The Road Home: A New Orleans Tale of Evacuation

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A front yard memorial in the Lower 9, representing the loss of a family member during Katrina.

It has been nearly 16 months since Hurricane Katrina crashed the party in New Orleans and managed to bring about a sound not heard there in almost 40 years – silence.  Bourbon Street and the renowned jazz clubs were closed for business.  Not since Hurricane Betsy in 1965 had a disaster caused such quiet in the Crescent City.

Although downgraded from a Category 5 to a Category 3 hurricane, Katrina still managed to pack sustained winds of 127 mph and a ruinous 27-foot storm surge.  Initially it appeared that New Orleans had narrowly avoided another disaster when Katrina weakened and veered east from a direct hit on the city center.  To some degree this was true, the damage resulting from the actual hurricane was minuscule compared to the events that began to transpire early Monday morning, August 29, 2005.

Shortly before dawn and continuing through late morning, catastrophic failures in the levee and canal systems led to the flooding of 80 percent of New Orleans.  Much of the city remained flooded for six weeks and roughly 120,000 properties were substantially damaged or destroyed.

Twenty hours before Katrina made landfall I was asleep in the parking lot of a Cracker Barrel restaurant somewhere in Mississippi.  I, along with my wife, Mïa, 32, an employee of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and our cat Jordan, had managed to escape from New Orleans, but we hadn’t slept in over a day.  After clearing the Louisiana border the anxiety and adrenaline wore off and fatigue consumed us.  We needed to shut down for a minute before driving any farther.

All week New Orleans residents knew a hurricane was in the Gulf.  What nobody realized until Saturday morning was that Katrina had veered west overnight and was now heading straight for the city.  When I first saw the storm track on CNN Saturday morning I just stared at it, trying to process the information.  There was no “cone of uncertainty.”  In 44 hours Katrina would be arriving.

As irony would have it, Saturday had been a beautiful day but the forecast for the next 72 hours continued to deteriorate.  Around 11:00 p.m., New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin addressed the city and advised Orleans Parish residents to evacuate immediately.  He stopped short of issuing a mandatory evacuation, reportedly due to unresolved legal issues.  As if to put an exclamation mark on his statement he added that his family would be getting on a plane immediately after the press conference.  That was the tipping point for us.  It was time to get out-of-town.

Leaving was a lot easier said than done since we didn’t own a car.  We had only been living in New Orleans for 11 months, having relocated from Washington, D.C., and didn’t need a car until Katrina came calling.  Thankfully, I had the foresight to make a reservation with Hertz earlier in the day.  I grabbed a cab immediately after the mayor’s speech and headed out to the Armstrong International Airport location.  Waiting for me upon arrival was a line that stretched out into the parking lot.  Katrina would hit in less than 30 hours.

Because this hurricane had already hit Florida, it was expected to weaken and veer east.  When that didn’t happen it caught everyone off guard.  Business people, air travelers and residents were left scrambling to get out of the area.  Hertz, the only rental car agency open, had become the option of last resort for bewildered travelers who were being told to evacuate as soon as they exited their inbound flights.

Although the line didn’t move for the first hour and a half, people were still being congenial.  There was some pleasant chatter with a businessman from Indianapolis and comic relief provided by the still intoxicated members of a bachelor party from New Jersey.  It wasn’t until around 3:30 a.m. on Sunday, when staff began counting the number of people in line that things became tense.  Hertz was running out of cars.

Travelers had continued to walk over from the airport once they realized there would be no more outbound flights.  They came staggering out of the misty darkness with their bleary eyes and rolling suitcases, muttering something about cars.  This is when the enormity of the situation became obvious.  People started negotiating cab fares to Atlanta and Memphis.  Shortly before Hertz cut off the line the police arrived to maintain order.

At 5:30 a.m. I drove off the Hertz lot.  While I was gone my wife had packed and prepped our house – taping up our windows, because that’s what we always saw on the news, and moving our belongings into safer parts of the house.  We packed some clothes, financial records, the computer and some photographs, but there was no way to take everything we would like.  Besides, this was only supposed to be for a couple days.  We never anticipated being gone for over a month.

NOLA 2By 7:00 a.m. we were out the door, intending to head for my parents’ home in Kentucky.  Tired and stressed, we needed to get moving fast, traffic was backing-up all around the city and it could delay our exit for hours.  Katrina would not make landfall for twenty-three more hours, but her winds would arrive much sooner.

Even before Katrina, my wife and I had already begun to discuss how much longer we were planning to stay in New Orleans.  It was a wonderful town, full of mystery and culture, but the institutional failures ran deep, many lingering from the Civil War.  As a visitor they could be overlooked, but not as a resident.  After returning from the evacuation it became harder for me to shake the feeling that the other 49 states were weighing heavy upon Louisiana.  As we left, every mile north made that weight become a little lighter on my shoulders.

Initially we had no choice but to return to New Orleans.  Our home was there, and we needed to ascertain its condition.  Our third floor condominium was in a fortified turn of the century cotton mill, where a few residents had elected to stay and ride out the storm.  They had been posting blog updates on The Times-Picayune’s Web site so we knew the building had taken some damage.  Also, by checking “google earth” we could survey the surrounding area for damage.

