We devoted Wednesday morning to getting our smashed car window repaired. The dealership was busy, and we waited several hours for the mechanics to finish the job. In the waiting room all the televisions were tuned to Katrina coverage. Unfortunately, as the other customers watched they talked about it with one another, and then with us. It didn't take long for everyone to realize our predicament.
Wednesday was the first day stories leaked out about large numbers of people stranded at the Superdome and the Convention Center. Even more ominously, several major fires were burning around town. Despite the fact that the city was inundated with water, there was no power and no water pressure, which meant that fires were burning uncontrollably. New Orleans, it appeared, may not have been simply severely wounded, it was possibly dying. What was going to stop every remaining building from burning to the ground?
And help seemed to be nowhere. As my wife remarked, every single day looked worse than the day before. We expected Monday to be bad. But we did not expect to see Tuesday worse than Monday, and Wednesday worse than Tuesday. Louisiana Governor Blanco seemed to be calling a press conference every two hours, but nothing was getting done. The whole city was drowning and burning and being looted and no one knew what to do. And if New Orleans was in this kind of shape, I could only imagine what was happening to St. Bernard Parish, which was closer to the eye of the storm. There was no information whatsoever coming out of St. Bernard. Any fool could look at a map of the Gulf Coast and see this hunk of land jutting out into the ocean that Katrina cut directly through. But no one was talking about it, not even in passing. It was as if the place never existed. Maybe it no longer did.
A fellow sitting next to me was angrily talking on the phone. He hung up, and turned to tell me what was going on. He was the director of the YMCA in Tallahassee, and his office was handling a huge influx of calls from evacuees who were trying to find a place to stay. Evacuees were being forced out of their hotel rooms, he said with disgust. The weekend after Katrina was coincidentally the date of the biggest football game of the year, Florida vs. Florida State. The Florida game was a major social event — people had booked hotel rooms in blocks an entire year in advance. Game day was rapidly approaching and some of the hotels were telling Katrina evacuees they had to be out by the weekend. This was creating considerable anxiety.
For the second time in three days we heard someone apologize for Tallahassee. "The people of Tallahassee aren't like this," he said. "This is a nice town. It is outrageous that anyone would put these people out after what they have gone through."
We left town before the game, but I think the people of Tallahassee worked things out. If that guy had anything to do with it, they did.
We were finally ready to leave by about 2 o'clock. It was, I admit, a late departure for a 450 mile trip, but I was tired of being away from home. Not that there would be much for us to do in Baton Rouge; the city of New Orleans was closed to all traffic and, we were hearing, probably would be for weeks. Still, Baton Rouge was closer, if not all the way home. I also had the bright idea that by traveling at night we would avoid most of the traffic.
We left Tallahassee on I-10 west, and immediately came to a standstill. There was a major accident ahead. I got off the interstate and covered almost the entire remaining 400 miles on back roads.
Before we crossed the Florida state line we stopped for gas. We had heard that electricity was out over much of Mississippi and that we might not find an open gas station for awhile. This information was correct; in fact, after crossing the Alabama state line we did not find another open service station in 7 hours and 300 miles of driving.
Skirting Mobile, Alabama to the north, we saw the first sign of what Katrina had done to the Gulf Coast. Near the US 98 bridge over the Mobile channel was a 100 foot tall oceangoing oil platform. Katrina's storm surge had shoved it up Mobile bay and into the channel before crashing it into the bridge. Footage of this platform had been on all the news channels Monday. Then it was one of the more dramatic images of Katrina's power, but by now the horrors of what was going on in New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast had taken over public consciousness, pushing the wayward platform completely out of memory. The tugboats from the port of Mobile had pulled it safely away from the bridge and anchored it a few hundred yards downstream.
Taking 98 north and west, my plan was to exit at Lucedale, Mississippi and then travel west on Highway 26 through a town called Wiggins, then to Poplarville, and to cross into Louisiana at Bogalusa, far from the coast. From there I expected smooth traveling to Baton Rouge.
My wife thought my plan to cover 200 miles of Mississippi back roads at night was foolhardy. In retrospect, I have to admit she was right. While I would not say we were ever in significant danger, the trip was far more harrowing than I had planned.
