In celebration of my birthday the
Missus and I planned a brief weekend trip to the Big Easy. The plan was
to fly into
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
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
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
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 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 . 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.
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,
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.
I had earlier called an old
friend, Tiger, who lives in
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
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.
Having breakfast was a couple from
Life is not that simple, unfortunately.
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,
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
Turning onto Esplanade,
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.
The radio reported that westbound routes to
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
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
Our map showed that we were still about forty miles from
It took forever to reach
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
Continuing along I-20 towards home, we stopped in
In heavy traffic, Mary Lynn drove the last leg of our journey. It was
only after we turned toward
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
Sadly we were unable to reach her for reply.