When the levee breaks, brother you got to move

If it keeps on rainin’,
 levee’s goin’ to break,
If it keeps on rainin’,
levee’s goin’ to break,
When the levee breaks
I’ll have no place to stay.


Like my older brother Mark, I didn’t think Hurricane Katrina would be much of a problem. I didn’t let it worry me, figuring it would switch course and spare New Orleans its wrath and fury.
That’s what Mark had guessed in an e-mail to friends and family that he sent out the Saturday night before the hurricane made landfall. “They never hit anyway,” he wrote.
Yet, like so many, he miscalculated the storm’s path and underestimated its devastating impact. And unlike me, my brother lives — or, more accurately, “lived” — in New Orleans.
A grad student at Tulane University, Mark had recently returned to the city after doing summer research in Mexico.
In a second e-mail on Sunday, my brother informed us that he had evacuated that morning to Biloxi, Miss., 90 miles to the east.
He noted he was still in the path of a Category 5 storm, but he was going to stay with friends of a fellow grad student in a solid structure on high ground. “So I should be fine,” he wrote.
That was the last we heard from him for two days.

Mean old levee taught me to weep and moan,
Lord, mean old levee taught me to weep and moan,
Got what it takes to make a mountain man leave his home.


I reacted by scouring the newspaper for details every spare moment I got. I called my parents each day to see if they had heard anything, but they hadn’t.
When I learned that the hurricane had veered to the east, I wondered if it wasn’t somehow following my brother. Still, I wasn’t overly worried.
After all, my sister had emerged unscathed from the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City nearly four years ago. She had just started a semester away in Long Island when the World Trade Center towers fell.
Come to think of it, all of my family except me (I wasn’t born yet) survived a freakish series of tornadoes that struck our hometown of Grand Island, Neb., in 1980. And my other brother survived a minor typhoon in Japan earlier this year.
Nonetheless, my mom began to fear the worst had happened to Mark.
“By Tuesday night, we were very worried,” she said. “He couldn’t get in touch with us, and we didn’t know anything except he had evacuated to Biloxi. At first it was a relief, then ‘Oh no,’ Biloxi got hit hard.”
On Wednesday around 9 a.m., my brother was finally able to call out. He talked briefly with my mom, who called me with the good news.
“We knew he was OK, that he had food and water, that he’d ridden out the storm, and that they had a generator,” Mom said. “All of these relieved my motherly mind.”

Cryin’ won’t help you, prayin’ won’t do you no good,
Now, cryin’ won’t help you, prayin’ won’t do you no good,
When the levee breaks, mama, you got to move.
During this time, I played the old blues song “When the Levee Breaks” over and over. The song, famously reworked by Led Zeppelin, tells of the great Mississippi flood of 1927.
John Bonham’s thunderous drum beat, Jimmy Page’s wailing harmonica and Robert Plant’s sorrowful voice had captivated me years before, and now it seemed like an appropriate soundtrack to the stories coming out of the Gulf Coast.
From what Mark told me later, however, the wind and the rain of the hurricane didn’t sound quite like that.
“It was a whooshing noise,” Mark said, likening it to a loud, low-pitched vacuum cleaner outside his door. “It was the sound of rushing wind. It pushed onward and onward and it did not stop.”
The worst part was the duration, not the strength, he said. The onslaught lasted from very early morning on Monday until mid to late afternoon.
“The more disconcerting noise was because we boarded the windows up and there was a good deal of rattling,” he added. “Debris was hitting the house occasionally.”
Once the storm passed, my brother found that he was in one of the least damaged neighborhoods in Biloxi, farther away from the ocean.
“The entire coast was flattened, but not a lot of the city,” he said. “A lot of the old mansions along the coast, you could see they were there but they were just flattened. A lot of those buildings were literally washed away by the storm surge.”
Cell phone and landline connections were down and there was no electricity, preventing any contact with the outside world for a few days.
On Labor Day weekend, after spending several days in Biloxi, my brother and his friend traveled to Lexington, Ky. My parents drove down from Nebraska, picked him up and brought him home.

All last night sat on the levee and moaned,
All last night sat on the levee and moaned,
Thinkin’ ‘bout me baby and my happy home.


“I’m really sad that the city is under water, and it has suffered so much,” Mark told me. “I really like New Orleans. I think that people that suggest that it shouldn’t be rebuilt are horrible people.
“New Orleans is a great, great historical value for our country. We should do our best to move on from the failures that led to this crisis and make up for the failures in a way that this will never happen in New Orleans again.”
Mark said that he dislikes the sensationalist press coverage, which is especially frustrating when he wants to know what has happened in his own neighborhood.
“The best information I have is not from national news,” Mark said. “National news has done a very poor job of describing different neighborhoods. They started describing the French Quarter now, because that’s what everybody outside of New Orleans wants to know about.”

Going, goin’ to Chicago,
Goin’ to Chicago,
Sorry but I can’t take you.
Going down, going down now, going down.

In the long term, the trauma may remain at some level for my brother, much like it did for my sister after her distressing experience in New York City.
“I would say the first thing I really noticed, there was a good bit of wind a few nights ago, and I felt a little more unnerved by the wind than I have before,” Mark said.
Tulane University has closed its doors this semester, but fortunately Mark was already planning to travel to Spain to do research this school year.
However, he doesn’t know when he’ll be able to return to get his belongings and his books.
He’ll have to go to Chicago to get his travel visa and contact his professors to see if he can postpone the exams he was planning to take before leaving the country.
“I don’t know how a lot of things in my life are — my car, my apartment, the process of going to Spain,” Mark said last week. “I still feel a lot of uncertainty.”





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