Friday, April 23, 2010

Post-Diluvian Follies: Operation Thunderdome

There are no gas cans. Does anybody have gas cans? It was, under normal circumstances, a simple goal, but current circumstances were rather strange, and the pallet where they would stand lay bare as people across the storm-battered South horded gasoline.

I was about to drive five-hundred miles east from Austin—across Hurricane Rita’s recent wake—back to New Orleans, still reeling from Hurricane Katrina four weeks earlier.

Austin to New Orleans

Niceties such as functioning gas stations would be scarce at best, and I didn’t relish the thought of being stranded by the side of the highway in a salt-burnt swamp and September heat a hundred miles from any functioning municipality.

But the cans, clearly, were not an option. I scratched them off my list and moved on.

The plan was modest:
  1. Get back in the city
  2. Tarp the roof. (We had reports of its sorry state.)
  3. Secure the doors and windows.
  4. Recover salvageable essentials.
  5. Just generally figure out what the hell was next.
We had spent the previous eternal weeks, the weeks since the storm emptied our city and flooded our house, ping-ponging across the South—Memphis, Alabama, Texas—finally landing in a crappy apartment in a bland complex in the far suburban outskirts of south Austin.

We were train wrecks—too much CNN, too little to do. Whiling away the days in the Land of Progressive Living while our city drowned in its own filth did not suit my temperament. I was bored, anxious, horrified, cranky, and depressed—desperate to do something. But standing water, National Guardsmen, and most recently, Hurricane Rita had conspired against us. We watched and waited.

Now, though, the obstacles were clearing. The waters had receded; Rita had passed; the highways were open again. And though residents were still officially banned from the city, word was the restrictions were only loosely enforced: roadblocks by day but not at night, on one road but not another. Where there was a will, apparently, there was a way.

The days leading up to my departure were full of phone calls and emails back and forth with friends scattered across the country. Who has a generator? Do Joe and Jeff have a generator? Miranda has a generator—and respirators. You can crash at Zack and Ana’s. John will be in Mississippi. He’ll have his truck. Zack might be there. Jeff and Fay will be at Sandy’s. Billy’s dad’s a mold expert; he’s coming down from New York.

On a mid-week afternoon, I sat amidst the chattering hipsters of a sunny coffee shop patio. I felt jumpy. At the other end of the line, Bill Sr. spoke in a head-spinning New York rat-a-tat (which I barely understood over the crackle of my two-bit cell phone, hastily purchased two days after the storm when all New Orleans numbers were dead).

“David, Billy tells me your house flooded.”

“Uh, yeah.”

“Look, I’ve got a crew coming down later in the week, my best guys, a couple of real bulls. We’re making a public-service movie on proper mold-remediation techniques. We don’t want people going into these houses not knowing what they’re doing. And we need a place to film. You’ve got mold, right?”

“Um, yeah… Plenty of mold.” Bulls? What does he mean?

“Are your walls plaster or sheetrock?”

“Uh, plaster.”

“Okay, do you know anyone with sheetrock?”

“Um, I can ask around.”

“And what about people that can distribute this thing? Community groups, public health… people like that?”

“Um, I can ask about that too.”

“And I’ve got some experts coming down later this week to do air sampling—from Harvard and Columbia—best in the field. Do you know a place for them to stay?”

“Um, I’m not sure off-hand, but again I can ask…

“Great. And look, I’m sending you a mask—a really good one—it’ll stop anything. You don’t want to mess around with this stuff. Alright, David?”

“Okay, thanks. I really appreciate it.”

He hung up. I felt jumpier.

I was still wandering the aisles of Home Depot, trying to assemble what I imagined to be some reasonable approximation of the necessary supplies (with the unfortunate exception of gas cans):
  • tarps
  • staples
  • staple gun
  • a set of bright-yellow plastic rain-overalls and matching jacket (for de-mucking the house—and looking ridiculous)
  • rain boots (for de-mucking the house)
  • goggles (I’m not sure why)
  • rubber gloves (for de-mucking the house)
  • duct tape (because one always needs duct tape)
  • bleach (isn’t that what you use on mold?)
  • and a bunch of other crap that I thought might somehow be useful
I had little confidence in my list, but—after sufficient meandering, scribbling, and scratching—I decided it would have to do.

On my way home, I stopped at the dingy neighborhood 7-11 where, to the right of the booty-magazines, I found the Vivarin. Even more than running out of gas, I feared running out of coffee, another nicety of civilization that would be in uncertain supply. My trip would be of little use if, upon arrival, I collapsed under the crushing headaches and debilitating nausea of severe caffeine withdrawal.* And though the chalky little tablets were a poor substitute for my beloved brew, they were infinitely preferable to nothing at all. I made my purchase and returned to the apartment to pack.

* In its early years, I’d felt conflicted about my caffeine-addiction—I am a brow-beaten child of the Nancy Reagan eighties—and in an effort to convince myself of its fallacy, I would sometimes imagine dire scenarios where I was denied my fix. In time, though, I’d made peace with my habit. This is civilization. There’s always coffee. Where’s the problem? But now things didn’t seem quite so civilized. And now my dire scenarios didn’t seem quite so implausible.


  1. Great reading.

    My pop sometimes makes me a little jumpier (than usual) too. He will be down this weekend for Jazzfest, armed with lead swipes to see if Rosie may be getting exposed to tiny particles of lead from a century of toxic paint that covered the walls and trim of our home. Has me feeling jumpier for sure.

  2. Though in his defense, at that moment in time, it really took next-to-nothing-at-all to make me jump out of my skin.