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Two Storms

by Iain S. Baird

I blame myself for Katrina. Both my children wanted outdoor weddings, and I made a bargain with the Weather Gods. "Give us a beautiful day, and we'll never complain about the weather again." The Gods listened. On October 11, 1997, and again on September 28, 2002, the sun shone brightly and the temperature was mild, and the outdoor weddings went off without a hitch. At around 6:00 a.m. on August 29, 2005, the Gods had their payback when Katrina made landfall 90 miles southeast of New Orleans at Buras, Louisiana, on the Plaquemines Parish peninsula. The now Category 3 storm made its way northeast, passing 40 miles to the east of New Orleans, before making landfall again four hours later in Mississippi just over the Louisiana border. In those early hours, many New Orleanians, including me, gave thanks that the storm had veered at the last minute, saving the city from a direct hit. But by then, unknown to us, the storm surge had breached the 17th Street Canal and the Industrial Canal Levees. Before the day was over, there would be 51 more levee failures, and eighty percent of New Orleans would be under water.

My wife, Ann, and I had moved to New Orleans in 2003 to start a new life. We had both retired from our day jobs: Ann as a high school art teacher; me as a senior official in the Commerce Department working on international trade and security issues. Now, we would have the time to pursue our avocations rather than our occupations. Ann, an accomplished painter with many one-woman and group shows to her credit, could have her own studio and paint full time. I had dabbled in writing fiction and life stories. Now, I'd have my own study and the time to write a long postponed novel and the series of short stories I'd been outlining over the years. Where better to undertake this new adventure than New Orleans?

We found a perfect house in Uptown, just a couple of miles up river from the French Quarter. I enrolled in a creative writing class at Loyola University, and, at its completion, was accepted into the Writing Institute's advanced workshop. Before long I managed to get a few stories published and even picked up a couple of writing prizes. It appeared my new, modest writing life was underway.

Ann soon acquired a painting studio and was accepted by her fellow painters and the art community as one of their own. Her new work was bold and colorful, as she explored new techniques and materials.

Our new life in New Orleans entered a period of predictable and rewarding rhythms: writing and painting, regular exercise at the gym and long walks in Audubon Park, dining with friends, attending art shows and music festivals, entertaining a stream of out-of-town visitors, both family and friends.

There's a bumper sticker that I've always enjoyed: Life is what happens when you are making other plans. It has a way of surprising you. There's always something out there in the night waiting to knock on the door. While we were settling into our new life, somewhere out over the Sahara Desert, a butterfly turned right instead of left, sending a swirl of air up into the night air that would blossom into a gentle breeze, and then grow and grow as it moved offshore and into the warm Atlantic. Eventually, this gust of wind would gather itself into a storm called Katrina. As chaos was given form over the Atlantic and later the Gulf of Mexico, a mutated cell buried deep within my prostate decided to divide, setting into motion its own cancerous storm.

Looking back at storms, they seem so predictable. A storm hit, then this happened then that happened, and here's what we did about it. But storms aren't like that at all. It's all about "Whether" rather than "Weather." Whether it will intensify, whether it will swing north or south or east or west. Whether it will make landfall in your city or in a town in the next state. Whether it will push a storm surge. Whether it will arrive at night or during the day. Whether it will be high tide or low tide. Whether the levees will hold. Or not. And even with all the advances in computer modeling, making storm predictions is still more art than science. Three days out, estimates of landfall are only accurate to an average of 230 miles. At 24 hours out, the degree of error still remains at 100 miles.

Even after landfall, the "Whethers" continue. Whether your neighborhood floods. Whether your roof blows off. Whether your house is looted. Whether your friends are safe. Whether they'll lift the mandatory evacuation and let you return home.

And cancer is all about "Whether" too. Whether it will be detected. Whether the biopsy will be positive. Whether the cancer is aggressive. Whether it's caught in time. Whether the selected treatment is the best one. Whether it works. Whether you beat the average survival rates. Whether the experience changes you. Whether the change is for the better or the worse. Whether you're cured. Whether you die.

So, while we sat at our iron-wrought table in our secluded courtyard surrounded by blazing Crêpe Myrtle and climbing Philodendron, with the scent of jasmine and ginger in the air. While we enjoyed a breakfast of croissants and café au lait and planned our day of writing and painting, walking and shopping, and stopping by Cole Pratt Gallery for an art opening that evening, little did we expect that Hell would soon be joining us for lunch.

Two storms were out there. Katrina would hit on August 29, 2005; my own storm of prostate cancer eighteen months later. New Orleans and I would travel the windswept roads of devastation and recovery. And we would do it together.

Iain S. Baird is an award-winning writer published in numerous literary magazines in the United States and abroad. He divides his time among New Orleans, Annapolis, and the Panhandle of Florida. The above is an excerpt from Iain Baird's memoir, Two Storms (CyPress Publications, June 2010). Two Storms is a story of the diagnosis, treatment, and recovery from prostate cancer, set in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the failure of the levees.