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Rain Street October 13, 2009

Posted by The Typist in Flood, New Orleans, NOLA, Toulouse Street.
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The first rule of driving in the rain, I taught my daughter, is never trust a puddle you don’t know. On the pothole-pocked topography of New Orleans’ streets, crevassed and treacherous as a summer glacier, that sheen of water may hide one of the tire swallowers, one of the axle breakers.

My children grew up in a dry climate, the upper plains of the Midwest, where ten inches might fall in a good year and half that as snow. Here we have built pumps to move an inch of rain the first hour and a half-inch an hour after that, and still its floods. And when the streets run like streams the gaping craters fill with water and look like simple puddles, suitable for innocent stomping and splashing. Drive through the wrong one and you will find yourself waiting in the rain for a tow truck, your car aft end in the air like a sinking ship.

The last few weeks we have all been relieved that the hurricane season is evaporating into nothing but at the same time we have suffered through unseasonable heat waves, angry Comanche Indian Summer days of 104 degree heat indexes. The only relief has come from brief “cold” fronts that bring brief relief (my God, it’s 68 this morning!) but also monsoon volume rains, pouring for hours without interruption, the kind that floods and laps at the steps of houses (or worse, creeps into what we call “basements” down here) and sends everyone scurrying to move their cars to the neutral ground. No mater how capacious the pumps we build or how often we clean our storm drains of debris, we cannot escape the fact that much of the city is reclaimed marsh and sits at least a few inches if not a few feet below sea level.

(If anyone suggests the entire city is 10 or 15 feet below sea level, offer to take them out and show them the spot where that is true. Then push them down the bank into the bottom of the drainage canal. I have maps saved somewhere of these spots. I’ll come and help.)

Here on Toulouse Street we are at the intersection of a high point of the Metairie ridge and the end of the railroad bed that paralleled the old Carondelet Canal. Our streets are clear and glistening black with the rain, full of leaves and magnolia cones but free of running water outside of the gutters; not so our surrounding neighborhood. My sister was coming home the other night and could not get into her building (itself on the edge of Bayou St. John at Esplanade Avenue but not quite on the Esplanade Ridge. She tried to find a path along the bayou ridge that would lead us to our house or her son’s in the same general neighborhood but the streets were impassible.

Last week I dropped by daughter’s car at a neighborhood garage and walked back in the steady rain and stopped to marvel at a tiny urban wetland on Hennessey Street, a long narrow lagoon at one edge of the street edged with tall cattails and other water plants that must have migrated to this comfortable spot from the park a few blocks away. I expected to see ducks paddling out of the cover at any moment.

I still marvel at the rain here, especially after decades spent first on the East Coast during a long drought, and then on the edge of the land once called the Great American Desert, the High Plains that run from Texas and surrounding states straight up to the Dakotas. Now that I am back on the hurricane coast it seems Odd to me that in a place where the gray loads of rain roll in from the Gulf as regular as trains and discharge their wet cargo that there is no Rain Street, no Thunder Road or Cloud Boulevard to intersect with Flood Street.

After our long monsoon the ground is saturated and any rain will run into the streets and down to the canals, and if the canals fill and the pumps won’t keep up into cars and houses. I wonder at the ground beneath, so full of water. When I was a boy my father and his handy man built a fence. On the second set of a post hole digger they would hit water, a little dark mirror at the bottom of the black and gray tunnel. Into this they set four-by-four pieces of cypress. Those posts of wood from the tree that grows submerged in the swamps here rotted away by the time I was grown.

After the flood that followed Katrina water stood waist or head high over the streets for weeks and the ground turned to something not quite solid. Hidden beneath the waters the complex matrix of wires and pipes that make a city possible began to shift and collapse, the old iron main lines surrendering to rust. Now some fantastic fraction–a third or more–of the city’s purified water vanishes into the ground every day. And so the ground grows more waterlogged.

I remember the Loma Prieta earthquake, when the shaking turned the Marina District ground to liquid and a neighborhood found itself afloat on its footings and the buildings came crashing down. Here the ground is never dry or still, the entire city sliding in a slow tremor-less movement down into the sea. There is no rattling of dishes or shattering of windows, just the slow breakup of the blacktop like the crust of moving lava, the brightly mortared zigzags in the sides of old masonry buildings held together with metal rods, the wheel and ankle gobbling sink holes that appear overnight.

There is one of these holes just up from my house, where a divot of the lawn at the curb has collapsed into a hole that vanishes under the street. Neighbors steal traffic cones and stick them in the hole but over time they just vanish, as if something down at the bottom resented the interference. Whatever it is, perhaps its hopes to eat what it catches like a trap door spider.

There are several tremendous ones at the edge of downtown that I routinely step around going into and out of work, one a tiny hole the diameter of a water meter cover opening into a much larger cavity, another mysterious worm hole in the street at the corner of O’Keefe and Union that vanishes under the sidewalk like the one by my house. I step gingerly around these when I pass, never knowing when the unsupported concrete will suddenly give way. Today the pothole killer, the truck with the elephantine trunk that vomits tar and rocks into the potholes must have come and filled in the one on Union, but I know it will be back. They always come back. As persistent as guerrillas the water is slowly winning.

And now it is raining again. I warned my daughter by phone not to run off across town after school for fear she might not be able to get back or worse drive into an underpass with water as high as her car roof. A half dozen cars did that at Carrollton and I-10, and I now the other best route along Jeff Davis will fill with great sheets of water where the Palmetto Canal crosses. When the streets start to fill there’s no good way through the center of town, the old swamp where the ridges where we live and the high ground along the river once drained.

As I pull the garbage can out in the unremitting drizzle and listen to the water chuckling down the gutter I think again about Rain Street, and realize why there is none here. In New Orleans, some days every street is Rain Street, when the water comes in sheets from the sky and overflows the roads. I’m just glad I don’t live on Flood.

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