Six thirty AM I was awakened by the sound of hammering. George and Juan were back, and boarding the window directly above the head of my bed. I needed to get up anyway.
First thing was to check the weather reports. Katrina was now a Catagory 5 hurricane, sustained winds about 160, and still predicted to make a straight hit on New Orleans. We had to leave; there was no going back now.
The house was oddly dark. It took me a moment to realize that was because all the windows were covered with plywood.
And there was a new problem: Katrina was big, big, big, much larger than the average hurricane, and the National Weather Service was now predicting hurricane-force winds in Mobile, AL. All it would take is for the storm to veer a few degrees to the east and Mobile would be a direct hit. We needed to move our hotel reservations much further east.
I jumped back on the internet, cancelled Mobile and found a hotel room in Tallahassee, Florida. Tallahassee was over 450 miles from New Orleans. We were in for a long evacuation trip.
My parents called for the 10th time. They had already evacuated to Baton Rouge, and wanted us out of there, understandably. Many people had left town yesterday, but I waited primarily out of concern for my patients. If the storm track changed and we could stay, I wanted to. But Katrina was now given an early Monday landfall, which meant we had about 15 hours to get out of town before the winds topped 100 mph. I would not be able to delay action much longer.
We loaded everything in my wife's car. Regrettably I left behind my own car, an Infiniti with only 11,000 miles on it. The Infiniti was worth more than the family car, a Toyota Highlander, but the Highlander was bigger and could carry more provisions. We did not seriously consider taking both cars. With over 500,000 vehicles headed out of New Orleans, we knew that if we two got separated it could be days before we found each other again. And we made this decision without knowing that Katrina would take out cell phone service across much of the Gulf Coast. So we parked the Infiniti in the garage and locked it up, at a time when it was increasingly obvious to me that we would probably lose it.
George and Juan worked quickly, completely boarding up the house by 10 am. I can't remember the last time I accomplished so much by 10 am. I walked around the house to inspect their handiwork. Our house was all brick, and the windows were aluminum, so rather than screw or nail the boards to the window frames Juan had drilled holes in the brick and inserted steel pegs to hold the plywood in place. Yeoman's work. All the times I had stood in line at a bank or a fast food restaurant and complained about the service, all the times I waited in vain for the cable guy to show up, and the one time in my life I needed someone to do a good job with no notice this guy Juan comes out of nowhere and does an outstanding job. I promised myself I would remember that next time I had to suffer through poor service.
On the side of the house where we had a small greenhouse window that bowed out from the wall, Juan had built a wooden shell that slipped over the glass and locked in place. Truly fine work.
We filled up the car and secured everything. As we packed up, my wife called my attention to the neighbor's back yard. Our next-door neighbor, Daisy, had left with her two kids the day before. Her yard was filled with junk, the kinds of things any person with a brain would realize could fly away in high winds (and probably smash our house) -- a swingset, a trampoline, a pair of bikes. I swore if I found any of that stuff in my living room next week I was going to find a lawyer.
Our neighbor across the street, Mr. Fred, came over to talk to us. "I have never evacuated for a hurricane in my life," he said, "but I'm getting out for this one." Mr. Fred was a widower, but his daughter and her family lived two doors down. He planned to leave with them by noon. As was true for many families in Chalmette, generations of his family lived within a few blocks. This was truly his home, and his children's home, and his grandchildren's home. His wife was buried in St. Bernard. He stood to lose a lot more than us. We had only been there for four years, and compared to him, our roots ran scarcely below the topsoil.
My wife expressed concern about water coming over the levee along the Mississippi river.
"Oh no," Mr. Fred said. "The water is coming from over there." He pointed to the north, towards the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet. "And if it does, it will flood every house in the Parish."
We said goodbye to him, expecting to see him again soon. Unfortunately, Mr. Fred would die during the evacuation. The story we were eventually told was that he caught pneumonia in the stress of the evacuation, and died hundreds of miles away from his lifelong home because his family could not find a hospital in time.
In Meraux, he lived across the street from a doctor.
Finally the kids went into the Highlander, and we strapped them to their car seats. As I locked up the door, I had this self-pitying feeling I was looking at my house for the last time.
I, like everyone else in America, have seen the following on the TV news: A woman gets out of her car to look at her house after a disaster and confronts a pile of sticks. The cause could be hurricane, earthquake, fire, tornado. The woman falls on her knees and breaks down crying. Every time I saw that in the past, I thought the same thing: "Stop crying. You lost your house, but you have your life, which is all that really matters. Your house is just stuff."
As I looked at the kitchen door for the last time, I decided when I got back and confronted my own pile of sticks I would probably cry too. It is just stuff. But it is my stuff, and I don't guess anyone else will cry for it.
The drive out of our neighborhood was unnerving. Meraux was completely empty, like 5 am on a Christmas morning. Except no cars parked in the street, no boats in the driveways, most windows boarded up. After the storm, authorities would estimate that about 10,000 people stayed behind in St. Bernard to ride the storm out. If so, I didn't see them.
The road remained deserted until we approached the interstate, then it was an endless traffic jam all the way to the Mississippi state line. We alternated between listening to children's CDs and the weather and news reports on AM radio.
