GUY RAZ, HOST:
Author Jesmyn Ward went home with the top prize for fiction last night at the National Book Awards in New York. Her novel, "Salvage the Bones," is about living through a hurricane. Ward wrote this essay for us about how her family survived Katrina.
JESMYN WARD: When you live on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, stories of hurricanes are passed down through generations. For my parents, the storm was called Camille, and on August 17, 1969, it made landfall. My mother said the windows in her aunt's house shattered. My father told me water flooded his grandmother's house up into the attic, and they swam through the storm under the eaves, feeling the house lift from its moorings. He smiled when he said this, but his grin was tight. The wind sounded like a train, my mother said every time she told me the story. And even though the metaphor made sense, I couldn't hear it.
My storm was Katrina. We weren't aware that it would be a Category 5 until the night before it hit. I thought we completed our preparations. Then my mother took the extra precaution of wrapping in plastic and packing up all the pictures of my brother who died in a car accident when he was 19. She took the photos and our birth certificates, all her important paperwork, and put them in her trunk. She parked the car away from our mobile home on the highest ground she could find.
I should have understood then that this storm would be different from all the others we'd lived through, but I did not. I did not understand the difference until water swept through Bay St. Louis and into DeLisle, and then inside the living room of my grandmother's brick house, where we'd taken shelter. The water rose so quickly, we were afraid to climb into the attic. The stories of those who swam, entire families who drowned in attics, terrified us. We did what we could to survive.
We went out into the storm, wading through water chest deep, children clinging to our shoulders and scrambled for higher ground. And then there was the wind. It snapped the pine trees in two, razed the forest to the south of us. It pulled the weaker trees from the ground by the roots, and it threw them through the air so they snagged on roofs and in power lines. We sheltered in our cars in a neighbor's yard for much of the storm. The wind shook the trucks so violently, I thought we would die.
After hours of watching the water surge toward us, our cars sunk to invisibility in the brown swirl, the water receded, and we were able to board a boat and drive to a neighbor's house. My mother lay down on the floor and put her head in my sister's lap. I sat on the porch, barefoot and shaking. The sky turned orange, and the wind sounded like fighter jets. So that's what my mother meant. I understood then how that hurricane, like Camille, had unmade the world, tree by water by house by person. Even in language, it reduced us to improbable metaphor.
RAZ: Jesmyn Ward's novel "Salvage the Bones" is this year's National Book Award winner for fiction.