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Stewart McKinsey Musician, New Orleans 09/14/05

(Editor's Note: Stewart McKinsey sent this written account to Alive in Truth, and generously allowed it to be posted.)

I left my place for the Superdome at 6PM on Sunday, the night before Hurricane Katrina made landfall. The day had been spent fielding calls and email from dozens of people who were increasingly frantic to have me leave. The problem was I didn't have money or gas. I also had no way to get either. On top of that, there was not a shelter I could find that was taking animals and my dog, Jaxon, had saved my life twice. Finally it was made clear that no one else saw dying with my dog in the same light as I did and that it was going to hurt everyone in my life if I stayed with him and died.

Once I had resolved to go and did everything I could to make sure Jaxon had food and water for several days, the trip to the Superdome only took a few minutes. There were almost no cars on the road and the wind and rain weren't yet too bad. Military and emergency vehicles were clogging the entrance, so I parked on a nearby street and walked up. It was 6:15 or 6:20 by the time I found the end of the line. It took two hours to reach the front, but several were sent to the back for obstreperous or mob inciting behavior. My few possessions were searched and I was patted down. A pair of screwdriver heads were pulled from my keyring and my nail clippers were confiscated, but I was let through and directed toward guardsmen who were in charge of seating us. I dropped into what I thought would be my home for the next day or 2 around 9PM.

Short speeches were delivered by those managing the situation. A few rules were laid out for everyone to follow and thanks were made to the Superdome staff and the National Guard. It was mentioned in passing what would happen if we lost power, and that we could be here 4 or 5 days. Really I think everyone was just glad to be sitting and out of the rain. I can't swear to anyone else's thoughts but I was pretty sure we'd be there overnight, possibly 'til Tuesday morning.

None of us knew that would be the last time anyone in a position of authority would speak with us.

Getting our meals that first night was pretty chaotic. A man just ahead of me, as we were finally within sight of the soldiers handing out food and water, suffered a seizure and everyone tried to keep him safe, to make him comfortable until the medics arrived. We waited until he started coming around then resumed our march toward sustenance. We were all surprised by how good the MRE (Meal, Ready to Eat ­ meal in a bag) supplies were. I wasn't too hungry and only ate my molasses cookie and drank my water.

Sleep in the stadium, in the seats that had never been designed for it, was fitful, but it did come in short doses. When the power went out and we lost lights for a few seconds, a roar passed through the crowd and woke me. I drifted in and out of sleep but was woken again around 6:30AM when water started coming through the roof. All of us not sheltered by the next level of seating migrated up to where it was dry. Well, drier. The next day we were told that most of the steel roof had been ripped away.

I saw a guy stretched out on the ground along a guardrail and he seemed to be sleeping pretty well. It looked like a good idea so I set my sleeping bag down as a pillow, stretched out on my back against the rail and rested my few possessions on my belly. I was out almost immediately. I dreamt about my dog, alone and terrified, and kept starting awake.

It turns out I slept thought breakfast. Since I had almost my entire meal from the night before I didn't mind. The water would have been nice, but I was safe from the storm and it didn't seem right to complain. There were two families near me and watching them was a great comfort, especially as we were abutting Section 133, which had been designated for special needs individuals and their families. The elderly in wheelchairs were pushed by every few minutes and I watched a woman walk her retarded adult son past several times.

Getting dinner on Monday was much more orderly. As the storm had essentially passed, there was a feeling we'd be out and back home the following day. I sat in my concrete niche, picked and chose from my 2 meal packets what I would eat and what I would save for lunch the following day. As I nursed my water, a section of ceiling pipe nearby burst from storm water which had accumulated inside it. The noise and suddenness shocked us and added to the slimy soup covering the concrete floors. Luckily no one was injured and the people who had been beneath it wedged into a section of floor at the base of a stairwell.

With the worst of the rain past, I gathered my few things and started hunting up something slightly more comfortable than the floor. I noticed no one had moved back to the unprotected sections, the places under the failing roof of the Superdome. Row 31 in Section 119 looked good and I put my stuff down. I picked at my food then worked on a couple of letters as the day wore on. With the auxiliary lights running on natural gas powered generators and a grey sky filtering through the 3 enormous holes in the roof, it looked like twilight and it became very hard to gauge the passage of time. We were in a vacuum. A time warp. When fatigue finally caught up with me I tried a few positions and eventually found a way to balance myself on my side and stretch across 4 seats. I could use one arm as a sort of bungee cord in case my balance went in my unconscious state. I got almost 2 hours of uninterrupted sleep. Bliss.

