Home Alone In The Eye Of The Storm

From Akwaeke Emezi's journal, kept during the most harrowing hours of Hurricane Ida

NOLA Hurricane Ida

Hurricane Ida Journal 

Sunday, 11:36 AM

All gates in the levee system are closed. 

I wanted to leave on Friday. I’d been gathering supplies—gallons of drinking water, boxes of soup—things I could load my car with. I thought I would drive to Houston if it came down to it. Catch a flight to New York, to the only other city in this country I ever called home. 

I forgot about my body. I forgot it can’t drive anymore, not for the hours evacuation takes. It can’t bear the weight of a pet carrier with Güs inside while pushing through an airport packed with frightened people trying to leave a city before it drowns. I haven’t been able to navigate an airport without being in a wheelchair for about a year now. 

Last week, I fucked up and wheeled a trolley of luggage from one terminal to another in JFK. By the time I got to the check-in desk, my body was seizing visibly, forcing short bursts of sound past my gritted teeth as my torso caved and convulsed. The ticket agent expedited me through security and called a cart to get me to my gate. When I got downstairs, the information agent—an older white woman—told me the cart had left without me. I tried explaining that I could not walk to the gate unassisted without going into severe convulsions, but as I spoke, I began to stutter. My words slurred as the muscle spasms spread to my throat and face, and I choked back helpless tears. I’ve lost my ability to speak before, and it horrifies me each time it happens. On the other side of the counter, the woman panicked and started making phone calls. I listened as she told whoever she was speaking to that she had a passenger in distress, and then she suggested calling the police. 

I’ve lost my ability to speak before, and it horrifies me each time it happens.

I couldn’t panic. I couldn’t afford to panic. I’ve had breakdowns in airports in various countries before, been detained and threatened by soldiers, had airport personnel deliberately try to make me miss my flights so I would be stranded away from home. Sometimes it was because of my passports, sometimes it was because of how I dressed or sounded, or because tattoos cover my arms, or because my disability is invisible—there are so many permutations of punishable deviances in a space as heavily surveilled as an airport. I could not imagine what cops would do to me for being Black, for the way my speech was glitching, the way my body was folding, the way my mind was about to break. The information agent asked me if I wanted the police, an unhinged question, and I replied as sternly as I could that I did not. I asked her to call the gate to let them know I was delayed, and she told me no one would hold the plane, not for me. 

In the end, she gave me a chair and I sat in it and cried and cried. I cried when the wheelchair finally arrived, and all the way to the gate, not caring who stared. They always stare when you’re in a wheelchair anyway. My mask got damp from the steady tears, and I didn’t care. The world is violent—I will say it over and over again, in as many books as I like, as many times as I like. The pain in my neck and shoulder kept escalating. Even now, as I type, it is a stinging octopus latched onto my right clavicle, deep aching tentacles winding all the way down to my bones. I got home last Monday and cried when I stepped through my front door. I was housebound for days afterward, all for walking from one terminal to another. 

If I break in an airport, no one will protect me.  

The hurricane is coming and there were no flight itineraries that would work, not with my disability and an accompanying pet. Every direct flight was sold out. I searched for hours, gave up and cried, woke up on Saturday morning and searched for more hours, gave up and cried again. Some flights opened up and the seats were gone as soon as I tried to book them. There was a time when I could drive, before my body landed in this much pain. What a difference it makes, between being able to leave as the storm fixes its eye on your shores, and where I am now, writing this from a pile of duvets on my closet floor as the roof of my house creaks from the wind. 

What a difference having a family makes—when someone can drive you, when you feel safe enough to enter a car with them, knowing you might be trapped on the packed freeways for many more hours than you anticipated. I have nobody here to help me leave. I cannot go with strangers. I cannot imagine doing that trip with anyone I need to stitch a performative mask to my own face for—there are many things that can break me, and my body is not the only one. I would, quite literally, rather risk my life in this house.

I would, quite literally, rather risk my life in this house.

My preparations are incomplete, I know this. There’s only so much I can carry and secure before I have to sit down and rest because blunt agony is grinding into my muscles. The pain medication does a little, but not enough. I refuse to take opioids—I only use them right after a surgery, but certainly not when a hurricane is coming and I am alone. 

