by J.P. Stratton
From where we sit on the New England shore, New Orleans and the Gulf Coast are a long way off. But we have each weathered hurricanes, and know what they are about. True, not since the Great Hurricane of 1938, and Hurricanes Carol and Diane in the 1950′s, have we been severely stressed. It’s been a long time.
When a fast-moving Hurricane threatens the Gulf Coast, there’s the tendency to wait it out, with the bravado brought on by a thousand miles of distance. Advice from a parent to kids who live there might be of the “flashlights, batteries, water, food, radio, gas” variety. And then wait and see.
So when your family member or friend is in the path of a storm far away you tend to be concerned, but not worried. After all, the storms do blow over, leaving behind their wakes of tragedy, bravery, even humor. In just a few years they are relegated to holiday family stories and silent moments. You hardly think of a large-scale social breakdown, at least in this country.
The levees surrounding greater New Orleans are big, really big; except for your first-day impressions of The Big Easy they are simply part of the landscape — the way they are around Hartford, for example. It takes a lot of water to flow over them, still more to cut through them.
So when a fast-moving Hurricane threatens the Gulf Coast, there’s the tendency to wait it out, with the bravado brought on by a thousand miles of distance. Advice from a parent to kids who live there might be of the “flashlights, batteries, water, food, radio, gas” variety. And then wait and see.
Saturday, August 27, was like that. There were plenty of warnings, and then orders, serious ones, of the “Get out of Dodge” variety. Maybe it is best to move out for a while.
Well, maybe this time, says the daughter over the phone. It looks bad, worse than Ivan last year. So they depart their residential-neighborhood home near Lake Ponchartrain at 2 a.m. Sunday.
They head for Memphis and an inexpensive motel near the airport. Not a bad drive, but a fairly long one, especially with a storm tailing you.
Left behind plenty of food and water for the cats, took the better mementos and possessions to keep them out of the rain in case a window broke. Settled in at the motel to watch TV…as more refugees streamed in, and were treated very well. Memphis is a pleasant place.
But quickly the “504″ area codes — the connection to friends back home — ceased working, as the TV news dramatically covered the wind and waves on the distant coast. New Orleans is a fairly long way from that coast. But there is the river, the big one, the Mississippi, in front of the city, and on the other side that really big lake, Ponchartrain, 40 miles by 25 miles big.
The storm’s fury hits and passes, and an information vacuum begins…filled in sporadically with photos of flattened buildings and twisted trees, and increasingly disturbing “blogs” on www.nola.com.
But the city stands…and soon, perhaps you can return. Even though, for the people guided to the Superdome, who couldn’t or didn’t leave, life in the “lifeboat” was deteriorating, turning an uncomfortable shelter into a nightmare.
For those near the levees, near the half-dozen places which the waters had breached, another kind of storm had begun, a worse one, of water filling the bowl of the city and rising to the stairways, first floors, rooflines of hitherto undamaged houses. And little or no information trickling out. As some small fraction of society began to loot what they could, and some others defended, it was to become still another storm.
Back up in Memphis, the news and the satellite images show 80 percent of the city underwater…including the kids’ neighborhood, considered to be “high ground” at 12 feet above sea level. And the Guard and the Army and the Navy picking up the heroic rescue work of the Coast Guard, on hand from Day 1. It’s going to be ok, some day.
But, hey, my kids are at least safe. But is this not a lesson? “Civil Preparedness” is for all of us, not just those far away.
What are your plans? Are you willing to help others? Or just ride it out?