At work I hear mention that the hurricane is shifting our way, but we all go home for the weekend expecting to return Monday for business as usual. We are looking forward to a fun weekend. My parents are in town. We have free babysitting and lots of activities planned, including a big party for my darling Aunt Annou’s birthday on Sunday; then, that night she calls, saying she thinks we should make evacuation plans. We’re initially skeptical but go ahead and make hotel reservations in Memphis, fully planning to cancel them later.
We go to an open house at our daughter Louise’s school to get ready for her entering pre-K. It’s sweet and exciting. We get home and there are eight phone messages, including four from the bakery wondering if we still want the birthday cake we’ve ordered for Sunday; apparently people have been canceling their orders with Katrina in mind. This is when we realize the hurricane is a real issue.
We shift into evacuation mode and make preparations during the afternoon and evening. If truly necessary, we will leave in the middle of the night to avoid the traffic nightmares that occurred during Hurricane Ivan last year. We follow the news closely during the day. It becomes clear that the evacuation is necessary. We batten down the hatches, pack essentials, and move other valuables to the upstairs hallway.
Annou meets us. We eat all of the ice cream in the freezer and leave shortly before midnight: Mom, Dad, Annou, my wife Sarah, Louise and our other daughter June, Penny (the dog), and Delilah (the cat). We caravan in two cars. Ours is very full.
The contraflow is incredibly strange. Inbound lanes of the highway have been converted to outbound. As we’re driving westward out of town, the first squalls of rain pass through. Seeing the quadruple rows of red taillights heading away is surreal. It feels precisely like a scene from a giant Hollywood disaster movie. The girls are wide awake, quietly staring out the windows. We listen to 870 AM as far as we can receive it. The mayor comes on, jokes with the announcer in their jovial New Orleans way and then becomes very serious, telling people that this “could be the big one.”
We arrive in Memphis at first light. We eat breakfast and watch the news. Things have gotten worse. The storm is huge.
We eat barbecue for lunch and Korean for dinner. The news worsens through the day. That night, after everyone is in bed, Sarah and I drink a lot of bourbon and watch a PBS special about Hank Williams. We go to bed expecting our city to be destroyed the next day. We sleep like the dead.
In the morning we awaken to find that the storm has shifted to the east. It seems that New Orleans will be spared the worst of it.
I can laugh now. I catch my favorite unintentionally funny quote from a ridiculous “on the scene” reporter. He earnestly tells the cameraman, “We’re going to try to work our way up into that crevice, where we’re going to shoot some tape.” I think to myself, “‘Shoot some tape,’ eh? Is that what they’re calling it now?”
I drop my parents off at the car rental agency. They’re driving back to Virginia, ending their strangely rerouted vacation.
We go to the Otherlands coffee shop and run into a regular from the Rue de la Course, my coffee shop in New Orleans. In fact, on subsequent visits I encounter numerous people from Rue at the Otherlands. An entire refugee community has formed, using wi-fi, swapping bits of information.
We meet up with Memphis friends in the afternoon. Our kids play with their kids. Things are OK.
We plan to return home on Wednesday.
Describing the next two days is very difficult; they are a jumble. We follow the news carefully, concerned for our houses, realizing it will be longer than we thought until we can return home. We begin to realize our lives will be upended for the near future.
We keep the kids busy. Memphis is full of people we recognize from New Orleans. We go to the Children’s Museum and see numerous familiar parents wondering through the exhibits with their kids. Everyone is a little dazed.
The news continues to worsen. We determine our house is probably all right, but gradually an awareness grows that the city itself is not. Not just certain neighborhoods, not just a temporary blow, but a radical shift. The situation in the city is becoming more desperate. Slowly, the scale of the disaster comes into focus. This is not a small number of people trapped for one night in their homes; this is devastating. Looting changed from a small side story to something entirely different and more horrible. New Orleans is unraveling.
Tuesday night, friends in Memphis host dinner for us and other refugees. We dine by candlelight in their garden. Wine flows profusely. It is beautiful and unreal.
Although we may still have a house, it’s obvious we no longer have a home. I can’t watch the news. The devastation of my city is crushing. The sight of my fellow New Orleanians in that hell is more than I can bear to see.
There are dozens of practical details to deal with. We get cell phones with Memphis phone numbers so people can call us. (New Orleans phones are useless.) We go to Target to buy new clothes for the kids. People in the store approach us, immediately recognizing our circumstances, offering their condolences. In the parking lot, a woman sees our Louisiana license plate, briefly talks to us, and then forces $20 into our hands, refusing to be turned down.
We’re offered use of a house at Perdido, in Alabama just near the Florida border. We accept. We make plans for Annou to travel to my parents’ house in Virginia. Late in the day, we remember to wish Annou a happy birthday.
Many other things happen, but I can’t remember them.
We leave Memphis. At the last minute we decide to send the cat with Annou (there will be five dogs staying in Perdido). I take Annou to the airport. Even though I know she will be OK, it makes me very sad; our little Memphis community that has held together over the recent days is dispersing. It makes our situation more real.
We drive Annou’s car to Perdido and lend our own car indefinitely to friends of friends from New Orleans who have no vehicle otherwise. They may head on to North Carolina or Michigan. Our car will go with them. These things will get sorted out later. It barely matters.
On the way out of town, in the Subway parking lot, again a woman forces a wad of cash into our hands.
We head south through Mississippi and Alabama, arriving at Perdido late in the evening. On the way we pass large convoys of federal vehicles.
When the hurricane hit, our community shattered like something thrown against a wall, and little shards flew all across the country. We have friends dispersed from Colorado to Boston, people we were sitting next to last week. A web of communication instantaneously sprang up in the aftermath, with all of us constantly calling, emailing, getting in touch however we could share information. For the past week, the city this community shares as a home, the heart of this community, has been a hole, an inaccessible hell on earth walled in by a moat of water. We see the images on television, see our neighborhoods, our neighbors, and we can only watch.
One of the hardest things has been that all of our friends and much of our family, the people we would depend on for help, are hundreds of miles away. The phone calls and email have been crucial, but not the same. Now that a small band of us, some of our closest friends, has coalesced here in a place that can function as our home for the immediate future, things look better. After two days the shell-shocked fatigue has started to fade, we make lots of stupid awful jokes, and we’re able to just begin to prepare for the next step.