Wednesday, August 31, 2005

JUST ANOTHER REFUGEE

If my last post seemed a little disjointed, it was because I completed it late at night after driving many long hours. It was posted via the high-speed internet connection in a hotel room. My family is on the road. We are refugees.

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.

7 Comments:

Blogger Ginger said...

Wade, I am so sorry. I am praying for you and your family, and that you will come out of this with your home and lives intact.

PLEASE let me know if there is any thing that I can do to help.

Ginger

8/31/05, 3:32 PM  
Blogger Kev said...

Glad you're all OK. Its very difficult for us on this side of the pond to appreciate how devastating these things are but I know its (understatement of the year) bad.

I'm not sure there's anything practical I can do at all but you're in my thoughts.

8/31/05, 3:53 PM  
Anonymous Camille (not the hurricane) said...

I'm sorry Wade. I hope you guys are ok.

I really hope your autistic son is doing ok. It's very hard to have all those changes for anyone, but I think it's very hard for autistic children. I didn't realize you were in New Orleans until I saw it on Kev's blog.

I'm glad you have your laptop, too.

8/31/05, 4:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wade--Thanks for a long and informative and moving report on this. Thank God you're all OK. I admire your strong spirit and irrepresible humor in the light of a natural catastrophe. As a former refugee of Hurricane Floyd in '00, I appreciated the giddiness (adrenaline?) tinged with fear and determination that you're riding. Maybe the break in routine will give your little guy a boost too, because of the challenge.

Hang tough.

David Taylor

8/31/05, 7:55 PM  
Anonymous jypsy said...

Wade,
My thoughts are with you. What I'm seeing is beyond words and way beyong the scope of my imagination. Take care of eachother...

9/2/05, 7:56 AM  
Anonymous Wendy said...

Wade, my thoughtds and prayers are with you. I'm happy to hear you made it out safely.

9/2/05, 9:31 AM  
Anonymous Dianne said...

I came over here from Orac's site. I just wanted to add my condolences for all you've been through. I'm glad to hear that your family is ok. I used to live in Dallas, the city of which Arlington is more or less a suburb. It's a nice enough city. When I lived there--admittedly over 20 years ago, Plano and Richardson had good schools. Just in case you get stuck there long enough that you have to consider putting your kids in local schools. Look around a bit, the schools vary widely between one suburb and the next. I'm afraid I have no real idea which ones would have the best programs for autistic children, but I'm almost certain that such programs do exist somewhere in the Dallas area. Best of luck to you and your family.

9/5/05, 9:25 AM  

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