BREAKING A DATE WITH KATRINA 

In celebration of my birthday the Missus and I planned a brief weekend trip to the Big Easy.  The plan was to fly into New Orleans on Friday evening, and fly out on Sunday evening.  Although a storm was brewing in the Atlantic, it appeared that Katrina would pound Florida a bit, break up, and head north to Pensacola.  It was a fairly weak storm and the threat seemed minimal.

 As the hour of our departure neared, so did Katrina, failing to take the northward turn.  The timing, however, made the trip feasible, with a Monday landfall predicted.  We would simply leave on Sunday as planned.  Friday came and we flew into New Orleans on schedule.  The Airport Shuttle was filled with arriving tourists even at 8:30 in the evening.

Saturday in New Orleans

 

 The French Quarter stirred with a moderate crowd of tourists.  Saturday was a beautiful day, beginning with a walk along the Mississippi Levee at the French Market.  The morning sun graced a cloudless sky as I watched a giant freighter chugging upriver.  The Algiers Ferry was busy linking the East and West banks.  A cool breeze made the sunny exposure quite pleasant.

 Shopping and touring were the orders of the day, and mobs of tourists similarly situated filled the walks and streetcars.  Still the presence of Katrina lurked in the background.  That afternoon I made a call to American Airlines to confirm the status of our flight.  The agent politely assured that all Sunday flights were on schedule at that time, and although all earlier flights were fully booked, as was ours, things looked okay for now.

 A few businesses began to board up their windows, while others closed early.  Some signs were posted explaining the visit from Katrina would interrupt the conduct of business for a while.  Still, there was no alarm in the air.  It was the very essence of New Orleans, the city that care forgot.

 We went to dinner with no anxiety of the looming threat.  Katrina took a back seat.  The atmosphere in Irene’s Cuisine was happy and carefree.  It was a typical New Orleans night.  The piano player played, the maitre’d quipped in jocular fashion, and the wait staff became our new best friends.  A party of six from Connecticut at the table next to us exchanged ideas about the threat of Katrina, but without alarm.  They said that they were stuck, unless they rented a car and fled, but there was no serious concern. 

Oh well, we’ll just sit this one out!  It was later that we learned that when Katrina dances, no one sits it out. 

 As we walked back to our hotel, we stopped at Café Sbisa, the source of my favorite Sunday brunch.  My dream of grillades and grits with turtle soup and a chilled mimosa would be realized in the morning.

 Upon entry I asked the host if they would be open for business Sunday morning.  His apology included a discussion of the need to board the place up.  On to the Court of Two Sisters, Plan B (for brunch).  The folks at the Court advised that they would play it by ear and for us to call in the morning before coming.

 Even after a couple of martinis, a bit of uneasiness was growing within, but still the laid-back feeling that pervades this old city set my fears to rest, at least for the night.

 

Sunday in the French Quarter

 

Sunday morning was a beautiful as had been the day before, except for a few scattered clouds and a more persistent breeze.  All was calm, but I sought to confirm our status by linking to American Airlines via the Internet.  My worst fears were realized.  Our flight was canceled.  The airport was closing at noon.  All flights were booked, and all carriers were shutting down.

Uneasily, I scurried to the front desk of our hotel to inquire about a car rental.  The desk clerk sadly confirmed that according to all reports, no rental cars were available.  Rushing back to the room, I opened the yellow pages and began calling not only car rental businesses, but truck rentals as well.  All were either closed, or sold out.

Back downstairs I rushed, almost running, out the front door to the curb where no fewer than two cabs were faithfully stationed 24/7.  There were no cabs in sight.  Chartres Street was eerily devoid of life. 

Retreating to the hotel I spoke with one of the waiters who had served us so well the evenings before in the Terrace Bar.  I asked for any information that he might have to offer.  Ever smiling and courteous, Troy volunteered to take us somewhere if we could indeed find a place to go.

Le Richelieu, our hotel, is a building that has stood for two-hundred-fifty years.  Our suite holds all the amenities, including a kitchenette.  Without electrical power, air conditioning, or water, though, the room quickly falls from favor.  The third floor location would be just above the projected waterline.

The hotel owner, himself a resident of the building, was busy trying to gather his sixty-five employees and their families to take refuge in the hotel.  He spoke to me in a somber tone saying, “If you can get out of here get out.  You don’t want to be here tomorrow.”

Ominous words from the proprietor sent a chill up my spine.  I have been asked to leave for reasons of misconduct, but never for my own well-being.

Let’s Make a Deal

 

I had earlier called an old friend, Tiger, who lives in Metairie, about twelve miles from the Vieux Carre, leaving a voice mail message on his cell phone. He had been ill, so when he did not return my message, my curiosity grew.  Calling his house I reached his wife, Lynda, who revealed that my pal’s condition had worsened, and that he was in ICU in a local hospital.   

She was in the process of shifting all her worldly goods from the downstairs to the upstairs in anticipation of the predicted flood.  Her plan was to relocate to the Hyatt Regency with her son and grandson to be near the hospital and to enjoy the luxury of the hotel’s emergency generators.

