On November 2, 2004, I stood among other American expats outside an Irish pub in Paris, watching the election results come in. A haze of cigarette smoke hung over the sidewalk, and we sipped at our Jameson, and everyone around me got angrier as each state was called. I wandered through the mist, displeased. I had stood in line at the American consulate to send in my absentee ballot (returned to me later marked “address unknown,” though the envelope was pre-printed by the government) and did not want another Bush term. But the year before I had held one of the First Daughters’ hair back in the bathroom at an after-party at Yale, and the next year I planned to go to the Sorbonne. Meanwhile, I was riding around Paris on the back of my salsa-dancing boyfriend’s motorcycle, writing a novel fueled by two-euro wine. I was not panicked, even for my country. Everything was going to be fine.
I returned to the US to get my student visa in order a month before Katrina hit. I made friends with a girl from Lyon, polished my manuscript. On the morning of August 28th, I woke up to the smell of frying bacon and thought, Oh, good. We’re not evacuating. Everything is going to be fine. Then I heard the sound of a hammer: my father was nailing plywood to the windows to save them from the wind. On our way out of town, as small tornadoes formed on the lake just beside the bridge, the girl from Lyon huddled in the backseat, losing command of her English.
I remember it wrong. Instead of George W. Bush peering out of the window of Air Force One as he flew over a flooded New Orleans on his way back from vacation on August 31st, I see him reading a book to school children, as he did while the towers fell. I remember Gov. Katherine Blanco’s refusal to allow aid to enter Louisiana as a caution ribbon wrapped around the state and tied in a big yellow bow. I find in myself a perverse pity for Ray Nagin, sentenced to ten years in jail for corruption; I imagine him huddled in a locked hotel room, in full blown nervous breakdown, as the city he was responsible for filled up like a bowl.
What I do remember clearly: The Jefferson Parish police standing in the middle of Crescent City Connection, shooting over the heads of those trying to cross the river to safety. The crowds waiting in the heat outside of the Convention Center for buses that did not come. The multi-part story in the Times Picayune that told us in advance that the levees were underbuilt, that the storm was inevitable. I remember who we neglected, who we feared, what we called them. But most of all, I remember that we did nothing, because everything was going to be fine.