Monday, May 15, 2006

A Steinbeck Moment

No, I am by no means comparing my writing to Steinbeck! I read the current season's evacuation plan and the Times Picayune article on Nagin's announcement of the evacuation plan. Surprisingly, it brought up a surge (no pun intended) of images and emotions that I'd buried since August.

My husband and I evacuated. Really, really late. We had decided we were not leaving. We were nervous about it, but we were okay with our decision in a twisted sort of way. After all, we lived on Algiers Point, a known high ground (although high ground wasn't really something we were thinking about at that time. The catastrophic flooding thanks to the levee breaches wasn't even considered.) We had both worked most of the day Saturday in the Quarter. I was listening to the news reports and the press conferences on the radio in the shop on Bourbon Street, Yesteryear's, that I worked in. It was a pretty high tension day, but most people I talked to that day were adopting, or more likely pretending to adopt, a laissez-faire view. Most of them had been through many hurricanes before, and although they seemed to know that this one might be the "big one" most of us just continued on. Who knew we were less than 48 hours away from a watery Armageddon? My husband, driving a carriage on Jackson Square, was asked if he wanted to head on in to the barn. He didn't know why they were asking that question. He hadn't heard any of the reports.

(By the way, for a remarkable timeline of the levee breaches, take a look at the interactive map on NOLA. It certainly explains how some people, upon waking up Monday morning early, were dry, only to be floating on mattresses within an hour--a true story that I'll recount later.)

At any rate, I started hearing reports on the radio about stations running out of gasoline all over New Orleans, so I left work, got in the car and filled up the tank, then went back to work. I was glad I did it, as reports were that by Saturday night, there was no gasoline to be found in the city.

Sunday morning rolled around. Our neighbors loaded up the car and left, we told them we were going to stay. We turned on the TV and checked online weather maps. We had still decided not to go. Then Mayor Ray Nagin got on, said mandatory evacuation, explained that the situation was dire, that the Superdome would be open as a "shelter of last resort" and finished up with something akin to "God help us all." My husband walked into our kitchen and we did the pros and cons thing, then did the big shrug thing, then did the only reasonable thing to do since it was now Sunday, August 28th about 11:30AM----we tossed a coin. Not once, but twice. He took out his lucky silver dollar given to him by our daughter, and tossed it once for stay or go, once for east or west. The coin toss said go east, and the TV reports were also blaring that "the roads going east were clear." We threw some clothes into backpacks, minimal stuff, got the dog food, the cat food, the cat carriers, and a couple bags of food, including the mandatory peanut butter and Bunny bread (Bunny bread being a horrible substance that turns to playdough in your mouth in one bite!) We loaded all this and the animals into our car and got on I-10 East headed to Alabama.

We hit traffic, not traffic really, a parking lot moving en masse at a top speed of 5 mph. So much for "the roads are clear going east." As we churned along I-10 past New Orleans East, we were surprised by the number of homes there that were not boarded up at all. Traffic isn't my husband's strong suite, and he said at one point, "We're turning around." I said no. On a normal day, it would take about 30-40 minutes to drive from our house to the Twin Span. That Sunday it took us more than three hours and we still weren't out of New Orleans. The traffic remained a moving parking lot all the way through the Louisiana/Mississippi line. We were headed to Mobile, had to stay on I-10 all the way.

We saw the outer bands of the storm off in the distance on the Twin Span. Later both of us admitted that we were sure we were going to ride out the storm on the Twin Span, fly off into the Lake and be fishbait. My biggest fear was being stuck in the car as the storm hit.

