(1) Throughout Royal Street, new days in the narrative are begun with a quote from the New Orleans’ daily Times-Picayune to help ground the fantasy story in reality. Except for Friday, August 26, when the story begins. Because there was nothing in the Times-Pic that day that I could find. On Friday, 72 hours before Katrina made landfall, everyone in New Orleans was being told the storm, a small Category 1, was going to curve northward into Florida, so we were watching it but not very concerned. I recall being at work at Tulane that Friday, and being shocked late in the afternoon to hear that it had grown to a Cat 3 and the projected path had moved westward to Mississippi. Even then, neither I nor my coworkers had any plans to evacuate. Obviously, Katrina got bigger than expected and didn’t take the path being forecast even as late as Friday. More on how the storm’s projected path changed can be found here.
(2) The average humidity in August in New Orleans is 80 percent. Then it gets worse.
(3) The pirate Jean Lafitte made an interesting character because so much conflicting information exists about the man—much of it perpetuated by Lafitte himself. First of all, Jean (because we’re on a first-name basis by now) often signed his name Laffite rather than Lafitte. (You can see a copy of his signature here.) After reading a number of biographies on Jean, I finally went with the most popular of conflicting birthdates—using the year 1780 as his year of birth. So in 2005, when Royal Street takes place, Jean’s age in human years would be 225.
(4) There is less conflict among biographers as to Jean’s height—all agree he was around six-foot-two. This was extraordinarily tall for the early 1800s.
(5) Biographers have given Jean hazel eyes, dark-blue eyes, black eyes, and in one instance, even eyes of a purplish hue! Who knows. I picked dark-blue and I’m sticking to it.
(6) Did Jean Lafitte have a tanned, muscular chest? Well, sure he did. He was a pirate. Seriously.
(7) More Jean Lafitte convolutions. An often-distributed drawing of Jean can be seen here, but this was done long after he’d disappeared (either dying in battle at sea or dying of Yellow Fever in the Yucatan, depending on who you ask), so who knows if it has any accuracy. Biographers only agree that his hair was black or dark brown. He was described in most biographies as “fair of complexion” (i.e., not swarthy or olive-skinned). Some biographies gave him a moustache as in the illustration; others had him clean-shaven.
(8) The scar on his face? Totally fabricated by moi.
(9) Delacroix is an unincorporated community in St. Bernard Parish, northeast of New Orleans. Much of it is wetlands and bayou country. I once got lost in Delacroix, after making a very wrong turn, and drove until the road ran into water near an old bar called End of the World. There was a dead nutria (big giant rat with orange teeth) nailed to a post where I turned around. I thought I might die. It’s an awesome place. Despite Bob Dylan’s French pronunciation in his song “Tangled up in Blue,” the locals pronounce the name “Della-crow.”
(10) Drusilla Jane Jaco’s name is a mashup of my great-grandmothers Drusilla Jane Harris and Ida Jaco. They’re probably revolving in their graves.
(11) Tulane University plays a big role in the books because it’s an important place to me, having worked there for almost fifteen years. It’s a private research university that was originally named The University of Louisiana until cotton merchant Paul Tulane injected it with a big cash infusion just after the Civil War. Now it’s officially the Tulane University of Louisiana, but TU works better.
(12) How things change. In 2005, when Royal Street is set, the iPad and iPhone hadn’t yet come along.
(13) Canal Street is a major street in New Orleans—one of the widest in the world, as it was originally built where a canal was meant to be constructed dividing the French and Spanish people in the Vieux Carre from the uncouth Americans that were populating what would become the Central Business District. There is an especially wide neutral ground on Canal Street. What the rest of the world calls a median is, in New Orleans, a neutral ground—because of the cultural divide between the Americans and French/Spaniards. Once a major shopping thoroughfare for New Orleanians, Canal Street today is a dizzying mass of palms, streetcards, and pawn shops.
(14) See earlier note about the height of Jean Lafitte. The average height of a Frenchman in 1800 was five-six, so Jean was a big boy.
