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  • Everyone I knew was telling me to evacuate, that a storm called Hurricane Katrina was coming.

    I didn't leave the city, but I relocated from my apartment in the Treme neighborhood to a sturdier location, a complex developed from an old factory in the Midcity neighborhood. It was the apartment of a friend of a friend of a friend, who had left town but put out an open invitation to stay at her place.

    The American Can Company Building is five stories high, made of concrete and brick. There were seven of us in the one bedroom apartment, with four cats. A few of my fellow guests were people I had never met. What we and everyone else in the building had in common is that we were among the tens of thousands of New Orleanians who didn't leave. Most stayed because they couldn't afford to evacuate, or because they felt safer in their community, able to look after their homes and belongings.

    The Can Company felt safe. In the hallways, I ran into some other friends of mine who didn’t live in the building but were also staying there because of the building's sturdiness.

    On Sunday, August 28, Governor Kathleen Blanco appeared on television and urged us to pray the hurricane down to a category two.

    I think most of us knew in advance that our elected leaders would not help us, but none of us had any idea how bad it would be. Still, we felt cautiously optimistic about the coming storm. Nervous, but safe. We had a certain amount of faith in the system of levees surrounding the city. In retrospect, of course, that seems hopelessly naïve.

    The worst of the storm passed in the middle of the night and early morning. From within our safe and solid housing, it didn’t sound that bad, and I slept through most of it.

    We looked out on the streets in the morning. Power was out throughout the city, and there was some flooding, but not much more than the city regularly experienced in a hard rainstorm—felled trees, some torn roofs. The area in front of the Can Company building was under less than a foot of water, though the flood water was deeper on some side streets.

    It seemed as if the worst-case scenarios predicted by the media predicted had not come to pass. More than once that day, someone said, “We dodged the bullet again.” New Orleanians know that life here is always precarious, and part of living here is becoming accustomed to that risk.

    We decided to stay one more night in the Can Company building, assuming that by the next day the water outside would have drained to the point we could walk home. We anticipated that electricity would be restored to our neighborhood in a few days.

    That night, on the roof of the Can Company building, we talked to our temporary neighbors and watched the stars.

    The next day, we woke up to find that the water had risen. I started to realize that things were going to get worse, but I don't think any of us had any idea how bad it would become.
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