(This is the *unabridged* version of events, haha… for cliffnotes see here.)
Hurricane Ida made landfall at Port Fourchon, Louisiana at 11:40 a.m. on Sunday, August 29, 2021 as a Category-4 storm. Rather than evacuate, I chose to stay through “my first Big One” (as locals had a tendency to say) for a few reasons. First, I felt a sense of solidarity with friends and others who were staying both willingly and out of circumstance; I knew enough people making informed decisions to stay behind that I didn’t feel [too] foolish for doing the same.
I also felt that I’d learned a few things from last year’s singular hurricane to come through New Orleans– Hurricane Zeta– to help better prepare for what we always figured would be a considerably more consequential storm this time around. (Namely, don’t wait until the last minute to cook one’s food if one has electric appliances, especially if one’s planning on subsisting off a frozen pizza.)
By Saturday, the mayor was saying she could not enforce a mandatory evacuation because there wasn’t sufficient time to implement contraflow– the process of reversing the direction of the incoming highways so all roads lead out of town. To me, this suggested that traffic would be terrible in any case, but also that it may truly not have been possible for everyone to leave; that if I felt I had sufficient preparations and wherewithal to weather the storm, maybe I shouldn’t be clogging up the highway as a single person in a vehicle. Besides, with my vehicle and general lack of other responsibilities, it stood to reason I may be able to lend assistance after the storm.
But in addition to all of these reasons, I do consider myself a documentarian, and am working my way toward considering myself a Louisianan. If part of being a Louisianan means sticking it out through the occasional Big One, it seemed like it was an experience I’d have at some point or another; I can’t deny that I had a bit of curiosity, an urge to earn my stripes and be there to document one of the largest storms to ever hit the country.
In the end, despite winds exceeding 150 mph upon landfall, despite the last minute turn that put New Orleans in a more dangerous path, despite the ferocity that carried Ida thousands of miles overland to the Northeast of the country (where, in fact, a good deal more people have died than did in the Gulf region), despite the text we all received at 9:30 p.m. the night of the storm that “All Entergy power out in NOLA. Sewerage & Water Board is operating on self-generated power to drain stormwater & pump drinking water,” it’s safe to say that New Orleans really dodged a bullet.
There was no substantial flooding. Some homes and businesses, yes, saw severe damage, but on the whole I mostly couldn’t believe how solid most things appeared when I surveyed certain parts of the city afterwards. Apart from the downed trees and sandbags, the city didn’t look starkly different than it did when I was documenting the “Empty City” at the beginning of the pandemic. But I suppose I’m getting ahead of myself at this point. On with the photo-journaling!
Before the Storm
I always find it interesting to include some details from the days leading up to a drastic event. On Wednesday, I helped my friend MR move into a sweet third-floor apartment in the French Quarter and we made jokes about needing AC units in her windows… jokes that seemed considerably less funny by Monday, when the entire town was out of power and AC seemed like quite the luxury indeed. (Always there to find a silver lining, MR was still pretty pleased with the cross-breeze.)
On Thursday I’ll admit my first hint that something was potentially amiss was seeing this video from the “Have a Great Day” guy (AKA Josh Starkman) on Instagram. By the time I made it to work that evening the standard pre-storm scuttlebutt was starting (“So… you think it’ll really hit?”), but no one had any details. The bartender Tony said he heard it might be called “Tony.” I said that seemed a little far down the alphabet. An hour later I rushed to him with an update I’d just learned from a NOLA Ready text: it was called Ida.
On Friday the gloomy day made the looming storm feel all the more real. I took a friend to the airport at 3, worried I might not have time to get a head start on hurricane prep before my 5 p.m. shift. So lucky me: on my way back from the airport I was told the restaurant was dead; don’t show up; as of then they were still planning to open Saturday night. I made a beeline for Rouses to get supplies for myself and MR, where around 4:30 everyone’s phones started blaring with emergency alerts. One of the more apocalyptic moments of the whole experience, tbh. But the newspapers were (understandably) more concerned with the situation in Afghanistan. By the end of the night the decision was made that my restaurant would NOT open the following evening.
Saturday I texted my brothers early in the morning wondering if I should ‘squander’ my gas Uber driving or not, only to remember I didn’t have much gas to squander. Almost on a whim, I decided to go fill up– a decision that proved CLUTCH because I didn’t wait at all (and that would not be the experience for motorists basically any time afterwards). I also decided I had other things to tend to besides Ubering.
I took to Instagram to offer my supply-run services, but also try to bring some levity to the situation. I’d caught a man drinking Foster’s from a wine glass in the Rouses lobby the day before, and that felt like a big mood, as did the commenter wondering about free crawfish during the mayor’s IG Live press conference. I brought MR her supplies, and after I wondered aloud if I should go to Walmart to get an inflatable boat JUST IN CASE, we decided to go to Walmart. We talked contraflow and traffic and both agreed it might not be a good idea to get on the road even then, with the storm just over 24 hours in the future. Although we found no inflatable boats, I decided I had an air mattress in a pinch.