MessBy late September I had returned to Louisiana, but it was to Baton Rouge, not New Orleans.  My law firm, where I was a paralegal, had secured temporary office space and housing there.  Baton Rouge, which is only 80 miles northwest of New Orleans, had been completely inundated.  Its population increased by approximately 100,000 people overnight.  This massive influx of humanity had overwhelmed the city’s infrastructure.  Commute times increased exponentially, what used to take 15 minutes was now a two-hour odyssey.

I elected to try moving back down to New Orleans instead of staying in Baton Rouge.  Technically there were only day passes available for re-entry into the city, but it wasn’t being strictly enforced.  The power was still off and the water was questionable, but I could get by with candles and a cooler.

We were lucky, aside from the science experiment inside my refrigerator, our unit had taken no damage.  A tornado had lifted the roof from the penthouse units in the rear of our building and allowed enough water to pour inside to drench four floors of condominiums.  But overall the structure of the building remained sound.

NOLA 3I next turned my attention to the city’s condition.  I needed to see the damage with my own eyes.  I may have lived here but I watched Katrina unfold on CNN like everybody else. First, and most obvious, was the lack of people – it felt like being on the set of some post-apocalyptic movie.  Occasionally I would run into the military in their Humvees, but few civilians.  As darkness fell across the Crescent City the silence was palpable and the darkness absolute.

It took about a week for the power to return and by then I was about finished cleaning out my fridge.  A few more people had returned and there were rumors of old haunts having re-opened for business.  I started making runs into the downtown area and French Quarter after work to explore.  Discarded refrigerators, duct taped shut, littered the streets and their foul odor permeated the air.  With markings on the doors or walls of every house from first responders indicating whether people or pets had been found inside, this place resembled a massive crime scene.

I quickly learned to be vigilant while traversing the dark French Quarter streets.  It was decidedly unsettling to turn a corner suddenly and run into the military, with their night vision goggles and weapons drawn.  Johnny White’s, on Bourbon Street, was indeed open and had remained so throughout the entire storm, getting ice from the military to mix cocktails and keep the beer cold.

A little time passed and things stabilized in the central portion of the city.  I could again find a shrimp po-boy or crawfish etouffe, but the staples, like bread and milk, remained difficult to come by.  Residents in the wealthier Uptown and Garden District neighborhoods were able to repair damage to their homes rather quickly.  The French Quarter and Central Business District also were spared significant damage, but essentially all other sections of the city were severely compromised.  Price gouging became a norm.

The price to rent or purchase any available property increased astronomically.  Many of our friends who rented had been evicted for higher paying tenants, usually government contractors.  The other oddity was the absence of women and children in the city.  It wasn’t until 2006, four months later, that you started seeing kids again.

Dilapidated Mardi Gras floats left soaked in storage.

Dilapidated Mardi Gras floats left soaked in storage.

In February, after Mardi Gras, which had been scaled down for a local crowd, Jazz Fest became the big event.  My wife in particular felt that if Jazz Fest could be held it would be an important moment for the city.  Due to gracious artists like Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Jimmy Buffett and the Dave Matthews Band, along with a litany of dedicated local artists like Dr. John, the Meters and Irma Thomas, Jazz Fest was rewarded with record attendance figures.  This did turn out to be a landmark moment for the city because it showed the tourist industry that New Orleans was still a viable town.

Mïa and I had continued playing the “should we stay or should we go” game.  A personal and difficult toll to measure was being exacted upon residents living in the tattered ruins of New Orleans.  Due to the breadth of the storm’s damage it was impossible for people to get a break from the debris.

NOLA 4Unlike the 9/11 attacks in New York City, where citizens and emergency personnel could leave the scene and go home to unaffected neighborhoods, the damage in New Orleans was spread over one hundred and forty square miles, denying anyone the opportunity to look away.  Something as mundane as going to the grocery required venturing through the completely obliterated Lakeview neighborhood.  This blight might not consciously bother one every day, but it was always present in the back of your mind, casting a veil of darkness over everything else in life.

Finally, between the lack of any constructive rebuilding effort being mounted by the government and forecasts for an active upcoming hurricane season, we decided to move from New Orleans.  We were fortunate to have the option to leave on our own terms, while many others did not.  If another storm were to come, we might become hostages of the insurance companies, like so many others.

Today, approximately 240,000 former Orleans Parish residents remain displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.  Where are they?  Check in Houston, Memphis, Birmingham, or Atlanta, to name a few cities.  As for the 200,000 residents who have managed to return, around half still reside in FEMA trailers.  They are left to process what has happened and cope with the decay that now surrounds their lives.

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Only the mangled railing remained after the flood walls gave way across the street from this 9th Ward home in the darkness, sweeping this home, and many others – along with their inhabitants, away with the deadly current.

