I woke up early again, at 5am-ish, deep with anxiety about where the storm would make landfall. Everyone was still asleep in the room, so I wandered down to the hotel lobby to watch the news. Katrina had not yet made it on shore, but she was already bringing lots of rain and the power of high winds to the city.
The Storm would eventually make “landfall” around 6am just East of New Orleans, and the rest of the day was spent by all of us watching the coverage. Mississippi was taking the brunt of the storm, and though New Orleans was taking its fair share of wind, rain and the damage from the storm (a piece of the Superdome roof came off), it was clear that the city had pretty much dodged another bullet and would come out of this relatively intact.
I got a call around 4pm from my friend Marc Stone who lived down the street from us and he reported that a neighbor had called him and said everything looked fine in the neighborhood. A few limbs down, lots of debris from the wind and the rain, but things looked pretty good. We all decided to take a break from the coverage and go out to get something to eat. As we made it down to the lobby, I asked others what they had heard about their neighborhoods. Most did not know too much, but one person from East New Orleans said he had heard that his whole neighborhood was under water. Wow. Some of us weren't going to be so lucky, I thought to myself. I could see in his face that he was very troubled by the news he had heard. I was very anxious to head back home on Tuesday to see for myself the extent of the damage in Ne w Orleans. I knew, though, that we could at least go back home, whereas the person in the lobby knew he could not.
We went out to dinner at the Golden Corral. Lots of food variety, and dirty cheap. It seemed every restaurant, bar, and shop in Lafayette had the tvs on covering the storm. I remember hearing on the tv something about “levees breached”.... I turned to focus on the coverage when I heard this. Sure enough, it was now being reported that there were a number of canals and levees in New Orleans that had breached due to the powerful storm surge as it pushed water into Lake Ponchatrain.
I got a very deep sinking feeling in my gut when I heard this news....
I remember coming back to the table where we were all sitting and telling everyone that the levees had breached. We all pretty much got up from the table right then and there and got back to the hotel as fast as we could. Watching the coverage with a bit more concern, it became known quickly that the levees had not only breached but the water from Lake Ponchatrain was filling the city up quickly with water.
I looked at Susan and said it was over. We weren't going back to New Orleans.
We discussed for a bit where we would be going from here. Our two choices were California or Tennessee. Tennessee was closer, and Susan got on the phone and called her parents to see if we could evacuate to their house. Then, Susan got on the phone and called her former husband Troy to see when (not if) we could pick up Jason and Caitlin to take them to Tennessee with us. Miss Lee got on the phone to see if she could stay with her daughter in Houston, and Kaya called her parents in New Mexico to tell them she would be flying home on Tuesday. I tried to work with the Hotel for one extra night, but they were already booked for the week. We would be heading to Crossville, Tennessee on Tuesday morning, with one overnight stop in Birmingham.
After a few hours of rest, I took Miss Lee and Kaya to Houston. It would be a 9-hour round trip drive from Lafayette to Houston and back, but I was so full of adrenaline and anxiety that when I returned to the hotel room at 10am, I was still “awake” enough to repack the car and head to Birmingham.
Our caravan had lost two people but gained two people. Jason and Caitlin would join us. And at 11am Tuesday, August 30, 2005, we all would begin our journey to Tennessee as bona-fide Katrina evacuees.
Ever since I can remember, I've had these two bumper stickers on my cars—a WWOZ bumper sticker, and another that states “New Orleans—Proud to Call It Home.” As we headed North and then East on the Interstate, we began seeing people in cars waving to us with sad looks on their faces. Some thumbs up, all positive vibes. They knew we were from New Orleans, and I had a strong sense they could feel our pain. It was another layer to an already surreal experience that had started earlier in the week.
The trip itself was eventful. We almost ran out of gas in Birmingham, since the area between Jackson Mississippi and Birmingham had also been ravaged by the winds and rains of Katrina. Power was out everywhere. By the time we made it to a hotel, I was exhausted and didn't know if I could drive another mile.
