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The Never-ending Story 

It's been a year-and-a-half now. A year-and-a-half that's taken forever and a year-and-a-half already.

There are the stories of the storm, and we have been telling them and being told them for a year-and-a-half now. Some parts have been polished and others forgotten, and we may be tired of hearing them, but we will never tire of telling them because Katrina was the chance -- the first for some of us, the last for some others and the only chance for still others of us -- to experience something unforgettable, to know firsthand that your life can be touched and altered irrevocably by something you have no say-so over, none.

And the people who had already run -- to Houston or Arkansas or Virginia or New York -- have no real stories of the storm, no stories of what it was like to stay, only stories of other places and stories of coming back.

One of the prices you have to pay if you come back is listening to these stories till you or the storytellers are dead, because you know damn well that their memories aren't going to let them alone till then. That's just the way things are going to be around here from now on.

Here's one now:

"When the hurricane hit, I opened my front door and sat in the doorway," says Bill Wright. "The rain was so hard, it was coming sideways. And it was giving off a kind of glow."

Then the storm passed and the water began to rise around his South Bernadotte home. Before it got too high, he made his way down to Canal. Before long, he came upon a cop and offered his help. "We've got it under control," grunted the cop. "Go on home."

Bill did and the cops didn't. Back home he spied the rising waters pushing against the tie-downs of his neighbor's 16-foot hull. "He was gone to Memphis," says Wright. "I got him on the cell phone and he said to take it and save what I can."

So Wright unlashed the hull and took off to see what he could see. Not alone, though.

"When I moved away from my porch, I looked back and she was in the water," Wright says. "She" was Cedar his beloved kyoodle. She became his constant shipmate for the next three days.

"One woman I was picking up wanted me to throw Cedar out of the boat," Wright recalls. "I said, 'You can come or stay, but she's gotta stay.'"

The woman got in and so did a lot of neighborhood people. At first, Wright took his evacuees to houses with second stories and would ask if the inhabitants had room. When a place ran out of room, a new one was sought.

"Some people wouldn't leave; they were bailing water out of their homes," he said. But eventually, people began to opt for rescue, even the elderly lady who recently had a double mastectomy.

At night, he and Cedar would sit in his darkened rooms and hear the helicopters overhead. Vainly, he tried to win some notice with his flashlight. "It was so black outside that later a chopper pilot told me that it was like there were a million stars above him in the empty sky, and a million stars below him -- from all the people trying to signal with flashlights.

Fitfully, he dozed with his .38 on his chest. The first night he was ripped from sleep by a car horn shorted out by rising water. The next day his first stop was at the church where he'd ferried evacuees the day before; now he would bring them to the foot of Canal Street, where they'd be brought to I-610. A woman stepped into the boat and asked Wright with a smile: "Are you going to rescue me every day?"

Not every scene had a smile. The hull was nearly capsized by a band of grasping refugees at Jesuit High. At the Shell station near Tulane Avenue and Jeff Davis Parkway, he saw his first corpse, a bloated man who had floated against a pump.

It was microwave-hot. By the second day, there were blisters all around his mouth, courtesy of the unending sun.

He stayed away from the looters. He saw one guy who'd paddled a pirogue next to a grocery and was filling it. "People were coming out with water up to their chests, holding Pampers and cartons of cigarettes over their heads."

Wright had seen no official rescue parties till now, but at the end of the second day, he met up with a team from St. James Parish. They gave him two cans of gasoline to keep up the good work.

By the third day, there were fewer of the unsaved to pluck from abandonment and more time to steer the hull left here, another left, down streets now canals and none of the romance of Venice about it, either. Bump, craaack! That would be the outboard motor banging into the windshield of a submerged car. ...

"Block after block of -- nothingness. The magnitude of it all started to get to me. I remember thinking that I was glad my Mama and Dad weren't around to see this."

On the fourth day, Bill Wright and Cedar were taken to Baton Rouge, home for the next two weeks. He fell facedown on the bed and slept nine hours. "When I got up, I turned on the TV and New Orleans was all over it. Turned on the TV and just cried."

That's all another story. We hear it or tell it most every damn day.

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