Metropolis: Wednesday, September 07, 2005
Michael Tisserand and family — including cats — in Carencro, La., where they are staying with friends.

An alt-weekly editor tells first-hand about being a Katrina refugee.

By MICHAEL TISSERAND photo by Shala Carlson

“Some people got lost in the flood, some people got away alright.”

— Randy Newman, “Louisiana 1927”

New Orleans is gone.

I left it behind me on a Saturday, with my two kids in the back seat, the soundtrack to Shrek on the c.d. player. My wife, a pediatrician, was on call for the weekend and stayed behind.

She joined us in a town just outside Lafayette, La., the following evening after a harrowing odyssey along the southern route of Highway 90, driving without her glasses or a cell phone, our three cats roaming in the back of a shaky Volvo.

Together that night, we watched the same show that all who’d gotten out were watching: The straight line the storm took toward our city. The familiar “Cat-4” and “Cat-5” terms for how bad it would be. And for those of us who thought we’d seen this before, the much-hoped-for right turn.

It didn’t matter. It hit. Even those who could read the tea leaves in John McPhee’s The Control of Nature or John Barry’s Rising Tide, or who had seen the diagrams of a bowl-shaped city, were in disbelief. New Orleans is gone, along with the newspaper where I work, the home where I live, my kids’ beloved school, my neighborhood sno-ball stand, my neighborhood anything.

On The New Orleans Times-Picayune’s web site and on cable news, I saw my former home’s dark and distorted reflection: submerged rooftops; a battered Superdome filled with and then emptied of the desperate; the looters grabbing guns and VCRs and racks of shirts; a house scrawled in red with “diabetic inside”; the breach in the levee.

The future is recited: a bowl of toxic stew. The gas, the sewage, the dead. The scenes of tragedy and timber all along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the shots of rescues, the information on where to find shelter and help.

This was all via tv. Direct information was harder to come by. Cell phones weren’t working; contact with others is haphazard. It took several days before I was able to talk with my publisher. When my wife finally reached her boss, a man who embodies the city’s peculiar dark joie de vivre to such an extent that he dressed as the tsunami for this year’s Mardi Gras, he was blunt. “I don’t know if we’re going to have a practice to come back to,” he said. “What families will return to the city with their children?”

Other cities are mightier. Los Angeles, Chicago, New York. But New Orleans is where I wanted to make my home. I first reached the city as a college dropout who wanted to hear jazz and see Mardi Gras, hitchhiking with a preacher who warned me about sin and temptation. Like every drunk tourist on Bourbon Street, that’s exactly what I was looking for.

Soon after, I heard zydeco and followed the blast of brass bands on the streets and started writing about musicians who seemed like magicians, the way they could conjure a mood. I even covered Hurricane Andrew, driving straight toward it, fueled by recklessness and a USA Today gig.

For the past 20 years, I have moved in and out of New Orleans. This last time, the roots dug in deep: job, house, family, school. Early notions of the city of good times were tempered by closer looks at poverty, illiteracy, and crime that I obtained as editor of the city’s alternative weekly. Being a parent in the public school system brought me even closer. Long before the rain started, New Orleans was a troubled city.

But it’s still the hallowed ground of Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong, of Mardi Gras and jazz funerals that send off the dead with “Didn’t He Ramble?” Of lesser-known purveyors of high spirits in bleak houses. I love New Orleans more than I’ve ever loved a particular place.

Most recently, I loved my neighborhood. Every morning, friends passed by our corner on their way to school. We’d hurry up tying our shoes to join them. Of the thousands who evacuated to the towns surrounding Lafayette, a handful are from my street. We fled on the buddy system and hooked up when we got here. We’ve met for pizza and seen ourselves in each other, and we’ve drawn some comfort from that. When the levees broke and the water continued to rise, it became more difficult to speak to each other about our plans and how long we could hold on.

I haven’t told you about Katy Reckdahl. She’s a Gambit reporter who writes about the hardest-hit citizens of New Orleans, including those who put themselves on the trigger side of a gun. She cares about all kinds of people. She knows this city better than most.

On the Saturday when I was driving my kids out of the city, she was having her first child, a boy, in Touro Infirmary. For days, all I knew was that they were moving people from floor to floor in Touro, and then that they had evacuated them, along with others stranded in hospitals with no air conditioning and sealed windows, generators running out of gas.

Where was Katy?

On the Times-Picayune’s web site, stories like mine piled on top of each other. Looking for grandfather. Want to hear from my friend. What do you know?

A couple hundred miles away, we have new household decisions to make. “I’m getting pretty bored of not having school,” my 7-year-old daughter announced. A week ago, her life was filled with first-day-of-school excitement. Now, there’s maybe a Catholic girl’s academy. The public schools are also taking in the children of New Orleans. My wife returned from a registration session, speaking through tears about the warmth and efficiency.

I also have a 4-year-old son. “Did you see this?” my wife said, holding a book he’d made weeks ago, before this hurricane had begun to form. He had drawn the pictures and recited the story, and my wife had taken his dictation. It was titled “Miles and the Sun!” and it goes like this:

“One spring day, Miles came out of his house in New Orleans. The sun was happy to see Miles. The sun was wearing sunglasses. Miles moved to his new house and the sun got very very hot. Now it was even hotter! A fearful wild storm came with lots of monsters. Luckily Miles wasn’t in it. The water splashed all over it.”

The drawing for that last page was all deep, hard-pressed scribbles.

Last night, he sat on my lap and looked at the tv and the people walking through the water. “Are those the people who didn’t evacuate?” he asked, carefully enunciating his new word.

We’re staying with friends who just keep saying “as long as it takes.” Last night, one of their neighbors showed up with smothered steak, rice and gravy, cabbage and sausage, and bread pudding. Another showed up with margaritas.

New Orleans is gone, and I can’t say when it will come back. My neighborhood, my job, all of it might somehow return.

Yet I don’t know what a rebuilt New Orleans will look like, and I don’t know if I’ll be there for it. For now, we’re living on the generosity of others. That’s what it’s like to be a refugee. You never know what’s next.

Michael Tisserand is the editor of Gambit Weekly. He is currently living in Carencro, La., at the home of Scott Jordan, the editor of Lafayette’s Independent Weekly. He can be reached at

After Tisserand wrote this story, Katy Reckdahl was located, safe with her new baby in Arizona. The owners of the Gambit told the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies that, although the paper will probably not publish again at least through 2005, they are optimistic that the Gambit and New Orleans will recover. (The paper’s main computer servers were moved to safe ground before the weekly’s offices were — they assume — covered by the floodwaters.) AAN has organized a relief effort for the Gambit and its employees and is posting news on the whereabouts of those displaced. Many AAN member papers have already donated to the fund, and checks should go out to Gambit employees within the week. Fort Worth Weekly and other papers have offered jobs and housing to the New Orleans paper’s employees who relocate to their cities.

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