The survival stories of Katrina were heart-wrenching emotional ordeals. Traveling around with HANO, it seemed that he spent half of his day sharing storm stories with people and relaying those of others with me so I could better appreciate what people had been through. For those people he hadn’t seen since before the storm their reconnection with each other was like people reconnecting after a war. They embraced each other like neither one expected to see the other alive. They held on to each other long and hard. HANO said there were unspeakably terrible things that happened to people during the storm so when you see folks alive, “you’re just happy, you know?”
One brother that we ran into was a huge hulking man. Between he and HANO they split the plus side of a quarter ton about sixty forty. Big Man survived the storm and started off with jokes. He told us that his wife didn’t want to evacuate.
“I said to her, I said, looky here. I got you and my Mama in this house and I’m the only one can swim. I can only save one a you, an’ you don’ want me to choose between you an’ my Mama.”
He and HANO burst out laughing the way only enormous black men laugh.
“HANO, she packed her bags with a quickness, you know. You don’t make a man choose between his wife and his Mama.”
We laughed and then he repeated that he had survived. He said that he had survived, “those Goddamn rednecks too.” When he said that, he stopped smiling. He had gone back to his neighborhood to look after other relatives. He said that towards the end of the storm at the beginning of the flooding he was racing to get back to the house where his relatives were and one of, “those white boy police” told him that he couldn’t go in that direction. “I told him I lived down there and I was going to get my family.” Then Big Man told the story like this:
His car was in front of me. He got out of his car, walked over to me and drew his gun and aimed it right at me.
Nigger, I told you you’re not going down that fuckin’ street.
I told him, I said, ‘Officer, my family is down there.’
Nigger, if you open your fuckin’ mouth again it will be the last time.
By now Big Man was telling this story as if he were in a trance. He was not really looking at us. He said that it was the first time in his life that he felt like slaves must have felt. “You standing there with the white man sticking a gun in the temple of your head, making you watch your family die or get sold off or hung.” He said to HANO, “Breh, when that white man called me Nigger like that, with that gun in my head, it was like a hundred years of poison.”
Big Man said that he was thinking about his family up ahead and explained to us how some of them were old and would definitely drown if he did not get there to help them. He tried to explain the combination of feelings, but he couldn’t really. He said that he was raging and wanted to smash the police officer but he knew that if he opened his mouth he would be killed. Again he said to HANO, “Breh, you know I ain’ no weak brother. But Breh, I just cried. I couldn’t stop the tears from falling.” Big Man continued, and said he just nodded yes and sat there crying. He said the police officer told him, “Now Nigger, get outta here,” and turned away from Big Man to walk back to his car.
During this whole story I was trying to comprehend all these emotions, particularly coming from a man looking like
Big Man said that when the policeman turned his back on him and was walking back to his car, he hit the gas and ran him over. I’m sure my mouth fell open. For a second I doubted the story. Then I could see the water coming to his eyes and his lips starting to tremble. He said, “Breh, I been praying about it and crying about it ever since. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t turn my back on my family. And the way he called me Nigger filled me with so much hate.”
Throughout the day HANO always had a wise and insightful summary of the various experiences. This time he didn’t say anything and we just stood there.