Through the Eye of Katrina  •  special issue, december 2007

Media > Photographing Katrina

A Letter from Atlantis

John Biguenet

Imagine a city.

Begin with its old quarter, a grid stretching perhaps six blocks inland from the eleven blocks that hug a riverbank congested with moored ships and bleating ferries. Line each narrow street and cobblestone alley with an unbroken facade of charming shops and cottages. The tropical sun that bakes the brick-and-stucco walls is unrelenting this time of year, so give each upstairs apartment a balcony, festooned with wrought-iron railings, to cast shade over the sidewalks below.

Now fill those pavements with knots of tourists gawking at the quaint architecture and with locals jostling past them on the way back to work after leisurely lunches in the fine restaurants for which the city is known.

Let the humid afternoon warmth damp the din of commerce and mute the clack of mule hooves and iron-shod wheels, the screech of automobiles, the jingle of coins dropped into a street musician’s hat, the tolling of the cathedral’s bell, the interrogative horns on the river.

Thicken the air with sweet olive, coffee, rotting fish, gardenias, and burnt sugar. Allow the heavy buildings to waver in the heat.

And provide every home there with someone writing at a desk or stirring a kettle of soup in the kitchen or dozing on an old couch. Let their children, playing in patios fringed with palmetto fronds bobbing in a warm breeze, squat beside the shallow pools of ornate fountains to tease golden fish feeding on mosquito larvae.

Now spread the rest of the city across a low plain wedged between a long crook of the river and the vast bay to the north. Erect office towers, an opera house, universities, theaters, hospitals, schools, a stadium, factories, churches, an aquarium, warehouses, museums, stores, statues of heroes, a train station, and two hundred thousand homes. Divide the whole place into Irish neighborhoods and Italian, German and Vietnamese, Latin American and French. But reserve half the town for Africans. Invent an accent for them all to speak.

Set a fleet of small shrimp boats afloat on the bay, dragging their nets behind them. Loose a tide of cars down the highways that crisscross the city and arc over the river in broad bridges. Speckle the sky with planes banking toward the airport.

Have one, two, three thousand phones begin to ring. Suffuse the chatter of half a million people with coughs and curses, whispers and wheezes. Let a hundred dogs bark, fifty doorbells squawk their greetings, two hundred thousand television sets hawk the news, and a single lion in the zoo yawn. Provoke laughter until it ripples across the whole city. Now—while they’re still laughing—unpeople the place. Scatter in boarded-up houses, especially in the poorest neighborhoods, twenty-five, fifty, maybe eighty thousand men, women, and their children. But evacuate everyone else. Unleash a few dogs and cats to stray in search of food. Let the traffic lights continue to blink.

Have a damp breeze gust out of the southeast. Do not be distracted as oaks begin to shudder, loose weatherboards slap their houses, halyards clatter against the masts of sailboats moored in the agitated bay.

Darken the sky; sustain the wind as it stiffens into a gale. Let the pelting rain arrive in bands, each heavier than the one before, until a merciless fist of wind sheathed in a glove of iron-gray water shatters windows in every house, smashes storefronts, snaps trees in half, batters roofs, flattens fences, rips signs from their poles.

Hours later, as the storm trails north, shred the clouds with slashes of blue. Let people poke their heads out of doors, astonished by the freshly scoured sky. Gather them in the street, everyone ebullient that they have survived.

But while they regale one another with tales of what they’ve all just endured, notice how sand is bubbling along the base of the levees that protect their neighborhoods from drainage canals swollen with water from the bay. And a few minutes later, when the levees begin to collapse, one after another, note how shallow are the flood walls that pivot open as the water sluices, then cascades into the city.

Let the unchecked flow of warm salt water wash away houses abutting the levees, upend automobiles in driveways, gouge off corners of homes blocks away, topple light poles, and take more and more of the crumbling levees with it as the flood deepens.

As darkness falls across the city and people sleep, not yet aware of the breaches, fill the streets with water, gutter to gutter. Have it lap across the sidewalks and through picket gates, over the low azalea bushes blooming in gardens, up the steps and onto front porches, seeping under doors, then tamping at the windows, and finally settling just below the eaves.

The next morning, begin to strew human corpses here and there. Behind the locked door of a nursing home, heap thirty frail bodies. Then crowd forty more dead amid a pile of wheelchairs in a hospital stairwell. Let a whole family die trapped in their attic, not having thought to bring an axe to cut their way out through the roof.

Assemble the dispossessed still left in the city on outcroppings of concrete, highway overpasses, the raised terraces of public buildings. Withhold water from them and food. Let the dead rot among the living.

