As I type this, Edmund, our dog Lola, and I are traveling on I59N toward Atlanta and then to the mountains of North Carolina. This is a planned vacation; one we had anticipated for weeks. We left yesterday afternoon and spent the night in Meridian, Mississippi. But the usual vacation excitement is not with us. Taking its place is an overwhelming anxiety. Hurricane Ida, only a disorganized blip on our mental radar Thursday, is now barreling to the coast of our state, possibly to arrive as a powerful Category 4 hurricane tomorrow night. The cruel irony of the date is lost on no one who lives here. Ida is scheduled to arrive on August 29, sixteen years to the date since Hurricane Katrina and the failure of the levee system brought our city to its knees.
Relatives, friends, and neighbors are wrestling with a question that is asked all too often now: Should we stay, or should we leave? The window of opportunity to leave, however, has slammed shut as traffic is reportedly backed up for fifteen miles behind the high-rise bridge that is the eastern exit from the city.
People will become Monday morning quarterbacks after this disaster passes. “Why would anyone choose to stay?” “Why didn’t the mayor call for a mandatory evacuation?” The second question is easier to answer. New Orleans is a bowl, much of which lies within a new, improved levee and pumping system. This storm organized so quickly that there wasn’t time to evacuate the entire metropolitan area. There would be a major gridlock, trapping people on highways. Mayor Cantrell called instead for a mandatory evacuation of areas outside the levee protection system. People within the levee system were cautioned to buy necessary supplies and to shelter in place. She hopes and trusts that the billions of dollars spent to protect the city after 2005 will work.
But inside or outside of the levee system, many people will stay. Some just assume it won’t be too bad, so why get on the highway and drive for hours when they could just stay home and ride it out? Some don’t have the transportation or money necessary to leave. Some can’t risk not being able to get back to their minimum wage job once the storm has passed. Some can’t find a place to stay that will accept their pets. Some are too old and have no one to help them evacuate. The reasons are as varied are as the individual situations.
As we travel north and east, we see convoys of cherry picker line-repair trucks and Urban Search and Rescue vehicles headed south to our coast. Empty eighteen-wheeler cabs pass us going north, possibly to retrieve containers packed with food, water, and first aid supplies to be delivered to survivors as soon as the storm has passed. Our car radio tells me that a team of FEMA personnel is headed to Louisiana. I guess that’s a thin silver lining which appears as the result of stronger, more destructive, and more frequent storms battering the area. We have become better prepared in the face of disaster. But it’s not enough. It’s like using a Band-Aid to stop a bleeding artery.
Tonight, we will be in a cabin in Lake Toxaway, North Carolina, 3000+ feet above sea level. We will have Wi-Fi, television, air conditioning…the comforts of home. Except it isn’t home. Home is where the heart is, and tonight my heart will be in New Orleans, aching for family, friends, neighbors, and strangers who are left behind in the city.