evacuation

Isaac

Almost exactly four years ago, my husband and I evacuated from New Orleans, in order to get away from Hurricane Gustav.  Residents of the Gulf Coast accept hurricanes as part of life; since I had never evacuated before, and didn't know the first thing about hurricanes, I found it scary.  Instead of packing, I wrote about what I should be packing.

When Katrina hit a few years before that, I still lived in Minnesota.  Up there, I know that I was not alone in wondering why more people hadn't evacuated, but when faced with an evacuation myself, I began to understand it better.  Now, I believe that most people, when faced with a significant threat to their home and possessions, would feel tempted to stay home, where they are most comfortable and also where they can see exactly what happens.  Not only is evacuating an unexpected travel expense, but it is also packing as an extreme sport, not just requiring selection of garments, but instead necessitating that favored garments be pitted in the competition for space against favorite photos, important papers, and family heirlooms.  Especially maddening is the unpredictability of hurricanes; you can feel a little silly for packing up the family silver and driving to your cousin's house, only to find your house perfectly snug and intact when you get back.

Life on the Third Coast has a special set of circumstances, and hurricane watching is included in that.  From May until November, it is a little game of weather-life roulette.  Everything is quiet, and then along comes a storm bouncing across the tropics.  You are vaguely aware of it, the way you may know sports scores or the outline of an international political scandal.  But then, once and a while, the little storm that could makes it past the gates of the Caribbean, and suddenly it's the Superbowl.  You know something about it, even if you are technically not a fan.

Hurricanes are obviously a menace, but it could be argued that they have at least one silver lining.  People on the Gulf Coast seem remarkably relaxed in general, and I think it could have something to do with hurricanes.  Hurricanes occasionally force people to stop what they are doing, to step away from life even when it's inconvenient, to accept that nature is in charge, and sometimes to just throw up their hands and admit that things are bigger than us.  I heard a man in the seafood business interviewed on the radio today, who is from way down the bayou in Louisiana.  He was so calm.  He said, basically, and without a trace of frustration in his voice, that water is his life and gave him everything he has, but that sometimes, water also takes it all away.  I aspire to roll with it the way he does.

All of this is to say, my heart goes out this week to everyone getting messed with by Isaac.  Hopefully, losses with not be tremendous and people will remain safe and dry.

Ghost

[This entry was written originally in 2008.]

I am paralyzed by Hurricane Gustav. Just like Gustav over Haiti, I have stalled. I don’t normally spook easily but I can’t deny that I feel skittish and frustrated. News articles about evacuation recommend clearing the fridge in order to avoid sticky, rotting messes later. One piece of advice from a reader on the local news website reads: “Pack as though you are never coming back.” Another person posts a piece of advice recommending taking all family vehicles instead of just one. I’m confused and unsure how to proceed, so instead I compulsively check my email and look for new tracks on the storm prediction map. It is too far away to begin packing but it is coming up too quickly for me to put it out of my mind. As a result, I am wandering around the apartment in circles, working on tasks much less pressing than packing insurance paperwork and memorabilia.

Pack as though you are never coming back. Easier said than done. I have twice in my life packed a year’s worth of belongings into two suitcases and one carry-on, so it seems like I should be better at this. Maybe since I was underage during both of those instances, they don’t count. I didn’t have wedding photos then, or a cat, or furniture, or cookbooks. I wasn’t distracted then by images of mold creeping over all items left behind, or water trickling through wind-damaged walls or windows. People who have done this before post advice about leaving family photos permanently in the plastic travel tubs reserved for evacuation only. I think that this is no way to live, but I see their point, as more than two months of hurricane season remain. I am reminded of those dinner party questions where you have to pick the three things you would take if you were headed to a deserted island. I think that I will never enjoy that game again.

For about twelve hours, I thought that we would not evacuate. I suddenly understood those folks who stayed when Katrina came. I have a liquor cabinet full of yummy booze and plenty of things to do; this was no time for a forced exodus. With lots of interesting bits in the pantry I would try new recipes!  It would be fun! I would pull out my sewing machine! I would write letters! I would finish my wedding album! No I wouldn’t, said my wise, younger-but-smarter-than-me across the street neighbor-friend. She reminded me of my fondness for air conditioning in the steamy heat, and for running water. She also gently reminded me that the people who stay are the ones with guns and generators, and that Chip and I were not those folks. We do whatever she tells us to do in this strange land, and she told us to evacuate, so that is the plan, barring any good weather news in the next 24 hours.

Pack as though we will never come back. How? We have already done this. We reduced the size of our living space by sixty percent when we moved down here. We are a lean operating machine, at least by American family standards. I keep thinking of random, completely unrelated tasks and items (I need more cat litter! I should wash my hand-washables! I will bring my dry-cleaning with me and do it in evacuation land…maybe I will even have my shoes repaired…hmmm) and then an hour has gone by and Gustav has crept a bit closer on the National Weather Service back-of-the-airplane-seat progress map.

A couple of weeks ago my manager told us a tale at lunch about the ghost who lived with her family in their last home. No one in the office was disconcerted (or unconvinced) by the story, or by the possibility of its truth. One employee called out “No way!” which at first I took as disbelief, but really it turned out that he was thinking more along the lines of, “No way, I didn’t know that happened to you, because something like that has happened to me, too.”

The ghost and Gustav are just two examples of how life in New Orleans is like life nowhere else. Spirits and raging storms are accepted by folks here as a part of the daily rhythms, and in a manner so calm so as to not permit any disbelief. I avoided going to bed until late last night, because when I am awake, the storm moves more slowly. Eventually, though, I had to go to sleep, and now that I am up again it is time for me to suspend my disbelief and start packing.