MR’s boyfriend lived in the area so we swung through to pick him up. He was the most concerned of anyone so far, and was fruitlessly trying to track down a car for them to rent to maybe try heading to Texas. MR and I maintained we didn’t think it was a good idea to leave; I dropped them off, we wished each other the best, and said keep in touch.
I was getting a little nervous at that point, so I did what I so often do when I’m feeling stressed or have a lot on my mind… went down to the Quarter to get pictures. Some shops had been boarded up and it was a little emptier than normal, but there were people out and about (tourists were still taking their carriage tours!) and it didn’t feel too spooky or ominous.
As I was looping back through Jackson Square a palm reader called out to me to do a reading. I’d been wary of getting my palm read after almost all the Canadians I’d trekked to New Orleans with the first time each paid $30 to do so only to emerge from the room either in tears or close to it from receiving such bad news. But it wasn’t ordinary times and, announcing I had only $15 on me so to only give me $15 worth of a reading, I agreed. I can’t remember exactly what he said… something about having ties to Germany, a bit of wanderlust, and lots of professional (AND romantic!!) options, but the inability to choose…
Alas, he was reluctant to offer any predictions concerning the storm.
I made my way home and my friend MS, who happened to be in the area, stopped by. Like MR’s boyfriend, he’s also from Florida, and despite also growing up with hurricanes, he too was worried. He wasn’t able to evacuate the storm because his girlfriend NEEDED to get out with their kids, and there wasn’t room in the car for him, the husky, and the two cats. His work had since lent him a delivery truck, but at this point we were within the 24-hour window leading up to the storm, during which you’re expressly supposed to shelter in place. Once again, we parted ways and wished each other the best.
I became extra nervous when the power went out twice in my apartment for no reason at all that afternoon. The first time lasted only three minutes, so I busied myself afterward trying to employ the lessons I learned during Zeta and bake my banana bread a day early. But when went out again, I frantically started packing in my dark apartment thinking, “Screw what I have been saying and agreeing to all day… I’ve gotta GTFO!” But right as I finished, the power came back and I regained my wits/got my bread baked.
Meanwhile LL, the director of the documentary I’ve been working on since the Spring (you can view the trailer here!), told me I was welcome to relocate from my ground floor Treme apartment to her third floor St. Charles condo if I felt unsafe. She had drinks, Ollie was welcome, parking was elevated and covered. Another friend in the neighborhood contacted me to say he had a generator and a spare unit in his pool house if I needed. Feeling once again reassured I decided to blow off some steam in my other new favorite way– by going roller skating.
Crescent Park was just about to close, and I found myself unsettled not only by the empty row of usually-full parking spaces along Decatur, but by the fact that the windows of every car that had been previously parked there had apparently been shattered. I relocated to the river, but the spot I had in mind was being used by a news crew filming what I later identified as Jim Cantore’s pre-storm run-down.
So I went to a parking lot where I skated, witnessed and sort of helped de-escalate a fight between two potentially unhoused people (the man who’d broken a bottle and threatened the man who’d since walked away explained to me, “I was just down there tryna watch Jim Cantore and he got all in my business while I was trying to talk on the phone to my brother!!!”), chatted with a nervous Telemundo reporter who’d been flown down from Chicago but had never experienced a hurricane before, and ultimately got this time lapse. Returned home and went to bed with a nagging and fearful thought… what if this really WAS the next Katrina?
Ida & the Aftermath
I was awoken at 2:30 in the morning (9.5 hours before the storm’s predicted landfall) on Sunday when I heard voices– at least 2 or 3 of them– outside my apartment. This startled me until I realized it was the family of an elderly neighbor I’d been worried about, finally coming to get him out of there. I felt this weird mix of relief (for him) and dread: they must think it’s going to be really bad if they’re taking him away. I had half a mind to shout out the door, “Where are you going?!” but I couldn’t get dressed in time.
GPS told me it was just 6 hours to Atlanta: the normal amount of time. Could traffic have possibly cleared? Was there any way to know for sure? I had another panicked moment where I threw on some clothes, collected the bags I’d packed during the power outage, and texted a few friends to say I’d cracked: I was too freaked out at the idea of barricading myself alone in a hot, dark bathroom with my dog for hours, and I was going to Atlanta.
My stomach was churning, but the text made me feel worse. After all that, I was going to abandon people NOW?! Besides, the rain started pouring that instant. I reminded myself of LL’s offer, decided I would take her up on it, and somehow got back to sleep.
I awoke again around 7:30 to a text from LL doubling down on the offer, and I said I was coming over. Fetched my car from where I’d preemptively parked it under the Claiborne bridge, loaded it up, and headed down to St. Charles.
LL’s 3rd floor unit proved perfect. It was on a protected side of the building, so we didn’t hear or feel much of that powerful wind even as we watched the palm trees bow in the distance. When the power went out (which happened there earlier than expected, and earlier than in many other parts of town), there was a generator that powered emergency lights in the hallway, a plug to charge devices downstairs, and a freight elevator (to be used sparingly). Water pressure’s good up to the 4th floor in the building, and it stayed remarkably cool in her condo.