My sister Yagazie keeps me company over the phone, reminding me to close all my interior doors so the house is better supported if my doors and windows get breached. My sibling Ann double checks that I’ve charged all my electronics and listens to the twenty minute voice notes I send her as I process the choking feelings that encompass me. I tell her about the people who have shown up and the people I considered family who have disappeared as the hurricane spins her brutal arms towards me. I would never feed silence to someone I cared about while they were afraid in a swamp, in the path of a storm that could kill them, but people justify the wildest things these days. I’m not interested in listening to them. Ann and I talk about performative solidarity and the way my nervous system is shattered right now, how annoying embodiment is. We talk about our books, about filling shelves with her series, about rainmakers and gold. We talk about God. 

I close all my doors and curl up in the closet with Güs. I check the official Twitter accounts that the city is using to give updates. Life-threatening storm surges. Curfews are being put in place. A Black woman on Twitter named KD Minor (@ineedja_kadeeja) is coordinating direct cash assistance for families in Louisiana using the hashtag #ForeverCalcasieu. People will continue to need help long after the storm passes. 

I am so tired of aftermaths. 

Sunday, 1:40 PM

The power is out. 

It came in a few times, the lights flickering, before finally leaving. All the appliances have fallen silent, and now there is just the wind, nonstop and shrieking. The wifi is gone but I still have data on my phone. I should download more books from the New Orleans Library while I can. I don’t know how many days it’ll take for the power to be restored. This morning I ran the AC much colder than I usually have it, hoping the house will hold the cool air even after the storm has passed, while we wait for the power. We’ve been getting heat advisories all summer and I’m worried about when the storm passes, what the heat will do then. I should’ve bought a small fan while I was running errands on Friday. 

My neck is spasming. I swipe an extra strength CBD balm over my trapezius muscle to try and soothe it.

Something keeps beeping; I have no idea what.

I leave the closet to make lunch and my sister frets about me moving around the house. I’d only stocked the closet with snacks because it’s hard enough to plan what to eat on a good day. In a crisis, my mind goes entirely blank, as if I’ve never thought of a meal in my entire life. Luckily, a past version of me stocked my freezer with food, so I pull Singapore noodles out of the silent fridge to reheat on the gas stove. I use matches because there is no electricity to spark the fire alive. As the noodles steam warm under a lid, I make sandwiches with roselle jam and almond butter, cutting them into neat halves and packing them into Ziploc bags. 

The wind sounds terrifying this close to the outside walls and windows. It is an unholy howling, like a great spirit has its mouth wide open above and around us. A sharp crack lights the air outside in a brief and brilliant blue, power lines perhaps. I wonder if this is what an explosion looks like. I should’ve made food earlier but I am doing everything as quickly as my body permits, which is not very. I peel two plantains and laugh to myself because somehow, here I am making dodo in the middle of a Category 4 hurricane. As the slices fry in avocado oil, I wash the dishes in the sink while there’s still running water. Every second, I half expect the kitchen windows to blow in, spewing glass everywhere and letting that wildness into the house. Güs leaves the closet to find me. He crouches sleepily on the hardwood floor by the dining table, staring at me as I flinch from the sounds outside. It does not sound like a storm, or like wind, or any of these little words that fail to contain what is happening. It sounds like hell itself is roaring out of the sky. 

I should’ve made food earlier but I am doing everything as quickly as my body permits, which is not very.

The fear I feel is primal, disconnected, deadly stimuli striking a separate bargain with my nervous system. I gather all the food, sling Güs over my shoulder, and we retreat back to our little emergency nook.

Sunday, 4:52 PM

Something just crashed outside, something heavy. The house has been shaking all day, but now it feels like it could be from an impact. I’m worried it’s a window or the front door being breached, but I can’t decide if I should check. How much of this is beyond my control? How much can I mitigate as the day progresses slowly? It will be utterly dark in a few hours. 

Sunday, 7:22 PM

The main transmission tower that feeds New Orleans has collapsed into the Mississippi River. 

There was something I kept trying to remember about how the house is shaking, and now it comes to mind. It feels like an earthquake, like the force is bucking up from beneath the floor. I didn’t know a hurricane could feel like this. 

