Monday, September 01, 2008

14 Hours Later

It's 2:39 a.m. and we have just arrived in Atlanta after a fourteen hour trip (ordinarily I make the trip in seven hours). The four cats are prowling around in my parents' basement, smelling everything, poufing up. I am having a glass of red wine, although GAWD I wanted a cold, cold beer, and then I remembered that you can't buy alcohol on Sunday in this godforsaken state. The wine is making my teeth feel chalky.

I'm on edge.

Yesterday seems like a week ago. After the trip to the Northshore to pick up our dining table and after the boarding up, I gave several interviews to the BBC. Simon was annoyed with me, I think. Here he was--securing yard debris, putting stuff in the attic and taking memorabilia and files down, and here I was--yakking about what it's like to be evacuating. I was asked twice if it all felt "a bit like deja vu," which I guess is a logical question, to which the presumptive answer is "yes."

But the answer is no. This time didn't feel anything like last time, or the time before that (Ivan), or the time before that (Dennis), or the time before that (Iris), or the time before that (Georges). I've lived in New Orleans for ten years, but none of the evacuations has ever felt this... this... BAD. In my interviews, I remembered to mention the failure of the federal levees as the reason for the devastation wrought by Katrina. And that failure (and its aftermath--the fodder for this blog) is what makes this time feel so different.

Also, I am a homeowner and not a renter this time. I mean, I don't guess that ownership is the real difference--it's more the process of finding our home; Of working through the long renovation process; Of eating (or not eating), sleeping (or not sleeping), and breathing (or smoking) that house for months upon months and then moving in, and then having to leave.

Last night, after our friends left our very short and not all that relaxing "clean out the 'fridge" BBQ, Simon and I packed in earnest. I packed enough clothes for a six-week stay. I made sure to bring interviewing clothes, just in case I'd have to find a new job. I packed art, photos, journals, letters, and my wedding dress. Then I showered and checked in with the 1:00 am update, and there was the technicolor swirl on the screen. There was the grimmest of predictions: 21 feet of storm surge; catastrophic flooding.

I was waiting for a BBC interview that would air on their live morning program, but I was so spent and emotionally overwrought that Simon thought I should turn off the phone. When he asked me if I was okay, I started to cry, hard and snotty. "We're going to lose our house," I said. Then I turned off my phone. Then I turned it back on.

We slept. I woke at seven. I was worried about getting out. On the news they were talking contraflow. They showed pictures of the I-10, blocked for miles and miles. Then the Dawn Brown said it was important to get a move on before the weather conditions started to deteriorate.

Down the street, Tasha was packing her truck on her own. Her son Ejean played a tie whistle on the stairs. She kept yelling at him. She asked us for rope. Simon said he'd leave some if we had any left. It was already 11:30 by then. I'd already had another hard cry. "I think we're going to lose our house," I told Simon. He nodded and then hugged and shushed me.

I kept thinking of more things I wanted to bring. Outside our pile grew: next to my car was the pile that had to stay dry. In Simon's was the stuff that could get rained on. The sky was turning gray already, and there was a stiff breeze. I worried. How stiff could the breeze get without lifting our roof off? Simon wanted to put more things in the attic, but I had too many windblown movie images in my head--of roof tiles flaking off like fish scales. We compromised and moved things to high shelves in our closets. I made signs that read, "Hand Family Caravan" and taped them to our rear windows so people would know not to separate us if we got into a wrong lane in the contraflow.
The cats were the hardest part. The last time we took Ray--our post-Katrina kitty--on a trip in the car, he pushed himself against the cage so hard that he rubbed of patches of fur and bloodied his tiny nose. I put him in a harness. The effect was paralyzing. He sort of sat there on the bed, looking worried, wondering what that harness meant. Anna went relatively cheerfully into her carrier. Both Sammo and Georgie required heartbreaking pushing and prying. (Later we gave them breaks, although stressed out animals, I've discovered, do not want to eat, drink, or use the bathroom. They want to sit on your lap and be reassured.)
And then we had to leave Miss Stripeypants, Sammo's sidekick. She's a feral cat who's part of the SPCA's "Catch and Release Program," which we figured out on account of two things: her notched ear and her running away even after we've just fed her fancy organic cat food (peas and duck, Miss Stripeypants! Peas. And. Duck.)

