Saturday, August 29, 2015

Katrina remembrance, part 1

It has been ten years.

We watched with a collective sigh of relief on Monday of that week. We were told that  this hurricane, which had weakened as it tripped over Florida, then strengthened to a monstrous Category 5 juggernaut in the middle of the Gulf, had now diminished to a Category 3 storm shortly before landfall along the Louisiana-Mississippi Gulf Coast. We knew it would still be destructive, but not the unthinkable apocalyptic force that we had feared.

But the sigh of relief quickly became a gasp.  And then hyperventilation.

The levees had failed. New Orleans was under water. And so were thousands of people.

Every morning that week we would turn on the news and watch as the stranded crowds at the Super Dome grew, waiting for help to come.   At night WWL-AM would broadcast continuous phone calls from those left in New Orleans, giving advice and seeking help from way down yonder in New Orleans.  Each day the numbers would swell as citizens struggled to swim and slog their way from their submerged homes to higher ground downtown, some being plucked from their rooftops at the end of a cable attached to a helicopter.  The news anchors and reporters would explain that help was on the way, that buses were coming to the rescue.  But after a couple of days it seemed that even they did not believe what they were reporting.  The whole country was watching in disbelief as no help came to the desperate Americans.  A city of a million or so was drowning in front of our eyes and no one was doing anything about it.

So Friday afternoon, I went to church.  That's what we do when we don't know what else to do, isn't it?  When I walked into the church office area at Lester Memorial UMC I was surprised to find my nephew, T. J. , already there.  For the same reason. 

"I'm going to New Orleans, " he said.

"I'll go with you," I said.

So for the next hour or so we got on the church phones looking for a bus to charter.  T. J. found one in Mississippi, owned and operated by Charles.  I think it was the last available bus east of the Mississippi.  Charles said he was ready to go.   David, the pastor at Lester, told us to go on, the church would underwrite our charter.  T. J.'s dad Tommy, my brother-in-law, after hearing of our proposed adventure, said he would go too.  I am pretty sure he just went to make sure we knew what we were doing.

We did not. But it was better than sitting at home and watching the TV, even if Katie Couric was still on the Today Show. So we jumped in the cars and headed west.  We were to meet Charles in Meridian at about eight o'clock Friday night and figure things out as we went.

We decided, being the sensitive folk that we were, that if we were able to pick up any folks in New Orleans that they would be hungry and thirsty, so we stopped and bought some fruit, cookies and crackers, and a few cases of water.  Charles showed up with his bus as promised.  I remember that we ate at a Chinese buffet restaurant before we left Meridian.  My fortune cookie read "The storms of life will not overcome."  Yeah, I know that's kind of corny, but it really did.   We locked our cars and loaded the bus.  Then we headed south out of Meridian in the excellent hands of Charles at the wheel of his bus..

As we headed south the lights of civilization disappeared.  I never really thought of Meridian as a light shining on a hill, the height of civilization, but, it was at the time.  It wasn't long before we began to see the devastation of Katrina.  The southern half of Mississippi and Louisiana were  dark.  There were no lights of convenience stores or fast food restaurants at the exits.  No lights from houses or farms dotted the landscape.  Then we turned west because New Orleans was inaccessible from the East. The Louisiana State Highway  was reduced  to a single lane.  The trees of the pine plantations had been broken in half and splintered like toothpicks, many of them lying across the road, for miles and miles, a path having been cleared by chain saws.  This was still fifty or so miles north of Lake Pontchartrain.   The bus ride was quiet.  There simply were no words.

We turned back south to approach New Orleans from the West.  There was almost no traffic.  It was close to midnight by then.  Then there were lights. Bright, bright lights.  The civilian and military authorities in charge had taken possession of a truck stop to prevent folks (like us as it turned out) from going into New Orleans.  We pulled in, still not knowing what  we were going to do. Generators were humming and personnel were scurrying.  It was hard to find someone in charge, but Tommy finally found someone to talk to.  We were told that no one was going into New Orleans for any reason and we probably would not be taking anybody out. They had serious looking weapons.  We explained that we had a fine bus and would be willing to take people out of New Orleans and back to Alabama, but the officer in charge was not impressed, but he said we could wait around if we wanted.  And so we did.  We took turns standing outside the bus in case anyone changed their mind.  We took turns dozing in the bus.  There were four other buses there. Five buses total.  We wondered where all those other buses that were "on the way" were located.  Turns out there were no more that night.

At about 4 a.m. we were told to get in our bus and get in line with the other buses and follow a military escort toward New Orleans.  No other explanations.   We were not sure what we were doing.  But at least we were heading in the right direction.   But it did not look like New Orleans, a city where the lights are never turned out.  Now there was nothing but inky, eerie darkness. The buses slowed and a military man slapped Charles' window and yelled not to open the door until he was given the word.  In the big windows of the bus faces started appearing, shadowy images passing by in the darkness like flipping through the pages of an old Life magazine full of black and white photographs.  At first there were just a few. All ages, all with looks of desperation and fatigue in the pre-dawn darkness.  Then there were too many to count, and the sound of hands slapping at the side of the bus broke the silence.  Finally we stopped under an interstate overpass just south of the Lake Pontchartrain Bridge.

Charles was told to open his door.  When he did humanity poured into the bus like water into an empty bucket. Families struggled to stay together as they strained to fit through the crowded bus door jammed with desperate storm victims.  Charles was supposed to be counting. He knew how many his bus could carry.  T.J., Tommy and I directed our passengers down the aisle of the bus, filling all the seats and finding places for the garbage bags that held all of their earthly possessions.  Finally Charles closed the door. Reluctantly.  He was the one who had to look into the faces of those straining to get on his bus.  He was the one who couldn't close the door until his bus was about eight over capacity.

The bus was facing east and you could see the glow of dawn on the far horizon.  It was around 5 a.m. I called my sister Terri and told her we had between fifty and sixty folks in our bus that needed to be taken care of and we were headed to Oneonta.  That gave her about six hours to figure out what to do about that.  We had other things to deal with on the bus.

Tommy and T.J. elected me to speak to our new guests.  Everything was quiet. I told the quiet riders that this bus was headed to Oneonta, a small town in north Alabama, where they could be taken care of.  I told them that we knew that they may have thought all buses were going to Texas, and if they wanted to get off here or in Baton Rouge that would be fine.  Everything was silent for a few moments.  I could not imagine what they were thinking, what they were feeling.  Finally a lone, deep voice spoke out from somewhere in the middle of the bus.

"We don't care where the hell we're going, just get us out of here."

That was strangely comforting.

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