BURLINGTON -- Fred Johnston is lucky to be alive. Two weeks ago, the 30-year-old New Orleans native was trapped in a city that had descended into chaos; today, he and his wife Jenese and their 5-year-old daughter Corazon are living temporarily in Burlington. The family rode out Hurricane Katrina in their home in the city's Ninth Ward. When the levees broke and the water rose, they were forced to leave.
The story of how they made it to the Superdome, to Texas, and finally to Vermont is horrific. Johnston tells it while sitting on the stairs inside the doorway to the Body Art Studio on Main Street in Burlington. He's a tattoo artist and is now working there.
Johnston has been employed at Body Art before. He met owner Shamus Parker through his own tattooing teacher eight years ago, and has visited Burlington for short stints ever since.
Five years ago, Tyre DuVernay, Johnston's childhood friend, followed him to Burlington to work at Body Art. The two had attended the same high school as well as the New Orleans Creative Arts program together. DuVernay and his wife, Gina, were visiting New Orleans as the storm approached, but evacuated before it hit. Now the couple is assisting 19 friends and family members who have moved to the Burlington area in Katrina's wake.
This makes for a creative and direct way to get involved in the hurricane relief efforts: Get a tattoo. "Or a piercing," adds Gina, who also works at Body Art.
Of all the evacuees associated with the shop, only Johnston and his family remained in New Orleans when the storm hit. Why didn't they leave? The thoughtful, soft-spoken, copiously tattooed, African-American artist explains that evacuation is expensive. "We're New Orleanians," he says. "If you left every time there's a storm, that's loss of wages, money for gas, money for a hotel, money for food. And sometimes the storm doesn't even hit New Orleans."
The stairwell is humid and stale as Johnston speaks. It's cooler outside, but it's raining. He pauses at times to cry, like when he speaks of his art -- most of his oil paintings, silkscreens, watercolors and pastels were caught in the flood. He pulls the neck of his white T-shirt over his face to dry his eyes. Johnston reveals that he's more emotional now than he was during the crisis. It's beginning to hit him, what he's lost.
Johnston says he didn't realize how bad the storm was until he saw the water rising. After a while, he says, "You could see the carpet start to dance." He moves his hand in a wavy motion to demonstrate how it rippled.
Johnston had recently replaced the carpet. The family had moved to the 100-year-old French Colonial a few months before and was preparing to buy it. He had just finished repainting and remodeling, and had put down a deposit on the house. He was to have closed on it in a few weeks. Now he's not sure what will happen.
The ruined carpet bothered Johnston at first. Then he noticed the water in the walls. "The plaster started to catch the current," he says. "It was like the house was breathing."
When the ceiling in his daughter's room collapsed, revealing holes in the attic that left the house open to the weather, Johnston understood that his family was in danger. He started to let go of his material possessions. "It was like I was slowly becoming a Buddhist or something," he says. "My priorities started changing."
He and his wife packed their daughter into an 8-foot-long, flat-bottomed boat that he'd bought a short time before. He planned to paddle to his mother's house half a mile away; they could no longer walk there. But he found boating difficult, too, because there was a current.
The family's situation quickly became life-threatening. The boat capsized. They rested briefly on the roof of an SUV, then climbed back into the uprighted boat. Johnston worried about keeping afloat, so he got out and clung to a fence, towing his family forward. He cut himself repeatedly; the lacerations on his palms are still healing.
At the base of his mother's street, Johnston broke down a porch door with his elbow, to let his family rest. To get to his mother's house, they had to cross a street that was now a river. "It was like, you have to get to the end of Church Street, but you have to cross Main Street," he explains. "They're both flooded. There's a strong current. If you miss your calculations, you're in trouble."
And the current wasn't the only danger. "The water's filled with oil, transmission fluid from the cars," Johnston says. "You could smell the gas."
When he and his wife reached his mother's porch, pulling their daughter in the boat, the neighbors cheered. Johnston's mother, brother and brother's girlfriend were upstairs; the first floor was flooded.
