I advised my 85-year-old Dad not to leave when Katrina was coming. The trip out of town might kill him. His house is in the center of New Orleans and is two stories high. It was built in the 1860s at 3-feet above sea level with 12 inch square posts driven into the ground. The house has withstood storms and floods many times.
In fact, he lost only a few roof slates during Hurricane Betsy. Later, we saw nearby streets were flooded. People were taken off their roofs by others in boats. A high school girl I knew had to swim to higher ground while pulling her grandmother. Snakes were found in peoples' living rooms.
But since that time in the 1960s, the city built levees. So my dad and I rationalized that all of New Orleans would be flooded by the time he was in danger. Sit tight, and we'll see, I said.
But at 5 a.m., while I slept in New York, his tenant, a cousin and friend packed him into the car. My cousin and tenant drove out of New Orleans as fast as they could. My friend stayed behind with his parents in their 80s.
All of us are black and natives of the city, so there was no question about whether we'd go to the Superdome. The shelter of last resort translates to the shelter of no resort. We know how poor, black people are treated in New Orleans and the rest of America.
In the neighborhood where my dad still lives and I grew up, there are 31% of the people who earn less than $10,000. More than 57% earn less than $25,000. Our church parish, our schools, our leaders ask for money to help sickness and depression, joblessness, drug addiction for families of the people who clean up the hotels, cook in the restaurants and entertain the gold plated tourists. You know the answer we get. I don't have to say.
That too went into the decision of whether my father should go or stay. No don't go to the Superdome, or anywhere else there was an army of poverty. Everybody in New Orleans knows that poverty translates to black translates to helpless, in its most literal sense. Now, finally, so do the white people in our nation.
I will tell you one more truth. I've been studying the 200-year-history of my community through archival research and primary documents. There is little changed in New Orleans since slavery.
Many families still live in New Orleans. Their social conditions are similar -- whites on top, blacks on the bottom, mixed people somewhere in between.
All along, people have had to escape. Escape is the accurate term for leaving these conditions to go somewhere better. My dad got a Ph.D., intellectual escape. My church calls its members to go the spiritual high road. I got out of town before my anger at unfairness and an unchanged life would kill me. Or like some people at home, I'd hurt somebody.
So why did I tell him to stay? Because he knew his own mind, and I have always deferred to him on matters of his own survival. No to the Superdome. Yes, to his house, his neighborhood, his community. If they would go down, so would he.
But Category 5 was too much for a moral stance, even for him. Still, it was not enough for the parents of my friend, who found themselves stranded. Others, we knew, were left for days on the highway and still others died in their homes.
When I was 12, after Hurricane Betsy, the water began to rise. But the next day, the water stopped about three blocks from my house. I was a child and the day was hot. So I snuck out to the floodwaters to swim. I waded out into the muddy water on St. Bernard Ave., feeling a bit heady that I was experiencing something that no one ever had, or, I thought, ever would. Then the water got so deep that the ground slipped from under my feet and I drifted, not far, but I was being taken away by something I could not control.
I learned that day that one mistake could be deadly. With Katrina, my dad knew that a risky stand could be his last one. Throughout this all, we all knew where we stood with regard to most decision makers in America for a long time. Our neighbors made terrible mistakes when they trusted that the government would take care of them