NEW ORLEANS -- I got out of our truck and approached the four cops standing in front of the Hwy 11 bridge over Lake Pontchartrain. The bridge, which leads to New Orleans, was five miles across Lake Pontchartrain, five miles of Hurricane Rita flexing her muscles far out in the gulf, with blasting winds up to 90 mph. The bridge was secured to all traffic except military and police. My driver and colleague, Jacob, shook his head forlornly as we approached the road block; his blond afro seemed to droop in disappointment as the Louisiana State Trooper walked up to us.

“Bridge is closed. Don’t y’all listen to the radio? No one gets across.”

I waved my press badge at him, and said we needed to get to New Orleans to cover the storm. The trooper asked me to get out and tell my story to the other four cops waiting by the cars. Their eyes all snapped immediately to the Czech military pistol I was wearing in a holster on my hip.

“What in the hell is that?”

“It’s a gun, officer.” The cop glared at me through the driving rain. “You are not wearing that gun anywhere. Put it in the car. Where do you think you are, the Wild West?” Poor bastard; I had a moment of pity for him before I began to make a lot of noise about the freedoms of the press and my Second Amendment rights. Two of the cops looked at me with a straight face and said it was illegal to wear a gun on your hip. This is simply not true; I researched Louisiana carry laws before I came, and after ten minutes of belligerence they sent me back to the truck so they could have a quick pow-wow and decide what to do with me.

A few minutes later Jacob and I were barreling across the Hwy 11 bridge, exuberantly whooping out the windows as giant waves crashed menacingly below us. We had been warned that there was a possibility that the bridge would be closed off by concrete jersey barriers on the way back, effectively trapping us in New Orleans. I could certainly understand why: the waves the storm was blowing across the water and into the bridge were massive and violent, and the main part of the storm was still hours away. Cars would be swept off the bridge and into the murky waters of the lake.

We raced across the interstate once we hit land, dodging giant trees and boats in the middle of the deserted freeway. But for the occasional military Humvee, we had it to ourselves. We passed several exit ramps that I remembered having military checkpoints days before; now the checkpoints were all gone. We got off at the Superdome exit and headed for the Hyatt, where we had attended several press events last week. Perhaps they will know what to do with us. I imagined the Hyatt full of the most rabidly tenacious of the national press, violent journalists with bloodshot eyes and muzzles fitted over their snarling faces, and glorious amounts of booze.

Driving through an evacuated downtown, we passed broken palm trees lying in the road, abandoned cars and boats left haphazardly around...the juxtaposition of an expensive 25-ft. walkabout sitting aground next to a skyscraper is incredibly humbling in an unexpected way; every step we took had a dreamlike quality to it, as though we were walking through New Orleans’ nightmare subconscious. Upon entering the Hyatt we were greeted by a small squad of Army soldiers with M16s; they informed us that all the press events had been postponed until Monday. The press was gone; we were alone with the military, at least as far as they knew. They stared at us incredulously as we barged over to their staging map and tried to ascertain our position. We were told that they and one other checkpoint established next to the flooded levee at the I-10 underpass in Metairie were all that was left; the other military and police blockades had been ordered to pack up hours ago when the storm first started to intensify.

“Perfect! Then we have access to whatever we want, right?” The young private in front of me scratched his head, disbelief on his young features. “Well, I guess so. What the hell kind of press are you?” There was a loud scraping noise outside as the Porta Johns lined up outside the hotel began to blow away.

“Goddammit, we’ve been chasing those all day,” grumbled one burly sergeant.

“Yeah, we are from Oklahoma, so we are used to tornadoes. This kind of looks just like a tornado,” a peach fuzz covered lance corporal drawled mournfully as he looked outside at thrashing palm trees and wind-driven debris.

“How fast would you say these winds are?” I shouted over the wind as the walkabout slid across the road.