 We discussed my situation, to which she suggested that I might borrow my friend’s company car which was sitting idle while he was unable to work.  The legalities of driving someone’s company car seemed an obstacle, but my pal’s boss is also a friend.  Placing a call to my old friend, Kit, in Macon, Georgia, I was fortunate to reach him and confront him with my plight and the loan of the company car.

 His response was that he was not the one in authority with regard to the company’s leased fleet, but stated that he had no problem with it, implying his personal blessing.  Meanwhile Lynda talked to Tiger, lying in ICU with tubes and hoses running from various orifices and penetrations in his body.  He urged that by all means we commandeer the vehicle. 

 The deal was done, but I had to act quickly.  Linda was moving out soon with a planned stop for Mass and a prayer for the coming days ahead.  The importance of this Mass will only later be realized.

Troy d’ Le Richelieu to the Rescue

 

             Finding Troy was no problem.  He was always near with a bright smile and comforting greeting.  I explained the situation which would be dependent upon his driving Mary Lynn, I, and our luggage to Metairie to retrieve the loaner auto.  He quickly went to his boss and gained his permission to become our taxi.

             Having breakfast was a couple from Denver with whom we had originally planned to share a cab to the airport.  Their flight left about the same time as ours, but it, too, was canceled.  They were stranded.  We suggested that they might ride with us to Shreveport where they could eventually get a flight home.

             Life is not that simple, unfortunately.  Troy confides that his tiny car will not carry more than three people, and but a little luggage.  Further assessing the plan, it becomes obvious that the borrowed Ford Taurus would not contain four adults and the luggage of the entire party.  In a troubling moment, the possibility of taking the Denver couple faded.  They set about seeking an alternative escape and wished us well.

             Troy was gathering our bags as I checked out of the Hotel.  A cold feeling came over me as I realized that we were leaving those less fortunate behind.  The hotel staff and their families had been moving in all morning.  Elderly parents were led into strange surroundings, smiling, though obviously uneasy.  A few remaining guests were having breakfast.  All seemed happy, at least to the extent that they were making the best of their circumstances. 

             Our awaiting carriage was a vintage Toyota Sentra two-door sedan.  It appeared to have survived earlier catastrophes, but was not unscathed.  Littered with kids toys inside, untidy would be the most charitable of descriptions.  Bent and scratched, no hub caps, the trunk filled with gas cans, tools, and baby diapers, Troy’s ride, for all its blemishes, looked pretty good to us.  With room for but one bag in the trunk, Mary Lynn and I crowded into the confines of the cozy coupe with our remaining bags in our lap.  The open windows provided air conditioning as nature had planned it.

             The city was now under a mandatory evacuation order from Mayor Nagin.  Before leaving the hotel we had seen television accounts of Interstate 10 in hopeless gridlock.  In the Contra-Flow mode, both east and westbound lanes were headed west from mid city, filled to capacity with creeping cars.  Foreseeing a nightmare of backstreet travel, I slipped Troy a crisp new $100 bill to cement the deal.

             Turning onto Esplanade, Troy let the hammer down on the Sentra, and we sped away down the near-deserted street.  Only slowing for stop signs, our driver took advantage of the urgent circumstances, casting good driving behavior to the wind.

             Two women stood on the sidewalk at a street corner attempting to thumb a ride.  The truck in front of us rejected their request for lack of room, as did we.

             Approaching City Park, Troy confidently entered, working his way knowledgeably past the Museum of Art along a winding path that soon converged with an unknown street beyond.  A turn or two and we were on Metairie Road which held our final destination.  Minutes later we were there!  The car was left at the designated rendezvous point with the keys under seat as promised.  Ever diligent, our driver courteously loaded our luggage into the borrowed vehicle.  With a parting handshake, we wished each other the best.  We were on our way.

Low Speed Chase

 

             The radio reported that westbound routes to Baton Rouge were overtaxed, suggesting that we escape to the east where traffic flow, although intolerably slow, was superior to the west.  We entered I-10 at point beyond the Contra-Flow restriction, heading east with only a few vehicles sharing our highway.  Passing the downtown area and heading toward Slidell, we suddenly came upon an endless lane of cars ahead, inching ever so slowly eastward.

             Three hours later, the trip odometer revealed that we had traveled but sixteen miles.  The gas gauge showed just less than half full at the beginning, now seeming more accurately, half empty.  The slow pace continued through Slidell where we finally entered I-59 with both north and south lanes devoted to the evacuation traffic.  Slowly we gathered steam, often approaching thirty miles per hour between sporadic stops.

             While in the Contra-Flow mode, all access to the highway is restricted.  There’s no getting off for gas or rest stops.  If it were possible, most of the stores closed, many having exhausted their supply of gasoline.  Eighteen thousand cars inch their way north along I-59.  Numerous vehicles were stopped along side the highway, either for overheated engines, lack of fuel, or to allow passengers a quick trip to the woods.

