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"The Exile on Helen Street padding around in Pink Bunny Slippers"
A Katrina Story: Part 3
Amy and I both thought that we might pull a fast one if we hit the road as quickly as we could the minute we got home from work. Traffic might be light that early in the morning. She had been home an hour earlier. All I had to do was peel off my stage monkey suit, and pack the car. She had piled everything in the my front living room for a quick load up.
We stuffed it all into her little green Ford Focus wagon, stored a few more items up in the loft, walked the dogs, and dug out a nesting area in the back seat for Huckleberry and Doodle.
By 5:15 am Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop was in the rear view mirror, bathed in the dawn's early light; Outta "Da Quatahs", the 900 block corner of Bourbon and St. Phillip behind us and an unknown adventure ahead as we made our way toward the I-10 on-ramp.
Although by mandate of our illustrious Mayor C. Ray still a "voluntary evacuation", by the time we got on the I-10, it was a parking lot. It took us about 7 hours to travel 2 miles west of The Superdome. All we could do was sit and listen to the radio, and everything coming out of the speakers indicated that we were inching closer to a doomed state of affairs.
Both of us hadn't really had any sleep since Thursday morning, so maybe we were just sleep deprived and paranoia had taken hold. We sat still for hours in traffic and watched families having wienie roasts in the middle of the highway while eye-balling the fuel indicator slowly descend as the disembodied voices of the radio announced that Katrina just upgraded herself to a Category 5 hurricane. When C. Ray Nagin finally announced a Mandatory Evacuation by 10 am, we were barely past the Fountain Bleu Hotel, The Rock and Bowl, and the Carollton / Tulane Avenue off ramp.
The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray. We thought we had a shot at hitting the contraflow lanes at a reasonable hour, but it was time to improvise. There wasn't any traffic in the Eastbound lanes, so we finally got off the 10 a little after noon and headed East, the new plan being to get across the causeway that spanned Lake Pontchartrain, hit Route 12 on the North Shore and pick up I-10 a little further west of Baton Rouge. We figured we'd just might get to Lafayette at around nightfall.
By the time we hit the Causeway, we were at a dead standstill again.
When you're bumper to bumper and side to side surrounded by the waters of Lake Pontchartrain, every layer of the whole economic strata of Metro New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Shore was on parade; from trashed cars held together with spit and duct tape rolling on two donut wheels packed with enough people to qualify as a clown car to big assed luxury vehicles with only one or two folks riding high in air conditioned comfort.
We were all in the same boat. That boat was about to sink, and no matter who or what you were, it didn't matter. We were all full of anxiety. We were all scared. We had to move forward, and none of us were.
And yet under the most trying of mental circumstances, we were all on our best behavior. Usually situations like this would invoke a bit of road rage, but there was none. We were all in this cluster fuck together.
In the midst of a climate of impending catastrophe, the Universal unseen connective tissue between seemingly unrelated points was clearly on display. As you looked out your car window, all you felt was a collective human unity as you looked at others suffering the same thoughts that were running through your head. What you drove didn't matter. Status didn't matter. Money didn't matter. Education didn't matter. Gender didn't matter. Race didn't matter. We all were Universal matter, thrown together by a single circumstance; compacted for maximum density.
As Katrina made its way to landfall, the longer we sat still, the more fucked we were. It was a mass Exodus in suspended animation, and Moses was no where to be found.
We all had to get out, and get out as peacefully as we could.
At about 5pm, after being stuck in a car for about 12 hours, we finally got across the lake. Route 12 was closed to westbound traffic and was being diverted into contraflow lanes headed North through Mississippi on Route 59. We weren't going to our designated landing strip in Lafayette, by mandate of the State Police.
We had only one option; Head north through Mississippi, and try to stay ahead of the projected path of the storm.
We had had no real sleep since Thursday, trapped in a claustrophobia car for over 12 hours with two little doggies, and still we had no destination known like a couple of barely crawling stones. We had to pull one more improvised rabbit out of our hat.
