Monday, September 11, 2006

Why Katrina Refrigerator?

I was asked this weekend, "Hasn't the whole refrigerator thing been done to death?" Yup. We now have Katrina Fridge magnets for our post-K refrigerators being sold at gift shops. Interestingly, it's mostly locals buying them. Someone not from here wouldn't really understand their significance.

Some local bloggers had decided to re-post their posts from last year at this time. A brilliant idea. It seemed to me that the best receptacle for some of what we wrote was indeed the refrigerator. Keep the reality fresh, now that we've bleached the things to death.

Starting tomorrow I will be posting the emails that were written out of New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina. A little background seems appropriate.

My husband and I evacuated on Sunday, August 28th at about noon. A little late in the game. We had already determined not to leave, (which in hindsight probably was the choice we should have made.) The Saturday before, we were both at work in the Quarter, I was listening to press conferences with the Mayor, everyone was trying to figure out what to do, and David was told he could go back to the stables early if he wanted to. He said no. In fact, when I called him, he acted like everyone was overeacting, but he wasn't hearing the radio and feeling the tangible tension of customers in the store, who were quickly buying things while talking on their cell phones trying to make changes to their flights.

I left work, filled up the gas tank on Rampart, as there were reports of stations running out of gas. I figured it was a good idea. Then I went back to work. My big fear from hearing the radio was that they were going to start contra-flow any minute and since we lived on the Westbank, I wasn't sure we'd be able to get from the East bank to the Westbank if we waited. We did go home a little early that evening. We had invitations to weather the storm on Bourbon Street at the shop, where several others were going to stick it out.

We knew our house was a pretty safe place to be, including an interior bathroom with no windows that could be blown out. Sunday morning came and we were okay with our decision to stay. Family and friends were calling, and emailing, urging us to leave. Then Mayor Nagin got on television and ended his statement with something along the lines of "God help us all." (Might have been something a little different, I haven't looked it up, but definitely something like that.) That seemed to flip a switch in my husband. He now thought perhaps we should evacuate. We sat at our kitchen table, ambivalent about the possibility, then decided to flip a coin. Heads we stay, tails we leave. (I had been sworn to secrecy about our decision making method, but figure at this point, our total reliance on serendipity seems less bizarre than the Corps of Engineers seeming reliance on the same thing with our levee system.)

We quickly packed a couple of bags, put the cats in carriers, the dog in the back of the car, tossed pet food in the back and pbj makings and water bottles in the front. We grabbed all the cash we had in the house and headed out. It took us five hours to get to the Twin Spans. Twice my husband decided we were turning back. Twice I said, "We're already on the road, let's just keep going." We have since decided that in the spirit of equal blame for a joint decision, that my mistake was saying in the kitchen that day, "Okay, let's go" and his was not ignoring me when he wanted to turn back.

We were heading toward Mobile, to my mother's, which in hindsight was also a stupid decision. While it was a generous offer and we are grateful, we should have headed in the other direction. We got contra-flowed onto 59 going North to Hattiesburg, and only made it into Silverhill 13 hours later thanks to my daughter staying on the cellphone and her husband navigating with a great mapping program he has. They got us onto side roads and we made it into Mobile just as the outer bands were starting to send sheet rain across the streets there, and the Bay Way was minutes from being closed.

What we saw on the road that day will stay with us forever. I haven't started writing about the evacuation yet because some of the faces still haunt me at night.

The next morning we watched, along with the rest of the nation, as the levees broke. The anger and hopelessness and helplessness we felt was extreme. We felt that we'd abandoned the city we love, and that while we were grateful for our extreme comfort, we should have been in New Orleans. We should have been helping. We determined to leave as soon as possible.

We started checking the nola.com forums. There was information there, and I was directed by a post on one forum to Polimom's blog. She seemed to have a direct line to what was happening in Algiers, and Algiers Point in particular. We checked satellite photos (our house looked fine) and rabidly read her blog and any on-the-ground dispatches we could find. We decided to head back home on Labor Day, but realized we had to wait for the banks to open. We had no idea when or if we'd get access to cash once in New Orleans, and we knew that the power was out.

