Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Evacuating New Orleans

I planned to ride out Gustav in a condominium on the fourth floor of a brick warehouse before I heard Mayor Nagin's speech Saturday night, warning any residents who planned to stay though the "storm of the century" that they would be on their own. Poised for a relaxing, long weekend, kicking off with the gay celebration "Southern Decadence" and lolling with books and slumber, I'd stocked the fridge with plenty of fresh food for the next four days.

Suddenly, I was mobilizing to evacuate. The mayor's press conference message had its intended effect. Preparations began immediately -- checking the United Airlines Web site for ticket vouchers -- and packing bags, pouring milk down the sink and sending good food down the garbage chute. Friends in Atlanta and Tuscaloosa, Ala., called to say I was welcome in their homes.

At 4 a.m., a United agent left a voicemail message, saying my Wednesday morning flight had been postponed until the afternoon, but I had already planned to go out to the airport and get on any plane anywhere. I took the elevator down to the lobby where some young guys were laughing over the mayor's speech, mocking his admonitions. They, apparently, were ready to party. I paused on the way out the door the next morning, wishing good luck to residents who had weathered Katrina in that building, two blocks from the Convention Center, and planned to do so again. The question in my mind was not whether the windows would blow out, but whether marauders would break in through the glass doors.

I drove my car to the Tulane hospital garage where I was greeted by the security guards I saw almost daily as an employee. The ER windows were boarded up and the brick garage almost full -- most likely with the cars of other employees having the same idea. I did not want to find my little VW convertible upside down, smashed or flooded.

The National Guard troops were already in the streets, which were almost empty. After unloading the car, I trudged down Canal Street, dragging my suitcases behind me. At the corner of Elk, a man with dreadlocks stood, holding a plastic bag on the handle bars of his bicycle. I was surprised to see a public transit bus on the deserted street and said something to him. When he responded in Spanish, I realized he was looking for the city-sponsored buses that were taking residents without their own transportation out of town. In pidgin Spanish, I pointed him toward the Greyhound station four blocks away and he took off on his bike.

Two lonely blocks later, I encountered another man, dressed in shorts and carrying his possessions in black garbage bags. "This experience is a new one for me!" he joked and and I agreed. He said he had been evicted from the hotel where he was staying and had booked a flight to San Antonio. When I tried to direct him to the Sheraton where the only airport shuttles were leaving, he said he had one more stop to make first. I trudged on.

The shuttle was free and the staff loaded my bags without question. We were a quiet group, the last remaining evacuees from the ill-fated city, silently awaiting the arrival of Gustav.

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