What we saw on the road, as we headed into the storm's path, was straight out of Grapes of Wrath. A pickup truck with four little girls in the back, no camper shell, just four little girls. Vehicles of all descriptions and in varying states of upkeep, some carrying one person and a lot of stuff, others carrying seven people and no stuff. Many of the people we saw clearly had no money. They had somehow managed to get gas, and that may well have been the last of their money. Many had no real destinations. A friend of ours weathered the storm in his car in a rest stop, where he and four other cars bunched their vehicles together in hopes that the winds would have a harder time with a bigger target. We knew that many of the people on the road that day would be doing exactly that, riding out the storm in their vehicles with little kids along for the ride. There is a little boy, about 5, standing on the side of the road with his mother somewhere in Mississippi, holding her hand and looking very scared. His mother just looks defeated. Their faces will haunt me forever. And their fate is unknown to me. We had no room in our car. I wish we had had a way to help them and all the others like them. These people keep me awake at night.

We wound up being contra-flowed onto a northbound road into Hattiesburg. We had told the guy at the big orange cones that we had to stay on I-10. He said, "No problem, go this way." We did. We, along with thousands of others, were headed north to Hattiesburg. We were also in need of gas. We found a gas station. The police, in this little town whose name I don't remember, were all out just trying to direct traffic as there were hundreds of cars waiting to get cash and gas at this station. People were very nice, although very stressed. Incredibly polite given the circumstances, but all somehow knew that they had no control over this situation and so we all waited, jockeying our cars into weird angles to get as many people gassed up as possible. We got some more cash before their ATM ran out, as we knew it would sooner or later, and continued on. We had been told that there was no place in Hattiesburg for shelter. We had to keep going. We had no idea where we were actually, and called our daughter who navigated us onto side roads via cell phone and a great mapping program. We finally arrived in Mobile around midnight just as they were about to close the roads across the Bay there. We kept saying we were idiots for driving straight into the storm.

The roads all along the way were littered with cars that had broken down, people sitting by the side of the road, dejected and with probably about the same number of belongings that we had with us if they were lucky, but far fewer resources and probably no daughter with a mapping program to help them out. Some had little ones, some were eating sandwiches or drinking water, waiting. We had no idea what they were waiting for as it was pretty clear that no Triple-A truck would be coming along through the traffic to save them, and that was assuming they had such a plan. Most of the people we saw broken down didn't look like they had a pot to piss in.

And most, if not all, thought they'd be home in a day or two. Maybe there would be a tree limb down or a roofing problem at their house, but that's about all they expected. Power outages would be expected, damage in the streets was expected. A day or two was ALL that was expected. People talk all the time about why people didn't leave. Well, folks, many many did. And they found themselves marooned out in the middle of no where with no home to come back to. Not all of these people were impoverished, but many we saw on the road were. This storm also hit at the tail end of the month. If someone was waiting for a welfare check, that check wouldn't have been expected until the first of September. I'm talking about the people who did evacuate, not the ones blamed for dying because they didn't.

We had a place to go, but what if we hadn't? We aren't rich, that's for sure, and while we're not living in extreme poverty either, we couldn't have held on too long out there if hotel rooms and food (oh yeah, and what about the 120 lb german shepherd and two cats?) and more gas had been necessary. We heard on the car radio that the nearest hotel room was in Dallas. That's a mighty long way to go.

The evacuation plan for this year struck me as a bit disingenuous. My favorite parts are things like "keep your TV tuned to a local station" or "check our website for instructions and evacuation maps." Okay, I guess that will work up as long as there is power, but it still seems bizarre and a bit elitist to rely on electronic media for any of this. And what about people with no computers? That isn't factored in. Discussions about mandatory evacuations for a Cat 2 and above, or evacuating people in FEMA trailers for a tropical storm, sound good in terms of a plan to some people. But there is something that is left out of all this. MONEY. Oh yeah, and MONEY.

Most people don't have a couple grand sitting in the bank just for evacuation (or possibly five or six evacuations in a season). At least not the people I know. Most of us are just trying to make ends meet in a Post-Katrina economy. "Well, then you shouldn't have come back." I can hear that one now. I'm choosing to ignore it.

