and spat out the city my soul and memory still crave, unhappiness and infidelity slung my own first marriage against a rock and cracked it wide open, leaving my hopes and dreams for a perfect romance, a perfect marriage, exposed and rotting.

From the dry safety of southern California, I watched Katrina batter New Orleans as television cameras captured the war between water, wind and man.

Horror, guilt and impotence created a cyclone within me. Each time I tried to call my friends who still lived there, I was met with a busy signal or a recording that the lines were down. In the mid-1990s, I had sworn that I would never leave the city. “She’s in my soul,” I declared to then-husband, Ric. New Orleans was as much (and in some cases more) a part of my blood as DeRidder, which, three and half hours west of the Big Easy, stands in opposition to everything it is: wet (the sale of alcohol is illegal in DeRidder, while New Orleans boasts drive-through daiquiri shops); wild (The DeRidder nightclub scene is non-existent); Catholic (Baptist is the reigning denomination in DeRidder. Rumor has it that the First Baptist Church prevented the rebuilding of our burned-down movie house decades ago, so we could not partake in the pleasure, even, of sitting in a darkened theater and inserting ourselves inside a character’s fictional world).

New Orleans, its sensuality, humidity, history, mystery, spirituality, and even its stench, captivated my soul and my senses, holding me in its grip. Here was where I found friends who shared my artistic and entrepreneurial yearnings; here was where I found courage to leave my staff reporter job at the newspaper and take a risk as a freelance writer; here was where Ric and I met one night with other journalists in the French Quarter and, two years later, married under a live oak tree in Congo Square.

Yet I, we, had left New Orleans four years before the storm, in pursuit of new milk and honey, and I had abandoned its people, its children, and the few friends who remained in the city, those who had not migrated to San Francisco, New York City, Pittsburgh or Chicago. Why hadn’t I called my old friends earlier, with the first news of a possible evacuation? Like the day I stood at the window as the tornado rolled toward me, my senses were dulled, and I had been too slow to act…

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