As Hurricane Gustav bore down on the Gulf states in August of 2008, memories of the Katrina disaster triggered the largest evacuation in US history. Three million fled the oncoming hurricane. Most of the refugees were from the Louisiana south coast. Author, New Orleans resident, and Katrina veteran Ryan Sparks was among them. The following is his account of the evacuation, in four parts.
The Gustav Evacuation, Part 1: Preparations
We all remember what happened last time. This has all, somehow, made us experts. When the season begins, the government and the media remind us to make our plans. Buy some maps. Update your phone numbers. Gather all the right containers. We all know better. They’re not the experts. It’s us, the ones on the ground. We’ll do as we see fit.
When a storm physically enters the Gulf, it starts a simultaneous churning approach through our minds, starting at the back and boring towards the center as the days go on. We can’t help talking about it, we must talk about it: it’s there in the corner of the television screen in its own little box, spinning off bright colors. We all point at the screen indicating where it could go, where it will go. We’re all experts now, civilian advisers. All the other weather patterns we’ve survived have given us wisdom. We can draw comparisons to other storms, other trajectories, as if anything about this is predictable. We challenge the weathermen who say it is too early to tell.
It’s not a time for hospitality. We can’t wish the storm away, but we can wish it on someone else. Let Mobile have their turn. Let it bounce off Cuba, take a sharp curve for Florida. We can’t disguise our joy when the storms re-navigate, when the latest charts show, yes, we are outside of the cone of uncertainty. We have nothing against the Texas coast; we’ll be happy to help out afterward. We just can’t take it again. We’re not ready.
And we almost made it through another season. Made it through three months of the four-month marathon. But when Gustav arrived, and passed the threshold of our worried skulls, most of us know, somehow, where he’s headed. As if we were activated magnets, as if our lease on hope had just run out. It’s time to start preparing.
Many of us are overeager, leaving three or four days early. Laughed at and scoffed at, but resolute that it’s the right thing to do, that it will be so much more convenient. That the shame on the outside chance the storm completely misses or even dissipates will be easy to bear. The next day those of us left are a little uneasy, wondering if maybe we should have just made an improvised vacation out of it as well. The ones who left are already kicking their legs in the pool in Destin or trying to overpower the strange scented air of guest bedrooms by unpacking their clothes in Monroe. Maybe they were right. The state police are preparing for contraflow along the interstate, tossing orange construction markers and cones down off the trucks to the side of the road. That makes us nervous. We make phone calls, find out the status of our friends and family northward.
Still, it’s hard to say whether we will stay or go. How strong will Gustav get? How fast will he swallow up the heat of the Gulf, how wide will his spinning arms spread? This could be something we can ride out, like in the old days, before Katrina taught us an indelible fear. Those of us with the means to leave under our own power, with some savings or cushiony credit limits are schizophrenic, pulled between the temptation to survive, to beat the inevitable traffic and the voices that speak a thousand scenarios, reasons to stay behind. The belief that a little old-fashioned courage and levity will allow you to protect your home, your block, your city.
But those of us without jobs, without money, without any new earthworks, walls, or pumps in our neighborhoods have a tougher choice to make. Stay and hope for the best or register with the government and get a spot on one of the hundreds of buses they’ve commissioned from out of state. The media is begging the poor to call and register. They remind them of what it will be like after a storm again if the power goes out, if the waters encroach again. Your elderly will die. There will be no medicine. Register, please, now. Get a spot on the bus. No one will be turned away. The phone lines are jammed all day. The call center doubles its staff, then triples it. No one has all the answers, just best guesses. But we want to know, we need the details before we make up our minds: where are the buses going? What can I bring with me? Will there be food? Will there be protection? We can remember being herded before, timidly, confusingly, pointed in several directions at once. We can already feel the itchiness of the long lines. We have never forgotten the terrified queasiness of being shut into the plane, taking off, and not being told a destination. Hours on the planes, a moving waiting room, no indications. Disembarking in Denver, in Indiana, in Phoenix. Moved like cargo. We don’t want to go through all that again unless there are assurances. Don’t worry, they tell us. We have signed contracts this time. Trust in the profit motive. Things will go much smoother with money on the line.