It would appear that they are trying very hard to take care of the elderly and the sick, that's good. They are factoring in people and their pets (you can take them on the buses as long as they're crated---Do you have a crate?) And they seem to have people who have cars and financial resources covered. But what about the great, huge masses in the middle? Evacuation plans, whether they be here in New Orleans or any other city, assume that people have resources to get out. Financial resources.

How much cash do you have in your house? If the ATM is out of money, or the power is out, or there is a two hundred dollar limit, will you be okay with $200 bucks? For how long? Will there be any gas? What if you only have 100 bucks in the bank, or 50? For some people that is the reality. Will you be able to afford it (hey, if you have an SUV, you'll use most of that 200 max ATM withdrawal just to keep it filled up!) Forget health insurance savings accounts, 401K's, IRA's. What you need, no matter whether you live in hurricane land or earthquake city, you need an evacuation fund. Lots of cash in your house at all times. It's the little basic stuff that seems overlooked in any of these "plans."

I'm not saying we shouldn't have a plan. Of course we should. Look at the mess in Texas during Hurricane Rita. It wasn't just New Orleans evacuations that were horrendous. Any city, trying to evacuate 100K+ people is gonna have a mess on their hands no matter what kind of plan they devise. But I'm betting that any city's plan I could read is also forgetting about people who live paycheck to paycheck, and those folks do exist in every city in America. No kidding! They really do. (Damn, wish I hadn't paid that $350 buck electric bill already! Hurricane's coming!)

Wouldn't the better idea be to make absolutely sure that the levees are built properly and armored right so that if an evacuation must take place, at least it would be more likely to be a two day thing instead of a nine month, open ended displacement? New Orleans would have survived Katrina, with damage to be sure, but it would not have been the catastrophe it was had the levees not broken. They must be fixed.

And clearly our govenment, federal, state and local, was not prepared for a disaster of this magnitude with this many people displaced. But neither were the people who were on the roads that day. Rather than evacuation plans that ignore the economic realities of a lot people, maybe we should be looking into some kind of regional rescue/sheltering. Remember all those fallout shelters in the 60's? Or London's shelters during the blitzes of WW2. They live on an island. Where would they evacuate to? Maybe we need to start thinking in those terms instead of sending panicked people out to clog the roads with no destination and in some cases, no money. And who's to say that some of the states already saturated with our Katrina evacuees are going to be so open to us next time?

Where's Roosevelt when you need him? Bring back the WPA and Civil Defense. Put WPA to work on the levees, rebuilding houses. Build some shelters, have neighborhood Civil Defense guys out pointing the way to the big yellow signs.

Let's put FEMA on this. This sounds like "Emergency Management" to me. Just change it from Fallout Shelter to Hurricane Shelter. Okay, and maybe change the color to green.


Leslie said...

Very thought provoking. You have some good ideas here. I wish there was a way to put them into practice.

slate said...

Perhaps someone will figure out that launching people aimlessly onto the roads is not exactly productive unless there are supplies and a destination waiting for them. If they were directed to a Air Base or something, then maybe it would make sense.

Just seems that we need more locally based solutions. There are already 10,000 people back in NOLA without transportation, and evidently not enough buses, although they are considering RTA drivers as "necessary" personnel, like police and firefighters.

Still, I think that we have to start thinking locally, regionally, throughout the Gulf Region. If we don't, we're just going to have a bunch of people wandering aimlessly.

Blue Eagle said...

During the Blitz, Londoners shipped their children off to Canada and Northern England and then retreated into the subways. Maybe it's just me, but I'm guessing that is not going to work for New Orleans. Nagin says he has a plan to use busses and Amtrak to evacuate people, but hasn't lined up any shelters to send them to. I'm betting Houston and Dallas will not be rushing to volunteer anytime soon. I think we should send them directly to Washington, DC and drop them off on the steps of the Capitol. I'll bet accommodations will be found for them right away, perhaps starting at the Watergate....