Come breakfast I opted out of food and was given a second bottle of water instead. I was pleased when I got back to my seat and settled in to write some more. My brother and my friend, the recipients of my letters, are very different people and scribbling to them concurrently let me describe different aspects of everything that was going on, both around me and within me. I haven't read either letter, but I don't think either was uplifting.

Then things took a horrible turn.

A woman stood up behind me and began screaming, upset and inconsolable. The body of a little girl had been found in one of the men's rooms. She had been raped.

How after everything could this happen? What would inspire such absolute horror in our closed community? This had not even begun to sink in when we were hit with the news that survivors were being flown in and that the dead were being fished from the water. Someone said that they were lining the bodies up on the walkway outside. At this point only smokers were being allowed out and then only on one place and for a few minutes at a time.

Things began to shift subtly at that point and over the coming hours. As the playing field was opened to those who had been rescued, others made their way down, too. These weren't escorted by military and EMS, they were the younger among us who had been pent up. They began to run and play on the field that normally hosted the Saints or Tulane's Green Wave. The stands were filled with those who wanted stillness, calm and rest. I was in that number and we sat mostly quiet, drifting between observation and shallow sleep. The halls and bathrooms were peopled by the dissatisfied, who complained about everything from the horrible treatment to all manner of conspiracy theory, laying blame for everything or trying to figure who might be profiting from all this.

Some people had been smart enough to bring transistor radios in and were able to eventually find some AM stations. None of the normal network or independent broadcasters were able to use their towers and so a loose coalition had been formed. They called themselves The United Radio Broadcasters of New Orleans and had changed the format to all talk radio, taking calls from anyone who could call in. Some were people trapped in their houses. Others were individuals who had been told to leave hospitals and to alert someone that there were patients and staff still there. Many were those who had reached the safety of outlying areas and wanted to know if anyone had heard of or from their friends and families. A few of those who made the airwaves were actually city and parish officials. They pleaded for help from the federal government and warned that they would have to give the remaining police officers orders to shoot looters if things didn't calm down. We heard about fires being lit which would not be fought without water or water pressure. Hour after hour we listened to people crying, confused and unsure of what to do. We heard rumors. We heard anger.

I began writing a third letter, this one to the wife who'd left me months before. This was the strangest because I didn't write the things I'd expected I would, the thousand thousand things I would have shared if we were still a couple. Instead I found myself scrawling a farewell, something we'd never had.

Dinner was as different as everything else. We knew food would be served at 5PM and began to line up an hour early. Tensions were higher. They didn't start serving at 5:00. The hallways crowded and grew noisy. We began to sweat. We began to move, suddenly and quickly. We moved right past the kiosk that had been the food distribution hub and saw that our line and the line coming from the other hallway were funneling into one and moving upstairs. Hundreds of us bottlenecked into a narrow passage and we lost all momentum. Then we were told to make way for a pair of forklifts which needed to roll past us down the ramp. A woman was trampled and began to wail. Once the heavy machinery had cleared out we were pressed ­ shoved ­ together. The temperature spiked (it felt as if it doubled) in seconds. Tempers flared as patience evaporated. Children in our midst looked up to their parents with huge eyes and silently cried.

When we finally reached the second story, the loge level, we were greeted by soldiers carrying submachine guns. They told us to form a single file line. The process was neither neat nor easy, but we eventually got our food and returned to the arena. On my way back I passed a woman speaking in tongues.

By this time radio reports were growing more consistent, more cohesive. To this point the only thing anyone had agreed upon, at least as far as we were hearing, was that the water was rising and no one knew where it was coming from. It started to dawn on us that we weren't leaving any time soon.

The three tiers grew dramatically more extreme. Play on the field was getting more frenzied and was garnering applause from a small crowd. The stands were hushed but for crying children and parents comforting or chiding them. The corridors were rife with unrest. We were all exhausted, all sad.

That night I improved on my sleeping position and actually managed to wedge myself under 3 armrests and increase the efficiency of the arm-bungee so that I could lay on my back. The concrete beneath me was still slick with an oleo of refuse and sorrow. I managed to have my first dream not filled with images of my terrified, abandoned dog.

I was woken by screaming. A woman had run out of meds and her cabin fever had blossomed into full manic paranoia. She wanted help but at the same time not to be touched, needed people not to approach her from behind. Tears streaming down her agonized face she moaned, 'If ya gonna kill me, let me see ya face!'

