This is the third part of a short series recounting what happened to our family over the weekend before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast of America on Monday 29 August 2009, and the immediate aftermath. At that time our home was south of Slidell, Louisiana, on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, a 35 minute drive from the French Quarter in New Orleans and less than a mile east of the Interstate 10 Twinspan Bridge crossing the lake.
The Captain’s voice in the darkness had a resigned sadness. We laid in bed staring up into the darkness, the whump-whump of the ceiling fan paddling slowly over our heads the only sound in the tomb-like blackness, the boarded up windows blocking all chinks of light.
We’d lain awake for a long time, still, weary, scared to leave this room to face the challenges the day would bring. After listening, exhausted and sleepless, to the Katrina co-ordinates last night, we knew we might have to face the worst scenario imaginable. We had no idea when we would lay in this bed again, walk into this house. If the doom merchants were right we might not have anything to come back to.
The Captain swung his legs out of bed, sat on the edge and sighed deeply.
“I’ll go and make some tea, see if the kids are awake.”
I followed him through to the kitchen throwing on some shorts and pulling an old T-shirt over my head, ready for the sweat and grime of the final packing up.
The boys were awake and the television on; Joe had been up from first light measuring and lining up the boards to cover the remaining windows, Harry his assistant. The heat outside was already brutal, the build-up before the storm, but the sky, like yesterday, a vibrant blue.
Breakfast before the sawing and hammering.
Our first phone call of the day to the Byron family, Elizabeth, Steve and daughter Kimberley. We planned to drive with them to Houston – Steve and the Captain both old friends and colleagues of Dave, who was offering his home as our port in the storm. We agreed to touch base later when we were all ready to travel.
The television on in the background, we stopped for a second to stand and watch with a numb fascination as Katrina’s latest projected track flashed up. A direct hit on New Orleans with us to the east of the eye of the hurricane, the worst possible outcome for us. And now a category 5, travelling at phenomenal speed.
Funny thing about staring down the barrel of a loaded gun, there’s not much time to think, which is probably a good thing. We refused to believe this scenario was a certainty, we clung to the hope there was time for the storm to veer east, even a few miles east, but then that would be wishing destruction on our neigbours in Mississippi.
We watched the lines of cars leaving New Orleans, the Mississippi and Alabama coasts, crawling along at less than walking speed. Cars and trucks and trailers loaded up with as much as people could carry behind, on top and inside their vehicles. Being north of Lake Pontchartrain we were way ahead of those trying to leave the city but our sense of anxiety soared and we resolved to get on and get out.
Jo worked like a trojan; the Captain incapacitated with his damaged arm could do little of the heavy work, limited and frustrated with himself. The dogs were anxious too, picking up on our tension, unsure of what was going on.
I got fixated on food. We had no idea how long we would be on the road, when we would be able to eat our next meal. I boiled all the eggs we had in the fridge, it seemed like a good idea. Filled plastic bags full of non-perishables we could eat en route. Bottles of water, sodas, flasks full of hot water for tea or coffee, tea-bags, milk, fruit anything that we could snack on. Barbecue lighters, candles, torches and batteries. Just in case. In case of what I couldn’t have said.
The dog food I kept forgetting about, along with dogs’ bowls and beds. Our old dog Max was already in the trunk of the Suburban; he’d jumped in as soon as it was opened and refused to get out, snarling and gnashing his teeth if anyone went near. We left him to it.
The boards were proving a problem, the saw tired and worn from so much use, we were behind schedule. Our neigbours across the street left, waving good-bye from their loaded car, with a forced gaiety, ‘God speed and good luck you guys! See y’all when it’s over!’ We waved with a cheeriness we didn’t feel and watched them drive away, wanting to be gone to.
The phone rang; the Byrons, they were leaving.
‘I’m sorry Elizabeth, we’re not done. We can’t go yet, the windows aren’t finished!. You guys go, we’ll be fine, honestly. We’ll follow when we can.’ Agreeing to keep in touch via phone while we could, we confirmed we would be taking the same route out. The call ended with, ‘See y’all in Houston!’
I put the phone down and wept. We were on our own and it was the loneliest place in the world. The sense of abandonment was instant and terrifying, out of all proportion to reality. We were ready to go, everything packed except for those last damn boards. Joe was exhausted, driving himself, digging deep to find the strength to do this, the Captain pushing himself to help. Worse still, once we were on the road it was just the start of the next phase.
In the quiet of that kitchen I bawled my eyes out; for my husband, my son, friends neighbours and everyone – young, old, rich, poor, black and white.
Like crying was going to do any good.
Hastily wiping the tears away I went to break the news the Byrons had left without us. As I walked out into the heat the Captain and Joe were taking turns to gulp large draughts of water from a shared bottle.
Before I could say a word, the sound of a beeping car horn further down the street made us all turn to look, shading our eyes against the bright sunlight. The Byron’s blue truck, fully loaded and covered with a tarpaulin was heading our way, kicking up a trail of dust behind it.
It was the first time I’d break down in gratitude for the kindness and caring of others. It was something that would happen many, many times over the months to come. Knowing we were not alone, people did care, and that although the road ahead was uncertain we would not be walking it alone.
In less than an hour we were on the road. The Captain’s truck left behind on our driveway, parked sideways across the main entrance.
‘If the storm surge is as bad as they say, at least the truck will take the force of it, not the house,’ he explained. Joe insisted he was going to drive his car too.