I had my first of what would become many “Katrina moments” when we got to the hotel. I had made a reservation earlier in the day at the hotel we had stopped at in Birmingham, but for some reason the reservation was not being honored for one reason or another. They had overbooked the hotel for the University of Alabama-Birmingham versus Alabama football game! You gotta be kidding me. Here we were, Katrina evacuees, who had made a bone-fide reservation for a room, being “bumped” by football fans!!! I ranted, I raved, I demanded a room for our family, I shouted, I made a scene, I made threats to call the tv stations. There were others from New Orleans who were there who were ready to join me. Eventually, they gave me some “coupons” to redeem at another hotel, and we finally found another hotel to stay in farther up the highway to stay in. I was pissed, but I was also tired, and I knew we all needed a place to get some sleep. We all left and headed to the other hotel.
On my way out, I saw a number of people outside walking their dogs. It was a large number of people. When I asked them about the dogs, they informed me that they were heading to New Orleans and that the dogs were “cadaver” dogs—they were going down to help search for bodies in the city. This chilled me to the bone, but I knew that they would be needed in the early days of the recovery.
We traveled as far as we could on our way to the next hotel, but somewhere along the way I found myself falling asleep on the road, and we turned off onto a nearby rest stop where we tried to sleep for a few hours. But it was hot outside, and it was incredibly difficult to get any sleep, though I was able to sleep for one hour on top of the jeep, and eventually we were able to get back on the road and get to our next hotel destination.
We finally arrived at Susan's parents' house on Wednesday, August 31. Among family and friendly faces, we sat down on the back porch and drank and talked.
And drank some more....
Within days, events would forge an anger in me that still festers to this day. The coverage on tv showed a city and a people desperate for help. Water, food, refuge. Simple things, really, if one could imagine we were actually living in the United States. Still, water, food, and refuge seemed to take an eternity to find it's way to those left behind in New Orleans. On Friday, September 1, the USA Network aired a documentary by Michael Murphy called “Make It Funky” about the music of New Orleans. I had been at the original screening of the documentary at NOCCA earlier in the summer. It is a great documentary that illustrates the power and magic of the music community in New Orleans. Michael had been “farming” out the documentary to various networks to see if anyone would pick it up. It took the tragedy of Katrina to bring it to the public. It still is one of my favorite musical documentaries to date. Once we saw it on tv, Susan and I began crying....
Little things over the next few weeks would cause Susan and I to cry. NPR did a show on Fresh Air that rebroadcast an interview with Dr. John where he played a slow, piano solo of Tipitina. Susan and I heard the song while we were driving in Crossville and had to pull over to cry.
We got our FEMA registration and called them nearly every day once we didn't get any response from them. We filed our Insurance claim and received a little living cash from them. We were thankful for the $2000 from FEMA that came pretty quickly and helped bridge the gap until I received my first paycheck for the semester from UNO. But if we weren't living with Susan's parents, we would have really struggled financially. Their kindness, and the kindness of Susan's family, really left a lasting impression on me. I am happy to call them family today.
For the next three months, we found refuge in Crossville, Tennessee. Family centered us again. Jason and Caitlin were able to register for classes at the local schools, and one of the first things we did was celebrate Caitlin's 16th birthday at a local restaurant. Not what Caitlin imagined as the proper celebration for her “sweet 16”, but it was the best we could do given the circumstances. Her friends, too, were scattered to the four winds, and we had no idea when or if we would ever make it back to New Orleans.
Impressions at that time were, once again, surreal. While we were shopping for clothes (since we evacuated with only two-days worth of clothes) we encountered a young cashier who, when noticing we were from New Orleans from our driver's licenses, got tears in her eyes and gave Susan $20. The woman was embarrassed that she could only give us $20, but she explained that she had not met any evacuees personally until she met us, and she wanted to express to us how much she wanted to help those who were forced out of the city by the Storm. It was a touching, personal, and surreal moment.
I am not sure when Susan's job came back online, but she was able to get back to work relatively quickly. Her job was still secure, and she could “telecommute” from Crossville. She still has that job today, still telecommuting from Texas. UNO contacted me to let me know that they were going to start classes up on October 1 for an accelerated 8 week session, and instead of four courses I would be teaching one “large” course online.
In early October I returned to New Orleans to begin the cleaning out process with our house. I was to meet with the insurance adjustors at that time, and it would give me a good glimpse at the wounded city. It would be the best of times and the worst of times....
To be continued....