The Eternal Flood

The Eternal Flood

By Nicholas Powers


I went to New Orleans to be saved. During the summer the days were getting brighter and every flaw in my life incredibly vivid. Nothing in me felt real except a loud emptiness. When I saw New Orleans fall apart it was my chance to join a cause that was undeniably good. The poor were fighting against nature and losing. They were innocent and could cure my guilt but that shallow reason for going left me helpless against their hunger and desperation. I was an emotional carpetbagger, a Northerner going south to re-create himself.


I packed luggage with food and medicine and flew to Baton Rouge. At baggage claim fear and confusion were bright on people's faces. A black family camped near the wall, using their coats as blankets. A Southern woman turned to me and said, "It's awful what happened in New Orleans." She leaned in. "Many of them were already homeless." Her face searched mine for agreement. It troubled me and I pulled my dread-locks back. It's a nervous tic. They are four feet long and heavy, their weight anchors me to blackness. I'm light-skinned, nearly her complexion but black enough I hoped to be safe among people driven mad with hunger.


In New Orleans I met Reverend Willie Walker. Al Sharpton gave me his number and we talked on the phone before I left. He was raised in New Orleans and had been rescuing people from flooded houses since Hurricane Katrina hit. We met in a parking lot. He hopped out of a Mustang and said, "Get ready, dude. It's crazy in there. You won't believe what you'll see." Immediately I thought: Player. Man of God or not, he had the easy confidence and busy eyes of the best hustlers. Later I would find how wrong I was. We put on rubber boots and he strapped a gun to his waist and we wandered into the flooded streets.


I stood knee deep in dark water. A boat sped into the shallows near me. Inside, a rescue worker named Tim hovered over a skeletal black man curled in a fetal position. A bloody defibrillator wire coiled out of his chest. Tim fanned the man's face with his hat. "Hang on, ya hear? We're gonna get you out." He looked around. "Can we get him to shade?" Tim said. "He's cooking." We pulled him under a tree and yelled for help.


"We found him in an attic," Tim said. "He's gonna be fine." It sounded more like a hope that a fact. A van drove up and we hoisted the man in. After they left, I saw him in my mind, old, voiceless, begging through his eyes for help. Around me were men packing equipment and pushing boats into the water. Many of them had swallowed what they saw but the shock of it never left their faces. I looked up. Ahead of me lay a city silenced by water.


I joined a rescue mission and as we pushed off reporters splashed into the boat. Cameras were focused, notebooks held like poker cards. Downtown New Orleans was a wide shimmering mirror, reflecting sky and buildings. A web of power lines drifted in the tide. Cars were hazy squares under the water. The captain cut the engine and drifted up to a home where a family stood. "The federal cowboys are coming. We wanna get you out before they take you by force."


"Yeah, we gonna go," the mother said. "OK, we'll be back to pick you up. Tour's over, boys." "Hold on. Hold on," said the photographers, adjusting their cameras. "Please don?t take pictures. I don't look decent," she said. They aimed the lens at her. She crossed her arms over herself.


 The cameras clicked and clicked. She stood in a dirty dress, arms crossed as if to keep her self from being stolen. They would not give her the dignity she asked for because degradation sells papers. The most valuable thing she had was her tragedy.


Would those photos haunt her? It was a scene I could imagine. Before coming to New Orleans my reflection scared me. I saw a man whose ex-girlfriend would not take his calls, whose family was broken by pride and silence, whose mother was dying from overwork while he wrote poetry. I thought the time and money and sweat I gave to the poor would return an image of me as a decent man. It would be my reward. Instead I saw how small a part of their burden I could carry.


On the drive back we passed a family on the road. I pulled over and handed them diapers, water and toothbrushes then drove them to the military post to search for their husbands. In the rear-view mirror I saw the mothers quickly wiping their tears away so the children would not be scared but the children knew. Their faces were made gaunt by knowledge that only the old should have, that nothing we own can be kept. The family saw me looking at them in the rear-view mirror and turned away.


We shuttled families until dusk. I went to a crowd to offer rides. A woman asked me how long I'd grown my dreads. "Ten years," I said. She said they were beautiful and held them like ropes that could pull her out of the chaos.

"We're a beautiful people." I said.

"We are." she said weakly.

"We are," I repeated, "but we can't see it unless we have money. Money is soap in America. It don't matter where you come from, you can be Brown, Yellow, Black. Money will wash you white." A ring of people gathered around me. "Why do you think no one came for you? Your life is not valued."

Their faces glowed. The woman stroked my dreads.

"Go on man, spit it," someone yelled.

"If they don't value your life, then don't value their lives. This is the latest battle in a war that began on the slave ships. They threw people overboard, they drowned them back then and they're drowning you now. Don't let them kill you." I was panting. My hands pounded the air as if it was a wall. Reverend Willie called from the van, "C'mon we got to go." I stopped and pulled away from the circle. The faces receded into darkness taking a small glint of light with them.


It was a long ride back. The rage that escaped in my rant still burned in my throat. I saw them again and again, asking me for food or water. Reverend Willie drove us through the flooded streets to his church. The floors were rotten. Slabs of the roof had fallen on the pews. When we sat, we began to argue about God, or at least I argued, he kept saying "Just put your faith in God, don't doubt him." I did more than doubt. I sat on the steps and twisted my dread-locks around my wrists like chains and yanked and yanked. "Why?" I asked myself. I wanted to be free of caring for people I could not help. "Why?"


The next day, we went on our last rescue mission. Five men abandon their flooded homes and came with us. One of them sat with me in the boat. "Thank you for talkin' sense into me," he said. "When you hear about all that craziness at the Superdome it seemed safer to stay." He kept looking around at the city, as if seeing it for the first time. The more he saw the quieter he got. I asked him what's lost of New Orleans that may never come back. He turned, wiped his face and closed his eyes.

"I'm sorry." He said and walked to the end of the boat and wept as we drove through the ruined city. I sensed what he lost but it was too immense to fully feel. Numbness had settled into me, to prevent feeling from getting in the way of action.


I returned to Baton Rouge Airport to catch a flight to New York. When I first arrived there was a small chapel room in the terminal. Now I saw it again and like the first time avoided it and went to the bar, the restaurant and the video game room. I walked around in blind exhaustion and saw the chapel room again and this time opened the door.


In the back was a dimly lit room with pews. I sat down and held my face in my hands. In my darkness families staggered through ruined streets, stunned and hungry. Women carried children too weak to walk. Men asked for help I could not give. I saw pain and desperation flooding their eyes and leaned over and pressed my palms over my face. My chest heaved. I tried to hold it back but all the water I saw and waded through came streaming down my fingers.