Thursday, October 20, 2005
Blog Entry #21
(FYI: in 2002, The Times-Picayune, New Orleans' major daily newspaper, outlined a worst-case scenario for a major hurricane hit on New Orleans in "The Big One", reprinted here by www.nola.com.)
We kick things off with some basic background information.
(1) Every year, June 1 to November 30 is "hurricane season" for residents of the Gulf Coast and of the southern Atlantic Seaboard (at least as far north as North Carolina - and yes, hurricanes sometimes cause mischief further north); the salient point here, to repeat, is that 'tropical cyclone activity' is an annual thing, and that people living in the affected areas have to cope with the threat of hurricanes and related storms every single year.
(2) New Orleans is particularly susceptible to hurricane danger for at least two reasons:
(a) elevationwise, New Orleans averages five feet below sea level (1-10 feet below sea level, depending on where you are in the city);
(b) New Orleans is sandwiched between two bodies of water - to its north is the large Lake Pontchartrain, and snaking around its southern perimeter is the Mississippi River.
I've lived in New Orleans for ten years, most recently in what I call the 'hospital district', just 'uptown' (to the west) of New Orleans' famed Garden District (I recognize that different people define the Garden District differently; some would say I live in the "Upper Garden District"). The apartment complex in which I reside is situated directly behind the Touro Infirmary; on a diagonal corner is the Kindred Hospital of New Orleans; a few blocks away is the St. Charles Specialty Hospital.
To the best of my knowledge, New Orleans last took a major hurricane hit in 1969, from Hurricane Camille, long before my arrival in the city. Since I've been in the Big Easy, the most severe storm I've been through was perhaps Tropical Storm Frances in 1998, which brought a lot of rain and some minor flooding (i.e., waist-deep water in some areas) and also knocked out the electricity in my apartment for a day or so - nothing very serious.
Fast forward to 2005 and Katrina, which slammed into New Orleans on Monday, August 29. I confess that I didn't even know a storm was coming until mid-afternoon Saturday, August 27. I don't own a television and hence had not been inundated with TV news weather reports about Katrina. (I generally have no use for the abysmal fare of the broadcast media; indeed, I was once a card-carrying member of the Society for the Eradication of Television.) On Sunday morning, August 28, a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans was ordered, for the first time in the city's history, by Mayor Ray Nagin; I can't recall whether or not I saw on the Web that day an Associated Press dispatch on the evacuation order - I probably did, but 'tuned it out'.
Moreover, news director Dave Cohen of New Orleans radio station WWL has pointed out that Katrina, in less than 24 hours during the crucial days of August 26 and August 27, metamorphosed from a storm that looked as though it would miss New Orleans into a storm that was bearing down directly on New Orleans; in this respect, Katrina held an 'element of surprise' even for those area residents who did evacuate.
"Oh, and why didn't YOU evacuate?" you may be wondering. I offer a set of standard, if lamely inadequate, excuses:
(1) Over the last several years, New Orleans has experienced some hurricane 'misses' but, as noted above, nothing resembling a direct hit, and I, sort of like the villagers suspicious of the boy who cried wolf, was willing to gamble that Katrina would similarly turn out to be a dud.
(2) I don't have a car. Actually, I am a longtime big city dweller who doesn't have a driver's license, let alone a car, let alone a car with a full tank of gas. Being a nonmotorist saves me big bucks, to be sure, but on the other hand, I rather wish I had had access to a rental car at the time of the storm.
(3) I have no relations in the area (my nearest relatives, my brother and his wife, live in Missouri); consequently, I generally felt that 'I didn't have anywhere to go' - in retrospect, this is another way of saying, "I've never bothered to work out an evacuation plan."
(4) If you can believe this, I was lulled into a false sense of security by the weather forecast for the last few days of August. On Sunday, August 28, the five-day weather forecast for New Orleans at The Weather Underground (I hate to sound like I'm blaming these guys - they run a good Web site) showed that Monday, August 29 would be stormy but that Tuesday, August 30 would be a normal (sunshiny, hot, and humid) summer day. I thought to myself, "One day of hurricane? I can get through this." The weather was indeed back to normal on August 30 - but nothing else was.
