Sunday, June 18, 2006

The Leaving of New Orleans

The State of Louisiana recently released their new hurricane evacuation maps. Steve went to Home Depot (a rather ironic distribution point, I thought), and got half a dozen, two for each car. Last year, we didn't have maps in the cars and we decided to pack up and leave in such a hurry that we didn’t think to double-check the paper. Which was a big mistake because they’d made some changes since the previous hurricane evacuation, changes we should have known about.

We were still boarding up my mother’s house when Mayor Nagin ordered the mandatory evacuation of New Orleans ahead of Katrina’s landfall. I told Sam to take her grandmother and her grandmother’s cat, and go before traffic became impossible. She headed west, toward Baton Rouge, but called an hour later to warn us that the interstate was a parking lot; she hadn’t even made it to Williams Boulevard.

We quickly put up the last sheet of plywood, hauled in the last of the flower pots and garden furniture, locked up my mother’s house, and left. I was driving my Volkswagen with Danielle beside me and two cats howling in the back. Steve was behind us in his SUV, two more cats howling. Since my mother’s house is in Old Metairie, just blocks from Causeway, we decided to take the Causeway over Lake Pontchartrain and then head west to Baton Rouge.

At first, it seemed a good idea. Traffic rolled smoothly for the first five or ten minutes out over the water. Then we hit the backlog from the North Shore and we stopped. Even when traffic began to move again, we barely crept along. The wind was kicking up the lake, the storm surge swelling the tide. I looked at the water licking the edges of the Causeway and I thought, Great. We’re still going to be here when the bloody storm hits! We kept listening to the radio, hoping to hear the storm had finally started turning. Accept it wasn’t turning; it just kept getting closer and closer.

My memories of those hours on the lake are hemmed in, as I was, by a huge horse trailer to my left and a car in front of me full of college students drinking beer. One of the guys in the backseat was sick. Repeatedly. He kept opening the door and throwing up. Then he’d go back to drinking beer. I had to turn off the air conditioner and open the windows to keep the car from overheating, so I had sound effects as well as visual. I felt like yelling at him, For God’s sake, quit drinking!

Samantha kept calling and saying, Where are you? Danielle kept saying, We’re still on the Causeway. Still? Still! Cell phone connections became more and more erratic. Everyone was on their cell phones, trying to coordinate where they were going, urging family members who hadn’t left yet to please get out. Even before the storm hit, the system was overwhelmed and crashed.

Finally, we made it across the Causeway and found ourselves shuttled north, toward Jackson, Mississippi. I cried, But I don’t want to go to Jackson! I want to go to Baton Rouge! Too late we remembered the last improvement to the Contraflow plan: to prevent a backlog on the I-10 in Baton Rouge caused by merging traffic, all North Shore traffic was being sent to Jackson. Ooops.

We had no choice. We went with the flow. As soon as we hit the I-12 headed north, the traffic began to move. The road opened up and people hit the gas, anxious to get away. No one was going to pull us over for speeding—the cops directing traffic kept yelling, “Go, go, go!” I crested a hill and the freeway spread out before me: two lanes, a grassy medium, and then two more lanes, the road cutting a straight line through thick piney woods that pressed in on either side. Because of Contraflow, all lanes of traffic on both sides of the interstate were headed away from New Orleans, bumper to bumper, streaming north. I looked at all those cars, flying before me, around me, behind me, and for the first time in that long, hellish day, it occurred to me: We’re running for our lives. Hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the city, all running for their lives. In that moment, I knew it wasn’t simply an exercise in futility, and that we wouldn’t be home in two days talking about how silly we were to have panicked and evacuated. It was really going to happen. This time, our city was going to be hit.

And then I thought, Oh, God. My Press Cat.


Charles Gramlich said...

In our case, Josh was already with his Mom at her brother's place in Mississippi, so Lana and I took off late the night before and got out toward Baton Rouge without hitting any horrible traffic. It was in coming back and trying to get into Metairie that one day they allowed us in that we saw the traffic for what it was, a slow moving but powerful beast.

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