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New Orleans Dispatch: Isaac Is Not Katrina

I walked down Royal Street this afternoon as Hurricane Isaac approached, my husband photographing boarded up windows, a platoon of Humvees, and an abandoned bra lying in the street. Everyone’s getting in on the live coverage action. Al Roker tweeted a picture of a rosy but abandoned Cafe Du Monde; Anderson Cooper Instagrammed the sunset. Meteorologists are at the lakefront, their jackets whipping around in the wind that’s projected to hit 80 miles an hour by this morning. A dog and a moron are swimming in waves lapping at the levee.

Isaac is not Katrina: we’ve been repeating that like a mantra all week. That it’ll hit on the same calendar date seven years later is just a stupid coincidence. For one, this hurricane isn’t supposed to be as strong. We’re also receiving all sorts of assurances from the Army Corps of Engineers about how reliable the levees are, though we were hoping for some more time to test them. 

As far as I can tell, we’re preparing differently, too. We’ve learned things. I have friends with a safe room, barricaded from the inside to keep their generator dry.

And, of course, we’re handling it in ways that are more familiar: Rouse’s Supermarket chain announced that they sold a record amount of alcohol yesterday. As we stock up, a balding man in an oversized green jacket is walking up and down the aisles at the store in the French Quarter mumbling “food first” to himself. He’s either not used to food shopping, or has been told not to lay into the liquor supplies until he’s fortified nutritionally.

Getting to the grocery store, we pass by a Humvee and under a Blackhawk helicopter. Familiar Katrina sounds, but thankfully no disaster smells. Someone left a houseplant on the ground without its pot. It looks like pot. I’m not taking it home either way. 

The Food First guy asks me if a gallon and a half of water is enough to hold him over. I tell him it’s probably always best to get more. “If the power goes out, they’ll give us MREs,”— this suggests that after Hurricane Katrina, he stayed. He finds someone to give him more advice on stocking up. “You can’t go wrong with peanut butter and jelly,” a stranger says. It’s a solid suggestion.

For years after Hurricane Katrina, it felt as if New Orleans was all I could write about. Fortifying the levees, saving the wetlands, respecting the culture. Moving back to my home state of Illinois didn’t help either; I looked back so much, I would have been a pillar of salt by 2006 if this were the Old Testament. Someone recently found my blog by searching for “post Katrina lady baby.” That's how much I wrote about Katrina. We took small steps home, driving back and forth to New Orleans over the years while working with the New Orleans Musicians Relief Fund. Along the way we occasionally shared a home with Mac Rebennack, also known as Dr. John. When asked at a New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival music panel if it was true that he was back, he said he was sharing a crib with friends because “if you don’t follow your heart, you’re fucked.”

In 2005, my husband Jeff and I returned to New Orleans, and into our own place, a sturdy little Creole cottage. We didn’t think we'd have to worry about losing everything all over again, but here we are. The similarities for us between now and then are eerie. On August 29, 2005, I had a new job beginning in a week and was on vacation. When the firm called months later, they asked if I was interested in picking glass out of boxes of files. By then we had moved on. I had a job interview scheduled for yesterday; it’s been postponed to Thursday because of Isaac. My husband was halfway through producing a Twangorama CD when Katrina came through. He’s halfway through producing an album by the New Orleans musicians Micah McKee and Little Maker this time around.

I feel hopeful this time down the rabbit hole. Back home there’s a Hubig’s pie covered in ice packs, hard to find since the pie factory burned down this summer. It’s frozen solid and ready to go if worse comes to worse. Rouse’s Supermarkets has sold a record amount of liquor to residents who probably planned to leave, realized that it’s not an evacuation-mandatory situation, and checked out the pantry. I’m in that number, locating the last two $7.99 bottles of cabernet sauvignon. We’re on a budget, and you don’t want to be the person who runs out of wine with eyes glazing over at the Weather Channel.

There’s a pantry in our house full of healthy food, as well. New Orleanians can run the risk of being considered residents of an adult daycare where people aren’t aware that there’s a tropical event approaching. We’re very, very aware that something drenching this way comes, but when it accelerates we take to the rhythm of life in the tropics. It will pass. Find your friends. Drink to long life, health, all of it.

With a basket full of provisions, we head into a short line at Rouse’s with the checkout clerk who usually calls my husband “Baby.” I know from marrying a musician born and raised in the 9th Ward that everyone here is “Baby.” The store is closing at 4 p.m., and the manager says they expect a rush after 3.

On the way out of the door I hear Food First guy mumble to himself: “But I don’t like peanut butter and jelly.”