We busied ourselves refilling prescriptions, looking for gasoline, buying batteries and anything else we thought we might need. We looked at maps and tried to figure a way back home. We decided that the best way was to go 150 miles out of our way in order to cross the Mississippi at the Sunshine Bridge in plantation country. We would bisect Mississippi on a road between Hattiesburg and the Gulf, a plan, as it turns out, that was probably one of the only ways in. We knew the Gulf cities were flattened, but we were still astonished and sobbing as we saw the miles of downed power lines and trees broken in half like matchsticks. Bogalusa looked like a bomb hit it. My husband drove with me looking up watching as the heavily leaning trees loomed over our car. They looked as though they could come down on our heads at any moment.

Finding gas was a challenge. If the station was open, there was a line for blocks and most had a maximum purchase limit, so we'd buy the maximum at every open station we saw. Everywhere were people with dazed looks on their faces, and ours probably looked the same to them. We had no idea whether our route was going to work or not. Were the roads we wanted to take even open? Were they even there? We figured we'd just keep going.

When we got close to the Sunshine Bridge, we met up with another couple who was also trying to get home. They knew the way to I-90 so we followed them. All the way in, we saw convoys of National Guard and regular Army troops coming into the city. I'd open my window and holler thank you to them. They'd wave. None of us knew what we were going to find in New Orleans. There were miles long traffic jams going out of New Orleans. Trucks with mattresses and chairs tied on to them, people hauling everything they owned, creeping along at 1 mph heading OUT, OUT, OUT.

We finally got to 90 and prayed that the last exit before the Crescent City Connection would be open. As we saw the sign saying it was a mile away, we held our breath. We weren't sure if we'd come all this way just to be turned back or not. We looked at each other in amazement that there was no roadblock (we'd seen some on the way in) and my husband turned into Steve McQueen. He floored it down that exit, with both of us secretly wondering if there was going to be a force field to knock us back when we got to the bottom. And there we were. Mere blocks from home.

While Algiers didn't flood, the devastation was unbelievable, trees laying across roads, houses and signs twisted and broken, and my husband kept driving trying to avoid the tire popping minefields of debris strewn everywhere. We saw no one. Not a person walking, not a car moving all the way from the Bridge to our house. It was eerie.

When we got to our house, our neighbor who had stayed through the storm came out to greet us. Tears all around as we hugged in meeting, and we were the only four people on that block that day. We got all the information we could get, and set about checking out the house. Seemed okay. By New Orleans Katrina standards, there was minimal damage. No power, but the phone lines worked intermittently. We took stock and did the obligatory gag-a-thon refrigerator clean out, but we were lucky. Our fridge had only been there for a few days, so we didn't encounter the horrid messes that others did weeks later. Once that was done, we did a little re-con to see what was going on nearby.

We heard that the Church of Christ out of Baton Rouge was setting up a food and supply depot at Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World. The next day we went over to see what we could do. Our neighbor set up a generator in our backyard (we were grateful for the ten gallons of gas we'd brought in with us), and we ran both households off that generator for a couple of hours a day. I rigged up an internet connection via a dialup to an AOL access number in New Mexico and started sending out emails to friends and family letting them know we were okay and what was happening.

Those emails morphed into the New Orleans Slate blog. This blog will re-publish those emails in real time (some with photos that I'm finally dealing with that were taken at the time.) Curiously, I hadn't read those emails since they were written so hastily last September. Reading them and seeing the faces of those who helped has really been hard in some cases. The anger came flooding back, no pun intended, and the gratitude to all of those who helped was overwhelming. There were so many regular people who set about doing what they could, and in that moment they became heroes. My husband and I are both so humbled by the help that strangers gave our city and ourselves when we needed it.

We hope in reading these emails as written, with minimal editing--only typos fixed and names changed to initials for privacy--we will give you a view of life here immediately following Katrina. I will be adding notes here and there as updates on what the issues were then and what is still an issue today.

The links haven't been done yet. I'll do them this week. This post will be crossposted on New Orleans Slate today, and the links there will eventually point here. The first email will be published tomorrow, exactly one year from when it was written.

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