“I don’t know, pretty fast, I guess.” The sergeant seemed confused by our enthusiasm; I was scribbling gleefully in my notebook and Jacob was trying to use a green Porta John as it made its unlikely bid for freedom.

We learned that the poorer residential neighborhoods were where the serious flooding had occurred, and got directions to the Lower 9th Ward and Canal Street, where the temporary repairs made to the levee by Katrina had been breached. We thanked the Army for their help and continued on our way.

While we were in the downtown area, we noticed occasional police and military scurrying along toward shelter. As we entered the residential sections, the place took on the eerie abandoned quality of a ghost town. Destruction was everywhere; homes leveled, garbage in the street, enormous trees laid across the street. There were no signs of life anywhere, no indication that only days before people had gone to work in the morning, home at night, in this, the nation’s thirty-fifth largest city.

We finally made contact with another human; she was an old homeless woman sitting on a bench surrounded by black garbage bags and government issued MREs (Meals, Ready to Eat). Her immense coat whipped wildly around her in the wind as she tried to eat a melted Twix candy bar. The candy was all over her face and hands. I got out of the truck to speak with her.

“Excuse me, ma’am, but are you all right?”

“Course I am. Why wouldn’t I be?” She shifted her unbelievable bulk to glare balefully at me. “Press, eh? I got no use for you.” Licking the sticky caramel from her dirty fingers and wiping it on her coat, she looked away in dismissal.

“Lady, there’s a hurricane coming, and you are in extreme danger out here-”

“Bullshit.” She spat haughtily onto the sidewalk. “There ain’t no hurricane coming.” I stared at her, uncomprehending, as I leaned into the wind for balance. “Come again?”

“You heard me. Bullshit. I just sat through one hurricane, gatt-dammit; an’ you spect me to believe there’s another one coming through? What, you hear dat on da radio?” She smiled mockingly as I dodged a piece of airborne debris. “You know something? Why is the news always bad? Y’all only talk about the bad shit. I want to hear some good news, gatt-dammit.” I looked around at the deserted, ravaged streets, at the overturned vehicles and thrashing trees. I looked back at her, her chin raised in defiance.

“Well, hey, at least you’ve got the place to yourself.” She snorted and continued to smear caramel across her face. I got back in the truck and snapped a couple of photos as she squawked in protest; got out again and reassured her that I had a special camera that wouldn’t steal her soul, and we drove on. We found another boat, this one a nice bass-fishing boat, sitting on a sidewalk in front of a cemetery on Canal Street. We sat in the boat and smoked some grass. Tithe atmosphere of desolation was taking its toll on us. I had been up for over forty hours, and the stress of exploring this dangerous, barren city in high wind and horizontal rain was exhausting. The weed helped to level us out a bit and we sat in the boat, tittering at each other’s bedraggled, manic appearance.

Back in the truck, we perused at our map of New Orleans. Somehow it had gotten wet and the ink had run; and the bleary cartograph was all but useless. We began driving around in the lower 9th Ward, completely lost, listening to John Fogerty warn us about the bad moon rising, and the hurricanes on the way. As I was attempting to make out the runny map in the dark, Jacob suddenly slammed on the brakes and we slid to a stop. The road ahead of us, a major four-lane highway, had completely flooded out, and deep. The top of a white sedan was visible just above the water fifty yards out into the submerged area.

Jacob and I got out of the truck and smoked some more pot. We looked at each other, and I smiled. Several minutes later I was on my hands and knees on top of the four foot high concrete median, crawling sloth-like across the floodwater. The fetid water was filled with dead fish and other unthinkable organic matter, and smelled of methane and decaying meat. Inching my way slowly towards the car, I nearly vomited from the foul atmosphere. I got to a light pole, where the concrete median widened to accommodate the fixture, and was able to stand up and ascertain that the car was empty. I looked back towards Jacob, who appeared much too small and far away. Pausing long enough to partake of yet a little more grass, I made my way slowly back to him, nearly slipping several times into the brackish water. I made it to safety, and we drove back along Canal towards the cemetery with the boat on the sidewalk.

