Hurricane, 2019, oil on board, by Danny Leyland. Courtesy the artist and Arusha Gallery
Where I Was From
By Lauren Stroh
The first proof God gave us was the rice fields flooded on the way west into town, and the sugar cane. Then the billboards started to fall. When we reached the part of I-10 that curves out over North Lake Charles, Jack screamed. I held the Super 8 camera out the window and stared silent as we passed graveyards of slaughtered homes.
We’d spent the night with Conway gathering supplies to take with us. The three of us grew up together—I met Jack when I was five at daycare; Conway’s grandfather was the best man when my parents wed. Jack evacuated the day before the storm to New Orleans, where Conway and I now live. We sat together in my living room and planned how best to provide aid back home.
The first night we photographed Conway’s mom’s house for the insurance claim, wielding but a flashlight against the dark. I shot the windows blown out and the moldy water spots on the walls, gaping holes in the attic and its shredded insulation spread across the bathroom downstairs from when the cat freaked out. We stepped over the mirror shattered across his sister’s floor, the fence across the street blown over, the tree in the front yard snapped in an offshot tornado, the part of the porch flown down from the second story by the force of the wind. This was our safe place to sleep. We moaned and sighed through the night, spread across the parlor on a hardwood floor and leather couches, drenched by the wet of our bodies in August, in Louisiana heat.
Before seven o’clock, when night falls and the streetlights should have flicked on, Jack and I walked to his mom’s house with a tree felled on it. On the walk back we saw a man tie a gas can to his truck on the opposite side of the street. We asked if he needed any water and he hollered back yes, so we left to bring some back. On the way home—two blocks—the cops stopped us twice.
By the time we returned, he was gone. I called out in the darkness and heard a woman call back scared. We left her the offering as a gesture of goodwill—a few jugs of water and a cold dinner of rice and beans.
I thought of this in the night, turning; thought of reasons he wouldn’t tell me his name. I thought of how after a storm, communities are governed by lawlessness and the consciences of those left to survive. Your neighbor might be your killer, your witness, or your friend.
In the morning I walked the wreckage of my first life and looked, carrying water to distribute and extra cartridges of film. I walked past the bar that used to serve me when I was seventeen crumbled to bricks. I walked past a restaurant my dad and I used to love—at one point or another I’d ordered everything the kitchen had to offer. I passed the middle school I switched to after a challenging fifth-grade year, past my first boyfriend’s house, past the street of nice houses where my ballet teacher lived. I stalked these scenes and settings of a past life beaten, backed away, and embarrassed with blackened eyes and their faces smashed in, staring back square.
That morning I met a disaster tourist from Houma who took a bus in from Chicago to pitch a tent at the lakefront in hopes to work on himself. He brought with him no water. I met overwhelmed Latino workers who drove in from Texas to tarp our roofs and clear debris on temporary contracts. They asked for boots. I yelled at undersupplied missionaries who carried expensive video equipment in righteousness, hypocrisy, and grief.
That morning I saw the lake stagnant for the first time, those poison waters totally still and unmoving, an egret strange and watching on the shore. I saw a dog wandering around lonely with its leash cut off, cried at it, then had its owner drive by to take it out of my arms. I cried watching the hurricane hit at three in the morning on a livestream in New Orleans, and again the next day on the phone with my mom, this time in thanksgiving that the city did not flood.
But when I went to check on the woman who’d answered back in the night, she told me she had been on her knees praying for forgiveness when the storm hit, with a tree down and blocking her front door. Then I cried in a new way, deep and breathy, all of a sudden and like I hadn’t before.
I sat in her living room and let her son squeeze the fat of my forearm. She told me this was a sensory thing. He squeezed in ever tightening increments until I called out, unable to withstand the pain. He fell into hysterics, which she called regressing. I watched purple and red streaks bloom on the underside of my arm where I’d just let his hands grip for comfort after I coached him soft, soft. She showed me the rashed skin on his chest from bathing in the tap after the chemical spill, red swollen mosquito bites that covered his rest.
In the night, she’d heard men digging around in empty houses and called out to them, warning them to leave her alone—she was armed with a can of roach spray. I thought of my dad’s wrinkled face, grave when he mentioned a couple killed by some man robbing their generator, godless in the hell of such heat.
