Dispatch September 2008

The Mother-In-Law of All Storms

Our correspondent, in exile from his New Orleans home, keeps tabs on Hurricane Gustav with the help of TV and Twitter.

At 7:03 pm last Saturday, two days before Hurricane Gustav was forecast to come ashore, my wife, Louise, and I decided to leave New Orleans.

Up until that moment, we’d planned to ride it out at our home, which is in a neighborhood that didn’t flood during Katrina. I’d stockpiled tins of Vienna sausages and boxes of graham crackers and some nice-looking limes that were five-for-a-dollar at Whole Foods and which would prevent scurvy in the event we had to live on rum cocktails for many days. I even bought one of those hand-cranked weather radio/flashlights at Radio Shack, a purchase that made me feel like an Idaho survivalist, although in a good way.

The National Hurricane Center updates its online forecast every three hours, and like clockwork I’d take a break from securing potentially lethal sections of aluminum downspouts and other chores to click on the website. At 7:03, Louise and I went in and peered at the screen together. Our eyes fell on different words, but to similar effect. She saw the phrase “Category Five.” I saw a reference to “winds gusting to 186 miles an hour.” We’d moved to New Orleans a year after Katrina, and this was our first hurricane. Gustav at that moment didn’t seem like a particularly good starter storm. So with virtually no discussion, we switched from hunkering down to getting ready to leave. 

The only frame of reference I had for all this activity came from various childhood stories that involved highly agitated villagers fleeing the approach of a vengeful giant. It didn’t hurt that New Orleans is in many ways a sort of storybook medieval city, with its showy Mardi Gras kings and queens, corrupt dynasties, and a Jester-Mayor. It’s also protected from its archenemy by a long wall constructed, basically, out of piled-up dirt. In the French Quarter, there’s even a secondary floodwall with great sliding gates, erected like a portcullis to keep watery Visigoths away.

A few minutes after midnight, Louise, my stepdaughter Cody, and I pulled away from the curb and soon fell in to the long line of fleeing villagers. Our friends Laura and James called us just as we left to tell us to avoid I-10 to the northeast, which had already become an unmoving river of red lights. So we slipped out on Route 90 eastbound with the windows down, enjoying the thick warmth of a summer night, barreling through the marshes before the traffic started to back up.

The evacuation was surprisingly relaxed. I saw no instances of douchebaggery—like tailgating or impatient honking or speeding along the shoulders—among our fellow villagers. Convoys of four or five vehicles of friends and family traveled together and often pulled off on the shoulder or into the pools of harsh light under the canopies of open gas stations along the Mississippi coast. A great many had loaded coolers and barbecue grills in the backs of their pickups as if they were headed for a tailgate party. This struck us as odd until we thought about all the chicken and shrimp we’d preemptively thrown out of our freezer an hour ago.

At 4 a.m. we’d made it to Gulfport, normally less than ninety minutes away, then pulled over along the beach to nap and walk along the still-gentle surf, where luminescent jellyfish pulsed with a blueish glow that seemed all the eerier filtered through the mental fuzz of a forty-minute nap.

By dawn we’d reached Mobile and turned north toward our destination: Birmingham. We’d been offered a place to stay thanks to a fortuitous mistyping. My friend Jenny Adams, who grew up in Birmingham, had accidentally hit “reply all” and sent an email to 91 people when writing to offer a mutual friend a place to stay. I'd replied and warned her that she would soon have 91 people sleeping on her floor. She shot back, “Well, that’s cool”—her parents lived nearby, had a big house, and were out of town for a week, and they were happy to offer shelter. Twelve hours after leaving New Orleans, we pulled into Birmingham.

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Wayne Curtis is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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