What distinguishes 28-year-old Evan Wolf from the rest of us, even from his fellow denizens of the now devastated Big Easy, is the extent to which he experienced all of these particulars personally and directly from last Sunday morning, when, as an affiliate of the National Guard, he volunteered his services at the Superdome, just then being established as a prospective haven for those left behind, to Wednesday night, when -- exhausted and traumatized but in a curious way enlarged and exhilarated he reached Memphis , some 350 miles away from the shattered land he left behind, concluding a desperate Odyssey.
THE TERM "ODYSSEY" is no literary embellishment. Though there was the occasional Lotus Land of relief bizarrely enough, a famous downtown bar called Miss Mays was open briefly on Monday, the day after Katrina had struck, serving cocktails with ice at a dollar a drink most of the experience corresponded to the other chapters of Homers epic. Overriding all was the transformation of the famous, charming landscape of New Orleans into a facsimile of the Ruins of Troy. On Sunday night, as the Superdome was battered by the first torrential gales, it became a Cave of the Winds. The outside city itself would become a virtual Hades, suffused with a river Styx of human remains and unspeakable other refuse. Wolf found himself at one point in a darkened Wal-Mart, an Underworld populated by looters and throbbing with the presence of unseen dangers. There was even a moment, as he waded through the dark and reeking waters in search of a way out, when Wolf saw his Cyclops the blinking green light of an emergency vehicle down the distance of devastated St. Charles Street.
But taken as myth or simply as literal experience, it was a near-primeval struggle for survival. As Wolf, a nine-year resident of the city and Tulane graduate, recounted the tale, a day after his arrival in Memphis, it went something like this:
On Sunday, he and his roommates, veterans of scores of bad-weather warnings over the years, had decided to ride Katrina out. They lived in a vintage building (c. 1880) on high ground downtown, four blocks from the Mississippi River with its embellished natural levees. As a military reservist who was in the act of transferring his status from a Navy unit (where he was a Lt. J.G.) to an Army unit located at Carville, La., Wolf went down to the Superdome via motorcycle to offer his services to the various military, paramilitary, police, and emergency units involved in setting up shelter facilities inside. Though he was operating without official admission into a given unit, he had interim military ID and was quickly involved in triage efforts, separating serious evacuation-worthy medical cases from others, and at first the main problem was from pushy TV weather reporters, who got in the way of the Guardsmen and others so they could pose in the wind for the camera.
Late Sunday night, I decided to get some sleep. I hadnt got much the night before as wed stayed up late securing the house. I crawled up as high in the Superdome as I could and lay down on a concrete stairwell. I woke up, hearing the most horrendous noise Id ever heard like screeching metal mixed with the howling of the wind. It sounded like God trying to claw His way in to get to us. There were some 15,000 mainly poor, mainly black citizens in the shelter at this point. Later, at about 5 or 6 in the morning, chunks had started to tear off from the roof, just blowing away in the wind. We could see dark sky through the roof of the Superdome, and the rain starting come in. People would scream every time a big chunk got blown off and the water poured in after it.
By sometime between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Monday, the initial storm had passed, and the city itself, according to the reports Wolf heard via battery-operated radio, had missed most of the impact. The power was out, however. There was some water in the streets, and more, it was said, in outlying areas, so Wolf rode his erratically operating Honda motorcycle home where he found minimal damage. Hed lost some shingles, but his home generator was working, and he had food and water. Meanwhile, though, he discovered that his roommates not themselves involved in emergency-management efforts had taken advantage of the lull and, acting on Wolf's advice, left town.
WOLF WENT LOOKING FOR A BOAT to commandeer for the search-and-rescue efforts to come. It was then that he noticed groups of looters at a distance, five or six at a time, young guys, some of them armed, carrying handguns or knives or bats. Just in case, Wolf was armed with a .38 revolver in a side holster himself. It was on this errand that he stopped by Miss Mays on Napoleon Boulevard, where the bar was open. Back at the Superdome he attempted to tell some of the service personnel he had encountered about the location of an available boat. At this point, though I was armed, I was not in uniform, and they were very suspicious. Besides, there was very poor communication between the various branches, most of whom had been trying to communicate with suddenly inoperable cell phones. National Guard, Superdome hands, FEMA people, and the Fire Department and Police Department personnel all were in wrangles about simple issues like how to unload material.
Wolf would spend that night back in his apartment. As it turned dark, he observed. In one sense it was beautiful, the stars were visible, the storm had sucked all the clouds away. Nobody had seen the Milky Way like that in a hundred years. It was like being up at the boundary waters in Canada. You could see clearly for miles.
Out again on Tuesday morning, things, Wolf learned, had taken a decided turn for the worse. There was word of severely broken levees, and water was beginning to rise, but it was still unclear just how dire things would become. But Wolf had seen enough to decide that he, like his roommates before him, needed to try to find a way out of town. But he needed a workable battery for his pickup truck, which had been stalled for days. . There was an auto parts store on Claiborne, and he decided to try to get there.
About halfway there the flood waters were getting neck and chest high. I was in some very poor black neighborhoods where a lot of people were stranded, looking desperate. As I somehow waded closer to Claiborne, I saw bodies floating, and the water I was in I realized was very foul. It had sewage in it, it had gasoline in it, it had rotting bodies of dogs and cats and, I realized with horror, humans in it. I consider myself a pretty bad mother-fucker, but Im not going to go swimming in dead-body water just to get to a battery that may or may not be there
I TURNED AROUND and decided I would try a Wal-Mart on Tchopitoulas . I got there about twilight to find just a total scene of chaos. There was a lone Police department officer there trying to warn people about going inside. Eventually he left to go somewhere else. . The storm shutters and front doors had all been torn open, and I went inside with just my flashlight. It was straight out of a zombie movie or a post-apocalyptic nightmare. The entire store was pitch black. You could only see what little bit that was lit up by your flashlight. And Wal-Mart is very large, a couple of acres. Everything was torn up. You had to crawl over large piles of boxes and trash and discarded things. There was blood on the floor. Somebody had obviously been killed or beaten severely there. Everything had been broken into.
