AUSTIN, Texas – Tom Zigal knows from floods. In 1961, when he was 13 years old, Zigal and his family fled their Texas City home in anticipation of Hurricane Carla, a Category 5 storm that made Gulf Coast landfall on — mark the date — Sept. 11. When, days later, the family returned, three feet of saltwater had devastated their house. Wood floors had buckled, furniture and rugs were ruined and the Zigals spent the next few months tearing out and replacing Sheetrock and insulation up to the three-foot mark.
“It’s just incredibly stressful to go through rebuilding your house,” remembers Zigal, a speechwriter for University of Texas President Larry Faulkner. “You have no beds, you have no furniture, you have no kitchen utensils, you have no stoves and refrigerators.” Zigal’s father, who split his time between working as a pumper and gauger at an oil refinery and repairing the house, suffered a heart attack.
Thirty years later, Zigal was living in New Orleans and experienced another flood when he and his then-three-year-old son, Danny, were caught in a heavy rainstorm. “People were driving on the streetcar tracks, which are a little bit higher than the street,” Zigal remembers. “Water was coming up through the floorboards, I could feel it by my feet. At some point I turned to go toward my house and a truck went by and a big wave just went over the top of the car; the water was almost up to the door handles of my little Mazda.”
Zigal parked his car in a neighbor’s yard (a courtesy New Orleanians extend to each other in such situations), picked Danny up and walked home through thigh-high water in the dark. The electricity had already gone out, so he navigated by the candles in a neighbor’s window. “I was trying to reassure Danny that it was a kind of adventure, but I was scared out of my mind,” he admits.
Zigal made New Orleans his home from 1989 to 1993, and he set his recent novel, The White League, in the Crescent City. So Hurricane Katrina affected him on two levels; he’s been trying to find out what happened to old friends (“I’ve gotten in touch with two families out of dozens I wish I could find”) and ruing how true to life The White League has turned out to be.
Zigal’s novel, which was published in February, is structured like a thriller, but it’s steeped in the city’s stark color divide. “New Orleans is a city that has not dealt effectively with race and class,” Zigal says. “One of the shocking things to me, living there, was how backward the city was in terms of dealing with racism. It’s just more stark than any place else I’ve ever lived.
“The point of The White League was that a group of white leaders had turned their back on the city and taken care of their own. It’s absolutely accurate if you look at what happened in the last few weeks the poor of New Orleans, who are primarily black, just did not have the resources to get away. But if you had money, you managed to save your family from the nightmare of having to be in the Superdome or the Convention Center.”
Zigal was attending the mystery convention Bouchercon in Chicago when Katrina hit New Orleans, and while participating in a panel discussion called “The South Has Risen Again,” he lost his cool.
“At some point I said, ‘Look, it’s time to get down and dirty; let’s talk about New Orleans,’ “ Zigal says. “I found myself talking about it and I started getting a little crazy, and the audience applauded, which only encouraged me. I was screaming, ‘Shame on New Orleans, shame on Louisiana, shame on FEMA!’”
Zigal is back in Austin now, and when we spoke Monday he was working on Faulkner’s State of the University address and preparing to put up the family of his friend Rene Coman, bassist for the New Orleans band The Iguanas, in his Austin home.Last week was notable for Zigal for one other reason: In the midst of everything else, The White League was officially optioned by a Los Angeles film producer.