In the Kentucky school system, you never learn the hurricane drill. This is admittedly a wholly asinine observation to make, given the fact that Kentucky is a landlocked state. Nevertheless, this thought ran through my mind more than a couple times over the course of the past two weeks. In fact, during all of Gustav's approach through the gulf to Louisiana, I never once felt that noting the absence of hurricane preparation drills in my educational career was without merit. Sure, I've been through the fire drill, the tornado drill, the earthquake drill (which is a lot like the tornado drill), the bomb scare drill, and the school-shooter-lockdown drill. But I'd like to think that Kentucky's geography has less to do with my inexperience with hurricane drills than the clear reality that running a hurricane drill would be just as asinine as my opening observation. Hurricanes are such a prolonged natural disaster that organizing a school drill for them would be one of the most pointless things you could do as an educator. Moreover, orchestrating a full evacuation of a metropolitan area would be disastrous save for when the circumstances actually called for it. Evacuation is something you simply can't practice. It's an event so deliberately performed in stages, marked in the days and hours before the arrival of a storm, that there is too much to pack into a lesson plan or an all-school exercise. The best and only way I've found to learn about running from a hurricane is a crash-course in the actual process itself.
To prepare for an evacuation, the first things you generally want to decide are where you're going to go and when you're going to go there. I was lucky in that I had the option to travel with the staff of the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana's rebuild program, most of whom I already knew. We made the 1.5 hour trek west to Baton Rouge on backcountry roads to circumvent the deadlocked highway traffic, and stayed in a space dedicated to the Episcopal Diocese of Western Louisiana's downtown school that had access to a full gymnasium. Our caravan left the city around 7:30 a.m. Saturday morning, though New Orleanians I talked with who'd been through Katrina and other hurricanes before suggested I be on the road no later than 3 a.m. to avoid the worst of the gridlock. For as long as we had power, we had all the internet, cable TV, and refrigerated food we could want, and we still had a pool table and the aforementioned gymnasium at our disposal. The space and company were largely our own, and I highly doubt that we could have been more fortunate in our "hurrication" lodgings. It's little wonder to me that for many New Orleanians, whose entire life and material resources are built into the city itself, many of whose entire extended family lives within several blocks of each other, choosing to stay and ride out the storm is a much more appealing alternative.
Once you've decided where and when you're going, the next most important choice to make is what you're going to take with you. This is harder than it seems. Over-packing means moving a lot of stuff both ways and crowds out room for other passengers in your car, but deciding what to leave behind and you'd want or need to start up somewhere completely new should the worst happen forces you to really think about what's materially critical in your life. I thought I'd been through the worst of that process getting out of college and deciding that all I wanted to own in the world was what I could fit in my car. Packing for Gustav proved harder though, largely because the bed, desk, and dresser I'd bought, as well as the house into which I'd just moved, were things that I felt more ownership over, and things from which I'd hoped to contribute to the longevity of the Grinnellcorps New Orleans program. Choosing what to keep and leave disrupted my conception of home and personal space by wresting away what sense of these things I'd cultivated in the scant three months I'd been in the city, forcing me to consider anew what exactly matters for me as far as "home" goes. Being a compulsive over-packer, I of course fit almost everything I could take into my car, but I tried as best I could to parse things down to clothes, toiletries, important documents I might need in case the house was flooded or looted, and anything of monetary value that I could reasonably carry with me (electronics, in my case).
After you've packed, your next steps are generally directed towards securing your house or dwelling: you tape or board up your windows, depending on your means; you empty your refrigerator and pantry of all perishable food, most of which you try and take with you if you can; if your house took water during Katrina, you move the belongings you can't take with you to higher ground or to the highest point you can in your house - a good strategy is stack your more valuable belongings on top of furniture you wouldn't mind taking water. If that fails, you end up wrapping your stuff in trash bags or any other kind of plastic you can get your hands on. You unplug all of your electronics to prevent electrical surges from frying your appliances; you close off your gas lines to prevent something from sloshing around and breaking or giving way to fire or gas leaks; and you take as many precautions against post-storm looting as you can. For my roommate and I, this meant moving the majority of our furniture to the one room in our house we could also lock from the outside and taping our two front doors together as best we could with ducktape since we could only deadbolt the inner-most one. After that, though, there was little else left to do but leave.