The new Home Depot in the middle of the city that has supplied so many with the tools and materials to rebuild their homes makes an agile business turn, orders in truckloads of generators, gas cans, and tarps. Sandbags and stacks of plywood are sold right from the parking lot. It’s still so hot; we work in the late summer twilight. The noise of our neighbors hammering during dinnertime, the rattle of collapsible ladders. We make groceries. We still haven’t decided whether we are staying or going, but either way we’ll need durable food. Cans of chili, boxes of Pop-tarts, chips and candy bars. The stores are so busy the carts make their own traffic jams down the aisles. An eight-foot pallet of cartons of bottled water is being dismantled. Children follow behind their mothers, no room for them in the carts. The kids carry gallon jugs of water or boxes of cereal and whine. Some families have two carts, one for food, one for booze. Cases and cases of beer, handles of vodka, and let me get eight bags of ice. When that runs out we’ll drink it all hot. There are lines again at the gas stations. We need fuel for our cars, fuel for our generators, fuel maybe for currency. Cartons of cigarettes. And even acts of God don’t stop the Powerball.
We are all of us chattering, taking advantage of the surge of crowds, the busy-ness, the long lines. We speculate about what Category the storm will be when it hits. We pester everyone around us, asking what they are going to do, trying to find some kind of consensus we can join. We can’t stop talking about it, where we will go, mistakes we will avoid this time around, making promises and assurances if we are the brave ones who will stay. We say, Here’s my e-mail. I’ll go by your house, yeah, yeah. We shrug our shoulders, Don’t worry about it.
Some of us can’t help but go out after the stressful days. We need to meet up with our friends at the bar or sit—maybe one last time—down to dinner at our favorite restaurants, confused about where to look with the streetside windows covered over by plywood. We are attracted to this small part of the adventure, raising glasses in the darkened rooms like Parisians who know that the tanks will arrive tomorrow, like Londoners chancing a bombing raid. We can always risk a little for the nightlife.
We say goodbye to those who have made up their minds, watch them join the steady current up the avenues. Call us when you get there. We feel a little jealous. Some of us still have to work in the morning.
The next day it’s do or die time, for the lower parishes at least. There is a mandatory evacuation call for the areas south of the city, the coastal people, the barrier population. Helicopters make runs to the oil rigs and bring back all the divers, welders, and pump-men. They’re all coming past us, through us, clogging the highways, all the small towns converging into a convoy: Cutoff, Arabi, Houma, Grand Isle. We know we’ll be next, probably, even if Gustav is still another two days away. This storm’s a slow giant. We’re getting weary of it a little, refreshing the webpages, watching the track move by millimeters on the screen.
We start to pack. How do we decide what to take? We know from experience that anything left behind could be drowned, so we favor the nostalgic and irreplaceable over the expensive. We know from experience that everything mundane can be replaced, that it can almost be enjoyable picking out new dishes and bedsheets—if you’ve got the money. The children want all their toys. We force them to pick favorites. Everybody gets four changes of clothes. Anything more would be greedy. And we must each have our pillows, our charms, our letters. We collect all the documents, the titles and passports and insurance papers. Some of us bitterly pack up a box full of Road Home documents: some of us are still in a battle for money promised us from three years ago from the state entity created to aid the victims of insurance shortfalls. We won’t chance losing the proof of our arguments, the written record of every inch we’ve gained towards compensation. The things we will miss but just can’t take with us get put up in the attic or lined up on the top shelf of our closets.
We push the furniture away from the windows, exposing months of dust. We empty the icebox, defrost the fridge. Some of us forget to do these things and will come home to a wet floor. We throw away good food, knowing it will spoil when the power goes out. We don’t care: we remember the wars we fought with mold. We try to pre-mitigate.
Finally, we pray.
We go to the last mass before the priests must close the doors and lock up the churches. We get together in fellowship halls, making last-minute arrangements, offering last-minute aid. We sing to our different versions of God and ask for different versions of strength. Some of us beg for mercy or a miracle. Some of us are more resigned and beg only for guidance. Some of us don’t agree with God or even think that he exists, but we feel a little envious of the invisible buffer that believers have between life and their hearts. We could all use a little divine backup in some form or another. This weekend is going to test us, going peel away all the layers of normality we’ve recovered since Katrina. So we feel the need to pray even if it’s just empty murmurs against humid air.
Tonight we light candles against an enormous wind.