Thursday, May 18, 2006

A Thank You

My mother always said she wouldn’t evacuate for a hurricane. After all, her grandparents immigrated to New Orleans from Germany way back in the 1850’s, and the rest of her family has lived here ever since. When she was growing up, no one ever evacuated for storms; why should she now?

I tried telling her about Mr Go and the vanishing wetlands, but she just gave me that Look—the one that tells me she's convinced I don’t know what I’m talking about. When she moved “home” after the death of my father fourteen years ago, she bought a house two doors down from one sister, right next door to another sister. “Aunt Henrietta lived in her house for 60 years,” she kept reminding me. “We’re on a ridge here. It has never flooded.”

“Mama, the whole city is going to flood if we get hit by that storm surge!”

Again, the Look.

It’s a story that was repeated over and over again across New Orleans, with tragic results: stubborn older people who’d lived through Betsy, who’d lived through the storms of 1947 and 1915 and others, refusing their adult children’s pleas to evacuate. Some children and grandchildren finally gave up and simply left their aged parents and grandparents behind—and now must live with a lifetime’s worth of regret and guilt. Others abandoned their own plans and stayed with their mother, or father, or grandparents—and died with them.

I dispatched my daughter Samantha to spend Saturday night with her grandmother, while the rest of us worked at boarding up the house and getting ready to leave. Samantha combines million-dollar charm with a powerful reasoning and arguing ability that is going to make her a great lawyer.

The next morning, Samantha called to tell me her grandmother had finally agreed to leave. “Wow,” I said. “How’d you do it?”

“It wasn’t me. It was Mayor Nagin. After she saw his press conference, she turned to me and said, ‘I think we ought to go.’”

So, Thank you, Ray Nagin, for saving my mother’s life. Because while she was right and her house did not flood, she would not have survived those dark and terrible days after the storm, without air-conditioning, without lights, without food or water.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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