We left Mobile, heading northeast on US 98. As we passed the outer limits of Mobile, we drove by illuminated homes less and less frequently. At first I thought we were entering less populated areas; but then I realized the homes were there, but they were dark. The electricity was out in vast areas of Alabama. No more than 25 miles out of Mobile we passed the last electrically lit home we would see until Amite, Louisiana — 250 miles later.
Lucedale was not just dark. It was smashed. It looked like an army of thugs had passed through, breaking windows and signs, knocking over fences, stripping shingles off roofs and branches from trees. It was obvious that the people of Lucedale had been hard at work — branches were stacked high on both sides of the road — sometimes so high that the houses behind them were invisible.
Past Lucedale, the tree stacks on the side of the road were getting larger. First large branches, then whole trunks lay in piles like kindling waiting for the largest bonfire since Sherman paused in Atlanta.
Another unexpected obstacle was wire in the road. We ran over the first one in Lucedale, and shortly recognized them as downed power lines. By the time we crossed the far end of the devastation we must have driven over 500 downed lines. Of course, none of them were electrified, or you would not be reading this now.
We made it to Poplarville, crossed over I-59 and entered Louisiana through a narrow two lane highway, putting us in Bogalusa. We were almost 60 miles north of New Orleans. I had expected some wind damage but what we saw was unbelievable. Tree trunks 4 feet thick snapped in half. Bogalusa was an endless lumberyard. The cut stacks of wood stood well over the top of our car, so tall in fact that I had a real concern that if we sideswiped one of them the toppling stack would crush us.
There were no lights anywhere, save an occasional candle in a window cutting the darkness. Most of the homes looked intact, though in the darkness it was hard to tell. The forestation helped shield the houses from what must have been howling winds, although we also saw an occasional home cut in half by a massive fallen bough.
I had been watching New Orleans on the news as everyone else had been, but had heard nothing about the parishes and counties to the north. The governor of Mississippi had said earlier in the day that 80% of the homes in his state were without power. I didn't believe it then but will attest to it now. As horrible as New Orleans was, it was worth thinking about the poor people of Poplarville, Bogalusa, Frankinton, Wiggins. They were well off the coast and probably had no idea what they were in for. Holed up in their homes in the woods 100 miles from the coast, almost none of them evacuated, and their punishment was watching Katrina rip their little towns to pieces. Country people know they cannot depend on police, or the National Guard, or boats, or helicopters to bail them out when things go to hell. They were on their own. A family hiding under its beds as a 60 foot pine crashes through the roof and into their living room, knowing there was no help for hours with gusts of 125 mph blowing overhead — a family like that must have had a story to tell indeed.
We just kept moving. Again and again we would come to a tree lying across the road, and I would think the road was completely blocked and we would have to turn back, but each time when we got right up to the fallen tree I would see that someone had come by with a chainsaw and cut just enough limbs away to let a car slip through. The Citizen's Highway Brigade. The road must have been blocked in this way ten times, and if any of the fallen trees had not been pruned back we would have been trapped at midnight on a pitch black road without enough gas to make it back to the last functioning gas station. My back road plan was clever in our escape, and stupid in our return.
The worst part of the trip was another kind of gas. Natural gas pipelines were broken everywhere and at times the smell was overwhelming. Whenever we hit a patch of heavy natural gas smell we just crept out way down the road and prayed none of the power lines we were driving across had enough juice to produce a spark. That I know of there were no major explosions or forest fires in that area that week, which was an unrecognized miracle. At least, unrecognized to anyone outside of Washington Parish.
We followed the country road, and followed it, and followed it, and it deteriorated to a gravel road (the blacktop had been stripped for resurfacing prior to the storm) and that point I thought we were completely lost. There was no hope for gasoline until Baton Rouge. We pushed on, and finally emerged in Amite, Lousiana and found Interstate 55. By the time we were on the interstate my wife was no longer talking to me. She thought my decision to drive the back roads in the middle of the night was a big mistake, and she was letting me know it. I guess she was right.
There was still no gasoline anywhere. This would be a fact of life for weeks in Southeast Louisiana. No electricity, no gas pumps. And even when the pumps worked, so many people rushed to top off their tanks that the station was empty in a matter of a few hours. But that night, the little red needle on my dashboard levitated just above "E," and we entered Baton Rouge city limits without needing any more fossil fuel. For the first time in my life I felt the urge to light a menorah.
We got to my aunt's house in Baton Rouge at about 3 am. Thirteen hours, 450 miles. Not a bad time, if I do say so myself.