They salvaged a little food from the kitchen. The relief was only temporary, however. The family had a battery-powered radio, but what they heard was unhelpful. "If you were looking to survive," Johnston says, exasperated, "if you wanted to know where the relief effort was coming, there was no such thing. It was so much rhetoric. It hurt to listen to the radio sometimes, because you just wanted to know what to do."
They had heard that they should go to the Superdome, 4 miles away, but decided to put it off as long as possible. Johnston paddled home to get a few things, including his three guns. "I don't like guns," he confides, "I just own them. That's what you need to survive in this world."
On the way back, he passed groups of people on porches who asked him to bring his boat their way. "But you might see 10 people on the porch," Johnston says. When he didn't stop, they swore at him. At one point, two young men asked for a ride. He ignored them. "Then they start talking about what they going to do to me to get my boat," he says, staring off into the distance.
Johnston says he picked up his rifle. "I made them see me load it," he says. "Made sure they heard me load it. Then they stopped talking."
Johnston's family stayed at his mother's house for three days, during which life became simple. "You're worried about food, water, shit, sleep," he says. Johnston started taking cigarettes, alcohol, food and medicine from nearby stores -- his mother had had invasive heart surgery just days earlier. What he didn't use, he bartered. "I hear on television, they were calling it looting," he says, "How are you going to say that these people who have nothing, they hardly have their lives, are looting . . . If I would have waited on the government, on any infrastructure in America, I would be dead on the roof somewhere."
After three days, they left for the Superdome. "The things I saw on that walk . . ." Johnston says, his voice trailing off. He won't talk about dead bodies, but he describes the water, fetid and full of debris. The family saw few cops, and the ones they did see made them nervous. "I felt like all of them were Nazis," says Johnston. "They were just holding firearms, they got the ugliest faces on . . . Everybody knows what help looks like. This didn't look like help."
Though they didn't notice many governmental agents on the ground, they saw many helicopters. But the people flying overhead never acknowledged them. Johnston wondered if he should set a fire so they would see him, or maybe shoot his gun in the air. What he couldn't have known at the time is that both behaviors were widely condemned by those watching the hurricane response on TV.
When Johnston's family got within a mile of the Superdome, night fell. They camped out against a median wall on the Interstate. One person stayed awake to keep watch, and to "play lighthouse" with a flashlight so they wouldn't be run over by rescuers.
In the morning, after hearing that people were being turned away from the Superdome, they returned to Johnston's mother's house. Within a couple of days, though, they made it to the center and claimed a spot outside. The inside, Johnston remembers, smelled like "a hospice and a sewer."
After a day and a half, they boarded a bus that took them to Dallas. Johnston compares the trip to a "prison transport." Armed guards kept the passengers from straying on bathroom breaks. Johnston says he tried to buy food from a fruit stand and was told it wasn't allowed. "I decided at that point I needed to get off the bus," he says.
Johnston and his wife and daughter took their two wet, mildewed bags and sat by the side of the road. A charitable Texan woman -- "a black lady," notes Johnston -- stopped to help them. At first he refused her offer, but she was persistent. "I'm glad," he says. "We needed help." She took them home and fed them, and let them use her phone to call friends, who bought the family plane tickets to Burlington. His mother and brother ended up in an evacuee shelter in Arkansas.
Johnston is bitter about his experience, and critical of the federal government. "They're saying the mayor and the governor didn't properly ask for help," he says. "I just want to know, did the people of Iraq ask correctly?"
But he's also happy to be alive. He says he's not a religious person, but he likens the ordeal to "a trip to Mecca, a pilgrimage" that has given him a new perspective.
Johnston stares through the glass door, toward Main Street. "All this shit is like The Matrix," he muses. "It tastes like steak because they tell you it tastes like steak . . . Your life is made of experiences and family. Everything else is make-believe. If you had clothes that made you, if you had a car that made you, if you had a business that made you, you are no longer anybody."
He gestures at the street, where an ambulance has just passed. The rain has stopped. "When you see the water rising, inch by inch, foot by foot," Johnston observes, "you just realize how powerful everything is, and how little control you have over it."