Keeping Vigil during Hurricane Isaac

Remember how, when you were young, and you left your friend’s house across the street as dusk was setting in, and her/his mama watched until you were safely inside your own? How you felt protected by that gaze, even though your pace quickened, and you were scared by any little noise? That’s the kind of mama-vigil I’m keeping for friends and relatives in the path of Hurricane Isaac, which is on a collision course with New Orleans, seven years to the day since Katrina’s winds and water did battle with the levees built of Play Doh by the Corps of Engineers.

We know how that turned out: the levees were not breached but rather undermined, flooding 80% of the 350 square miles of the city’s footprint. This, despite collaborative studies accurately predicting–to the letter–seven years before that went utterly unheeded. Federal incompetency Number One. Local incompetency Number One: there was no plan to evacuate those who had no means to do so. Followed by five days of incompetency on all governmental levels, along with lies, distortions, and more than 1,300 unnecessary deaths, ripping off the mask of polite equality to reveal the racist and classist underpinnings of society. Followed by a breakdown in the fabric of civilization of that beloved city and surrounding parishes. 

That was back home. Meanwhile, in Newton Hospital in Massachusetts, my younger daughter Carisa was in labor with her first child, a labor that took more than 24 hours, and I was keeping vigil with her. (She had a boy, Ellis, named after Ellis Marsalis.) She knew nothing of the hurricane; I made sure of that. Her father, never one to make himself accessible, was still alive then, and worrying about him would only add to her burden. There was an empty labor room next to hers, and I’d steal away to watch CNN for bits and pieces, horrified and shocked by what I saw. There was no way to keep up with relatives and friends; there was no way I could let them know I was watching, doubled over in grief with them, no way for them to contact me. I’d return to her room and soothe her in the ways I was accustomed to doing. 

Now, there’s Facebook, and as long as power holds in batteries and cell phones, as long as access to the internet is available, the larger community is united. I’d like to think that my vigil in some way helps; it’s not hubristic of me–I don’t fancy myself an erstwhile Our Lady of Prompt Succor (the city’s patroness) to stave off another disaster. Rather, it’s the protective gaze that let’s them know someone outside the situation cares and bares witness. It allows them to have virtual hugs in the midst of mind-and-body exhaustion, the toxic stew of cortisol that makes each noise, each gust of wind, each crack of a limb, each stab of lightning and boom of thunder, each screaming weatherman or broadcast journalist set off or inculcate PTSD, in a deja vu all over again. Alda Talley, a longtime friend who lives in Mississippi, told me that it helps knowing I’m watching; it breaks the isolation. I’m glad to know that.

Seven years ago, I brought a vial of tap water to our UU ingathering service, when the congregation begins the new year (lay led services take place during the summer); one of the rituals of that service is for people to bring water, proxy or otherwise, from their summer sojourns. We briefly share the story of the water as we pour it into a common vessel. I could hardly speak as I said, “This water represents the flooding in New Orleans, the tears of those who endured the horror, and the amniotic fluid that protected my first grandson until he emerged from my daughter’s body.” I returned to my pew and sobbed as a friend held me, and can still hardly speak of that time without breaking down. 

Since yesterday I’ve been keeping track of the storm, now a Category 1 hurricane, with 80 mpg winds; I write down coordinates, wind speed and movement, barometric pressure, to have a record for my journal–even if it blows over and hurricane hardened New Orleanians (fewer after Katrina) say, “All that worry for nothing!” I’d be thrilled if that happened. Already the governmental incompetence is showing itself: yesterday, the Tea Party-leaning governor said he was putting contra-flow in place (making all lanes one way) for westbound I-10, the main artery out of town. Then he changed his mind. Brian Denzer, a former journalist for the Times-Picayune posted, “I-10 West is a parking lot. I can’t bear the thought of a nine-hour trip to Baton Rouge (80 miles away). I’m going back home.” And this was two days before the storm was supposed to hit. 

Wrap your mind around that, folks. No amount of vigil, not even Our Lady of Prompt Succor’s, can protect from that kind of incompetency. 

You get what you vote for, apparently. 



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2 responses to “Keeping Vigil during Hurricane Isaac

  1. Alda Talley

    How do I tell others how you write this from more than the experience of one, but from a cultural, even genetic knowledge? How keeping vigil is what it symbolizes, the “waiting with” when it is at once the only and the all that can be done? I see in my mind the cloistered nuns on their knees in a candlelit sacristy, before the VIrgin, humbly, quietly praying and am profoundly thankful for them. All the activism, the speaking out that I associate w/ doing good for others is stilled, quieted in the face of the power of the storm; it cannot reach through to those in fear and need until the storm is past. There is only the waiting, the being with though not near that lets us know we are not lost, we are not forgotten, we will not always be alone.

    • Alda, what a beautiful and exegetic follow-up. The image of the nuns praying in the stillness is so evocative. I am still here–although I did just get up, so I’m hours from my conscious vigil. Thank you.

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