By this time I was almost improbably high, and insisted on stopping at the crypt yard again. The sun was nearly down, and cast a beautiful pale light on the above-ground tombs, coloring the grim concrete with breathtaking streaks of pastel pinks and peaches. Overwhelmed with elation and euphoria; I crowed in delight: we had displayed the necessary audacity to experience this amazing adventure; the opposing forces of good and evil had ceased fire long enough for us to stumble into this voyeuristic no-man’s-land between them and behold the perfect aesthetic of disaster, the beauty of amoral destruction at nature’s elegant hand. I climbed on top of a mausoleum and shouted curses and taunts at the cemetery’s soggy occupants, my frenzied rant peaking as I pulled my pistol from its holster and fired repeatedly into the storm, which rewarded me with ominous thunder and angry streaks of blue lightning. The sharp reports seemed to hang in the humid atmosphere long after the wind should have carried them off. Jacob swore and took off for the truck. I put away my piece and surveyed the lonely bone yard one last time, alone. Nothing stirred; was it possible that my arrogance had overcome the legendary voodoo-dead of New Orleans? The monuments stared back at me in tight-lipped disapproval; their secret was out, the impotence exposed. I ran back to the truck, and we peeled off toward home.

As we drove along the empty freeway; I reloaded and fired out the cab window, screaming and trying in vain to shoot down the grey hurricane. We were both stoned, and a little lost, but when the ‘I-10 East Towards Slidell’ sign came up, we were both relieved: home stretch. All we had to do was get to the bridge crossing the lake and we were safe. We passed a cop parked on our side of the interstate, facing oncoming traffic with his light bar flashing. We stopped and backed up to his car, and Jacob tried to get him to roll down his window so we could ask for directions, but the cop was on his cell phone, and wouldn’t be bothered. We drove on our way.

Several miles up the road we passed a few orange cones, scattered across the road, lying on their sides. We had seen so many of them that I was surprised to even notice these; I wondered briefly why they had been put there originally, as there was no construction readily visible.

We made it to the bridge and got a quarter of a mile across when the truck crashed over a fissure eight inches wide and several inches deep in the surface of the bridge. Jacob slammed the brake pedal to the floor, and slid to a stop several feet from the edge: an entire section of the bridge was gone, GONE! The fifty foot drop ended in the cold waters of Lake Pontchartrain. The bridge was out, damaged by the first storm, and now we were on it. Jacob and I looked at each other in terror as New Orleans’ voodoo-dead cackled to themselves; Jacob restarted the motor and peeled off in the other direction, both of us acutely aware that the section of bridge we were driving on was highly unstable and could with us fall into the cold waters of the lake at any moment. White-knuckled, we bounced across the fissure and made it to solid land several seconds later. Stopping the truck, Jacob and I got out and began screaming in emotional release, adrenaline coursing through our veins. We roundly cursed the bastard cop who had allowed us to drive past him, and found the cones that had blown off the road. We dragged some heavy construction signs that had twisted and crumpled in the high winds of the storm back into the road, trying to block it off.

As we drove back, the pounding adrenaline slowly churned to a stop, and we were able to speak again. Jacob turned on the radio, and we found Dvorak’s March to the Scaffold on a static-ridden classics station out of Baton Rouge. As we drove, we could see in the distance the mournful silhouettes of the skyscrapers downtown, dark monoliths memorializing the death of one of the world’s most special places. Suddenly, the buildings sparked and lit up, coming to life in a brilliant surge of hopeful energy. Jacob and I smiled at each other, and began to laugh, loud joyous laughter. As long as the colorful parishioners of this Delta town remain alive, New Orleans will survive and recover. In spite of the poverty, attempts at gentrification, terrible hurricanes, and all of the many other trials that have been heaped upon them, their roots run deep into this swampy soil, and they will rebuild their city. Good luck, New Orleans.