Hold the Wind, Hold the Wind, Hold the Wind, don’t let it blow.
—Negro spiritual, “Hold the Wind”
August 26, 2005, Normal, Illinois
“I’m meteorologist Kim Boudreaux.” Clad in a dark suit, the petite woman smiled big for her television audience. “Katrina’s track has changed.” She pointed to a mass of ominous-looking clouds that threatened to engulf the screen. “She’s no longer headed for Mobile but is on course for the Crescent City.”
Sally Stevens checked her cell phone, then paced in front of the television, as if that would make her brother Robert pick up the phone. She needed to talk to him, needed to know that he’d gotten her nieces and her sister-in-law out of the death trap that New Orleans suddenly had become. Needed to have him assure her, with his balmy Southern drawl, that he and his National Guardsmen were going to be okay.
A slender hand pointed to what must be a fortune’s worth of satellite and radar imagery. “As you can see, Katrina’s moving toward the mouth of the Mississippi, toward the levees . . .” The meteorologist buzzed on, seemingly high on news of this climactic wonder.
Every word seeped from the television screen, crept across the Stevens’s den, and crawled up Sally’s spine. Louisiana had once been her home. Her heritage. What would this hurricane do to the Southern state that she still loved?
A glance at her watch told Sally to get moving. Instead, she once again punched in Robert’s number. If she could just hear his voice, she’d know how to pray later as she stood in her classroom pretending to be passionate about her lecture on the history of American music, pretending to act like it was another ordinary afternoon in Normal, Illinois, while this mother of a storm wreaked wrath and vengeance upon her brother. Her home.
“. . . the next twenty-four hours are crucial . . .” The camera zoomed in for a close-up, focusing on a perfect oval face that, for just a moment, seemed to stiffen, as if a personal levee was about to be breached. “I’m not supposed to say this.” Urgency laced the forecaster’s voice “But I’m telling you. Leave. This is a killer.” The pulsating weather image seemed to confirm her report, a mass of scarlet and violet whirling about an ominous-looking eye. Growing like a cancer. Moving in for the kill . . .
Talk turned to evacuation, log-jammed roads, but Sally barely listened. Years flew away as she studied Ms. Boudreaux’s flawless mocha complexion, the tilt of her chin. The determination of this woman to save her city, or at least its people. So like the determination of Ella, that first friend, who’d taken off for New Orleans. It was as if the lockbox of Sally’s memories had somehow sprung open. Ella, that friend who’d saved her. Ella. And her brother Willie, if he’d gotten out of the pen. Were they digging in, evacuating—
A classical song Sally’s kids had downloaded onto her phone poured from the tiny speaker as the device vibrated in her palm.
“God, let it be—” She glanced at the readout. 504 area code. New Orleans. Robert. Her fingers suddenly clumsy, she struggled to flip open the phone.
Static greeted her.
“Robert? Bobby?” She was shouting, but she didn’t care. “Are you there? Are you—”
“Ssss—got them out.”
He’s out there somewhere, right in the elements, from the sound of it. “Where are you?” Sally cried. “Robert, what’s going on?” Sally pressed the phone against her ear until it hurt. All this technology, yet she could barely hear him, could barely—
The whooshing stopped. So did Robert’s voice. Sally stared at the readout. Ten seconds she’d had with him. Ten seconds to gauge the climate of a city. A city that might still claim as a resident that once-best friend. Sally whispered a prayer as she grabbed her briefcase and headed to class.
August 29, 2005, New Orleans, Louisiana
“It’s no use! The generator’s flooded!” A single battery-operated hallway light revealed the faint outline of Dr. Powers, the thin, impeccably groomed physician whom Ella Ward had worked with for a decade. “Ella? Ella?” He groped against the hospital’s second floor wall, his hands and arms made ghoulish by the shadowy dark. “Are you there? Ella? We’ve got to get them out of here! Now.”
Screams, howling winds, and debris crashing against boarded-up windows swirled into a hellish cacophony that tore at Ella’s heart. What were the three of them, she, Willie, and the doctor—no. Willie didn’t count. What were the two of them going to do for sixty-three patients writhing in excrement, gasping for breath, thousands of dollars of ventilators and BiPAPs rendered powerless? Dying, minute by minute, second by second?
Just to keep from falling down, Ella dug her fingernails into a wall sweaty with humidity. She opened her mouth to answer, but no words came out. At Dr. Powers’s side, she’d watched an aortic artery explode, a patient gurgle in his own blood . . . “The scalpel, Ms. Ward?” he’d said. “Suction, please.” With ice-blue cool, Dr. Powers had plucked life out of mangled messes and never even raised his voice. Now his screams pierced Ella’s ears, and her hopes. Even with one of New Orleans’ best surgeons at her side, the prognosis of surviving this storm was dim. There was nothing for Ella to do but close her eyes and beg. “Oh God. Please Spirit. Please Lord Jesus, please.”
Dr. Powers clutched at the sleeve of Ella’s cotton scrub. “Where’s Willie?”
The doctor’s touch and the mention of her brother brought Ella around. Still, she could barely speak for the quivering of her lip. “Where . . . do you think a junkie would be?”
“The . . . pharmacy?”
Even though Dr. Powers most likely couldn’t see her nod, Ella went through the motion. Twenty-four hours ago, she’d decided she and Willie would come here together. Yet even in her worst nightmare, she hadn’t really believed that they’d die here together.
“Someone, anyone, let me outta here!” It was Mrs. Smith, in Room 215.
“Hold the wind, Lord!” Mr. Lunsford, who’d thought he’d die of cancer.
Ella gritted her teeth. One by one, the patients were seeing the storm’s demonic fingers etching out a death sentence, and screaming their response.
“We’ve got to do something.”
Dr. Powers’s words sent a shiver through Ella. Had he read her mind? Or had she babbled without even knowing it? She clamped her hands over her ears. Lord! I’m goin’ crazy! Help me, Lord!
“What’s happenin’, Lawd? Oh, Lawd Jesus!”
“Sweet Jesus! Where are you?”
What had acted as a twisted tonic to incite the patients to a new level of chaos? Was it the howls of the winds, the thuds and crashes against the windows, the doors, the very roof of this place?
“Jesus, oh Jesus!”
Every moan, every scream, knifed into Ella like a scalpel. Nursing school hadn’t trained her for this. Nearly thirty years working at understaffed facilities hadn’t trained her for this. Nothing had trained her for this. With taut fingers, she pulled the doctor close, then shoved him to his knees and knelt by him, her hands flush against the wall. “We gotta pray,” she said.