In Buras, Louisiana, there are very few distractions. Electricity has been out for over a year with the exception of an occasional generator covered in mud and the only business open in a ten-mile radius is a gas station with a spray painted plywood sign that reads, “now open.” At night the locals gather there and drink $2 beers wrapped in plastic bags that the clerk sells from the back door.
Forty-five miles south of New Orleans on route 23, the town of Buras sits on a mile wide plain of land that was once submerged twenty feet beneath the waters of Hurricane Katrina. Now, the soaked southern leg of Louisiana is undergoing a quiet recuperation. Traffic is sparse heading to New Orleans, and the only noise rising above buzzing insects is the clap of a hammer inside an old YMCA building held up by two walls.
I flew into New Orleans a year after the hurricane devoured its businesses, properties, and surrounding towns. Volunteering for a grass-roots emergency community south of the city, I knew little more than that I could be used and there would be a ride waiting for me at the airport. This made my preparation almost impossible.
A good traveler anticipates his destination by pooling together the experiences of others, acquiring necessary gear, and packing clothes that make them feel “lucky.” But with practically no forewarning other than images on the news, I left. I double-checked my backpack for sunscreen and bug spray, exchanged the “Tourist Guide to New Orleans” for a Mark Twain paperback, and plunged toward the sunken city of Buras.
Driving out of New Orleans and into the narrow straights of southern Louisiana was grim. Our commute gradually appeared as a safari into the remains of a state. Mark, my driver, had lines of orange dirt all across his white shirt and bits of sawdust flecks hung in his beard. He was one of the volunteer organization founders and had been in southern Louisiana for nearly a year opening soup kitchens and gutting houses. He and his brother Matt had left their homes in Brooklyn in order to help build new ones on the battered bayou.
We sped down 23 between billboard shrapnel and overturned boats that occupied emergency lanes. Mark never offered even a glance, and after passing a church that had lost its steeple, my head was completely outside the car window and steadily I lost that sense of control that every traveler guards as his passport into the unknown. I was confronted with the futility of my attempts of anticipation, and sensed that all of my preparations leading to this trip had been in vain. I felt like an explorer who forgot his compass.