Monday, June 19, 2006

Go West, Young Man. No, Not North! West!


Human beings have a strange capacity to laugh at past trauma survived. These days, my family makes jokes about the hours we spent on the Causeway with Katrina barreling down on us. To our dismay, we realized we'd goofed: we were being forced north toward Mississippi when we wanted to go west to Baton Rouge. It wasn’t particularly funny at the time.

We were still on the I-12  at six o’clock on Sunday evening, August 28th. The storm still hadn’t turned and the outer bands of the hurricane were already rolling through. The area’s cell phone system was completely overwhelmed. Samantha, who'd left earlier, managed to get through to tell us she and my mother had made it safely to Baton Rouge; then the line went dead. Steve and I were driving separate cars, each with a contingent of howling cats, Dani sitting beside me. She kept trying to call Steve, hanging doggedly on our tail, but we couldn’t get through to him. Oh, to have a set of Walkie Talkies and an evacuation map!

We finally decide we could cut across the state heading west on the back roads. We pulled off at a little town I’d never heard of named Amite, Steve right behind us. They have a Subway there, and we stopped for a sandwich and a badly needed stretch. We’d been driving for what seemed like forever; soon it would be dark. Getting back in the cars, we headed off on narrow winding roads almost devoid of traffic. Gently rolling hills, thick stands of trees, shady little streams. I found myself thinking, incongruously, It’s pretty up here; why have I never come up here to see this? (It was in those rolling hills we would eventually buy our lake house, backyard above.) Then we hit the outskirts of Baton Rouge.

Think about this: over a million people streaming out of Orleans and St. Bernard and Jefferson Parishes, joined by the residents of the other low-lying parishes south of the I-10. Cars full of small children, aged grandparents, people who are sick, women about to give birth, unhappy dogs and cats, birds and guinea pigs. The Contraflow worked. Although New Orleans and Louisiana officials get little credit for it (and what happened to those left behind was an unpardonable tragedy), we still achieved a miracle: a modern metropolitan area was largely evacuated in 24 hours…and there was no place within hundreds of miles for most of them to sleep.

We fought our way through the chaos to my daughter’s apartment, thankful we had a refuge. Five people and five very disgruntled cats in a tiny one-bedroom student apartment.

With a hurricane coming.

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