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Text Message in a Bottle

Discovering text messaging helped one New Orleanian deal with the uncertainty caused by Hurricane Katrina.

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"R u ok."

On Sunday, August 28th, that text message reminded me that my cell phone had that function. I was in Brooklyn, having left New Orleans the previous Thursday to work on a story. As Hurricane Katrina neared, the 504 area code became impossible to call, so the phone seemed useless. The message from a friend, who had left town to ride out the storm in Kentucky, reminded me of text messaging, which I had previously dismissed as a toy for teenagers with the time to compose rebus-like messages by cycling through the letters on the keypad. Somehow, those messages worked when the phones were otherwise down. Now, I want a Blackberry.

Once I received that message, I started working my way through my address book, sending short, equally terse messages to friends. To a great degree, texting friends was a way to deal with helplessness. Systematically sending inquiries to friends made me feel like I was doing something to make the situation better. More importantly, I hoped the messages could answer the basic questions: How is my house? Where are my friends?

I slowly discovered that the answers to the second question were Baton Rouge, Lake Charles, Jackson, Houston, Nashville, and Memphis. One friend had even gone on tour with the Drive-By Truckers. The first question was more difficult to answer because the network stories were image-driven, so they aired dramatic photos no matter how poorly they told the story. At times, they even distorted the situation, particularly when scenes of traffic passing through Baton Rouge were represented as traffic in New Orleans.

More to the point, though, the cable networks didn't talk about my neighborhood, Uptown, five minutes by bike from Tipitina's. At some point, I realized that was a good thing. If the grand mansions on St. Charles Avenue and in the Garden District were flooding, that would be as appealing and dramatic to the news outlets as scenes of helicopter rescues. Still, I wanted to know, so I texted a friend who was staying in his mother's place a few minutes from my house. His reply Monday: "Have not heard from dad. His house should be underwater by now. Yours fine. Could not get in 2 feed cats." His father turned up Wednesday night in Baton Rouge, but that message didn't bring much comfort, despite the reassurance about my house.

As friends checked in, they reassured me that mutual friends were in Lafayette and on their way to Nashville and Delaware, and really, that's what I needed to know as much as the condition of my home. My home is as much the people who pass through it as the physical space.

In my obsessive text messaging and scrutinizing of nola.com and wwltv.com, what I really wanted was information about my future. Just as a racing form presents stats that seem to contain the key to who will win a race if you just know how to interpret them, it felt like somewhere in all of these postings and messages must be a clue as to what comes next. So far, though, it hasn't worked.

Now, a few days later, I text less obsessively, and I've stopped reading the forums. My house was dry and intact as of Wednesday, and I don't expect looters unless they're done with the bigger, richer houses on more prestigious streets. I know where everyone I love is, and we call each other and friends' and families' homes, exchanging the deadening truths of our situations. I don't even have a question that will produce an answer to help me know the future.

The anxiety involved in living like this is exhausting. I've moved on to acceptance, though sometimes that feels more like resignation. Today in a Kmart, my wife and I bought new swimsuits, lifelessly; we have suits we like, but they're in New Orleans. I don't want more underwear; I have plenty but they're in my house. I don't want to live somewhere else; I love my city and my home. I'm just not sure they exist anymore.

Alex Rawls is the music editor of New Orleans' Gambit Weekly, which has temporarily ceased publication since Hurricane Katrina hit.

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