Escape From New Orleans

| 17 Feb 2015 | 02:11

    I had not slept since Sunday morning, when I only caught an hour of sleep. Lying in a stifling house, with no lights or air, I felt like I was going to suffocate if I wasn't careful.

    The only noise was my headset radio, tuned to the only thing available-Clear Channel. While it should have been a reassuring thing, all they kept talking about was how those who were stupid enough to stay in New Orleans were in a lot of trouble. We were going to drown, starve, dehydrate, or be killed by looters.

    The place I've called my home for the last seven years bears little or no resemblance to the place you see on the news now.

    My last view of the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood that I've come to love so well was of destruction and despair, hatred and pain. The neighbors who were still there were weary and tired. People who would once wave at you as you walked by were peaking out of shuttered windows, while locking themselves in stifling homes, too afraid of looters and robbers to do much more than watch.

    People keep asking me why I stayed as long as I did. I saw reports that it was because all of us who stayed were lazy or stupid or criminal. We all had our reasons for staying.

    I had two reasons. First, my landlady could not take her dogs, which we both loved very much. So I kept them until she could come back and get them a few days later. The second reason was my neighbor. She's about eighty years old and maybe eighty pounds and she was all alone. Her son was supposed to come get her and take her to safety.

    The nights were hot while we waited. With the looters roaming, we couldn't keep our windows open. With the temperature in the high 80s heat and high humidity, and without circulating air, let alone conditioning or fans, our houses were in all respects slow cookers. I could not lie down without lying in a wet and soggy puddle. The nights were as dark as I've seen.

    I started to get really depressed. I have never felt so alone as when lying in the dark with no air movement, slowly baking and steaming in the heat and being told that I'm doomed. I could hardly bear to wait for my neighbor's son to show up and take his mother and me to safety.

    Since I stayed to help her, she had told me her son would be happy to take me with them. As it turned out, he picked her up days after in the pre-dawn hours and never came to get me. So I was stuck, and my last available ride out was gone. It was time to go on my own.

    I've seen reports since I got out about looting. Some reports claim it was prevalent and some claim it was exaggerated. I can say that the looters were much more organized than the police or relief efforts. The day of the hurricane, while the winds were still in the 60-70 mph range, there were already groups of people in the back of trucks and stolen U-Hauls roaming areas where police cars could not get through. In one morning, I watched at least four groups of young men try to break into the Habitat for Humanity warehouse.

    The people across the street from my home went out to loot and came back with shopping carts loaded down with stolen goods from the grocery a few blocks away. They stole mostly soda, cigarettes and alcohol.

    By Monday night, the looters were getting bold enough to come knocking on doors, robbing anyone who came out. If no one answered they would just break in and steal what they wanted anyway.

    The attitude of these people came right out Mad Max. They were reveling in this, happy and exultant in their ability to destroy and hurt and terrorize. They were, by definition, terrorists, and they were having the time of their lives. I know because I had to fight two of them just to leave the city with the few possessions I was able to carry.

    I tried to get to the Superdome but the water was nearly waist deep and a family walking away from there told me someone had tried to set a fire in the stadium that morning. So I walked to the alternate pick-up at the convention center. The amount of people there was staggering. In less than fifteen minutes, I witnessed more crime than I had in the entire time I lived in New Orleans.

    I saw three guns in the first 15 minutes I was there. I saw people break into the Riverwalk Mall and bring back piles of stuff. Not much of it was clothing or anything that could help you in an emergency. People were posing for news cameras with their newly stolen loot.

    In a corner of the parking lot, I watched a large prayer circle gather. The people were holding hands, praying for their safety and the safety of their families. There was no mention of other people in the prayer. When the circle broke up, most of those who'd been praying marched across the street and broke into a small grocery store, leaving with alcohol and cigarettes.

    I made up my mind to leave the city no matter how I had to do it. On my way out of town I met someone of a like mind and we set off walking toward Baton Rouge, roughly 80 miles away. We watched as dozens of cars, most of them empty, passed us while pretending to not see our outstretched thumbs. If even one of them had stopped, it would in all likelihood have saved me days of travel, but nothing like that happened.

    We stopped at the Causeway police stop for some water and were lucky enough to find out that buses were taking those still in New Orleans to Baton Rouge. After a few hours of waiting, a policeman flagged down one of the relief buses and we were on our way.

    The military gave us water and almost 200 MREs. There was enough for everyone on the bus to eat twice. Most of us only got one while many people (the ones who complained the most during the trip) left the bus with extras. I overheard a conversation from one rather large and loud family about how they should have stayed another day because there would have been a whole lot more stuff to get with all these people getting out. I put on my headphones and tried to block it all out. I was so tired at that point that I could hardly think straight, but I could not sleep. I had not done more than doze for a few minutes since the Sunday night before the hurricane.

    Still, we were on our way to Baton Rouge-or so we thought. The policeman, though, had not told the driver where we were supposed to go and after several hours we found ourselves at the Astrodome. A policeman there told our driver to wait and the officer then allowed literally twenty other buses to unload, and their occupants to join the processing line, before we were let off of the bus. We ended up waiting for nine extra hours in the parking lot. By the time we left the bus, the dome had stopped accepting any evacuees unless they were with small children.

    Our driver, James Curtis, was patient with even the most annoying people and drove well even though he had been on the road for close to 30 hours by that time.

    Many of us left the bus and decided to head out on our own. Since I had a twenty and nine ones, I gave my water and the nine bucks to the guy who'd walked out of New Orleans with me. He had less than I did and needed it more. I got lucky and hitched a ride back to New Orleans with Joe Walsh, one of the drivers who was just getting back on the road to collect another load of passengers.

    Joe was a dispatcher for his company, but had decided to drive during the evacuations because he thought it was the right thing to do. He was a military veteran and understood what it was like to help and be helped and wanted no thanks. He and James Curtis and people like them deserve more credit than I can ever give them.

    Mr. Walsh bought me breakfast that morning and let me doze in his bus. He took me all the way back to Baton Rouge and dropped me off at the Greyhound bus station after exchanging info with me and making me promise to get in touch with him when I got the chance.

    Unfortunately, the bus terminal was closed until further notice, so I was stuck in Baton Rouge. It was Friday by then, and I was about to fall down where I stood. I ended up at the airport because there was not a single hotel room left in Baton Rouge. At the airport, the ATMs were all dead and the airline wanted more than $500 to go anywhere. I had hoped they would lower prices after Katrina, but the woman at the help desk said they had actually raised them.

    I withdrew my entire savings to buy a ticket. I slept at the airport where the children of one woman were going through people's belongings as they slept. She later went ballistic because someone reported her babies to the cops.

    Eventually, I made it up to Michigan where I have family who have taken me in until I figure out what my next step will be.