Plus, we had drinks (piña coladas to start, of course), comrades, and responsibilities to keep us busy as LL had a sort of leadership role in the condo and people would turn to her when there were issues such as water collecting on the 14th (top) floor. It was generally a very kind and supportive community– well before Liz and I got tasked with mopping upstairs there was a contingent doing their best to keep the ground floor dry. We also got good/safe vantage points of the storm from the parking garage and her friend’s 12th floor unit.
The storm was predicted for 1 p.m. but made landfall around 11:40 a.m. Power went out around that time at the condo; not sure how it played out for others around town but 9:30 p.m. was when we got the text the whole city was out–a major transistor had been blown into the river, along with the AT&T tower, from what I hear. Everyone’s cell service got real bad real quick that night. The storm peaked around 6 p.m., and I was able to go to sleep that night with much less anxiety than the night before.
On Monday I woke up sweating. It was finally starting to get warm in there. A drizzly morning cleared into a really beautiful (albeit steamy) day. I took a walk around the condo then down St. Charles and back up Prytania to assess damage. Lots of downed trees. Some really effed up awnings. A sign blown through the window of the long out-of-use St. Charles Tavern, and two particularly wind-blown or tree-struck properties on Prytania took the cake for worst damage, but I couldn’t believe how… okay most things seemed. Lots of residents had already emerged to begin clearing the debris.
The big issue, of course, was that power was not predicted to be back for 10 days at best, and maybe up to 3 weeks.
LL and I enjoyed some of my banana bread for breakfast with some of the butter softening in the powerless fridge, then got my car packed up while Ollie helped himself to the rest of the butter. I was already pretty sure I was going to stick around for the day to see what needed to be done before likely making my way home to Virginia; the possibility of a dog with butter runs in the car while trying to evacuate firmed up that decision.
The last info I’d gotten from my friend RM in the area was that every room in his house was leaking so I thought I’d swing by and see how he was doing. He wasn’t happy about the info that the AT&T tower was in the river, but said he was down to tag along with me downtown to check out things in the Quarter, et al.
But first– to check on my apartment. As we drove through the CBD we saw some larger trees blown over on St. Charles, a bit of street flooding and barriers blown over around the Crescent Tower, and then some of the most notable damage the city suffered: one of Louis Armstong’s childhood homes, leveled. Next to it, B-Mike’s painting of Buddy Bolden and his band, the one I’d captured in this long-ago time lapse that started me on my B-Mike fangirl adventure, had been blown clear off the wall.
My apartment and neighborhood, on the other hand, were in pretty good shape. A tree snapped outside my gate but caused no damage, there was an unsettling amount of shingles littering the place but they turned out not to be from our building, and then there were the ubiquitous branches and leaves. I noticed a little spot of water damage in my ceiling.
The few blocks of Treme between me and the Quarter fared alright as well. The cross atop St. Augustine church looked a little windblown. We saw a lady serving hot plates from her house.
Then we moseyed to and around the Quarter. RM recognized some guys who came by on their scooter, they informed us that the Three Legged Dog was open, and that became our destination. I had the quaint experience, in our cell-service-less state, of rounding up my friends by shouting up at their apartments, first DD on Rampart, then MR from her new place (with its glorious cross-breeze) just across from Three Legged Dog. The bartender offered us the tantalizing options of hot beer and hot shots– for cash only, of course. We got some of each, then took a little tour.
I came home, picked up the debris at my apartment, then rested in the AC in my car while my phone charged up for a bit. Another quick photo walk to take in the magnificent sunset. A dinner of cold(-ish) macaroni leftovers from the week before that hadn’t gone bad yet in my fridge.
I kept it quaint by entertaining myself with my typewriter by candlelight that evening, and went to bed in my 90 degree, 90% humidity apartment praying my portable camping fan would keep a charge through the night. Had another rude awakening in the middle of the night when the thunder clapped and the rain poured down… and before long I heard the tap-tap-tapping of that water-damaged part of my ceiling actively leaking. Set down a bucket and some towels and went back to sleep.
Got up in the morning and went to do some investigating down in the Marigny, Bywater, and Lower 9th Ward, where I found similar scenes as I’d found in the rest of town. The gate of the long-abandoned naval hospital was blown open, and who was I to miss this opportunity to get in there and get some photos? Then DD, MR, and I coordinated the Great Cat Shuffle of 2021 wherein MR took the cats DD had been cat-sitting, along with her own cat and boyfriend, in their rental car to Ocean Springs; while DD and I set off for Atlanta, whence he’d catch a flight to Chicago the next morning.
The normally 6 hour trip took more like 8.5, which wasn’t terrible. Traffic finally let up around Gulfport, which was also just about the first place I believe one could even exit to get gas. Once again, I was so thankful for the 3/4 tank I still had from my Saturday morning fill-up… there was a gas line for a station on Rampart that extended the entire length of the French Quarter, possibly further, when we left on Tuesday.
I write this on Sunday, September 5, and power has already been restored to much of the city– well ahead of schedule and expectations. I’ll be returning in the next few days with supplies, and will plan on visiting some of the other communities in the area that are embroiled in a much greater struggle both to bring aid and to document.