My plan was to take I-10 East straight to Tallahassee. There was a problem, however. I-10 ran straight through the hurricane zone, following the coast, and we kept hearing rumors that the Mississippi I-10 was closed. On the radio we heard I-10 east was closed, then it was open, then it was closed. Finally we reached the point east of the town of Slidell where the interstate divided into I-59 and I-10 and entered Mississippi. As we approached the split, a reporter on the radio announced confidently that the State Police was allowing cars onto I-10 East. No more than 30 seconds later we saw a cop holding a cardboard sign that said, "All Lanes to I-59 North." That's the way it was that weekend. It was impossible to take anyone at his word. Except the National Weather Service.
We took I-59 all the way up to Poplarville, Mississippi, then planned to cut through a series of back roads to get to Mobile. The length of I-59 from the state line until Poplarville was converted to Contraflow, which meant the southbound lane was being used for northbound traffic so that all four lanes were going out of Louisiana. We were directed into the southbound lanes now going north, allowing us to enjoy a rare experience, if enjoy is the word, of driving the interstate the wrong way while sober.
It was a little peculiar. I felt like I was in England, driving on the wrong side of the road. The shoulder was on the wrong side. The passing lane was the outside lane, instead of the lane closest to the median, as it always is on this continent. Every once in a while I would forget where I was and give a start, thinking I had gone the wrong way and was about to get run over by a FEMA convoy loaded with food and water going south. The other problem was that all the signs were backwards. There was no way to tell exactly where we were, or what exits we were passing. I amused myself by counting the number of cars that pulled over for passengers to empty their bladders. Obviously the people leaving town had taken a lot of bottled water with them.
We got off at Poplarville and turned east on a state road. It was 3 pm. It had taken us 6-1/2 hours to go 80 miles. I was relieved when we finally got off and the traffic appeared to be light. Prior to that, as slow as we were going, I had real concerns that Katrina would find us stuck on the interstate.
We got through to Mobile and stopped off for gas and food just over the Florida border. The kids would not let us pass the golden arches, so we stopped to eat at McDonald's. The parking lot was full of Louisiana license plates. It was a scene I would get used to -- for the next few weeks, there were probably almost as many Lousiana license plates to be found outside the state as in.
As we took the kids around to the side door, a huge Oldsmobile pulled up into an open spot in the parking lot and an elderly couple got out. Both of them were well over 80. The husband was using a walker, the wife a cane. My wife observed that they were traveling completely alone. Two people who could barely walk, evacuating New Orleans to God knows where, to return to God knows what. I could only imagine how many thousands of people there were like them.
I guess something about us told people we were fleeing Katrina, because as we ate a man and his wife at the next table asked us where we were from. We told them.
"We lost everything we had to Hurricane Ivan," the wife said. "Then, one year later, our house burned down and we lost everything again."
The husband said, "We are praying for you. We know what you are going through. Just remember that the only thing that really matters is sitting with you at this table." He was referring to our children. I told him we would remember.
I appreciated their concern. On the other hand, I was a little distressed that they had picked us out as evacuees so easily. Did we really look as morose as we felt?
It also bothered me a little that they had assumed we lost everything. How did they know? Katrina hadn't landed yet. Of course, I felt we had lost everything. Maybe I was broadcasting that too.
We arrived in Tallahassee at about ten. Twelve hours, 450 miles. Compared to other evacuation times I was hearing on the radio, we had done very well. I was proud. I had gotten us through Mississippi via a dozen local roads and highways, and had beaten most people by hours and hours. Folks were calling in on the radio complaining that it was taking 20 hours to get to Houston, 100 miles closer. Yes, I was the man.
The hotel parking lot was loaded with Louisana plates. People were hauling paintings, furniture, computers, all kinds of things you would never expect to see in the car of a business traveler or vacationer. Clearly this was not the usual hotel crowd. It looked like the traveling flea market had come to Tallahassee.
The more I looked at the assorted junk in all those cars, the more I wished we had packed more of our own assorted junk. Another lesson learned from Hurricane Katrina: The junk you miss and the junk you think you will miss is never the same junk.
As soon as we got to our room, my wife called her mother. They evacuated the same morning we did with the goal of reaching a hotel in Kinder, Louisiana, about 80 miles from Houston. Unfortunately, the traffic was so heavy going west that they couldn't get past Baton Rouge. They ended up at a public school that was set aside as an emergency shelter. My wife was furious. Her mother was in her sixties, only one year out from chemotherapy for throat cancer, and she, with her three school age grandchildren, would be sleeping on the floor at a Baton Rouge elementary school. "Next time, if there is a next time," she said, "my mother is going with us."
I was sorry to hear what had happened to them. But I could not resist selfishly congratulating myself that we had outsmarted the crowd and gotten out in good time. We had escaped safely to a decent place.
As I fell asleep, I worried about our house, now in the path of this monster. And then I thought about my patients, many of whom lived in trailers, many of whom were disabled or retired, and almost all of whom had far fewer financial resources than I did. These people would be victims of Katrina to a degree I would never fully comprehend.