Ignore the stench rising from the fetid swamp that, mere days ago, was a great city and look out across the place you have dreamt. But do not allow yourself to weep at what you see. The water is too deep already.

You think you have come to the end of it, this nightmare, but it is only just beginning. Loose mobs of looters on the city’s shopping district. Let them burn what they cannot carry away. Pack thousands and thousands of citizens in a sweltering stadium and a convention center, with neither running water nor working toilets, then observe how these people who have lost everything minister to one another, maintain what dignity they can muster, offer their sympathy to others, rebuke the lawless, protect the vulnerable. Do allow one government official to send word to the capital of the unfolding catastrophe, beg for supplies and personnel, and wait—surrounded by suffering—as help fails to arrive.

While the whole world watches in horror, let it go on like this for days. Then decree the abandonment of the city. Order the few troops who have finally arrived to drive out all its citizens. Scatter them across the country in makeshift shelters.

Keep the temperature in the nineties, and let the standing water rot the city for weeks. Study what salt water does to a house, to its sheetrock, to its insulation, to its door frames and studs. Marvel at the intricate designs of mold spiraling up walls, over furniture and artwork; wonder at its vibrant colors, the orange mold and the brown, the golden and the red as it thickens into delicate fur. Observe the shriveling of plants, the bleaching of grass.

Encourage politicians to denigrate the victims of the collapsed levees—which they themselves have refused to provide funding to strengthen year after year—for choosing to live in a city protected by levees built by the government they administer.

A month later, after the water has drained away, welcome back stunned evacuees to uninhabitable houses. Have no place for them to live, no shops open, no schools, no gas stations. Impose a curfew enforced by armed soldiers.

Line the streets of the city with reeking refrigerators seething with flies. Heap sidewalks with ragged slabs of stained sheetrock, ripped-out cabinets, appliances sloshing with water. Mound still-damp insulation, moldy carpets, stained clothes, sopping wet mattresses until they spill into the gutter. Scattter debris—broken chunks of metal, shards of glass, rusted nails—down every street.

Hint that whole neighborhoods will be demolished, but decline to specify which homes will be bulldozed. Leave unanswered all the questions of those not yet able to return. Wonder aloud why they would even want to return to their houses. Suggest they need to move on with their lives.

As winter arrives, keep stores shuttered because no workers can be found. Let families live by candlelight in the unheated homes they have gutted. Have businesses begin to declare bankruptcy. Do nothing as doctors and lawyers see their practices shrivel and fail. Raise rents two and three times over their pre-flood levels because so little housing was spared by the water. Leave most of the city dark at night and uninhabited. Tally the suicides.

Encourage the nation to turn to other matters as the place you have dreamed withers. And as you watch it fade away, imagine one more thing: how history will judge a country that let New Orleans, one of the world’s great cities, die.

Adapted from a previously published essay in Meena, see

John Biguenet is the author of Oyster, a novel, and The Torturer’s Apprentice: Stories, published by Ecco/HarperCollins. Among his other books are Foreign Fictions (Random House) and two volumes on literary translation (The University of Chicago Press). Biguenet’s radio play Wundmale, which premiered on Westdeutscher Rundfunk, Germany’s largest radio network, was rebroadcast by Österreichischer Rundfunk, the Austrian national radio and television network. Two of his stories have been featured in Selected Shorts at Symphony Space on Broadway. The Vulgar Soul won the 2004 Southern New Plays Festival and was a featured production in 2005 at Southern Rep Theatre; he and the play were profiled in American Theatre magazine. His new play, Rising Water, was the winner of the 2006 National New Play Network Commission Award, a 2006 National Showcase of New Plays selection, and a 2007 recipient of an Access to Artistic Excellence development and production grant from the National Endowment for the Arts; it has been nominated for the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in drama. He has been awarded a 2007 Marquette Fellowship for the writing of his next play, Night Train, which he has been invited to develop on a Studio Attachment at the Royal National Theatre in London. His work has received an O. Henry Award and a Harper’s Magazine Writing Award among other distinctions, and his stories and essays have been reprinted or cited in The Best American Mystery Stories, Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, The Best American Short Stories, and Best Music Writing. Having served twice as president of the American Literary Translators Association and as writer-in-residence at various universities, he is currently the Robert Hunter Distinguished Professor at Loyola University in New Orleans. Named its first guest columnist by the New York Times, Biguenet has chronicled in both columns and videos his return to New Orleans after its catastrophic flooding and the efforts to rebuild the city.