In the Lower 9th Ward, several blocks of homes ran parallel to the Industrial Canal, only a couple yards across the street from the flood wall.  It was barely past sunrise when two sections of this wall collapsed, unleashing a swollen tidal surge upon an unsuspecting neighborhood.  The water came through with such velocity it tore houses from their foundations and broke them into pieces as they bounced down the street.  People caught outside had the very clothes they were wearing torn from their bodies as the water rushed through.

New Orleans East and the Lower 9th Ward are now virtual wastelands, more like two sprawling, dilapidated cemeteries than the vibrant neighborhoods they once were. Makeshift memorials have been placed in overgrown yards to remember family members who failed to escape the rising water.  Little of the debris has been removed from these areas, which prevents former residents from even considering a return to rebuild.

NOLA 5To this day the landscape is crowded with homes that have been tossed atop each other.  It’s difficult to distinguish the individual houses amongst the rubble.  Cars and trucks protrude underneath piles of debris in awkward angles or are perched atop former residences.  It’s a decidedly un-American scene.  Particularly disturbing is all the personal belongings left exposed for the world to see; a child’s teddy bear, a headboard and box spring, tattered family photographs and a variety of other trinkets from so many broken lives.

For Katrina’s victims, the road home will be a difficult one.  Their immediate future has basically been taken from their grasp.  The ability for residents to return and rebuild depends in large part upon the tourist industry.  Businesses already are suffering under the strain of attempting to operate with 60 percent of the city’s residents absent.  Unless the various revenue streams from tourism can be re-established, it will be problematic for the city to return to anywhere near its previous size.

New Orleans relies on tourism dollars to fill the gaps between its large yearly events.  In turn, the service industry is a primary employer for its residents.  Due to the decreased amount of tourist traffic and the lack of available service industry help, many businesses remain closed or are only open reduced hours.  The equation is simple enough, but it requires investing in the future of New Orleans and its potential to again generate tourist related revenue.

BattlegroundThe government’s response to this call for investment is the Road Home program.  This, along with temporary housing aid from FEMA and low-interest SBA loans, are the resources available to Gulf Coast residents.  Although these programs may eventually be effective recovery tools, they have thus far proved restrictive, creating more questions than answers.

The Road Home program in particular is designed to help those residents in the hardest hit areas, but questions have been raised regarding the effort by the government to assist those populations with navigating the application process and completing the complex paper work or on-line applications.  Additionally, many of these same residents remain unable to travel home and most would lack access to a computer or the skills to operate one even if resources were in place for their return.

Still, the hardest decision facing Road Home applicants is should they rebuild, or should they relocate?  Applicants are unable to receive grant disbursements until this decision is made.  Since no governmental agency to date has produced a recovery plan, it is unknown whether certain neighborhoods will be designated as “green space,” and thus not rebuilt.

This essentially forces residents to gamble their available resources on returning to these blighted neighborhoods.  In the event that the government decides to later annex certain neighborhoods, these residents stand to lose everything all over again.

BearAt least the Road Home program has the potential to produce a positive outcome, whereas the insurance industry continues to play the villain in most people’s eyes.  On the heels of their unilateral denial to pay claims on homeowner policies involving water damage, there are now estimates that the insurance industry intends to raise homeowner policy rates somewhere between 30 and 150 percent.

This could be a fundamental stumbling block to the recovery of the Gulf Coast region.  If there is no affordable or available insurance for homeowners and businesses, then banks will be unable to loan any money, halting investment in the future of the New Orleans area.

Another major issue exacerbating an already difficult situation has been the faster-than- anticipated resurgence in crime around the metro area.  The Times-Picayune, on November 26, 2006, reported, “The number of violent crimes such as assault, robberies and murder rose 62 percent from the first quarter of the year to the second.  Nonviolent crime rose 22 percent during that same period.”  It’s going to be difficult convincing the tourist and business industries to risk a return to New Orleans if the rise in criminal activity cannot be stemmed.

The home of Fats Domino, located in the Lower 9, and where the rock-n-roll icon was trapped in a flooded attic in 90+ degree heat until being rescued after the storm.

The home of Fats Domino, located in the Lower 9, and where the rock-n-roll icon was trapped in a flooded attic in 90+ degree heat until being rescued after the storm.

The future of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region is murky at best. Unless these interrelated problems with insurance, housing, jobs, crime and tourism, are resolved the road back to vibrancy in New Orleans will not be heavily traveled.  Sufficient resources are not going to be available to rebuild this entire city, so either through eminent domain or denial of insurance coverage, its footprint is likely to be decreased.

Some former residents are already finding a higher standard of living in other cities.  If the government fails to produce a decisive recovery plan quickly, people are going to move on with their lives in another city.  It would be unfortunate if the infamous “laissez-faire” attitude of New Orleans proves detrimental to its own recovery.

Although the challenges to this community are monumental, these are a resilient people, who are willing to fight to return home.  Make no mistake, there will be a New Orleans, it just depends on what shape it will take.  As for Mïa and I – nine months after returning from the evacuation – we steered our Budget truck out across the bayous and wetlands of Louisiana, leaving New Orleans in our rear view mirror for good this time.

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