(5) Finally, I took 'solace', for lack of a better word, in knowing that there were others who were also remaining in the city ("If they can do it, I can do it," I thought) and from their seeming nonchalance about the approaching storm; consider, for example, the stay-behinds quoted in this article.
The Storm and Its Aftermath
Katrina began rolling into the New Orleans area between midnight and 1 AM on August 29. Over the next fourteen hours or so, Katrina brought not really that much rain but a vast amount of wind; however, my apartment's (unboarded and untaped) windows did not blow out. When I woke up Monday morning, the electricity was out, which I expected. At about 11:30 AM, water began dripping into and oozing down one of the walls of my apartment, which is on the 2nd story of the complex (the one silver lining of my staying behind is that I was able to move my things out of the way of the water); I later learned that parts of the ceilings of some of the apartments on the top, 3rd story of the complex had been blown clear off. I very much wanted to dash down Foucher Street to the Touro Cafeteria to get a cup of coffee, but going out during this wild storm was simply not an option.
My apartment complex and its surrounding streets were not flooded by Katrina and in fact remained on dry ground throughout the storm's aftermath. To my understanding, there were two main factors that determined whether a given area was flooded by Katrina:
(a) the height of the area's ground, elevationwise; and
(b) the distance of the area from Lake Pontchartrain.
My immediate neighborhood is not on particularly high ground but was far enough from the lake (it's about 7 blocks from Tchoupitoulas Street, the frontage road running next to the Mississippi River) to be 'spared'.
At about 2:30 PM Monday afternoon, the hurricane 'action' was over and I went outside to look for any signs of life. There were downed trees in the streets; a large, disconnected power line hung in the air over Coliseum Street between Foucher and Antonine Streets. There were other people walking around, as I was, but none of the businesses near the corner of St. Charles and Louisiana Avenues were open.
Fortunately, I had batteries and a radio at the ready. The aforementioned WWL was heroically able to continue broadcasting during the post-Katrina period under what I'm sure were very difficult circumstances, and was my one contact to the 'outside world'.
On Tuesday, August 30, I walked over to Magazine Street; across the street from the Starbucks at the corner of Magazine Street and Washington Avenue, a Spur gas station was open, selling both gas and its minimart stock. Otherwise, there were no signs of commercial activity. On my way home, I witnessed the looting of the Walgreens on the 3200 block of Magazine in progress; from a distance, the crowd outside Walgreens did not seem disorderly, but I nonetheless declined to take part.
The news on the radio on Tuesday was pretty grim, even without corroborating television footage. There were reports of homes flooded by rising water, with the people inside trapped in their attics; their apparent options were to hack their way out with an axe, or be drowned. There were reports of people stranded on roofs, again because of flooding, for 24 hours or longer. There were reports of people with bags of belongings walking on interstates in a "zombie"-like fashion. (As the week dragged on, I myself could increasingly relate to the zombie bit.)
On both Monday and Tuesday, my apartment still had running water. Had I been thinking, I would have filled every spare container in my apartment with tap water during those days (I am a compulsive recycler and always have at least several empty-and-rinsed-out bottles sitting in my kitchen). Shortly after waking up Wednesday morning, however, I turned on the kitchen sink tap to give...nothing. Uh-oh - I've never experienced a storm-induced water outage before. In my refrigerator are a half gallon of distilled water and most of a 12-pack of now-at-room-temperature Diet Dr. Pepper (which isn't very refreshing on a hot and humid day, in case you were wondering) - enough liquid to keep me hydrated for a few days, at most, and that's if I stretch it. As for the toilet, "you get one free flush, and that's it," to quote Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard.
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Entergy, my electricity provider, announces on WWL that it will be several weeks before electric power is restored to Orleans Parish. My apartment's air conditioning is powered by electricity - no AC for a month? But there was at least one good piece of news that day: WWL also reported that the flow of water across the 17th Street Canal, whose breach the previous day threatened to flood the heretofore-unflooded parts of New Orleans, had been stabilized.
