We left for San Diego just over two years before Katrina - a date now four years past, but forever etched into the memories of every American, whether or not they had ever personally glimpsed that city nestled in the elbow of the Mississippi. One of the hardest experiences of my adult life was watching on CNN as the city was abandoned - by residents, authorities, everyone - and given up as lost. My sister and her husband - French Quarter residents at the time - lived through the Storm itself, left town in its darkened wake, and returned again to keep living. According to her, the worst part was not the hurricane, but the progressively worse days afterwards, when the lights went out, the Quarter was abandoned, the police left town, and the looters and "zombies" wandered the streets.
Every New Orleanian has a Katrina story - and that's what they do, they tell their stories. Dave Eggers, author of the bestselling memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and the recent novel, What Is the What, has produced a stunning new book chronicling the post-Katrina story of the New Orleans family of Abdulrahman Zeitoun. Eggers writes with a simple, straight forward grace, skipping the looming soapbox completely and offering a concise chronicle of Zeitoun's experiences in all their horror and inhumanity. Dare I say, a heartbreaking work of...well, if not genius, then satisfying competency. As I read this book, I quite literally had to keep reminding myself that this story actually took place in the United States of America of the 21st-century and not war-torn Sierra Leone or some other awful place.
Zeitoun was an upstanding member of New Orleans life - he was a homeowner, a self-starting business owner, he had 4 perfect children, he paid his taxes and he stayed out of trouble. In hindsight, his only mistakes in life, if you can call them that, were staying behind in New Orleans during Katrina to protect his home and being of Syrian descent. After the storm surge flooded his Uptown neighborhood, Zeitoun patrolled the streets in his canoe, rescuing as many people from their water-logged homes as possible. About a week into this new, flooded, apocalyptic world, the home where Zeitoun and 3 friends were staying (a house owned by Zeitoun) was raided by a military-styled swat team and the four men were detained. I say detained because they were not Mirandized, not charged with crimes, they were just shuffled downtown to a makeshift prison that had been constructed attached to the Greyhound bus station. The only information Zeitoun received concerning his incarceration was muttered phrases from the military personnel along the lines of "terrorist" and "al-Qaeda".
"It had been a dizzying series of events - arrested at gunpoint in a home he owned, brought to an impromptu military base built inside a bus station, accused of terrorism, and locked in an outdoor cage. It surpassed the most surreal accounts he'd heard of third-world law enforcement."
Without giving too much of Zeitoun's story away, he spent the month of September 2005 imprisoned first in "Camp Greyhound", then in Hunt Correctional Facility in upstate Louisiana, for crimes that were never made clear to him by anyone in any authoritative capacity. He was met at every turn by uncompromising bureaucracy, a rudderless government, and uncaring or uninformed military personnel. The worst part, perhaps, is that his is just one of thousands of stories born out of the unique and tragic circumstances surrounding Hurricane Katrina. That said, I believe it is one story that should be read by every single American in order for them to have a proper perspective on just what sort of unspeakable things happened in our own backyards in 2005. In that sense, Eggers has done the rest of us a great service - bringing to light this tale of domestic atrocity in such a methodical, straight-forward way, without overt embellishment, so that there is no question that this story should never have happened on American soil. But it did.
Obviously, for me, Zeitoun resonates on a very personal level, although many of my friends and family were able to avoid such tragic circumstances as the Zeitoun family experienced. I realized, as I read, that the Zeitoun family home was just four blocks from the first house I lived in in New Orleans in 2001. Would I have seen Zeitoun paddle past in the days after the storm had I still lived there? Would I have gotten in his canoe to help? Would I have needed rescuing myself?
Needless to say, I will return again to the city that remains in my dreams. I think that everyone on this planet has a place just for them - a perfect fit somewhere. I knew the first time I set foot on the rain-washed streets there, that New Orleans was that "somewhere" for me. Return, Rebuild, Renew, as they say.
For further reading, I heartily, heartily recommend Chris Rose's book, 1 Dead In Attic. Chris is a sometimes-NPR contributor and a long-time entertainment columnist for the New Orleans Times-Picayune whose book is a collection of his columns from the year after Katrina. They will break your heart. Maybe six months after the Storm, I heard him read one of his stories on the radio - about taking his kids to the Ninth Ward for the first time, post-Katrina - and it completely reduced me to tears.