The hardest part about Gustav's approach was the uncertainty and time lapse involved with the storm's arrival. Knowing that there was a potentially city-devastating storm out in the gulf over which no one had any control and even less an idea of how hard or where it was going to hit was paralyzing to a certain extent. I hadn't given the possibility of a hurricane colliding with New Orleans much credit, to say anything of a full-scale evacuation - I'd naively assumed that Katrina and its ilk were an once-in-a-lifetime event. My disbelief that another severe hurricane would threaten New Orleans during my tenure in the city compounded my sense of surreality with the evacuation and my lack of familiarity with what do. Since I couldn't really come to grips with the reality of the threat posed by Gustav's approach, I had plenty of opportunity to speculate for the worst, and the waiting gave me time to fixate on my own creeping dread about what might happen after the storm. I watched somewhat incredulously as life around the city slowly shut down in pieces; shops and cafes first boarded up their doors, then Tulane and Loyola called off classes, finally the street cars and the busses of the transit authority stopped running, and streets everywhere became eerily vacant. My normal fifteen-minute commute to work turned into five. The shutdown was initially frustrating because it became an excuse for city hall, contractors, and other people with whom we, Jericho Road (my homebuilding organization), regularly do business to shut down and slow any forward progress in day to day activities. Things became much scarier and more visceral when I talked to or received e-mails from members of the Episcopal Diocese with whom I have regular contact and who had lived through Katrina that were tense and panicked, asking after my personal preparedness for the storm.
For those of us who had seen the aftermath of Katrina in any form - here my experience is limited to working in the city a full year after the storm passed - the speculation about what could happen once Gustav hit was acerbated by what we'd witnessed, and by how much worse we knew things could get. Having slogged through gutted houses, seen the very real tears, anguish, hopelessness, and depression of those people who lived in the city pre-storm, I knew how bad things could get and how long they could stay that way. I couldn't help but replay what I'd seen and lived in my head in the days leading up to the storm, and from the panic I heard and witnessed in the voices and behavior of those people I know who lived through the worst or lost their house to the storm, I know I wasn't alone. New Orleans is in all reality still very much recovering; sure you won't see much of it from the roads any more, and you can go down to the (French) Quarter as well as anyone and never know that anything was touched by the winds and waters of Katrina. But that's largely because what money people received from FEMA or Road Home funds has been put to fixing the roofs, exteriors, and facades of their houses and stores. If you actually walk inside the houses or stores you're driving past, especially those owned or rented by people of lower incomes, you'll see the mold and water lines still on the walls, the holes in the crumbling drywall and the plumbing and electrical fixtures that only sometimes work. Packing up my house became an exercise in faith in that I hoped that all I'd have to do upon return is plug everything back in and unpack everything I'd taken, instead of hacking my way through a wall with a crowbar to reach the kitchen, or waiting months for the water to settle and the mold remediation teams to finish their work.
Living out the storm in Baton Rouge was more of a daze than anything else. Baton Rouge sustained far more damage than New Orleans; many trees were blown down or apart, blocking quite a few roads, and flooding occurred in several low-lying roads and pockets of the city. The scariest part for me actually occurred while I was showering almost immediately after we lost power (I figured it would be a good idea, given that none of us knew whether or not the hot water supply was contingent on how long we were without power). Since I'd propped the bathroom door for light, I could hear the wind tear the slate tiles off the gymnasium roof and hurl them to the ground and against each other, though it was probably more dramatic-sounding than it actually was dangerous. The only real trial for us as a group was our loss of power. Like in an ice storm, we lived and played and worked generally by candle and flashlight. We'd hooked the generator up to the refrigerator so that our perishable food would survive as long as possible, though we still needed to go for gas for it by the second full day that we had it running. The sky was permanently set to an overcast 7 p.m. for the days after the storm passed, which, coupled with the sustained lack of power and the absence of any store or venue with power in Baton Rouge, sapped most of our will to do things beyond reading, playing monopoly, singing along with and listening to songs played on the many guitars people brought, napping, and generally trying to find things to avoid boredom. Overall, though, I was incredibly fortunate to spend my time with the group of people I did, and even more lucky that we were kept safe from the worst Gustav had to offer by the generous hospitality of the staff of Episcopal Diocese of Western Louisiana.