Besides myself, there were five other people at my apartment complex who had also stayed behind: Kathy, Mick, Rob, Sam, and Sharon (not their real names). By late Wednesday, it was clear to us that life would not be returning to normal any time soon, and that we needed to get out of the city. Two days after the storm, the radio portrayed a disturbingly static situation with respect to New Orleans and its 'rescue': no one had any electricity, running water, or sewerage; worse, no stores were open; and no one had any real idea as to when things would get better. Kathy has relatives in Houma, the county seat of Terrebonne Parish, that she said would be able to put us up for a few days. In leaving, our 'rate-limiting step' was getting gas: neither Kathy nor Rob, the car owners of our group, had enough gas in their cars to get us to Houma, and no one was then selling any (Spur had run out). Our attempts using a turkey baster to siphon gas out of the other cars in the parking lot of our apartment complex were unsuccessful.
On Wednesday or Thursday, the National Guard arrived in our neighborhood to safeguard the evacuation of the Touro and Kindred Hospitals, which were cleared out on September 1 and 2, respectively. A Guardsman later told us that 67 patients in Touro had been left behind.
On Thursday, I got a taste of the "state of emergency" that Mayor Nagin had declared for New Orleans on August 28. (N.B. Contra some reports, New Orleans was not under martial law, as explained here.) I was walking downtown on Coliseum Street, en route to Louisiana Avenue to see if it was passable, when a group of Guardsmen near the corner of Coliseum and Delachaise Streets immediately drew guns on me; their 'ringleader' very rudely ordered me to walk riverside down Aline Street. Tempted as I was to say, "Hey, pal, you should be protecting ME," I decided that it was probably not wise to argue with a moron with a machine gun.
The stress of the situation begins to get to Sharon; "she's talking about committing suicide," Kathy reports. As it is, Sharon, through a synergy of apparent mental illness and continual alcohol consumption, is 'high-maintenance', and can 'fly off the handle' from slight provocation, shouting and swearing loudly, especially when drunk. On Friday, September 2, Sharon disappears. We all cross our fingers that she has been picked up by the police and taken to a shelter of some sort.
Although clearly aware of our presence, the National Guardsmen in our area largely ignore us, at least initially. Kathy begins shouting "Hi" and waving to them regularly; "make friends with everyone [in this situation]" is her philosophy. It pays off: on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, some Guardsmen bring us much-appreciated bottles of drinking water. They tell us that they are leaving imminently, as their hospital duties are over - not good, as we recognize that they afford us a level of protection that we otherwise would not have.
After several days without bathing, Rob and Sam on Saturday strike out to find a nearby swimming pool in which to take a dip; I tag along. We locate and briefly avail ourselves of a private pool a few blocks away, but not without being seen by a nearby resident, who promptly calls the police, who in turn show up in about a minute. Given the circumstances, the police are very understanding, letting us off with a warning and ordering us to go back home. That night, Kathy, escorted by two or three Guardsmen, goes to and takes her turn in the pool.
We finally depart New Orleans on Sunday, September 4. Kathy's sister-in-law Dina has obtained gas and agrees to meet us at a halfway point in Jefferson Parish, where we can refuel and then drive to Houma. Earlier in the day, Mick had set out, on foot, for the Louisiana Superdome, whose Katrina refugees had by then been mostly evacuated to Houston. The rest of us - Kathy, Rob, Sam, and myself - piled into our two cars and hit the road about 5:30 PM. We drove down Tchoupitoulas Street (past the totally looted uptown Wal-Mart that had opened not quite a year ago) to Interstate 90, which we took east, then south, then west into Jefferson Parish; we passed on I-90 a number of abandoned cars, skeleton-like on the right side of the road, on our way out of the city.
Our troubles were not quite over. The 'authorities' were letting people leave but not enter Orleans and Jefferson Parishes. Aaron Broussard had announced a 'temporary return schedule' allowing Jefferson Parish residents to briefly come back and inspect their homes beginning Monday, September 5, at 6 AM, but no earlier. It somehow didn't register with us that our planned rendezvous with Dina would consequently be unsuccessful, as she would be (and in fact was) turned back at the border between St. Charles and Jefferson parishes (while we spent several hours in a gas station parking lot waiting for her). Later that night, we were twice hassled by 'law enforcement', presumably for violation of curfew:
(1) We had pulled into a Spur station in Westwego that had been selling gas that day, hoping to spend the night there and thus be first in line when it opened the next day. Rob got out of his car to look for a working pay phone, attracting the attention of the Westwego police, who then compulsorily escorted us to the parking lot of an apartment complex in neighboring Marrero.
