We had to yell at Fran’s brother Lester: “Get out of New Orleans!” It was the morning before Katrina hit. These two brothers have a history of ignoring the obvious. Lester had moved out of Minneapolis five years before, vowing he’d never see his breath again. Probably right, but he might never breathe again if he didn’t get in his ancient Chevy Malibu and hightail it away from the on-coming hurricane.
“And fill the bathtub with water,” I insisted. remembering my mother’s response to hurricanes in South Carolina.
If you remember, that late August day Katrina hit was beautifully clear and balmy in Mpls/St. Paul. Hard to imagine directly south a mega-storm was wrecking the ancient city of water. Lester had no cell phone. Heck, lots of us one had cell phones in 2005. The TV reports were more and more ominous, then down-right terrifying. We went to bed and prayed he’d taken our advice.
Lester had a cat. He’d left Minneapolis with two cats, Patricia and Mitchell. Patricia was his find; Mitchell had sauntered onto our deck in St. Paul where I still indulged in feeding strays. The large, scrawny, mild-mannered grey tabby seemed just right for a lonesome guy in Minneapolis who’d just lost one of his two felines. Patricia had a different opinion initially, but by the time all three arrived in New Orleans, the two cats had bonded. Especially after they lived for six days in the station wagon while Lester found a little cabin/house to rent. Patricia died a few years later. Now Lester left Mitchell to the wind and water.
No one was prepared for the breaching of the levees and the flooding of the city. It was one of the worst weather disasters of all time. At least in the U.S. Two days later Lester called. He’d made it to the airport and was subsisting on candy bars and chips from various vending machine. Two more days passed. He called from a town west and north of New Orleans where he’d been able to rent a trailer behind a completely full motel. They skies were clear and sunny. No one was allowed back in the city.
We wired him money. Standing at the counter at Wal-Mart, I was very grateful for wire money transfer. Then we waited for him to check in. A week passed. Two weeks passed. Still no one was being allowed back in the city, though search and rescue teams were going house to house, looking for pets and people.
He couldn’t wait any longer. Driving close to the city (I picture it almost like a walled medieval city with various huge gates), Lester talked to some search and rescue types. They said they’d check on his cat, but they were from out of town. Could he give them directions? “Sure, let me lie in the back of your truck, and I’ll get you there.” That’s how Lester entered New Orleans, stepped out of the truck and unlocked the cabin door. Water marks on the little house were several feet high.
He opened the door and called, “Mitchell.”
“Merow” came an answer. There was big Mitchell atop the fridgerator. A search and rescue team had spray-painted across the house, “No people, no pets.” Evidently when they checked, Mitchell had hidden. There was a tiny film of wet left in the bathtub, and a bag of dry food had a huge hole in the bottom. Clearly Mitchell had eaten some, though now, most was soaked with flood water. Lester opened a can of food, and placed a dish on the table. Mitchell jumped down and took a bite. But he had to stop and nudge Lester’s hand, then eat some more. Eat, nudge, eat nudge.
Lester packed him into a cat carrier and began to walk out of the city. A few police and other officials stopped him, but when he showed them his “loot,” they smiled and let him go. Lester figures Mitchell
had food and water for maybe 10 days, then simply waited and hoped. “If I’d been a day or two later, he might not have made it,” Lester muses now as we relive that harrowing time. My opinion: the hope of return kept a cat alive, and the hope of finding a friend kept a man from going mad. Though there is no evidence of such in the Lester/Fran side of the family. They roll with the punches.
Mitchell lived five years after Katrina while Lester reconstituted his life in Baton Rouge. He didn’t look for full-time work until 2009 and didn’t find any for a while after that. Now there is a new Patricia and a younger female feline whose name I can’t recall, though I talked to Lester only a few days ago. This cat-human connection is very private, and Lester names his cats as if they were future debutants or West Point cadets. He’d howl if he heard me say this. Still, there’s no “Fluffy” or “Archie” in him.