While I was in there I sensed there were other people in there. I saw a couple of other flashlights in the distance. And, even scarier, there I was alone in there and I heard people in there without a flashlight. Occasionally Id hear footsteps or breathing. You have to wonder at that point: Is this someone else looking for some water, or is this somebody who escaped from the New Orleans Parish Prison or somebody whos strung out. I was trying to stay away from these people. I wasnt familiar with Wal-Mart, and I really didnt have any idea whether they had automotive or where it was. Wal-Marts attorneys would have had to look me up, they could contact me if they wanted to. The story was destroyed already. It had obviously been criminally looted. All the digital cameras were missing, all the electronics were missing, the things you were not stealing in order to survive. After Id been in there searching about half an hour, NOPD showed up, on a re-supply mission of their own. They came in and immediately were very aggressive. They knew there were other people in there. They came in and announced they were NOPD, they had flashlights and, obviously, firearms.
And they were saying, Get the fuck out of here, were going to shoot anyone we see! Move, Move, move! They started screaming, and everybody else rabbited. I (a) still hadnt found a battery and (b) didnt want to get shot as a looter, I approached them very carefully with my hands up and my ID out and said, Look. Im a National Guardsman. Ive been separated from my unit. Im not here to steal electronics. Im looking for a battery so I can get out of town. Or be of some use. They at that point said Okay. They relaxed, and I assisted them in finding dry socks, batteries, water, hip-waders. There was a foreboding sight. We went through sporting goods and noticed that all the guns and knives at Wal-Mart had been stolen. Which was like some literary function: Its a lot scarier to imply danger than to show it. And we knew then by virtue of carrying this small arsenal Wal-Mart had assisted in arming a fair number of looters. I never found a car battery. The NOPD left, I went home.
WOLF WOULD SPEND one more night at home that Tuesday night, operating still with a workable generator. I had food, and I was armed. I even did some reading by candle and flashlight. The books: Locked in the Cabinet by Robert Reich and Hells Angels by Hunter S. Thompson. By now he had learned just how bad the flooding had become and the fact that only one exit, via Interstate 10 West, was open. Before dawn he left, resolved to find a stranded car to hotwire and escape with.
He found an untended white van and hotwired it, after first breaking down the steering column to gain access to the wiring. I managed to get it started, reinstalled the steering column, drove back to my house, grabbed some water, some extra rounds, my digital camera, a toothbrush, and hopped back in the van. Only one headlight was working on the vehicle, as Wolf maneuvered it onto River Road, following the high ground toward 10-West. All those years growing up playing video games was perfect training. It was the most intense real-life video game Id ever played. Every block was a different challenge. Power lines were always in the way at windshield level. I had to hope they werent cables, because I kept going through him and they kept popping off. There were trees down in the road. I had to make a decision quickly, whether to go right lane, left lane, or up in someones yard. Things were in the road: Was that a person sleeping? Was that a body? Or just trash? Was that a soft tree that I can just bash through, or a heavy oak thats gong to bash this van and leave me stranded here As he drove, he could see clumps of looters firing at each other.
Eventually he found himself on I-10. His was the only vehicle headed in the opposite direction. Along the way he passed a caravan of a couple hundred trucks, all towing flat-bottom boats. Eventually he found himself going north on I-55. I think I made it as far as the Mississipp8i border before the van broke down. Then I had to abandon it and start hitchhiking. He found some scrap paper by the roadside and with a Sharpie which had been in the abandoned van, he wrote a sign: ANYWHERE AWAY FROM KATRINA.
It was while thumbing through Mississippi in the earning morning of Wednesday, that Wolf, who had been in a bubble of catastrophe, first realized how widespread the emergency was. I hitched a ride with about six different cars, which I encountered at this or that gas station. Everybody was looking for gas, and there was little or none. There was no power anywhere until we got to Jackson. Most of the time I rode with people who were loaded up with their possessions trying to get the hell away.
WHEN HE REACHED GRENADA, MISSISSIPPI, WOLF was finally able to rent a car, the last one, I think, from an Enterprise agency. It was a new black shiny Pontiac Grand Prix. He drove the rest of the way to Memphis, ending up late Wednesday night at the Chickasaw Gardens home of Kenneth Neill, an old family friend and father of one of Wolf's onetime Tulane classmates.
The next day Wolf journeyed to suburban Millington, site of a Naval support base, where he managed to get outfitted in proper uniform and gear to return to New Orleans to try once more to hook up with a Guard unit and assist in rescue efforts. I love that city, he said. And, more than that, Ive got a sense of duty to respond. I didnt feel like I was doing enough before. And you can tell from how catastrophically inept the emergency responses were in this case that were stretched thin. Not just militarily, with so many Guard units committed to Iraq, but psychologically, medically, economically, even morally.
The experience has even convinced Wolf to seek some future-tense involvement in politics much in the way that 9/11 caused a wave of enlistments in the military. But this crisis, the one were in now, has too many corners. It wont be resolved without rethinking our whole internal position and position in the world. Weve got a void of leadership and know-how, and weve got to start filling in the blanks whenever and wherever we can. New Orleans gives us a place to start.
And with that, headed due south again on Saturday, Evan Wolf began yet another chapter of his odyssey.