The greater question in my mind now is where the New Orleans goes from Gustav. I don't mean that in the sense of day to day activities; things have generally returned to normal and I have complete faith will be back completely given a couple week's time. Gustav's impact on New Orleans itself was pitiful compared to Katrina's; the brunt of Gustav's devastation was taken on by the small rural communities of southern Louisiana and the townships lying on the I-10 west corridor. My fear and question then is in regards to the tangible results Gustav's passing will bring not only my organization's efforts, but the entirety of the rebuild operations taking place across the city. In the words of my program's executive director, I fear that Gustav or any ensuing storms will "lessen the story of Katrina", sapping momentum amongst the rebuild programs, and renewing the debate about the city's long-term viability. The facts that water still came over the levees of the Industrial Canal while Gustav was lingered as a category 2 storm miles away in the gulf and that Mayor Ray Nagin has reported that the levee system can "probably hold a category 3" storm, underscores the work that still needs to be done to proof the city from future storms. While I think that the election is thankfully preventing these signs from creeping into the national consciousness, these facts haven't escaped those of us living and working down here. The response to Gustav and the city's coordination of the evacuation was indeed overwhelmingly better than Katrina's, but the weaknesses Gustav highlighted in the city's preparedness for another hurricane - specifically, the lack of coordination among response efforts and the unpreparedness of the city's first responder crews to accept people returning to their homes - demonstrate the need for better efforts to be made on the municipal government's part to secure New Orleans' future.
Those of us in my organization are taking steps to ensure that we are personally better prepared in the future to return, assess, and address the needs of our homeowners and the neighborhoods in which we work, and we're looking for ways to make our houses and our homeowners even more resilient for future storms. But these efforts aren't coming at the instigation of City Hall; planning on a city-wide level isn't occurring (yet), and in true New Orleans fashion, efforts are being made at levels no higher than neighborhood associations, if any. The conversations that need to be happening outside of our office and the neighborhood in which we work about the erosion of the natural wetlands in St. Bernard Parish, the overall efficacy of New Orleans' levee system, and the long-term safety of those neighborhoods in the lowest-lying areas of the city are still long overdue. It's my deepest worry that the absence of those conversations at a civic level of any salience is the most detrimental thing that New Orleans' leadership can do in Gustav's wake.
Despite these fears, for the first few days back from last week's "hurrication" I'm content to get back to work and pick things up as best we can where we left off. The storm hasn't thrown everything off completely, but finding my footing after nearly a week of semi-constant rain, sleeping on floors, being without power, and making as many calls as my phone allowed to check in with my parents, supervisors, and friends scattered by the storm has taken longer than I thought it would. I get the sense from talking to other people in my line of work that this feeling is pretty pandemic to the rest of the city as well. While the most visible reminders that a hurricane recently passed are some downed trees in Audubon Park along my drive to work, stores still close at 6 p.m., people are still trickling back into the city from out of state, some of our homeowners are joining the food stamp lines at 4:30 a.m. to beat the crowds as best as possible, and my friends in the Episcopal Diocese's rebuild program continue to deliver water, food, tarps, and generators to people in nearby rural parishes (counties, for the Louisiana uninitiated). For now then, I'm content to help out where I can to get their lives back to a sense of normalcy, let the city find its rhythm again, and wait for Gustav's wake to fully recede. All while keeping one eye firmly fixed on Ike's movements in the gulf.