(15) “Le Capitaine” was the term used by the gypsies, tramps, and thieves—upwards of a thousand of them, pirates all—who pledged fealty to Jean Lafitte and lived in his kingdom of Barataria, southwest of New Orleans.
(16) Jean’s nickname for DJ, “Jolie,” is a nod to the song “Jolie Blon,” sometimes called the “Cajun National Anthem.” My personal favorite version is by Zachary Richard, but here’s one from BeauSoleil’s Michael Doucet that’s almost as good.
(17) Jean Lafitte was despised by the merchants and political leaders of the New Orleans area, but much loved by the people. He plundered Spanish ships, taking all kinds of merchandise bound for the U.S., and undersold the competition.
(18) The average temperature in South Louisiana in August is about 92, which for a Southern city isn’t so hot. Add 80 percent humidity however, and, as the Cajuns say, i-yi-yi.
(19) Bayou Lery is actually south of Delacroix, and lies in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, to the south of Lake Lery. DJ doesn’t know it yet, but this area has quite a few residents that will play a big role in book two in this series, River Road (out November 13).
(20) Snowy egrets are a beautiful and significant species along the Gulf Coast and plentiful in the South Louisiana wetlands. Here’s an egret flying over Jean Lafitte National Park, just south of New Orleans.
(21) “Witch” is a dirty word in DJ’s world. One of the reasons I made DJ a wizard and not a witch was after reading an essay by Terry Pratchett that pointed out wizards are always pointy-hatted old guys and witches are usually female. Wizards are seen as more powerful than witches. So in DJ’s world, witches are very minor mages, and wizards can be any gender. Take that, glass ceiling.
(22) There is some disagreement among biographers as to whether Jean Lafitte was born in Bordeaux, France, or in the French colony of Saint-Domingue in what is now Haiti. His older brother Pierre was smuggling goods out of Saint-Domingue before Jean appeared in New Orleans about 1805.
(23) Regardless of where he was born, all biographers agree that Jean was French, and French was his native language. He also was fluent in English and Spanish and, in some accounts, Italian.
(24) Because you just can’t live in the South without a few Mason jars.
(25) Because Jean Lafitte ran his fleet of ships under marque from Cartagena, he claimed his seizure (i.e., plundering and looting) of Spanish ships were acts of war, not piracy. He preferred to be called a “privateer,” and took great offense at being referred to as a pirate. I say tomato, tomahto.
(26) Both Royal Street and River Road were written before the BP Oil Spill. However, a percentage of author royalties from River Road, which is set largely in Plaquemines Parish, will go to the Greater New Orleans Foundation for its Gulf Coast Oil Spill Fund, which is helping those continuing to struggle to clean up the coastal areas of St. Bernard, Plaquemines, and Jefferson parishes and help those in the fishing industry whose livelihoods have been damaged.
(27) Jean Lafitte’s horde of gold is the stuff of legend in Louisiana, and every so often someone will buy a “newly unearthed” map to where his treasure is buried. People have dug up most of the area around Grand Terre and Barataria, where he was rumored to have buried his gold and silver coins before setting fire to his empire and fleeing the authorities. People even tore apart some of the old plantation homes along the river after rumors spread that Lafitte’s treasure might be buried in the walls.
(28) Before Hurricane Katrina, I used to love to go to Sid-Mar’s in Bucktown for oysters and stuffed artichokes overlooking Lake Pontchartrain. The hurricane destroyed Sid-Mar’s, and to add insult, the government took the land to build a ramped-up flood gate for the 17th Street Canal. Last I heard, the family had never been paid for their land, but in 2009, Sid-Mar’s reopened in Metairie, a west NOLA suburb.
(29) I gave DJ a Pathfinder because I thought its name was indicative of her journey. Plus, SUVs are more for survival in New Orleans because of street flooding and horrible road conditions—you want something durable with a lot of ground clearance.
