Saturday, August 29, 2009

Hurricane Katrina: Evacuation

Saturday, August 27, 2005. I have been home barely two weeks from an intense and exhausting summer of course work for a Ph.D. in English Composition at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania. I still feel tired. Today is Saturday, and classes begin on Monday at the Loyola Intensive English Program, where I teach English to speakers of other languages. It's a great teaching position and I enjoy my work, but this year I don't quite feel ready for classes to start.

In any case, I'm enjoying my Saturday afternoon, when the phone rings. It's Valarie, Director of the Loyola Intensive English Program.

"Karen, what are you doing for the hurricane? Are you evacuating?"

"What hurricane?"

"Hurricane Katrina."

"Hurricane Katrina? That was a Category 1 hurricane that hit Florida earlier this week."

"Yes, that's what it was, but now it's in the Gulf of Mexico, it's pushing Category 5, it's huge, and we're directly in its path. They want everyone to evacuate. You'd better turn on the TV."

I thank Valarie, hang up, and turn on the television. I haven't watched the news for the last couple of days, which is a real mistake in New Orleans in August and September, the height of the hurricane season. The TV news more than confirms what Valarie said. The message is unequivocal and frightening: "New Orleans is directly in the path of a massive Category 5 hurricane--GET OUT OF THE CITY NOW!" In my fifty-five years in New Orleans, I have never heard such a direct and urgent call for evacuation.

I telephone friends and family members to consult. Some will evacuate, others will stay. I try to persuade my sister Maria to come with me. "No, no," Maria says, "I'll be fine."

I telephone Marcella in Chattanooga to enact our Hurricane Evacuation Plan, arranged seven years earlier, after Hurricane Georges.

"Come!" Marcella says.

I devote the rest of the day to covering the furniture with plastic, criss-crossing the windows with masking tape, and packing what I'll need for about a week, including books I want to have with me, my journal, and of course my stuffed animals, Amy Karen Rabbit and Robert Bear, and my stuffed doll, Ashley Rainbow.

I wake early the next morning, unplug all the electrical appliances, remove the food from the refrigerator to take with me, prop the refrigerator door open, hop in my car, and drive off.

I need to get to the north side of Lake Pontchartrain, but I have enough sense not to get on the I-10 or on the Causeway, the twenty-four-mile bridge across Lake Pontchartrain. At a time like this, when everyone is driving across Lake Pontchartrain, the thing to do is to go around it. I take Napoleon Avenue to South Broad Street to North Broad Street to Gentilly Boulevard to Chef Menteur Highway, and then I'm on US 90, which takes me around Lake Pontchartrain and along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. I am one of the last people to see the fishing and crabbing camps and boats along Lake Pontchartrain, and the Gulf Coast homes and beach shacks and casinos before they are blown away.

At about 7 a.m., Donna Glee calls me from North Carolina on my cell phone as I'm entering Mississippi on US 90. Concerned, she asks how I am. I tell her I'm on my way to Marcella's, just entering Mississippi.

"It must be quite a challenge with the traffic," Donna Glee empathizes.

"Actually, no," I reply. "I'm avoiding the interstates. I'm on US 90, and I have the road practically to myself."

"Really?" says Donna Glee. "I'm going to call Lee and Harvey and some other folks to let them know US 90 is clear."

Donna Glee loves to collect helpful information and pass it on to people. It energizes her, and It's very helpful to other folks, too.

I know how to get out of New Orleans on the back roads and into Mississippi, but once on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, I don't know the back roads at all. So I consult my Mississippi road map. I choose a route that takes me north and east through Mississippi and Alabama, all on back roads. I enjoy my drive through the country towns, all alone on those back roads. Where is everybody? Aren't people evacuating? Are they all crowded onto the interstates and the Causeway? Why inch along on the interstates and overheat your car, to say nothing of overheating your temper, when there's a whole network of back roads?

Once I get into Alabama, I decide I can probably connect with the interstate at Tuscaloosa. I figure I'm now far enough north and east to avoid the evacuation traffic. I'm right. There's no more traffic on the intestate at Tuscaloosa and beyond, than you would expect on a normal Sunday.

I decide to stop at a Cracker Barrel near Tuscaloosa for lunch. I select one of the entrees--I forget which--and give my order.

"And which sides would you like with that?" asks the friendly server.

I had forgotten about this--at Cracker Barrel the meals come with a choice of two or three sides to be selected from a long list. I look at the list of sides and suddenly feel overwhelmed. Choosing from among all those side dishes just seems exhausting.

"A surprise," I say. "I'd like the sides to be a surprise."

Apparently, this is a surprise to the server, who isn't accustomed to people ordering surprises with their meals.

"Well, uh, do you think you'd like the peas, the carrots, and the mashed potatoes?" the server asks.

Having been told what I'll be getting, it won't be a surprise, but at least I don't have to put forth the effort of choosing.

"Yes," I say, "those sound great." And they are!

Then, back in the car, and straight on through to Chattanooga and Marcella's. I arrive at twilight--warmly welcomed by Marcella and her dogs, Sam and Lucky.

After a short visit with Marcella and a glance at the news, I am ready for bed in Marcella's extra bedroom. But first, I call my sister Maria, still in New Orleans. She's fine, she says--all prepared for the hurricane in her second-floor Mid-City apartment. Her friend Malik is with her, and the people downstairs are staying, too. Maria isn't concerned--everything will be fine.

"Well, that's not what they're saying on the news," I tell her. "You still have time to leave--I think."

"No, I'm fine," Maria insists.

That is the last thing I hear Maria say for a week. In the end, she is fine--but only after a harrowing escape from a flooded and dangerous city.

Back at Marcella's, I fall safely asleep as the first bands of wind and rain begin to batter New Orleans.

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