Friday, January 19, 2007

Katrina Story, Chapter 3: On the Road

(With apologies to Jack Kerouac)
Sunday afternoon: the van and family are headed east to Florida as Katrina starts making its presence felt. Our policeman friend tells us that I-10 is already at a crawl, so we take Highway 90 along the beach. A quick lesson in the geography of the Mississippi coast: if you drive from west to east, you will go through Waveland, Bay St. Louis, Pass Christian, Long Beach, Gulfport, Biloxi, Ocean Springs, and Pascagoula, before crossing into Alabama and the outskirts of Mobile. We make good progress from Waveland to Ocean Springs until traffic on Highway 90 also slows to 5 mph. By 4:30--2 hours after leaving--we're only in Pascagoula, a long way from Florida. At this rate we will be riding out the storm in our car.

In the parking lot of a freshly boarded shopping center, we consider options, and decide to change our destination to Maryland, where our family is. My wife's uncle will host us when we arrive in a couple of days. My wife grabs the atlas and starts plotting side roads going north and east.

As we travel down country backroads, we're accompanied by many other drivers with the same idea. We pass through small Mississippi towns that probably have never seen this much traffic since...well, ever. At a particularly confusing intersection, we even pass by one of my patients.

The hour gets late, the boys are tired, and we finally reconnect with the interstate north of Mobile. L. tries calling every hotel in Montgomery (how did people manage before cell phones?) and finally reaches one with a vacant room. We arrive well past the boys' bedtimes and collapse into fitful but welcome sleep.

At roughly 6:30am my pager goes off. The security service on my office is notifying me that the office alarm was tripped and the police have been called to investigate. This has happened a few times before, so I'm not very concerned (though I do wonder a little if an audacious looter has taken advantage of the situation). Then I realize: the power is still on in Waveland. Communications are still working. Our town must have made it through the night okay.

(We later surmise that the power failed shortly after that page.)

So once again we turn on The Weather Channel, just in time to see Katrina over the southeastern Louisiana coast. The eye will soon cross the outlet of the Mississippi and make a repeat landfall somewhere near the Louisiana-Mississippi border. But after that, it will continue north-northeast, and Montgomery is too close for comfort--and we have many miles to go before Maryland. On the tv, reporters are in New Orleans showing footage of an empty French Quarter, and Jim Cantore is in Biloxi with strong winds coming off the beach, but on the whole, it looks like typical hurricane footage everyone's seen before. Winds thrashing palm trees, trash cans blowing by, driving rain; the worst is yet to come, we're concerned, but so far, so good. Anyway, gotta keep moving.

We leave Montgomery at 9:30 am, putting the portable DVD player to good use. The endless stream of Barney and Wiggles satisfies the boys--the things parents endure for the good of their children. As a respite from the kid stuff we listen to the radio up front, trying to catch some news from Waveland.

Gradually over the course of the day, the mood starts to change. Whether from the frantic evacuation, the stress of travel with small children, the single-minded goal of reaching Maryland, the lack of any communication from home, or the unfolding realization that what was happening on the Gulf Coast was becoming an event of unprecedented national and historical importance--and that our town was Ground Zero--we start to become less complacent, more concerned and agitated. We make it as far as North Carolina (it may have been Kannapolis, just past Charlotte--it's hard to remember now), settle in another hotel, but this one appears to be a temporary home to a lot of college students (maybe a local football game?). I remember thinking an irrational disgust that they could just carry on with the usual smoking, drinking, conversation, and laughter when our lives were now permanently disrupted. I almost wanted the hotel to be somber and respectful on this day of national significance, much like on 9/11. But the college kids were having none of it, with some of them throwing bemused looks at us, as if to say, "what's up with you?" Of course, it may have also been just my self-centered imagination, since I was unable to concentrate on anything beyond my immediate family and possessions in our minivan. It wasn't a completely unreasonable mindset, since this might be all that I had left in the world.

The next day, Tuesday August 30, we finally reach Maryland, spending the first night at my wife's father's house (we would go to her uncle's the next day). We were safe, with family. Now we could start to take stock of our situation and figure out: what next?


Anonymous said...

Having only seen Katrina and the stream of related events from far away, your well-written accounts really help me come to an understanding of what small things that big event entailed and caused.

Impatiently awaiting more.

brockton said...

What tripped the security in your office? How long did you stay in Maryland? What happened to your dog?

I'm sure you'll tell us. I'm just anxious to find out.

Dr Scott said...

anonymous--thank you for your words, I'm glad to hear I'm fulfilling some of my intention in writing this.

Brockton--I'm guessing the security alarm was tripped by the wind pushing on the door, setting off the contact--that's what it seemed to have been in the past, before Katrina. As for the stay in Maryland, and Oscar the dog...stay tuned!

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