This is the second of a short series of posts 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.
Saturday morning dawned bright and clear, as we knew it would. We’d had it drummed into us for years by Bob Breck, our local TV weatherman/ meteorologist on Fox News 8, that when ‘the big one’ came, we’d be evacuating in beautiful weather. Not a cloud in the sky, a glorious day.
Not that we’d slept much. Too much adrenalin in the system. We’d not gone to bed till the 1am advisory and projected track of Katrina had been released by the National Hurricane Center. The late evening spent with the TV on, every station in emergency mode, scrolling information, parish by parish – where Red Cross shelters were opening, where sand bags could be collected, when people should leave.
We were up early. The Captain to return to the terminal for a few hours, sending stress levels soaring. Getting there would be easy, travelling back in evacuation traffic could be difficult. The news reported people leaving early, being sensible, and traffic was flowing. Joe headed off to the hardware store – this was an emergency situation, people needed plywood, tools everything. Without them around to help no boarding up could be done on our home. Nerves were starting to fray.
Ever had those times in your life when there’s so much to do your brain shuts down and you have no clue where to start? I remember sitting on the coffee table in our family room watching the TV, watching the Mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, telling the city the Superdome would not be used as a center of last resort as in previous emergencies. This was new. Announcements were made as to when the new traffic contraflow systems would be implemented, when all roads leading out of the city would be one way only. A system as yet untested.
Geographically New Orleans lies in a bowl, with the Mississippi River to the south and Lake Pontchartrain to the north, the only ways out east, west or north over Lake Pontchartrain on the 26 mile Causeway bridge to Mandeville.
Its unique position causes problems for evacuating. If a storm is to the west of the city people evacuate east on the I10 into Mississippi and on from there to Florida or north to Jackson, Mississippi. A storm to the east sees everyone heading west to Houston or north through Hammond and beyond.
Heading west is a nightmare (CLICK for map) because at some point the Mississippi river has to be crossed. All major routes from the east cross at Baton Rouge, the state capital. The other alternative is to cross near New Orleans and meander up the Old River Road alongside the river levee. Scenic, picturesque and impractical.
All major routes heading west on the I10 bottle-neck at the Horace Wilkinson Bridge in Baton Rouge.
As of Saturday morning no-one knew which way to run. Friends were heading east and west. The consensus was the storm might still turn on an easterly track once it got closer to the coast. That had happened before when we’d evacuated for Hurricanes Georges and Ivan. It would be the same this time. Wouldn’t it? We had till Sunday to leave, we had time. Except time speeds up, contracts, gets smaller right before your eyes.
The day passed in a haze, photographing the house inside and out for the insurance company, standard stuff everybody knew to do, photographing furniture and belongs, some still in packing boxes. Made sure up-to-date paperwork was in the fireproof/ flood proof security box we had ready to pick up and run with at evacuation times – house, flood, car insurances, birth/ marriage certificates, passports, medical records, social security cards, address book. All that before thinking what personal items to take.
We owned a Chevy Suburban as in previous evacuations we’d travelled in two vehicles – a nightmare with both of us having to drive. This time we could spilt the driving, with room for us, three children, two dogs and the trunk for our stuff. We hoped to be home in a few days as soon as the storm decided what it would do, where it would go.
When it comes down to it you don’t have to think too much what to pack. You work from the worst case scenario – if we were to lose everything, what really mattered?
Large storage boxes from our house move in May were tipped out and repacked with photograph albums, family photos in frames scattered about the house swept up and added to them. A box of special treasured toys, a few books, computer games for the journey. Heck, don’t forget the dog food. Do we have enough bottles of water for the trip? Hell, do we need to take food?
Our house was on one level with one room, the guest room and walk in attic, upstairs. If there’s a wall of water coming this way how high will it be? If we move things to the attic and the roof blows off will we lose stuff anyway? What time is it? When are the next co-ordinates out? Who’s been given a mandatory evacuation order now? Have they mentioned anything about us, about St Tammany? What time is it? What’s the absolute latest we can leave? Phone my parents in England, let them know we’re leaving, give them our contacts in Houston. Play it down. Don’t let them know freaking scary this is. What time is it? Pull yourself together, you can do this. Shit, shit, shit.
The Captain arrived home, through traffic moving very slowly but he used the Rigolets bridge on the old coast road, the only road along the Gulf Coast until the I10 was opened. Heavy traffic heading east. East? East? If the storm turned east they’d be right in it, but people were heading home, back to family.
Joe arrived back shortly after, exhausted and drained – the hardware store closed, there was little left to sell and everyone had been sent home to pack up and leave.
We headed outside to board up. It had to be done. Without boards the house would be vulnerable to flying debris, surge water, breaking glass, snakes and all that good stuff. If it survived at all. And more importantly we had to make sure we did as much to protect the house for insurance purposes, otherwise they may not pay for any damage.
Outside the sound of the the circular saw cutting through plywood like a hot knife through butter was reassuring, normal almost. They screwed those boards into the window frames – forget nails, screws would hold better. They worked round the house during the afternoon while I packed, unpacked, repacked. The space in the rear of the Suburban getting smaller each time I looked at it. Inside the house, as each board on the outside was put into place, it became darker. It was difficult not to feel as if we were being nailed into a spacious, airless coffin.
Breaks for food, drinks, catch up on the news, all going to plan. Eighty percent finished. As the afternoon slipped into early evening, there was a loud, anguished yelp and crash outside. The Captain, pushing upwards on a board to get it into place, ripped the tendons in his arm.
We phoned the father of Harry’s best friend, a doctor at the local hospital. At that stage we had no idea what the injury was, which hospitals were taking emergency patients. Sanjay, our friend, went above and beyond to help. He was at home, packing up his house, not at the hospital, although that was where he and his family would be for the duration of the storm – as a doctor he was expected to stay behind.
He called a colleague at the hospital on our behalf, arranged for the Captain to see him immediately on his arrival. He drove himself, insisting we stay at home, shocked when he arrived at the hospital to see it in chaos, the emergency room full. Not with patients who needed real medical help, but refugees who knew they would be safe from the storm when it hit. Food, water and generators.
The remaining three of us made an impossible attempt to continue boarding. As darkness fell we gave up trying and went back to the television, drawn to the images, mute, numb. Category 4. We needed to be on the road and moving, we needed to go.
A dawn start was not an option. Depending on the seriousness of the injury we still needed to board up. We could have a good nights sleep, be up at first light, finish boarding, be on our way by 10ish. Couldn’t we? In traffic maybe, but whatever time we left the traffic would be horrendous. You don’t evacuate over a million people in less than three days without it being a bit chaotic.
The phone rang and I jumped up to grab it, thinking it was news from the hospital. It was the St Tammany public emergency notification system. The automated announcement informed us we were under a mandatory evacuation order. That meant if we chose to stay there would be no emergency services to help for the duration of the storm and for days afterwards. What it really meant was ‘the big one’, the one they’d talked about for years, was here, now, heading our way.
As I put down the phone I heard the click of the front door. The Captain was home. I walked through to the foyer and he stood subdued, pale, anxious. He’d been in traffic where even the back roads and local rat-runs were coming to a gridlock, seen the thousands of cars on the interstate crawling north to join the I12 and then head west; all the west bound routes from New Orleans already at a standstill. He’d been listening to the radio, he knew what we knew.
We hugged each other tightly, we were together with the boys, Missy as safe in Baton Rouge as she could be anywhere – inland, away from water, on the west side of the storm. We had to get out through Baton Rouge so if we judged it necessary we could link up with her there. There was no need for words, what was there to say?
Arms around each other we went through to the family room to make the final plans for leaving.