I can hear rain now, accompanying the endless wind. My sister told me to download some TV shows yesterday, so I’m watching a baking show on one of my phones, interrupted by update texts from the city and the power company. Due to catastrophic transmission damage, all of Orleans Parish is currently without power.

The sunshine is almost entirely leached from the sky. I can hear the silence ringing in my ears when I pause the show. There’s an icepack propped behind my shoulder blade, pain relief that will fade as everything in the house thaws, all my other ice packs turning into plastic bags of blue gel. I know I will forget all of this, how the individual moments feel, so I write as a tethering. I’m never really here. I’m floating a pace away from my body, making clinical observations about my nervous system. I am as invisible as my disability.

I know I will forget all of this, how the individual moments feel, so I write as a tethering.

I like being with the house. It was so lonely when I first put in an offer on it—I used to bike over just to hang out with it before we closed. Last week when I was returning after convulsing in multiple airports and planes, the house was a beacon, a homing light. Most of me had sloughed off with the tears and all that was left was a thread of survival—if you can get home, you will be safe. Just get home. I’m not joking when I say the outside world is uninhabitable for me, that what is normal for other people is shattering and violent for me, that it makes me want to die, moving amidst all these cruel humans. 

So I retreat to the godhouse, the land I’ve worked with, an entire reality unto itself. The only home I’ve ever had where I could call it safe and it wouldn’t be a lie, where there’s no clock, no departure date, where no one has screamed at me, or touched me in sick blasphemy. We are together in this storm, the godhouse and I, and there is some comfort in that. I am not exiled while it’s battered in my absence, not anxious while I wait to return and see how the hurricane hurt it. What happens to us, happens to both of us, now. 

Sunday, 9:53 PM

The heat is already climbing. 

Everything is dark, but I know this from another bungalow two decades and an ocean away, the warm nights, sweating by the light of a candle with a book to take me somewhere else. The compulsory  dark is familiar, an old friend visiting in a new house, but I am not fooled by nostalgia. I know that the dark turns sour, that staying here for too long will trigger my C-PTSD with old decades of enthusiasm, so I remind myself that this time, it is different. 

This time, there are marble floors that retain coolness and the water is still running, for now. I smash frozen spheres of orange juice into a teacup, cold mint leaves clinging to my spoon. The light from my emergency torch burns a cold halo into the ceiling. My shoulder is screaming at me and I hear it, but I am too tired to hunt down a silicone cup to make a suctioned ring on the muscle, or to start assembling my electrode pads and lead wires. A few people are texting to check in. Güs is asleep in his blankie, after an hour or two of trying to run through the house to play. 

I’m going to try and sleep, even though it seems dangerous to jump realities while the storm is collapsing buildings and peeling off roofs. I don’t know what this patch of world will look like when I wake up. I know it will be different. I know I am already different, in the way catastrophe can force clarity, stripping away your capacity for anything that is not vital and necessary. Wheat and chaff. My heart breaks in the thrashing and rebuilds itself, because what is stripped by the hand of God is stripped by the hand of God. There are quiet blessings in what remains, in the community that does show up, in the ways I show up for myself. I let the translucent shells of old things be whipped away on the wind—why hold them? My hands overflow with what God gives me. Take away whatever you wish. 

I know I am already different, in the way catastrophe can force clarity, stripping away your capacity for anything that is not vital and necessary.

Expect severe weather to continue throughout the night. Stay put & stay safe. 

I read through the text from the alert system and even though I know it’s automated, the next line makes me cry because I am scared and my family is not here so I couldn’t get out in time and I am alone in a dark closet with ghosts of my childhood waiting in the humid wings. I worked so hard to make a home and now a storm could rip it away from me, and worst of all, I am alone, I am alone like my oldest fear, I am alone like a nightmare, but even though the hurricane has not passed, someone still wrote this automated message and sent it out, a small light floating like a firefly between the crashing trees and collapsing buildings, finding its way through the baying dark.

Goodnight, NOLA, it says. We’ll get through this together.

Even though the news cycle has moved on, hundreds of people in Louisiana are still reeling from the impact of Hurricane Ida. In solidarity, please consider making a tax deductible donation to House Of Tulip New Orleans, who have been distributing mutual aid to community members in need. We are all we’ve got.

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