I'd bought a 16-pound bag of Friskies. I opened the top and put it on top of a cabinet on our raised porch. I measured the water line from Katrina to make sure it was high enough. Then I left two big bowls of fresh water and opened several small bottles of water that I figured she could tip over to drink if she needed to. She eyed me warily from under the porch. I blew her a kiss and moved on.

As we drove away, Tasha approached. She wanted to know where we were going. "To hell," I joked (as anyone in New Orleans knows that evacuating is its own special kind of hell.) When I told her we were really going to my parents' house, she said, "Oh, mother! Well that really is hell!" Ejean in the background looked like he might feel the same. He looked worried--like why is my mom packing everything, everything, everything and letting it get so late and leaving me here on the steps with this damn whistle when I know very well what's going on even if I was only two during Katrina? She told us to be careful. She said, "I hope it doesn't flood this time." I told her there was some extra rope on the side steps. She thanked us and we left.

The streets were empty. When we got to Franklin and I-10, the traffic I'd seen the day before was gone. We stopped to ask a cop if we should go that way. We wanted to get to I-10, but we'd heard they weren't letting anyone go on to I-10 past I-12. The map indicated that we'd get forced on to I-59, heading north. The cop shrugged. We decided to follow Mark's route. He'd headed up Causeway, then to highway 190 to I-12 to I-10 east. He reported it was smooth sailing. It sort of was.

There was, in fact, a lot of traffic that came in strange bursts apropos of nothing. There were no accidents to inspire rubbernecking or anything; you'd just be going 60 miles-per-hour one minute and then 15 the next. When it was slow I texted friends. "Dear Friends," I wrote. "Simon and I are creeping toward ATL with cats and wedding pics in tow. We hope to return to NOLA soon. In the meantime, please keep in touch, wherever you may be... XOXO SARAH." Jenn texted back that she'd been 15 hours en route to Birmingham, where she and her four dogs were not "hot and deeelerious" in a cramped hotel room. Dave took 12 to get to Arkansas. Adam and Ashley were in St. Petersburg, Florida. Scott and family: Memphis.

We (the Hand Family Caravan) mostly listened to WWL-AM 870 and called each other. On the radio, people called in all day to bitch about "contraband" (contraflow). Those who'd taken the route we very nearly did--I-59--were in "a parking lot." You could hear the frustration and anger. The southbound lanes were empty, but no one was moving. The exits had been closed. There was no place to use the bathroom or to get gas or a cold drink. Later, a woman from Uptown called to say that "someone should be held accountable" for the fact that she'd been in her car for thirteen hours and hadn't made it to Hattiesburg yet. Simon called me and asked if I'd heard the reports of gridlock on I-59 and we thanked our lucky stars we'd not gone that way. "We're charmed," he said. I wouldn't call fourteen hours for a seven hour trip a "charmed" journey, but we are here and safe, and even if I can't sleep and have wine-tooth, I am grateful we have a place to go.

Tomorrow we will watch TV, which is probably not a good idea, but what else can we do now that we are here and not there and our home is weathering the storm (we hope... we hope...) and our city is taking another sucker-punch to the gut (we hope not). In intend to stay sane. I was a rotten mess sometimes after Katrina...

(Also, I'll add some pictures to this post.)

Thank you to the readers who heard me on the BBC and who have offered support and wellwishes, by the way. Thank you for helping me to stay motivated to write about all of this, too... (We'll see how long THAT lasts!)


Elizabeth Thomas said...

Hi, I saw you on the BBC. I'm a former Mississippian with relatives in New Orleans but live outside London now. I've been glued to the TV waiting to see what happens & saw them interview you. Thanks for your blog -- it is helpful to me -- I am so far away from home and watching this from afar is hard so having your perspective is helpful.

Elizabeth Thomas

Anonymous said...

Hi Sarah - I too heard your interview with the BBC and want to thank you for taking the time to make your fabulous blog, and
helping people in England focus on the terrible events in New Orleans. Good luck to you all.

kittykat said...

Sarah, what a wonderful thing you did, taking time from your panicked packing to remember Miss Stripeypants. We up here in Jackson, Mississippi will follow your blog in hopes of hearing soon that both Miss S. and your house are intact!