Stifling heat and humidity washed over me with my returning consciousness. It was the worst yet. Sun lit the huge gaps in the roof, but it was too early to stream through. The breakfast line had already formed but I elected to skip it altogether. Over the next several hours I did not see the line move. There were murmurs that the food was all gone, but I saw children with unopened MRE's and bottles of water. I don't know what the truth was. I was too hot and tired to investigate.

A few things became clear as the day dragged on in its timeless crawl. It would be at least 6 weeks to pump out the water and start rebuilding the city's infrastructure. New Orleans had been devastated by what was being called the worst natural disaster in the country's history. We were told that buses were coming to take us to Houston, to the Astrodome. Then we heard that it would likely be at least 16 weeks before we could return to our homes.

By nightfall, however, spirits were on the rise even among the military. The thought that we might get out brought the emotional-psychological equivalent of an exhale and a smile to us all. One woman began to thank God, all but chanting her gratitude. All seemed calmer.

For a while.

Late in the evening or early in the morning there was the sound of glass shattering. Soon after gun shots rang out. Sometime after that I was startled awake by a commotion on the field -- I looked down to see large parts of the crowd there running from something I couldn't spot. This was repeated. Twice.

I rose into complete disorientation before sunrise to the sight of smoke spreading through the stadium. No one seemed particularly worried and the breakfast line was undisturbed. The stench from the bathrooms had by now spread beyond the hallways and down into the stands. People began filing outside en masse. A handful of us held our seats, waiting for some definitive word from the military.

By Thursday morning the Superdome bore only the most superficial resemblance to the place I arrived on Sunday night. It reminded me of the aftermath of the riots in L.A. back in '92. Reports trickled in that people in the streets were storming the buses which were supposed to evacuate us.

For the better part of an hour in the thick heat and humidity, I watched a man tend a fire on the 8-yard line of the field. Later on I saw a young man walking around with an impressive camera taking composed pictures. He looked clean. For the first time my own feelings and thoughts grew dark: How much food and water could there be left? How many more days and nights could I take here? Did they really plan on evacuating us? I thought again of how I should have stayed home with my dog. At least I could have finally watched the video of my wedding and died on my own terms.

But thought is fleeting as anything else in this life and I soon turned to concern over my family, my friends. I even smiled that my wife had called to tell me to clear out. I imagined the Astrodome as a magical place with showers and working bathroom facilities. By Thursday morning I was thoroughly oily and felt like I'd been dipped in wax.

People had finally turned to scavenging and anger was much less restricted to individuals and isolated pockets.

I had the great fortune of meeting Lionel and his family. We shared a similar outlook on things and found easy conversation. As the hours crawled and lines began to form for the then-fictional buses we hung out and even found some laughs. It was intensely humanizing and just what the spirit needed.

By 6PM additional military personnel had arrived and we were all pushed outside. We watched and watched from the spot we chose to hunker down near gate C but saw no progress in the Astrodome line. Around 3:30AM the sky lit red once, twice, and an enormous thundering sound rang out. By 6AM it was obvious that something beyond the Dominion and the Hyatt had blown and caught fire.

By 7AM the evacuation line still hadn't moved.

Then things changed again. Many of us had heard Ray Nagin's impassioned and less than politically correct comments from the previous day's interview with Garland Robinette. After airing it repeatedly on multiple channels -- in its uncensored entirety! -- along with mention of our Commander-in-Chief's failure to cut his vacation short for two days after he got the reports of Hurricane Katrina's effects, the president finally began to throw some muscle (and troops, and supplies, and transportation) our way.

Spirits lifted and children began to play in the fast evaporating but suddenly abundant water. After ignoring the sickly little dog and her brand new pups nearby, food and water were provided for the exhausted canine so she could suckle her little ones. Hearing the littlest of the newborns yip excitedly made me think again of my own abandoned dog.

But I realized that I had come to terms with a lot of things in my life. I knew what was important. I understood that I can expect the worst while hoping for the best. It was very clear that things I might have once considered all-consuming, life-and-death matters no longer rated. So much of what I had casually preached I would now practice. So much more of the Buddha's message took on reality. All the abstract scenarios and musings were nothing to the factual truth.

I owe a lot of that clarity to Lionel who had been through Hurricane Betsy nearly 40 years before and had lost everything then. He said simply, 'You can begin again. And again. And again.'