I remember days: endless days in parking lots passing out water and diapers and tampons and bleach. Days driving and dropping off gloves; days in the sun with my father walking car to car down Shell Beach and back to his truck to gather everything people told us they needed, a line for alms that stretched for miles.
I remember the father who told it to me straight: that his children had not eaten as they sat together miserable and patient, buckled into the front seat, and we had no food left to give them.
I remember the smell of shit collecting in the toilet when the water pressure was so low we could not flush it and of refrigerators, sickly sweet when left without power for weeks.
I remember the beauty of night, lighting tealight candles.
I remember reports of mosquitos swarmed in such abundance they bit the cows to death.
I remember the cop I cursed at the emergency room when he kicked me out—I was looking for methadone for a single mom going through withdrawals and he was unwilling to help.
I remember Jack’s fury when he asked to save a synthesizer from our friend’s house whose roof had flown into their pool and I refused and told him, “I didn’t come here to clean rich people’s houses,” and he told me I couldn’t claim here anymore because I now lived away.
I remember my dad telling me our ancestors could tell a hurricane was coming by noticing a shift in the direction of the wind.
I remember his helplessness when he told me to stop when I saw him and started to cry.
South of town at my mom’s house, the fence had been knocked down, a bunch of branches piled up in the yard, dirt caked the walls from downed shit flying, the roof’s shingles blew off in magnificent winds, the windows cracked, and the ceiling sagged from the spots where water seeped inside. Compared to the houses I grew used to seeing—utterly derelict and deconstructed—I could accept this. The house would be saved; the first place I ever lived—my miracle was driving up to this.
In the car Conway and I saw soldiers stationed in front of Gordon’s Drug Store with rifles. Down the street we passed unidentified men suited in different camouflage who sat on a couch in front of the Red Cross with guns of their own. We questioned what needed protecting, what the Red Cross stockpiled worth the cost of someone’s life. The soldier at Gordon’s said it had been looted six times after Hurricane Rita—they were guarding prescription drugs.
On Conway’s porch, dirty in sweat, we watched cops walk out of the police station with Coca-Cola cans glistening with condensation in the mirth of the heat.
I saw this wild with grief and awe.
The day I drove back to New Orleans, I met a man sitting calm and smiling in front of his house in North Lake Charles, where downed power lines still buzzed beneath our tires. He raised his right arm up to show his strength, trees fallen all around him. He called out to me filming through the window to tell me he was blessed.
Forty-three days later, Hurricane Delta made landfall miles from the place that Laura first hit. Mold had started to grow on our ceilings; tarps remained; the shingles necessary to replace our roofs were completely out of stock. The Sunday after, we celebrated my mom’s sixtieth birthday with cake I drove in from New Orleans to eat in the carport. Flies swarmed around us from trash lined up and down the street.
The last strong storm to hit Southwest Louisiana was Hurricane Rita in 2005, a category three hurricane that was largely overshadowed by the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans weeks before. My family was displaced in a cabin in West Texas for over a month until it was safe to return to our blue-tarped home. On a trip with my fifth-grade class the following spring, I was taken to Cameron Parish with the first camera I ever handled to photograph a place I loved more or less wiped off the map, with trailers split in half and kids’ toys flown in a ditch.
The only other storm to hit the state with the same fury and strength as Hurricane Laura was the 1856 Last Island Hurricane, in which the storm surge completely inundated the island, split it in half, and destroyed every structure present and all of its crops. Some two hundred people died. Days later, when the water receded, only sandbars were left.
Where I am from it is like this: We rebuild after hurricanes as it has always been done. We know we will do it again. As it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be: work without end.
I have fought against it for years, ran away from it, damn the bulk of it to hell, and still I drive back. It is instinct. It is what birds do. It is something only someone in exile could ever understand.
That week after there was no air, there was no light, the water that ran there gave us rashes, the mosquitos that swarmed bit through our clothes, we sweated and stank, we walked around like orphans, working and stupefied, with our eyes sewed wide and our mouths pinned open like fools.
We did not sleep for days. The sun would not let up, even when it was hidden away by night.
Where I am from was pummeled by wind, clouded by chlorine, left to rot in the summer, and misnamed Saint Charles by my out-of-town friends.
And now it is no longer there.