Even a week after the flooding, it's still easy to get out of New Orleans. All it takes is a car.
From Uptown and many downtown neighborhoods, evacuating is still about having the means to do so. The Crescent City Connection expressway through downtown leads over the Mississippi River to the West Bank, which has no power but has a clear and dry highway heading west. Or from Uptown, you can ride the lip of the levee along the Mississippi and then on to Baton Rouge. There is only some street flooding and an SUV or pick-up truck could easily handle it. That's if you had one. But many of the poorest in New Orleans didn't. And the clear sailing out of town makes it difficult to understand why federal officials said for much of last week that they couldn't get in.
When you live on the Gulf Coast, you get used to hurricane warnings. The season lasts from July to October and there are two to four serious storms every year. New Orleanians have some sort of calculus factoring in the elevation of their home, closest friends or available hotel rooms outside the city, storm size and just hunches that determine whether they will evacuate and when. But if you're low income and don't have friends or relatives in surrounding regions, evacuating for every hurricane warning is quite an undertaking. On the normal 48- to 72-hour notice, there also aren't that many available seats on mass transit. The city offers no free or subsidized evacuation transportation.
Until now, I had never left the city because of a hurricane warning. But there's nothing more sobering than a public official announcing that if you stay, you'll need to have a pick or an axe or a hammer.
"If the flood waters rise and force you up into your attic," said Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard, "You are going to need something to punch through your roof if the waters keep rising."
I heard that Sunday at noon and decided to leave. I called one friend without a car who is the executive chef at a downtown hotel restaurant and offered him a ride out of town. He said he was required to stay and take care of the guests who couldn't find transportation. He offered me the other bed in his hotel room.
My neighbors were also staying. Their homes are raised higher than my little bungalow on North Broad Street near the Fair Grounds, where the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is held. It's a mile and a half outside the French Quarter. It also sits on top of Esplanade Ridge, roughly three to five feet above sea level. The blocks surrounding my home are mostly occupied by lower-middle-income African-American families. Many had spent the previous day buying water and supplies, and three generations of many families were sitting on their front porches already beginning to wait out the storm as I pulled away.
I didn't think I'd be leaving for long. In fact, I expected to wait out the storm for a couple days and then return and live on the water and canned goods I'd bought. Living without power for a week or two seemed like the worst case scenario.
Leaving New Orleans almost always involves a bridge or an extended raised highway. Interstate 10 heading east toward Biloxi was already an elevated parking lot by 1:30 p.m. Sunday. I spent 30 minutes crawling along and figuring that there was a good chance I would still be in traffic when the edge of the storm hit that evening. People had been driving out for two days, so there might not be any gas along the way. Since my Honda Civic would be little shelter from 150-mile-an-hour winds, I called my friend at the hotel and got off at the next exit. I put my car in an above-ground parking garage downtown where I knew it would not be damaged in flooding. Far from being concerned about the hurricane, I was relieved to be avoiding traffic.
The Hotel Monaco is a relatively new luxury hotel in an old 19-story downtown building built by the Masons. The rooms are cozy and the lobby has an exotic orientalist décor, with a fireplace studded with seashells and zebra-skinned ottomans around the lobby. I didn't see many guests; the hotel was filling with New Orleanians. Housekeeping and janitorial staff, largely low-income African Americans from eastern New Orleans, which would be hardest hit, were taking the hotel up on an offer to provide rooms to employees who weren't evacuating. They brought their families, generally full extended families. Over the next day and a half, I peered into many rooms that seemed to have anywhere from 10 to 15 people inside, mostly children.
My friend Dave was in the kitchen of the restaurant, which had a back entrance at the end of the lobby. As I sat and watched the lobby, people streamed up the five elevators. Many carried pillows and small suitcases or just garbage bags with clothes. Many also brought liquor. Few appeared to bring food.
Everyone knew we would lose power at some point. Some knew there was a generator that would work for maybe another 24 hours, but only provide minimal safety lighting and communications. It would not power the elevators or pump water up to the roof to maintain water pressure in the hotel. Notices were posted and slipped under every door advising people to fill their tubs with water before the power went off. This would be the only supply of clean water and the only way to flush the toilets. Many people later said they had no idea they were supposed to do this.
Eventually, night fell, the rains started and winds kicked up.