‘Mom, it’s the only thing I have, I’m going to need it. I’m driving.’ We didn’t argue. Our boy was taking on responsibilities he shouldn’t have to. He was tired and worried but nothing would sway him. ‘Anyway, I can’t stand to sit with you guys and listen to your music!’ he grinned. It was 2.00pm Sunday afternoon.
I hadn’t left Lakeshore since Friday, we’d been in a cocoon with the television and internet. Nothing prepared me for what was outside our subdivision. The gas station where I’d fuelled up on Friday, that lonely sentinel standing in isolation in the middle of nowhere, was surrounded by hundreds of parked vehicles, some refuelling, most parked up. People were stretching their legs, walking pets, changing tyres, eating sandwiches and drinking sodas. One of the fuel pumps was already empty.
This was the first stop after leaving New Orleans, they’d got over the lake, they were safe for a while. It was only as we listened to the radio we discovered it had taken these people 10 hours to get here from the city – normally a 35 minute drive. As we navigated our way past the gas station, weaving round the parked vehicles and drove over the I10 our hearts stopped.
The contraflow system had started and all lanes on the interstate were one way out of the city; in every direction vehicles were nose to tail and hardly moving. We had no intention of getting mixed up in it. The state troopers had closed all roads west from here, traffic diverted north or east into the state of Mississippi. The Governor there had agreed all lanes of interstates crossing Mississippi could be used as one way roads to allow people to get out. God bless you sir.
Our plan was to head west on the back roads through Slidell to Mandeville, through Madisonville and up to the I12 and on to Baton Rouge, cross the Mississippi bridge and we’d be safe.
By the time we hit Mandeville the traffic had gone from heavy but moving, to gridlock. Traffic leaving New Orleans north, via the Causeway bridge, was flooding into Mandeville and heading the same way as us.
The sky was clouding over, the first gusty and the heavy drops of rain started to fall. This was the first tangible sign of the reality ahead, the outer bands of the hurricane moving over us, although the centre of the storm was still over twelve hours away and well south of us.
Our mood was sombre, the enormity of the situation we were in hitting home. We were running from a category 5 hurricane, 1000 miles across, packing winds of 175 mph, pushing a 28 foot storm surge ahead of it. There wasn’t much conversation and we knew in our hearts there wouldn’t be a last minute turn.
We never made it to Baton Rouge, well not from the east of the river. Getting on to the I12, thinking all was well, the road ahead was barricaded with police vehicles, lights flashing, troopers on the road turning us north through Hammond and over the state line into Mississippi.
The state of Louisiana is shaped like a boot in profile; we were driving from the toe in a loop through Mississippi to halfway up the leg crossing the Mississippi River back into Louisiana. We went where we were told to go.
Meeting up with Missy was out of the question. We didn’t want her driving, we knew she was safe. There were tearful (on my part) phone conversations with her but she was fine, just getting started on a hurricane party – they had friends evacuated from New Orleans staying with them and she was having a blast. Oh the ignorance of youth.
There are snap shots in my head of that drive, images indelibly inked from the endless hours we were on the road, seventeen in all, most of them in the dark. Seventeen hours for a trip that should take six. Three cars in convoy, Joe in the middle, us bringing up the rear.
● losing the radio signal from New Orleans, being out of touch with the storm, the traffic, everything till we arrived in Houston
● driving through small towns in Mississippi, everything closed because it was Sunday; the locals sat on their porches with shocked faces watching the refugees drive by, and in one case lining the main street in disbelief at the sheer numbers of cars passing through, hour after hour
● struggling to comprehend why everything in Mississippi was closed when people were running out of gas and hungry
● pulling off the road into a leafy wood hidden from the road to have a cup of tea and picnic and walk the dogs. The panic when Joe’s car failed to start and half an hour was spent trying to get it going. The sheer relief when it did and we were back on the road
● driving nose to tail to Jackson, Mississippi then cutting south on back roads finally crossing the river at Natchez, in the dark, and finding a gas station to fill up
● relief to be back in our home state where every fast food joint was open and at 10pm pulled into a restaurant to eat, along with half of New Orleans, all pale, dishevelled and shell-shocked
● the Captain answering his phone, a colleague calling from a restaurant in Baton Rouge where he was sat with strangers who turned out to be the neighbors we’d waved off that afternoon
● driving for hours in the dark, lost, trying to head south-west to join the I10 to Houston without having a clue where we were
● Kimberley riding as a passenger with Joe trying to keep him awake
● reaching the I10 only to realise we’d arrived in Baton Rouge, west of the bridge, less than 50 miles from where we’d left the I10 at Hammond all those hours before
● crossing the state line and stopping at the Texas Welcome center for a bathroom break along with hundreds of other haunted, tired and bedraggled New Orleanians all with the 1000-yard stare
● having to pull off the highway to sleep less than an hour from our destination
● arriving at Dave’s at 7.30am Monday 29 August as hurricane Katrina was blasting ashore
As we pulled into Dave’s driveway everything around us seemed weirdly normal and ordinary, totally unreal and out of sync with our life over the past few days. It was like being in a twilight zone where anything might happen, where nothing could be predicted.
Through the front door, past the welcoming kitchen where the kettle was on the boil for tea, the television sat and flickered in the family room, the only window to the world we had escaped from.
We were drawn to it like moths to a flame, wanting to know the fate of everything we had left behind, afraid of what it would show us, terrified to see what had been happening while we’d been driving through the darkness running from the storm.
Elizabeth and I looked at each other, grabbed each other’s shaking hand and walked through the door.