(2) In Marrero, we were standing around and chatting with three of the apartment complex's residents who had come out to see who we were, when, seemingly out of nowhere, a battery of police materialized. We were frisked, questioned, and finally ordered to spend the night in our cars.
We were not able to secure gas in Jefferson Parish the next day; the aforementioned Westwego Spur station had run out, whereas other nearby gas stations that were open were only selling to First Responders. Dangerously low on fuel, we decided to see if we could make it across the Jefferson-St. Charles Parish border, and then wing it from there. Success! Once in St. Charles Parish, we pulled into yet another gas station parking lot at about 1:30 PM and then called up Dina to give her our coordinates. Dina arrived about three-and-a-half hours later with several containers of gas, which we thirstily poured into our cars, and then we all went to Houma.
On Monday night, I called up my father in California to ask if I could stay with him for a couple of months, and he said "OK"; I found online a single seat on a September 8 flight from Lafayette to San Diego and promptly made a reservation. Having gotten me out of New Orleans, Kathy and Rob informed me, "We've done our part to help you," and it was up to me, in the absence of any rail or bus service in Houma, to take two days later a $200 cab ride from Houma to the Lafayette airport, where I spent the next 26 hours and then finally flew to San Diego Thursday afternoon.
So here I am in California, biding my time for about another three weeks, typing up this entry on a (shudder) Compaq Presario 6000 instead of my beloved iMac. As of this writing, electricity and running water (it's supposed to be drinkable, even if it has a strong smell/taste of chlorine) have been restored to most of New Orleans. According to WWL-TV's "Businesses and services open in Orleans" Web page, there are currently no grocery stores open in Orleans Parish; the A&P, Rite-Aid, Walgreens, and Wal-Mart in the vicinity of my apartment were all looted in Katrina's aftermath, so I'll be watching this page regularly in the coming days. New Orleans food guru Tom Fitzmorris has posted a list of open restaurants in Orleans and Jefferson Parishes here; I am heartened to see that August Moon, a good Chinese restaurant in the hospital district, has reopened. On or about November 1, I will call up my landlord to find out to what extent life in New Orleans has really returned to normal and if my apartment has been fixed up; he may not want residents of the complex to return for a while so that he can renovate it without anyone being in the way - I'll just have to wait and see.
Now then: what did I learn from all of this? A couple of things:
(1) If you live in an area where you should have an evacuation plan, then you should have an evacuation plan. If your initial response to fleeing a natural disaster is "I don't have anywhere to go," then you need to start 'thinking outside the box'. Hopefully, you have relatives that you can stay with, but if not, then whip out a map and identify destination cities that are, say, twenty-or-more miles away from the 'danger zone', and then look up motels, hotels, and bed-and-breakfasts in those cities where you might ride out the situation for up to a week. If you're a motorist, as you are likely to be, then you also need to work out an evacuation route, optimally via 'back roads' so as to avoid hours-long highway traffic jams. If you're a nonmotorist, then you need to be able to answer the following questions: Where is the nearest Amtrak station? Where is the nearest Greyhound terminal? If worse comes to worse, and the trains and busses are not running, then do I have the cash on hand to pay a taxi or other car service to get me out of here?
I asked my father, a longtime resident of Southern California, if he had an evacuation plan, possibly for an earthquake but much more importantly for the wildfires that plague the area every year during the late summer and early fall. He said that he didn't.
(2) If you're not going to evacuate in the face of a disaster, then you need to take very seriously the provision of a water supply. I emphasize: mankind got by for thousands of years without electricity; it did not get by for thousands of years without water. Go to your local stores and stock up on bottled water; if they've run out, then start filling containers in your home with tap water - fill your sinks and bathtub if necessary - for water to drink, to fill your toilet tank after that first flush, and perhaps to wash your hands. (You say you don't like the taste of tap water? Tap water will taste mighty fine after three days without running water, even if that tap water "taste[s] and smell[s] like old socks.") And if you wash your hands frequently, as I do, then I also encourage you to have a store of moist towelettes on hand.