Amy quickly got on the phone with her friend Stacy, who was riding it out and still had internet access. The closest dog friendly hotel that had a vacancy was a Hampton Inn about 350 miles to the North East in Birmingham, Alabama.
When we hit the contraflow lanes on Route 59, traffic finally started to move, albeit at a slow 30 mph pace. But it was perceptible movement, and we could finally take a collective exhaled breath. We were going to escape.
There was about 80 miles of contraflow lanes set up, so when we got North of Picyune, we stopped at a little country filling station and fried chicken emporium to re-fuel the little green wagon. It looked like a refugee camp, with hordes of humanity and chicken bones strewn across the gas station's parking lot and lawn.
Although Katrina was still about 10 hours away from her official land fall, her ire could be witnessed first hand as we cruised towards Alabama. She was at full Category 5 strength in the early evening Sunday hours before the sun set; a pissed off whirling dervish of 175mph winds gusting up to 215 mph.
The north eastern view out of the windshield was nothing but clear blue sky, but in the rear view mirror? Anything but.
The sky was the color of a deep black-purple bruise. You could see flecks of debris in it, and the clouds looked like they were rendered by a cubist Picasso. They were angular. All the soft edges were squared as lightning flashed through the deep purple-gray soup of a sky.
The car became increasingly more difficult to keep on the road, as the first tendrils of Katrina's winds intermittently pushed us off axis from the passenger side. We started to get pelted by pine cone projectiles as the southwestern swirl slammed into the trees that lined Highway 59, and the pine needles on the road were so voluminous that they started to drift like snow.
We were in no way out of the woods, out of the dark, and no where near the "light". At any minute I expected to see Elmira Gultch fly by on her bicycle.
The dogs started to freak. Every time the rifle shot sound of a pine cone whipping into the car, Amy started to freak. Here, my dears, was real adrenaline pumping fear.
The only option was to go all Dale Earnhardt on Katrina's ass, and out-run her. Traffic had opened up considerably enough to peg that little Ford. I slammed my foot on the gas and held the speedometer between 85- 90mph. In my hallucinatory state, that shot of adrenaline was a welcome injection.
For about 20 miles, we weaved in and out of those headwinds, from feeling safe to feeling totally in a state of compromised fear.
I knew if I drove like a white-knuckled maniac, we'd get some distance between us. Katrina might have been cyclically moving fast, but her northern encroachment toward land and rate of speed was still pretty slow.
By the time we got to Tuscaloosa, night had fallen. We gassed up the car one more time at a flying bug infested filling station, and Amy took the wheel. I passed out from exhaustion, and woke up in the roundabout of the driveway of a Birmingham Hampton Inn at around 1:00 am Monday morning in the middle of an industrial park.
Our new home.
We checked in, and oddly, when we told the girl at the service desk that we were evacuating New Orleans, she wasn't really aware the storm and its potential consequences to her upcoming rate of available hotel vacancies. She would become well aware, because by morning the hotel lobby was jammed with displaced refugees from the City That Care Forgot.
My little family, as embryonic as it may have been at the time, was safe. Maybe by the skin of our collective teeth, but we had a roof, a bed, and we were far enough out of harms way no matter what Katrina was going to deal out over the next couple of days.
All Amy and I could do now was try and get some sleep, track the actual body slam of storm to land on television, and pray that we would end up with a home to return to.
Did we remember to pack the Ruby Slippers? I was too fried to care as my head hit the pillow.
(Stay tuned for part 4)
"You may shoot for the stars and end up in a back alley behind Pluto, beaten and bloodied, but at least I dare to dream, and that’s better than being Earthbound, mired in the muck of mediocrity.
I judge my forward progress and success by the crushingly epic nature of my failures.
The more epic the crash, the more I’m convinced I must be doing something right"
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COLONEL BEAUREGARD "IRON THIGHS" JEFFERSON, A.K.A. "THE MANAGEMENT"