The idea of evacuating for a hurricane never occurred to my family as I was growing up in New Orleans. We rode out hurricanes at home. We stocked up on non-perishables, water, flashlights, and battery-powered radios; strengthened our windows with cross-crosses of masking tape; stashed garbage cans and other potential flying missiles in the garage--and glued our eyes to beloved weatherman Nash Roberts on WWL-TV Channel 4.
Nash Roberts plotted the course of the hurricane with whiteboard and black marker--a heavy black line for the path the storm had already traveled, a broken black line for Nash's predictions of where it would go next. No Super Doppler Radar. No computer models. Nash communicated with the soul of the hurricane. Nash would see us through.
September 9, 1965. Hurricane Betsy. I am fifteen years old--tenth grade at the Academy of the Sacred Heart. Night falls. We six kids are tucked in bed, parents keeping watch in a well-prepared house. My eleven-year-old sister, Sandra, is already asleep in the bed next to mine, our black and tan Doberman Pinscher, Little Bits of Rust, asleep under the sheets with her as usual. I doze, off and on, through the night. Howling wind. Heavy rain pounding the windows. In the middle of the night, a prolonged C-R-A-S-H.
We wake in the morning to a house intact and a city in disarray. Downed trees and traffic lights and power lines. No electricity, though we do have water and gas. We are advised to stay indoors, so we do. When we finally emerge to explore, we discover the source of the prolonged midnight crash. The entire steeple of our Catholic parish church, Our Lady of Good Counsel, is strewn in bits and pieces across Louisiana Avenue. The steeple has never been replaced. Our Lady of Good Counsel remains steeple-less to this day.
Gradually, repairs are made, debris cleared, electric power restored, and normal life resumed. Our house is practically untouched--some shingles on the roof need to be replaced, and my father sees to it. We in Uptown New Orleans are up and functioning in no time.
Not so the people of St. Bernard, the low-lying parish bordering New Orleans on the east. St. Bernard has experienced cataclysmic flooding--houses have floated away, people and animals have drowned, families have lost everything. For St. Bernard, Hurricane Betsy is an early Hurricane Katrina. The difference is that after Hurricane Betsy the rest of Greater New Orleans circles round and helps. After Hurricane Katrina, there is no one to do the circling.
September 25, 1998. Hurricane Georges. A dangerous hurricane roiling about the Gulf of Mexico, threatening New Orleans.
I am forty-eight years old, living in a small second-floor apartment on Napoleon Avenue. I turn on the TV news. By this time, Nash Roberts has retired, but well into his eighties, Nash comes out of retirement every hurricane season whenever New Orleans is threatened. I watch Nash on TV, plotting the course of the massive Hurricane Georges. The Mayor calls for a voluntary evacuation, but I pay this no mind. I know what to do--prepare my apartment and listen to Nash--and eveything will be fine. I check my hurricane supplies, criss-cross the windows with masking tape, bring garbage cans and yard furniture inside, sit down to watch Nash--and realize that I'm scared. I don't want to spend the hurricane alone.
So I call the Italian family down the street: Gloria, the family matriarch; her two married daughters and their husbands; her grandchildren; her poodle, Pookie.
"Come on down!" the Italian family says. "We've got food, flashlights, radios, and board games. It'll be a hurricane party!"
And it is! We eat, play Scrabble and checkers, chat, listen to Nash, sleep, and wake up to find that New Orleans has been spared.
On the news that evening, I see what has happened to the states next door. Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida have not been spared. I watch the scenes of flooding and destruction and have a brand new thought: A few miles difference, and that could have been New Orleans. Hurricanes are getting bigger, more frequent, more ferocious. I NEED A HURRICANE EVACUATION PLAN.
I call my friend Marcella in Chattanooga. "Marcella, would you be my Hurricane Evacuation Plan?"
"Sure!" replies Marcella.