             After a seemingly endless trek, the Contra-Flow ended, and traffic bottle-necked onto the northbound lanes of I-59.  Eventually speed increased and access to businesses along the route was possible.  The first exit showing availability of food and fuel was backed up almost to the traffic lane.  A few miles up the road, we took the exit to Poplarville, MS.  After a side trip of about three miles, we found, as had others, the only convenience store in the area.  Long lines led to the gas pumps.  Ice was no longer available.  The indoor toilets had attracted a horde of humanity, all seeking urgent relief.  After thirty minutes in line, we found that relief, and returned to the car.

             Our map showed that we were still about forty miles from Hattiesburg, although we had been traveling for many hours.  Surveying the back roads on the map, we determined that we had little choice but to re-enter the endless stream of traffic on I-59.

             It took forever to reach Hattiesburg, where we took US 49 toward Jackson.  The relatively sparse flow of traffic allowed us to reach speeds previously unattainable.  Running from sixty to seventy miles an hours, we felt free as the wind.  That short-lived respite was spoiled by traffics clogs at Collins and Magee.  As we neared Jackson traffic became restored to the bumper-to-bumper situation we have endured for most of the day.  It was near sunset, and we had covered a distance of about two hundred miles since our 10:30 am departure.

             On to Vicksburg where we stopped for our first (and last) meal of the day at a Krystal restaurant: Wolfing down the fast food fare, we took a moment to survey the availability of motel rooms.  There were none.

             Throughout the day and into the long night, Mississippi Public Broadcasting provided a beacon of information, advising of road conditions, hotel room availability, and other helpful information.  They had tips for those hauling horses and pets.  One broadcast advised of some rooms being available in McGhee, Arkansas, just across the bridge from Greenville, Mississippi.  I could envision a startup line the Oklahoma Land Rush as weary evacuees raced off toward Greenville.

             Continuing along I-20 towards home, we stopped in Monroe where we were told, “I think there’s some rooms in North Arkansas.”  It was then that we realized that we would either attempt to sleep in the car in a crowded rest area or truck parking area, or drive on home.

             In heavy traffic, Mary Lynn drove the last leg of our journey.  It was only after we turned toward Texarkana from Shreveport that the level of traffic was reduced to a normal level.  The last seventy-five miles was the fastest-traveled leg of our journey at speeds sometimes exceeding the limit.

            It was 2:30 am on Monday when we arrived back home; Just sixteen hours after leaving New Orleans, some five hundred miles away.  We toasted a nightcap, and watched the ongoing television reports of the impending disaster before giving way to sleep.

Blue Monday

 

             Monday was an agonizing day of observing the onslaught of Katrina.  Television, print, and internet reports kept streaming the news, all of which was negative.

             The first television report that I saw Monday Morning was a video account of the windows blowing out of the Hyatt Regency in downtown New Orleans.  This was the destination of our friend, Lynda.  My blood ran cold.  The last contact we had was a voice mail message she left on our cell phone, assuring us that all was well, and wishing us the same.  Her cell phone became inaccessible early Sunday, and we have yet to reach her again.

             Through communication with my friends at the company for whom my pal, Tiger, works, I was relieved to learn that Lynda, upon her husband’s insistence, left New Orleans and joined her daughter and other family in Natchitoches, Louisiana, an area not directly affected by the storm.

Bad to Worse

 

             It is Tuesday now, and the morning brings the ominous news that Lynda has lost all communication with the hospital where her husband lies in critical condition.  Tiger is on the third floor of the Touro Infirmary in the Garden District of New Orleans.  We know only that he has been in intense pain since having spinal surgery.  At last word, the water was rising, and all patients had been moved into the hallways to conserve precious energy.

             Lower lying neighborhoods are now inundated by breeches in the levee system.  Metairie, where my friends have their home, is on the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain which is leaking into the city.  As the flood waters gradually creep over the historic French Quarter and the picturesque Garden District, this entire beautiful old city becomes a slough of hopelessness and despair.

             While our thoughts dwell upon the immediate dangers, there rests an underlying realization that this cultural treasure will no longer offer the charm and light-hearted pleasure that so many have enjoyed for so long.  Those within the seething cesspool know, as do those without, that many lives will be lost, and the charm of the city, too, will fall victim.

             Thankful that we were able to flee the impending disaster, I feel in my heart a sense of kinship with those left behind, and perhaps even guilt, that we didn’t stay behind.  My heart is heavy that my dear friend awaits his fate in the hallway of the flood-bound hospital, while his loving wife is held incommunicado miles away from him.

            May God be with those caught in the swirl of Katrina’s winds and waters.

 

Postscript

 

            As if from nowhere, a message was left on my cell phone from Lynda late Tuesday afternoon after I had finished this account.  She said that Tiger had been evacuated, but she did not know his destination, and had not spoken with him since Sunday.  She is attempting to secure a local cell phone in Natchitoches that will allow her to communicate with the rest of the world, since all the 504 area code circuits are either jammed or inoperable.

           

            Sadly we were unable to reach her for reply.