Last Sunday morning, August 28, at about 7 a.m., I left my apartment on St. Charles Avenue to evacuate New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina closed in. The night before, my parents had plans to "vertically evacuate" to a room in a downtown hotel, but I had managed to convince them over drinks that they should leave town, because this storm looked bad. I didn't sleep that night, watching the weather channel as the storm approached. I packed light -- some T-shirts and jeans in my backpack, enough books and DVDs to keep me occupied for a few days out of town, and the hard drives from my computer -- just in case.
By now you all know the case: New Orleans is decimated, drowned. First by the 165 mph onslaught of Katrina, then by floodwaters and broken levees, and now by anarchic criminal thuggery and an equally criminal lack of federal action. Who knows when it will end -- it's Thursday as I write this -- it's been four days since the storm hit, and the situation only becomes worse by the moment. The devastation...it's unimaginable. The human cost, the emotional toll, the geographic destruction, the economic ruin, it's all more than my mind can even process. We evacuees are all walking around on autopilot, not really admitting to ourselves what happened and what continues to happen. At the same time, it's all we can talk about, and our televisions and radios and Web browsers are nothing but disaster coverage, hoping that we'll see our neighborhoods or find some news about our homes or our loved ones.
I'm lucky; I was able to evacuate with my family (my parents, grandmother, two aunts, a great aunt, and a cousin) to Destin, on the Florida Gulf Coast, where my parents have a vacation condominium. It might be a crazy place to evacuate to, on the coast and all, but by the time we left, it was clear that the worst we'd see here would be nothing compared to what was about to happen in New Orleans. Things have been easy here -- it's the beach, we have everything we need, all our relatives are safe, and my family can stay here as long as they want. But I'm in the great minority of evacuees in that sense.
E-mail has been an incredible asset through this whole ordeal -- and so has my Weblog, Unapologetic. I've received e-mails of concern and support from so many of my friends that I've lost count -- people I haven't spoken to since college have written to make sure I was okay. I've even gotten sympathetic e-mails from readers in Brazil and Singapore and Germany. It's amazing how much that constant flow of support has helped me to get through this week, has kept me from the creeping depression that isn't far from any of Katrina's victims. That being said, I've developed the amazing superpower of being able to cry in public, whenever some little memory hits me and I realize I may never again experience the little details that were my day-to-day life -- coffee at PJ's Coffeeshop on Magazine Street, drinks at Molly's at the Market, jogging on the street car tracks under the great live oaks of St. Charles Avenue.
I've also been able to keep in contact with many of my friends from town, now fellow evacuees scattered throughout the country, and to read their stories -- most got out early, as I did, but some of them, or their relatives or friends, stayed through the storm and were forced to leave when the levee broke. One friend's parents were rescued off of their roof, brought to dry ground, and left there. They walked to a friend's home for shelter, and found him there, protecting his property with a shotgun, and together they got in a car and drove along a railroad track until they were able to cut down a fence to reach the interstate and head out of town. Everyone has stories like that, but what's worse are what you hear about those who haven't been able to leave. I know of several people -- a friend's mother, someone else's aunt and uncle, a neighbor in my condo complex -- who have been in touch via text messages and remain holed up in their homes in uptown New Orleans, running out of supplies, and afraid to even look out of their windows for fear of being murdered by criminals. A doctor friend of my aunt's, who had stayed at Children's Hospital with patients, had to be "escorted" with her patients by private armed guards to a helicopter when the hospital fell under siege by looters trying to reach its pharmacy.
I've been trying to speak with as many other evacuees as I can around here this week. Everyone has been eager to trade stories in hopes that they'll hear something about their neighborhood, their block, their home, their friends who they haven't been able to get in touch with. I thought I might find people out and about at the local beach bars and restaurants trying to drown their sorrows or make the best of a bad situation, but those places have all been empty of evacuees. Nothing could ever make this feel like a vacation. The only places I've found people congregated are around what few computer terminals there are here (in the lobby of the Sandestin Hilton hotel) that are open to guests, and everyone is just concerned with finding that one bit of hopeful information. A website that had been set up at www.scipionus.com was extremely useful, as it contained a Google map of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, which people could annotate with damage reports for specific addresses.
That's where I met a nurse named Jean, trying to find information about her home in Diamondhead, Mississippi, west of Biloxi -- nothing definitive turned up, but she found reports that some nearby homes had been totally destroyed. Another family, from New Orleans, was gathered around Laurie, a Mount Carmel High School sophomore who was checking discussion groups for information about her friends, and when, if ever, they might be able to return to school there. Mount Carmel is near the break in the levee that has caused so much of the flooding into the city, and the news seemed bleak. An attorney named George was concerned for his home in an affluent suburb after hearing a rumor of deep flooding, but wasn't able to find any relevant information and left, obviously shaken and nervous. I even ran into a friend from home, a graphic designer named David Caruso, who with his fiancE, Liz, searched until they found an aerial photograph of their neighborhood and only the roof of their newly purchased home visible in what must have been 12 feet of water. In the same photo I located my grandmother's house and an aunt's, all completely submerged. All we could do was laugh, because...what else can you do? We've all cried so much already.