JUST ANOTHER REFUGEE
When we went to bed Friday night, we believed that Hurricane Katrina was headed to the Florida panhandle. By the time we awoke on Saturday morning, it was coming to the New Orleans area where we live. We saw the predictions of a Category V hurricane coming so close, and we knew the only sane thing to do was evacuate.
We packed what would fit into the car and grabbed a few precious hours of sleep. Around 3:00 a.m., Sunday morning, two adults, one teenaged boy, one autistic child, and one Cairn Terrier set off on what we assumed would be a one-to-two day trip. (That assumption was a little too similar to the assumption of a certain group that their trip aboard the S.S. Minnow would be but a three-hour tour.)
The “contraflow” system designed to speed the flow of evacuation worked well. In essence, the State Police shut off in-bound traffic on the major arteries coming into the area, and then designate all of the lanes for out-bound traffic. Even in the middle of the night, there was a steady flow of traffic heading north on Interstate 55.
The second rest area in Mississippi resembled a refugee camp just outside of a war zone. Vehicles were double-parked. People were sleeping on picnic tables. Impromptu parties were well underway. About ten minutes after leaving the rest area, I realized that a pretty sizable percentage of that crowd probably had nowhere to go. Many of the refugees were likely without sufficient funds to get a hotel room, and probably could not afford the gas to get much further than they already had traveled. I couldn’t help but wonder how many of the people in that rest area intended to ride the storm out right there.
Hotel rooms were unavailable in Monroe or Shreveport, so we drove all the way to Arlington, Texas. It seemed a likely spot. It was well away from the storm, had plenty to do, and was close to my oldest brother’s home. But we did not intend to move here. It’s Wednesday afternoon as I post this, and there’s no indication that we will be able to go home any time soon.
I was nine years old when Hurricane Betsy passed close to New Orleans in 1965, causing devastation to parts of the city. My recollections of the week or so after that storm are relatively pleasant. It was kind of like a camping trip; we had no electricity and my mother heated canned food over a sterno stove. This time around, I have a lot more creature comforts, but I don’t think I’ll look back on Katrina with any degree of fondness.
It hasn’t been all bad. Texans make for pretty friendly hosts (although I have to say they may be the most dangerous drivers I’ve seen south of New York City). There are plenty of diversions; the other night my sons saw their first Major League game (well, Rangers versus White Sox, which is close enough to Major League baseball).
About half of the hotel’s guests are Louisiana evacuees, and it seems like over half of us have our dogs with us. It’s reminiscent of the hotel in the movie Best of Show; one can walk down the hallway and hear woofing at about half the doors. The hotel staff just smiles at the unusually high number of four-legged guests, and all the dog families have formed a kind of community within a community within a community.
In general, the hotel has been great. I’ve been thinking of suggesting a new advertising campaign for the chain:
Pet Friendly! Free High-Speed Internet Access! Free Continental Breakfast! Coin-Op Laundry!
La Quinta: the right choice for your next evacuation!
One of the things we needed in a hotel room was a refrigerator for the supplements and special food items our son needs that require cooling. Maintaining his biomedical intervention has been a challenge. We have always been able to handle the biomedical routine on “vacation,” and we’re doing okay with it on this trip. But our son has been a little wild, emotionally volatile, and stimmy. There has been too much of a break in his routine, too much inconsistency in our interventions, too many possible gluten or casein infractions, and too much distraction on the part of mommy and daddy who are constantly seeking more information about thehttp://www.blogger.com/img/gl.link.gif state of things back home.
Although the “pet friendly” part was one of the most important things when we looked for a hotel, the internet access has become our real lifeline. During Hurricane Betsy, I recall my family huddled around a transistor radio listening to the reports, and we felt less alone. Even though we have kept the hotel television on the news reports, we have also used the internet, which has brought us closer to home in the same way the transistor radio did during Betsy. Even when WDSU television could no longer broadcast its signal over the airwaves, they were streaming reports live on their web site. WWL television updates its site several times a day with the type of information we are desperate for, like how far did the floodwaters get in our community. The information we get from the Louisiana media is more intimate than we get from the cable news networks, and somehow it’s easier to get bad news from friends. And the news has been mostly bad.
There are no adequate words that can describe what it has been like to watch television and see the city I grew up in -- the city I love -- looking like it does right now. We’ve been seeing scenes that look like World War II newsreel footage, and then we recognize what’s left of a building or a neighborhood. It’s surreal and it’s heart breaking. I know this town. I know these people.
So far, the word on our loved ones seems to be good. I’ve heard from my daughter who rode the storm out in Baton Rouge and, except for losing power for several hours, seems to have come through quite nicely. We’ve gotten word about some of my wife’s family, who are well. But we’re still waiting to hear from others in both families along with a lot of friends. We’ve heard from friends, many of whom have lost everything they had but their lives. Both cell towers and land lines are out through much of the affected area. All we can do is wait, keep trying to get more information, and pray.
The authorities are still not allowing residents of St. Tammany Parish, where we live, back into the area. Most of the flooding in St. Tammany was in Slidell or the parts of Mandeville closest to Lake Pontchartrain. Our house should have been safe from the flooding (although that’s not necessarily a given), but we have many large trees around that could have easily been blown over onto our house in the storm. We really do not know if we have a home to which we can return.
I don’t know if we have a home. I don’t know how much of my “stuff” has been lost. I don’t know if the firm where I work still exists. But I look around me and see that my family is well. We will survive this.