(30) Sadly, I remember making snarky comments about the name “Katrina” being too wimpy for a storm…before it hit.
(31) Bucktown is an old fishing village and shipping port on the south short of Lake Pontchartrain. In the 1850s, before New Orleans grew to envelop it, one could travel from the city to the port by way of a railway.
(32) I’ve heard many an argument over hot sauce—you can find dozens of brands and degrees of heat. The two biggies are Tabasco, produced west of New Orleans in Avery Island, and Louisiana Hot Sauce, produced nearby in New Iberia. DJ likes the original Louisiana Hot Sauce.
(33) This is the evacuation rationale followed by most New Orleanians I know. Before Katrina, it was always: Category 1 or 2 or fast-moving Cat 3, stay and ride it out. Slow Cat 3, or a Cat 4 or 5, get out of Dodge. My own practice was to make hotel reservations for two nights somewhere away from the coast whenever a storm entered the Gulf, then I’d cancel them when I was comfortable the storm was going somewhere else. That practice paid off when Katrina suddenly headed for New Orleans and most people weren’t able to find hotel rooms. Although that little Days Inn room with three adults, two dogs and two cats got awfully cramped by day seven!
(34) In 2004, Hurricane Ivan was a huge Cat 5 storm headed straight for New Orleans. A friend and I packed up the pets and merged into heavy traffic trying to evacuate the metro area. We sat and sat and sat. After two hours, we’d gone less than a mile. We exited the interstate an hour later at the next exit, went to the grocery store and bought junk food, and decided to ride it out. I think the wind blew a little as it curved east of us and wiped out Gulf Shores, Alabama. Another reason New Orleanians were reluctant to evacuate a year later.
(35) True that. On every table, for every seat, is a bowl or saucer in which one mixes hot sauce, horseradish, and ketchup to concoct a cocktail sauce as hot or mild as one wants.
(36) True story, except the name I actually gave the forecaster was the “alarmist tramp.” Guess she had the last laugh since axes saved a lot of lives after Katrina.
(37) There were ducks and stray cats that hung around outside Sid-Mar’s restaurant. I always wondered if they survived Katrina.
(38) New Orleans is composed of about 70 individual neighborhoods, each with its own personality and character. Uptown is the broad swath of land along the river that encompasses both Tulane University and Loyola University, and the grand sweep of lower St. Charles Avenue. The portion of uptown on the river side of St. Charles was among the 20 percent of New Orleans that did not flood, as it is made up of higher ground that sits at or above sea level.
(39) Lakeview is a middle-class neighborhood at the northernmost reaches of Orleans Parish, the county in which New Orleans is located. Lakeview is separated from the suburb of Metairie, in Jefferson Parish, by the 17th Street Canal. (See below.)
(40) The 17th Street Canal is an outflow canal for Lake Pontchartrain. When the lake is high, pressure on the lake’s levees are relieved by water flowing into the 17th Street Canal. Unfortunately, when Hurricane Katrina’s winds blew in from the north and heavy rain fell, the combination caused a big surge of water into the canal, which failed in Lakeview. Water from this canal rushed into bowl-shaped New Orleans until the water level in the city was even with the water level in Lake Pontchartrain. (Other levees failed as well, flooding New Orleans East, the Lower Ninth Ward, and St. Bernard Parish.) Eighty percent of New Orleans was underwater from two weeks to a month, depending on the area, because there was nowhere for it to drain—it had to be pumped out.
(41) In Royal Street, Gerry St. Simon’s house is modeled after the first place I lived in New Orleans—in a Lakeview house on Bellaire Drive that backed up to the 17th Street Canal floodwall. There’s a good photo of the pre-Katrina floodwall and the jogging path alongside it on the previous link.
(42) The air felt different even two days before Katrina arrived. Later, I learned it was because the normal humidity in the air was gone—it was a hot, dry wind. The moisture in the air had been sucked into the Gulf and was feeding into this monster storm.
(43) I have the LOTR unabridged audio. It is 55 hours long!
