By the morning of Saturday, August 27, it was becoming clear that Waveland, Mississippi would have a hard time avoiding being hit by Hurricane Katrina. The predictions still carried a lot of unknowns: the exact where and when of landfall, windspeed and hurricane strength, lowest central pressure. At the local hospital, the administration asked doctors to discharge patients and get out of town in anticipation of closing the facility. I had one newborn in the nursery; I asked the parents, where will you go? The mother worked for the city of Picayune, about an hour north-west; she planned to take the baby to the city's command bunker. Normally I don't advocate exposing newborns to large groups of people in cramped, confined spaces, but I figured the baby would be as safe there as any place.
Sunday morning, my wife and I woke at 7am; she went to the computer, I went to the TV. Latest storm track and forecast revealed Katrina was now a full Category Five, on a near-perfect track for Waveland by tomorrow morning. Meanwhile, the satellite picture on The Weather Channel showed a massive cyclone filling nearly the whole of the Gulf of Mexico.
It was time to leave.
For those fortunate enough never to have evacuated for a hurricane, it is not an easy process. It takes planning, effort, and a lot of time--even more when you have a dog and 3 small children (our youngest was now all of 2 months old). We called family and let them know our plans (go east to Florida, vacation for a few days, then come back). Then we dragged out the suitcases and starting packing clothes, toiletries, and diapers, enough to last for about 6 days. We filled shopping bags with food and drink for the road. I grabbed the essential electronics: cell phones, chargers, portable DVD player, all of the kid's DVDs and CDs. My wife packed away toys, books, blankets, and pillows, and photo albums while I organized the essential documents: birth certificates, passports, insurance papers, medical credentials, copies of diplomas and licenses.
Then I went to my office.
My practice uses an electronic medical record. All patient information is stored on a server in the office, my receptionist and biller each use a desktop computer, and my nurse and I go room-to-room with tablet PCs. We are the medical practice of the 21st century, a paperless office.
Normally the tablet PC needs to be on the office network to access the patient data. But the computer program we use has a very special feature, one I had used just a few times prior. The tablet can be placed into "disconnected mode," where the data is downloaded onto the tablet itself. The tablet then becomes the computer system for the practice, until it's later re-synchronized with the server.
I set the tablet into the disconnected mode, grabbed a backup data tape from the server, disconnected the computers, placed them up on desks, and packed up some practice essentials: stethoscope, pocket reference, otoscope and ophthalmoscope. Time was running out, and I left most of the rest; if the office flooded, the majority of equipment was off the ground and should be safe. If the roof caved in or blew off, everything would be lost anyway. Leaving my practice to fate, I headed back home.
Our friendly neighborhood handyman was screwing plywood over the windows, making the house very dark, if more secure. Meanwhile, a change in plans had occurred regarding our dog, Oscar. We had every intention of taking him with us--until a family with which we were close decided, against all attempts at persuasion, to stay through the coming storm. If the family was that determined to ride out the hurricane, we convinced them to at least stay in our house, which was on higher ground (and, due to its older age, probably more solid) than theirs. They in turn volunteered to care for Oscar and keep him safe until we returned.
It was to be a fateful set of decisions on everyone's part.
The van was completely packed, it was now 2:30pm, and the skies were turning grey. Just before leaving, a good friend stopped by. He was a part-time officer for the Waveland police department, and he was required to be on-duty for Katrina. He assured us he would check on our house--and our family-friends--while we were gone. And so we drove out to Highway 90 and started east.
About a half-hour later, we pulled to the side of the road off the beach in Gulfport, to allow my wife to nurse the baby. I stepped out of the van and was pelted with rain blowing sideways as the wind whipped around. From the satellite pictures I had checked just before we left, I knew these were the first outer bands, even though landfall was still projected to be 18 hours away.
This was going to be a monster of a storm.