Thoughts on the evacuation

Sep 13, 2005 by

This is a draft of an op-ed I wrote for the Daytona Beach News Journal. It could use some more editing, but was the only one I could easily cut and paste. (Btw, I’ve been unable to reach David “the Flaming Liberal” Bellinger. If anyone can confirm his whereabouts or safety, I’d appreciate it immensely.)

Hurricane Katrina first impacted me while I was taking photos of my New Orleans home for insurance purposes. It was the Saturday evening before the storm, and the weather was eerily serene. Though Katrina’s squalls were still in the Gulf, I began to understand her potential consequences, and started worrying. Somehow, things just “felt different” this time around. Many neighbors who had never previously evacuated for a storm, were evacuating for Katrina. Time was running short, and my family would evacuate early the next morning along with tens of thousands of others. I also realized many others would be left behind, but I tried not to think about that.

So, I took a few exterior photos of my house, and then turned around to survey my neighborhood. It was sunset, and I was forced to confront the chance that everything in my view might vanish in 48 hours: the old homes and oaks, the swingset my daughter adores, the blooming crepe myrtle which had grown into a small tree… all these daily commonplaces suddenly seemed very fragile. The wind picked up a bit, so I snapped a few extra pictures of my street for posterity while the sunset winked through the tree-leaves. Then I went inside to start packing.

The next morning my wife and I watched in awe as Hurricane Katrina became a churning, Category Five monster, and we left town.

Like most New Orleanians, we knew the details of the ultimate “disaster” scenario for our sunken city. A typical news story described it like this: “The worst-case scenario for New Orleans — a direct strike by a full-strength Hurricane… could submerge much of this historic city treetop-deep in a stew of sewage, industrial chemicals and fire ants, and the inundation could last for weeks, experts say.” These images were so extreme and gruesome that my wife and I would laugh them off, rather than treat them seriously. My personal coping device was to make fun of the dreaded “fire ants” portion of the “expert’s” scenario. I’d say: “If you’re already up to your neck in toxic sewage, isn’t a floating ball of ants somewhat ‘over the top’ at that point? I mean, there’s hundred year-old buildings all over New Orleans; those science guys are just being Cassandras.”

But while evacuating Sunday morning, I remembered that Cassandra had been right.

For those with cars, the Interstate “contraflow”– where all lanes become outbound from the city– worked fairly well under the circumstances. Still, it was mainly stop-and-go traffic for the first forty or so miles out of town. There was no shortage of broken down cars, with distressed families standing on the side of the road. We passed many of them slowly, which was painful, but I had to assume someone else would stop to help. I told myself that we had waited as long as we could, and that the margin for error was quickly diminishing. Tense and nervous, I just wanted to get to our hotel and make sure our reservations weren’t “misplaced”.

Then I remembered my friend David. David is an older man who lost his sight a number of years ago. He had been a stevedore at the Port of New Orleans for 30 years, and we met via our mutual fascination with local politics. He’d often call me for rides to different events, and he relished telling me his next “big idea” for improving New Orleans. Thoughtlessly, I hadn’t phoned him prior to leaving town, and now all the wireless towers in New Orleans were jammed with calls. I’d been so focused on my own family that I forgot to think about a blind man living in a one story house just blocks from the Pontchartrain levees. I looked back at the empty seat in our car, and I started to stew in self-loathing. He’ll be alright, I soothed myself. Maybe the storm will turn at the last minute, like several others have done.

As everyone knows, the storm didn’t turn. The levees burst and all the outlandishly bad predictions came true. The poor of New Orleans were trapped in an urban bowl filling up with liquid death. Thousands may have perished.

Once the extent of the damage was clear, my wife and daughter and I drove to Ormond Beach. I grew up here, and am profoundly fortunate to still have a support network of family, friends and church . It appears Katrina’s aftermath totally flooded our street and neighborhood. But what we lost doesn’t compare to how lucky we feel to have such earnest support from this community, my old home. So many people we didn’t know have gone out of their way to assist us.

Despite this horrible catastrophe, we plan to go back and participate in the rebuilding of New Orleans. One day I hope to see my neighborhood revived and picturesque. It will be extremely difficult, and I already dread the future hurricanes we’ll have to endure. No doubt, at some point another mandatory evacuation will be ordered. Hopefully, by that time the lessons from this disaster will be seared into the consciousness of a new generation of leaders. After forgetting to call my friend David (and to this day I still don’t know whether he is ok or not) I’ll share with you a simple formulation of a lesson I learned last week.

My new evacuation motto: NO EMPTY SEATS.

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