(44) This is normal hurricane preparation, even for small Cat 1 storms.
(45) DJ’s house is located at the corner of Magazine Street and Nashville Avenue in uptown New Orleans. At the time of Katrina, a small house-turned-business called the Quilt Cottage was in that location. The shop owner lost her home, although the business survived, and sadly died a few years after the storm. Stress took its toll on everyone. Today, that corner is occupied by a gourmet meat market. A camelback house is a one-story house that has a second-story added onto the back part of the house—the camel’s hump. DJ’s house was patterned after my neighbor’s late 19th-century camelback, which is located on Carondelet St.
(46) Dupre is a common New Orleans name. My friend Dave, who was trapped in his house for a month after Katrina hit, lives on Dupre Street, and had a dog named Dupre. “Eugenie” is a name I’ve run across in New Orleans quite a few times, and liked.
(47) I evacuated to Shreveport and spent six hellish days in a Days Inn with two other adults, two nervous dogs (one a 90-pounder) and an ailing cat or two. Then we all loaded up and moved in with friends and relatives, not knowing when we’d be able to go home. I went home six weeks after Katrina, as soon as the mandatory evacuation order for my zip code was lifted—only the second part of the city to open.
(48) This is wasted effort to prevent window breakage, and if you don’t get the tape off very soon, it will be glued on there forever. (Voice of experience.)
(49) Another great-grandmother, although she went by Letty instead of Tish. Probably also rolling over in her grave.
(50) Worst. Streets. Ever. They’re horrible, and the flooding followed by drought of Katrina made them worse. A coworker spotted a pothole on his way to work after the storm and there was a whole freaking washing machine sitting in it. By that point, nothing surprised us.
(51) The Times-Picayune won a Pulitzer for its storm coverage, and it deserved it. Every day, from Nola.com after the presses went underwater, they covered the city’s plight and recovery nonstop. They were a lifeline for those of us scattered all over the country. Their amazing Katrina archives are still available online at nola.com.
(52) My friend Lora has a penchant for chocolate Siamese cats, and Sebastian is named in honor of her cat Nagin, named after New Orleans’ Katrina-era mayor who got into such hot water with…well, don’t even get me started. Nagin was a rescue whose original name was Sebastian.
(53) New Orleans East, an upscale, predominantly African-American neighborhood in the eastern part of the city, suffered catastrophic flooding when the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, or the Mr-Go, as it’s called local, breached. I had friends with more than sixteen feet of water in their house.
(54) The Twin Spans, a pair of five-mile bridges where I-10 crosses from Orleans Parish into Saint Tammany Parish over the eastern edge of Lake Pontchartrain, were destroyed by Katrina. They were shored up with rickety supports and we had to drive over them for two years, with posted warnings that they might collapse if we drove over 30 or 40 mph. This was not reassuring. The bridges were replaced 2009-10.
(55) This scene was taken from my own evacuation experience. I was on the long, hellish drive to Shreveport and had stopped at a rest area in Natchez, Mississippi. Someone had a car radio turned up loud, and we all stood in the blazing sun in the parking lot listening to the National Hurricane Center announcement that Katrina was a Cat 5 and New Orleans would likely be destroyed. I can’t even put into words the feeling.
(56) Actually, the real fuel shortages came after the storm because electricity was out all over the Southeast. When we left Shreveport and drove through Mississippi trying to get to friends in Alabama, there were long, harrowing stretches looking for a gas station with power. When we finally found one (and we were coasting on fumes) north of Meridian, Mississippi, there was a $10 per car limit, and the lines were insane.
(57) This is true. Not to mention the native New Orleans accent isn’t the least bit Southern.
(58) A St. Bernard Parish community, pronounced “Wy-klosky.”
(59) I was born and grew up in Winfield, Alabama. My parents were born and grew up here. My grandparents were born and grew up here. And so on and so forth. Population in my day, about 2,500. Biggest event of the year: the annual Mule Day. It explains a lot about me, I think.