While so many had screamed their panic and frustration, the father of 3 and husband of 38 years steered his family and this stranger calmly through the storm of the century. He turned away from no conversation and spewed nothing negative into the volatile mix around us.

His remarkable family (except for his eldest who lives out of state with his own family) welcomed me and let me pass the time with them. While her Lionel and sons slept around us, his wife Lucy got me smiling and laughing for hours with her amazing stories, of how she had met Lionel by accident, of how she had survived a heart attack and cranial surgery, of her joy at being a planner of bingo weekends. I could not believe the quiet dignity and grace of this whole family. I was so honored by their kindness, generosity, and calm.

By late afternoon everything was starting to really move. By early evening we were pushed into the evac line (which was finally working!). As the sun set and we could only see helicopters by the lights on their underside, we knew we were going to leave. The last 30 or 40 yards were littered with all the debris that people had decided to do without before they got to the buses, everything from corn chips in sealed bags to large pieces of furniture and baby strollers helped to divide our 5 lines into the New Orleans Center. There's no way to explain how good it felt to wade through flood water to reach the bus. I was unconscious before we reached the interstate.

I don't know how long we traveled before I was woken by the bus coming to a stop. As my mind cleared it was explained that St. Martin's Parish wanted to give us some food and clothes as well as things to help those with babies. I had a banana, a plate of sausage and rice (cooked!!), and my first cold water in 5 days. When I saw the clothes arrayed for us to peruse and people offering to help ­ thanking US!! ­ I felt my first tears coming. Even with my blurry vision I could tell that there were dozens like me, amazed and grateful and speechless and so glad. There were so many worse off than me that I couldn't take any more than my food and water, but I sucked in as much clean air as my lungs would take before returning to the bus. I was out again as soon as the roadgoing behemoth was in motion.

It could have been 10 minutes or a week when we stopped again. More food and generosity. My hot dog in barbeque sauce and ice water were probably the best I could remember. I didn't wake again until the sun had been in the sky for a while and we were pulling into Mesquite, Texas. I'd been there before on various trips around the country, but seeing familiar names and street signs gave me a strange feeling. It took a few seconds to realize that I was holding my breath and grinning like an idiot.

From here things became miraculous. The universe spun 180 degrees on its axis. Everyone carrying a gun was smiling and no one was yelling. We stayed for a few hours, catching our breath and trying to recall this world we hadn't seen in...how long? We were sent to McKinney, Texas to open arms, fresh showers, clothes, fresh fruit, sodas, lights, air conditioning, and sunlight. We were asked so many questions and all I could think to say most of the time was, 'Thank you' and 'I'm fine.' When I was sent to see a medic and I removed my boots and socks for the first time in recent memory, a fair amount of skin came away with the footwear. My feet were a color I had never seen (fish belly white, in the words of an old friend), had taken a new shape (closely mimicking the interior of the aforementioned boots), and possessed an odor I hope never to revisit. In that moment I could not have cared less. The people around me did not find me as repugnant as I felt: They simply wanted to help. What could I possibly complain about?

Everyone was apologizing to us for all we had been through and all I could think was how absolutely glad I was to be alive. When we were brought to the shelter, it was truly amazing. The gathering at Crosspoint Church were so sweet and thoughtful that it made the previous 6 days (had it really only been 6 days?) seem like a bad dream. I kept getting choked up, even when people made small talk.

After a bit someone came to tell me that my family had been reached on the phone. I shot right into another kind of time warp. I don't remember walking or answering any of the questions being asked of me, but these things happened. When the receiver was put in my hand and I heard my father's voice come down the line, I knew I was coming back to reality. When my mother took over the conversation, I let her know that I was fine, that she should take a breath, that she didn't have to cry. I'm not sure how long it was before I realized that I was crying, too.

Hearing from my family all the calls that had come, all that my friends had done and said, drove home how impossibly lucky I am. Words will never prove adequate tools to convey the extremes of emotion and experience that 6 days have seen. When we were processed in the first way station, were fed, given medical treatment, and given clothes before we were taken for showers, the man next to me nodded back into the gymnasium behind us. I turned to see what he was watching with a smile. Three children were chasing each other and laughing, oblivious to everything that had happened, that they had been through. He said, 'That's what I want to see. The little ones are happy.'

And that's what this all comes down to: Life. Adversity and suffering are transitory. Life is about love and hope and possibility. It's present and future and being able to appreciate the past that brought you to them.

My life is changed and I am a different person for all this. I hope that I am a better one. I hope that the lessons I have learned will always be with me.


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