It was less than a week after Hurricane Katrina, but looking back I guess it could have been two weeks. If your memory of September 2005 is like mine, it all runs together, one long journey through ‘A Muddled World,’ when we existed standing on our heads, wondering if our world would exist upright and normal again.
By this time our family was in Lafayette, Louisiana, safe and cared for within a friend’s guest bedroom. Like everyone we scrambled to reach people, frustrated with the lack of communication and the ‘Closed’ sign posted on New Orleans.
Once every few days the cell phone actually rang (forget about calling out), and we updated the distant relative or former neighbor, asking that they phone a dozen others with messages.
One such call came from Steve Diamond, a friend in Carmel, California whose ninety-six year-old mother, Irene Diamond, stubbornly remained by herself in her Lakefront home during the hurricane.
“Help me get her out of there,” pleaded her son. “I don’t care what it costs.”
Adding to the anxiety was the lack of communication. He had not spoken with his mother since before the storm.
Frustrated, without phones and without access to the city, we struggled, unable to contact anyone for help. As we tried but failed to rent a helicopter in Lafayette, we heard from Steve again.
“She’s in a shelter in Thibodaux.”
Forced by a nameless hero from her house into a boat and plucked by another nameless hero’s helicopter from the highway, Mrs. Diamond and her wheelchair landed in Lafourche Parish, where the Cajuns first landed 250 years ago, after veering into the bayous from the Mississippi River. For Mrs. Diamond, widow of Dr. Murray A. Diamond (d. 1990), former Director of Touro Hospital in New Orleans, this was A Muddled World, the moon.
Before daybreak the following morning I took Hwy 90, the original Old Spanish Trail, 120 miles southeast to Thibodaux, a small Cajun town within the swamps of Bayou LaFourche.
Entering on W. Canal Boulevard, I recalled the stories from my aunt and uncle, Kathy and Lynn Wolfe, who lived in Thibodaux for years,
“Don’t get a flat tire when the water’s high,” they warned.
Alligators lined the road, their eyes glowing at the marsh’s edge. The normally two-hour drive took twice as long in the slow-motion of A Muddled World, a world without electricity, phone service, or water, a world barely navigable around downed trees and power lines, a world darkening daily, as Hurricane Rita loomed offshore.
By the time I reached Nicholls State University, the rain obscured the building and muffled the car radio. Following a shouted exchange with a slicker-clothed police officer, I passed the checkpoint to search through hundreds, maybe thousands, of evacuees for an old lady I had never met.
“Have you seen Irene Diamond?” I asked, moving from floor to floor through the chaos of strangers and cots in the generator-powered building.
“Over here,” someone shouted at last, and a volunteer wheeled an elderly woman with thick-lensed glasses into my view.
I barely introduced myself before the chaos began.
“It’s about time. Someone stole my pillow. We can’t leave without my pillow!”
I looked at the nurse, who shrugged her shoulders. I searched the building again, this time asking for Irene Diamond’s pillow.
“Forget the pillow. Find my dog,” she barked, after I returned unsuccessful for the third time.
Mrs. Diamond, a woman explained to me, carried Raja on her lap, from the boat to the helicopter to Thibodaux, only to be separated from him at the door of the shelter. Directed to a tent in a nearby park, rather than face the mud and rain with a wheelchair, I left Mrs. Diamond in the car, as I searched for a dog I had never seen.
Raja!, I called, hoping for an “Over here”-type bark. A volunteer helped me.
Another hour passed and I gave up, directed next to the nearby animal hospital, followed by another shelter, and so forth.
The sky grew darker, the rain heavier, the hour later, and at last I convinced Mrs. Diamond that we should drive to Lafayette, or at least the other side of Alligator Alley, before night.
Meanwhile, throughout the day I tried in vain to reach Steve Diamond on my cell phone. As we left town, a church, obviously powered by a generator, lit up a corner of A Muddled World. I knocked on the door of the rectory, gestured to Mrs. Diamond in the car, and explained my situation to the nun.
“Does your telephone work?” I asked her.
“Yes.” She replied, as I stood unprotected in the downpour.
“Could I please make a brief call to her son? I’ll pay you.”
“We’re in the middle of a disaster here,” she announced, as she slammed the door of the First Catholic Church of A Muddled World. “I don’t have time for this.”
Thoroughly soaked, I returned to the car and described the exchange to Mrs. Diamond.
“I told you to go to the Temple!” she snapped, as we slowly made our way back to Lafayette (arriving near midnight).
If I knew of a Temple in a Muddled World… I thought to myself…
And Raja? Months later we received word of him by way of a stranger’s letter. He was taken in for a while by this good Samaritan, who unfortunately lived on the bayou behind Alligator Alley.
Wendy Rodrigue (a.k.a. Dolores Pepper)
For a related post see “For New Orleans” from ‘Musings of an Artist’s Wife’