By early Monday morning, the winds beating on the windows sounded like the constant rumble of a train going by. Power went out and we stood at the windows watching curtains billow out of holes in skyscrapers. As one guest received text messages from Chicago detailing the storm, we joked about playing debris bingo with objects flying by: metal newspaper boxes, signs, awnings, large sheets of aluminum siding. You didn't get to count it twice if the winds swirled and brought it back.
The storm passed all of a sudden, leaving a startling calm and a blue sky. The city curfew was still in effect, but we all went out into the streets. Just three blocks away, the French Quarter looked fine. Signs and awnings had been ripped off but the damage seemed no worse than Mardi Gras. We felt like New Orleans had been spared again. People started leaving the hotel, many going to see about their homes, which were already flooded.
Tuesday morning, we heard that the levees along the lake had broken. The general manager of the hotel said water was rising in the city at four feet per hour. More than the news of flooding attics, this scared me. Water was already coming up from the sewers downtown and some streets were becoming impassible.
I asked if anyone wanted to leave with me. My friend decided to stay but three others wanted out. As they collected their stuff, including a dog, I got my car out of the garage and maneuvered around fallen trees and patches of shattered glass. Within minutes we were headed across the Mississippi River to the West Bank. The ground there is lower than New Orleans, but it has the river and its levees separating it from the overflowing lake. Power was out and trees were down, but it was only a three-hour drive to get to Baton Rouge, which was largely unaffected by the storm.
Spencer and Christina wanted to head east to Atlanta, so we set out north to Natchez, to Vicksburg, and then east on I-20 to Jackson and Meridian, Miss. Our cell phones didn't work and we watched as disaster spread north. With a creeping sensibility for self-preservation, we bought gas every chance we could. Power was out in some places and there were gas lines everywhere. By the end of the night, most gas stations had a police presence.
No end in sight
The idea that we got out just in time proved wrong. My friend at the hotel took the exact same route out, but a full day later. Aside from pushing a car through some shallow flooding, they had no problems getting on the bridge, driving to Baton Rouge and then to Memphis. He's in California now.
I have gotten e-mails from people and colleagues who got out even later. Not necessarily as easily, but almost at will.
Friends of a colleague decided to stay in their downtown fifth-floor Warehouse District apartment. They volunteered to care for everyone else's pets. But as the situation at the nearby Convention Center worsened, they decided to leave. In an e-mail, they described taking keys to a neighbor's Land Rover and collecting some of their belongings, three elderly neighbors and several pets. As they raised the garage door and entered the streets, a car nearby was being thrashed by several men. They showed the gang that they, too, had handguns, which was enough to be left alone. They left the apartments to the looters, but they were able to leave the city untouched.
Many CNN viewers heard about the people trapped in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, on Canal Street in the French Quarter. A hotel guest was able to describe events there on air. A friend of mine works there and reports much the same story.
The Marriott arranged for buses to evacuate the guests and remaining staff. A team of doctors in for a conference had taken police with them across Canal Street to take medicine from a Walgreens. The buses arrived in the middle of the night when they were least likely to face those stranded downtown. Everyone waded through Canal Street to board the buses under police protection. Their odd choice of route brought them to the Convention Center, but they surged forward with a police escort past the suffering throng.
On Saturday night, in spite of the warnings of a Category 3 and growing hurricane, I went to a parade/pub crawl in the Riverbend neighborhood, all the way uptown beyond the Garden District and St. Charles Avenue's grand mansions. The owners of the Maple Leaf Bar, who run the parade, dressed like Keystone Cops. The bar regulars wore orange jumpsuits, like prisoners in Orleans Parish Prison, who are typically tasked with picking up garbage off the streets. One guy wore tiny biking shorts and had painted a swirling, hurricane like yin-yang symbol on his chest along with the words "Should I stay or should I go." My friends and I toasted sticking out another hurricane scare.
I was surprised to see not one but two brass bands, the Rebirth and Trombone Shorty's band. The bands are all African American, typically from the toughest neighborhoods, and maintain the city's street level, parading jazz music. They weren't leaving either, but perhaps for different reasons.
Tuesday night as I drove across Mississippi and Alabama with a some people I was going to drop off in Atlanta, we talked about what we would do while we waited to go back to New Orleans. They talked about restaurant work. I said I was heading to Durham. We joked that we would have to get used to living in places where the bars have a "last call."
Will Coviello, a Duke graduate, is a writer and editor who left Carrboro for Mardi Gras 13 years ago and didnt return to the Triangle until last week.