James Lee Burke on Hurricane Katrina:
August 29, 2005
During the night hurricane-force winds and a tidal surge had driven oceanic amounts of water up the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, nicknamed the “Mr. Go” canal, all the way through St. Bernard Parish into Orleans Parish and the low-lying neighborhoods along the Intercoastal Canal.
After sunrise, residents in the Lower Ninth Ward said they heard the explosion under the levee that held back the waters of Lake Pontchartrain.
Rumors quickly spread from house to house — either terrorists or racists were dynamiting the only barrier that prevented the entirety of the lake from drowning the mostly black population in the Lower Nine.
The rumors were of course false.
The levees burst because they were structurally weak and had only a marginal chance of surviving a category 3 storm, much less on of catergory 5 strength.
Every state emergency official knew this.
The Army Corps of Engineers knew this.
The National Hurricane Center in Miami knew this.
But apparently the United States Congress and the current administration in Washington, D.C., did not, since they had dramatically cut funding for repair of the levee system only a few months before.
From James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux Novel, The Tin Roof Blowdown, Published by Simon & Schuster
We looked out on the Manattan Skyline on 9/11/2001
I should have posted this on 9/11.
James Lee Burke’s scathing and sadly evocation of Hurricane Katrina seems especially appropriate as another Hurricane batters furiously on our shores.
Destruction on a massive scale. Who knew what when.
The scars gashed into peoples lives forever.
I thought maybe I should post this, since many may never have seen it the first time, or in its entirety.
Because time can dim the memory.
This was what I wrote and saw and felt on that day that changed the way we live.
Last night, I stayed up late.
I was working with Rich Harvey on the covers for a possible magazine devoted to Grace Bradley Boyd telling her story, in her words, and the story of one of my favorite heroes, one who influenced me most, Hopalong Cassidy.
I have often said that Hoppy was like my second father.
I can no more imagine who I would be, if Hoppy hadn’t been in my life, as I can if Robert Culp and Bill Cosby in I SPY hadn’t given such a profound love in my life and a comprehension of friendship, or if I hadn’t read Evan Hunter/Ed McBain and the 87th Precinct who influenced me more than any other writer, or Stirling Silliphant, who taught me you could write with heart and care, bleed onto the blank paper, week after week, on Route 66, or Ian Fleming, who made me aware that the more fantastic you were going to get, the more you had to keep it real.
There are other personal heroes.
But last night was a different world, already into this day that would change our lives.
About 7 am I got up to e-mail Jerry Rosenthal one of the cover Mrs. Hopalong Cassidy mock-ups. I was excited about what Rich and I had done last night and I couldn’t wait for him to see it.
My son, Rob, came into the room sometime after 9, and asked if I’d heard what had happened.
“Two planes crashed into the World Trade Center!” he told me. His voice was quietly grim.
I got up, thinking, what the hell, and remembering the plane that crashed into the Empire State Building, just as they were opening it up in the 1930s. One of the facts I still remembered during my research period on the Nathaniel Dusk series.
I came into the room about time to see flame erupt from the side of one of the Towers.
I looked at Rob. “Two planes? How the hell can two planes hit the towers?”
The immensity of what was happening had yet to hit me.
“Should I go into work, dad?” he asked. He’s a physical fitness trainer. He works wonders for people. I should have him train me.
We can see the Trade Center from Marine Park, sticking up over the trees rimming the Brooklyn perimeter, miles distant. We can see it by leaning out our window.
I have never cared for the World Trade Center aesthetically. I’ve always preferred the Empire State Building. It speaks to me in ways the World Trade Center never could.
And yet, the World Trade Center always made me aware of something almost diametrically opposed to what it was supposed to represent.
Almost every time I would see it, somehow it would say to me, this is not forever, this too will change. If Manhattan is an island of change, and it is, this building spoke to me most strongly of that change, but not just the change in the way the city would look, but that it too would become something else as time passed.
Like Rome, its time would pass.
I watched the World Trade Center crumple in on itself.
I watched the smoke mushroom out through the building.
It went straight down. Didn’t totter. Didn’t lean. Didn’t crash into other buildings.
It went down into the rising debris.
110 stories into oblivion, but you had to give its makers credit, they’d made it so it wouldn’t crash like some gigantic monolith into a domino devastation, hitting building after building.
In an instant, it was gone.
I looked at Rob. He went to the window. Leaned out to look toward Manhattan.
And where the World Trade Center had been, there was space.
The sky was a crisp blue in Brooklyn, out toward the outer edges where we were located.
Rob and I went up onto our rooftop. You can look over all of Brooklyn to the City.
You can look at the City that you love and hate, hold dear and want to embrace, make you stand still in awe and wonder or want to run for your life while there is still the time.
The City is Manhattan.
It is not Brooklyn.
It is not the Bronx.
It is not Queens.
Manhattan is what the other boroughs call The City.
The blue was bleached from the sky, by the smoke.
The smoke smeared over Brooklyn.
The sky was turning a rust color, enlargening, obliterating the blue, slowly rising in the sky while it was also slowly sinking toward the earth, spreading out toward us.
Rob said he felt he could smell burned flesh in the smoke.
I had tears in my eyes for this building that had always spoken to me of impermanence.
I was right.
And I wished I’d been wrong.
To know a thing, intellectually, is one thing. To know it, emotionally, another.
Marsha was stuck in the city. There was concern the building she was in might be a target.
Rob wanted to get to her. He’s 22. He’s wants to do it, and do it now.
I told him we had to have a plan, because I’m not 22 anymore. We’d never get into Manhattan, wouldn’t get near it.
If we had to take any major thru-way, we were screwed.
The 59th Street bridge seemed the best bet. I can hear Paul Simon singing, “Slow down, you move too fast…”
There are images on the T.V. of people by the thousands trudging over the bridge.
Lower Manhattan looks the way I recall photos of Dresden after being bombed. Smoke and debris.
The world turned to rubble and ashes.
Jim Salicrup calls to say Marsha can stay with Paulette.
Marsha hears the trains are running and she’s going to get back into Brooklyn.
I’m waiting for her call.
Waiting for wherever she can get to on this side of the Hudson.
Waiting to go pick her up.
I love heroes.
I always have.
Jim once said to me, “You really believe what you write, don’t you, Don?”
I may not always live up to it, but yes.
We looked out over the Manhattan skyline this morning. It was changed. The people who will mourn their loved ones, their lives have been changed.
In their personal lives, forever. No impermanence in this. This will always be in the memory. This will always be the sharp stab in the heart when remembered.
To all of you, thanks for being here.
To all out there with loss unendurable, for the heroes in the thick of the debris and blood and pain, I wish I had the words to convey what I feel for all of you.
And since that day – over the years
When you travel over the arch of the Manhattan Bridge, you see the distant tiny torch of the Statue Of Liberty, and the empty space where the World Trade Center had been.
It is a visual emptiness, a haunting reminder, that stabs its absence and its consequences in your head. Oddly enough, it is more noticeable in the gray night sky, in the absence of skyscraper window lights.
Right now storms are lashing into Texas and Louisiana, ripping and tearing apart the structure of wherever they hit.
If you are lucky, you will never have to endure the memory.
And all people of heart will yearn for the safety of those who are in harm’s way.