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.
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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.

The information ecology of a hurricane has two stages. For a week you focus on just one data set. It doesn’t matter what the weather people name the hurricane; you come think of it as “Landfall,” which, when repeated enough, starts to sound like an obscure Norse god of vengeance. You constantly track Landfall’s course and moods. Hurricanes are often depicted graphically as a crab-like spiral, but those in its path come to see it as a sort of misshapen cone, like a distended dialogue balloon in a cartoon. 

That’s the cone of probability—a mapping of where the hurricane is likely to make land three-to-five days out. Early on, the cone targeted the south Louisiana coast, and my neighbors assured me this would certainly wobble and move around (they called it the “cone of uncertainty” or the “cone of stupidity”) then veer west at the last minute and strike Texas. It didn’t. The cone focused on the Louisiana coast near Houma with a devotion that was as uncanny as it was unwavering.

Jenny's parents, Cathy and Tom Adams, not only have a lovely, large house in Birmingham, but also a very large television. I turned it on at 6:30 a.m. on Monday morning to quarterback the storm for the next six hours. And as it turned out, Gustav did veer a bit west at the last minute, paralleling the coast briefly rather than striking it head-on. This was good news for New Orleans—the storm surge would be less than feared, improving the odds that the levees would hold. Gustav also weakened rather than intenstified as it approached the coast.

I flipped back and forth between CNN and The Weather Channel all morning. I especially enjoyed the live reports from correspondents, who were buffeted by the gusty winds while they hunched over and yelled incomprehensibly into their microphones. In the noise-to-information calculus, it was all noise, but entertaining, especially when they’d suddenly freeze and look off-camera, as if they’d heard the footsteps of something horrible approaching. (I kept imagining the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters.) But it always turned out to be a loose street sign or garbage can blowing down the street.

Gustav, it turned out, didn’t make for very good television. It wasn’t the “Mother of All Storms” as Mayor Ray Nagin had warned. Afterwards, he downgraded Gustav to the “maybe the mother-in-law or the ugly sister of all storms.” (That, unfortunately, was not the case in Houma and some of the other coastal towns.)

Every hurricane seems to end differently for every person involved. For me, the end came with a long, drop-speckled camera shot of an overturned park bench that was aired for many long moments on The Weather Channel. That’s the best they could find? My fears abated.

And that’s when I entered into the second phase of the hurricane information ecosystem. My focus went from one dataset to hundreds. I stopped watching the forecast cone and shut off the television networks and moved on to the social networks. I will no doubt think back on Gustav as “brought to you by Twitter.” The city had spotty electricity and erratic internet access, but enough that friends who stayed behind could post from time to time, and these posts joined a flurry of dispatches from my fellow evacuees.

I learned from our neighbor Stephanie that our house hadn’t lost power. I learned that Karen was parked outside Rue de la Course on Oak Street picking up a wifi signal and that Kevin had ended up in Jackson but started back early, making it as far as Covington. Each information bit was like a pixel, and in just an hour or two I gathered enough to construct what felt like a high-definition picture of the city. For the first time, I started to understand why people actually use Twitter.

Tuesday ebbed into Wednesday and I learned from various others about where checkpoints had cropped up to prevent evacuees from returning (the mayor apparently wanted to tidy up before we came back). Then I learned some checkpoints weren’t being enforced. Around 9 a.m. this morning, I clicked on the Times-Picayune website to learn that Mayor Nagin had finally decided to declare the city open and throw open the gates. Villagers were free to return.

We’ll soon be packing up the car. I hope we’ll be back home by midnight tonight so I can get some rest. I’ll need it. Tomorrow morning, I’ll be back in front of the computer tracking Ike and Josephine.

Wayne Curtis is a frequent contributor to The Atlantic.
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Wayne Curtis is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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