Monday, September 05, 2005

One Week Since Evacuation

Written Saturday night:

A week since I evacuated to Baton Rouge. At the time we evacuated, the
storm still looked like it might come in as a Category 3 (winds up to
130 mph) and make landfall well clear of New Orleans. So many of us left
New Orleans with almost nothing, because we thought it’d be like all the
previous hurricanes, and we’d be back in several days to deal with the
wind damage. By Sunday morning, the picture was entirely different, and
it was clearly going to be the killer storm it turned out to be.

Ever since our power came back on Monday night, we’ve been watching
television coverage of the hurricane. Most local media – the New Orleans
and Baton Rouge TV stations, radio stations and newspapers – have been
wonderful. All the New Orleans media operations have ceased, but many of
them moved in with their counterparts in Baton Rouge, so news desks have
someone from New Orleans who can provide very detailed reporting. Local
TV has become much more radio-like: highly interactive, responding
directly to local people’s requests, often more personal than polished
and professional. The coverage is almost non-stop. I think the national
media is a little slower in understanding what has happened. I heard one
reporter, commenting on evacuees getting off buses on arrival at the
Houston Astrodome, say that it “resembles a refugee camp”. It doesn’t
resemble one; it is one. I think it’s very hard for Americans to accept
that what they are used to seeing (or ignoring) in Africa or Asia or the
Middle East is happening here.

Our local politicians have been amazing. I have rarely seen such
widespread displays of real leadership by a group of politicians.
Governor Kathleen Blanco has been unable to hide her emotions but has
not let that stop her for one second being visible, strong and an
ever-welcome face on the TV. Senators Mary Landrieu and David Vitter,
from opposite sides of the political fence, have been equally good, as
have all the other local representatives I’ve seen. I feel a huge amount
of affection and concern for them: their faces are increasingly
exhausted and you can tell many of them have been crying; it’s clear
they’ve been working extremely long hours; and it’s clear they’ve seen
sights that have horrified them. When Blanco speaks, Landrieu often
stands just behind and beside her, watching her with clear concern. New
Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin has stayed in the city the whole time, in the
Hyatt Hotel, whose entire north face windows were blown out in the
storm. He has emerged occasionally to deliver scathing criticism about
the slowness of the federal response.

The one politician who has been pure politician has been President Bush.
I found his responses in his interview with Diane Sawyer the other day,
and with other reporters since, truly offensive in their inanity and

It’s clear, though, that the terrible failure of the response is due to
ingrained and long-term policies at all sorts of levels. By this
evening, they have finally managed to get most people evacuated from the
Superdome and have started on the Convention Center, where 25,000 people
were gathered. The suffering of everyone left in the city is so extreme.
And, of course, they’re almost all poor and black.

If you’ve never visited New Orleans in the summer, it may be hard to
appreciate how awful it is simply to be outside for five days. The heat
and the humidity are ferocious. Yesterday, when Lillie and I were
heading down to Grammercy to see Ann and Glenn and Lisa, we waited in a
parking lot for 15 minutes in Baton Rouge to meet up with Stephen. Just
standing in the heat for those 15 minutes, with water at hand, was
really unpleasant. I don’t know how people survived it for all those
days in awful conditions. I remember when I first moved to New Orleans
and experienced the heat and the summers which occupy half the year, I
got a whole new outlook on just how terrible it must have been for the
slaves, working in the fields picking cotton in that weather. That’s
what this week has reminded me of.

Once people get evacuated from New Orleans, things improve but sometimes
not much. All the shelters in the region and throughout Texas and other
surrounding states are jam packed. Numerous times they halted the
evacuations in the past couple of days not because they didn’t have the
buses available, but because there was nowhere for the buses to go.

Baton Rouge itself is under severe strain. It has rotten traffic flow
even on a good day before all this happened, so now the roads are choked
with cars. The only saving grace for the traffic is that petrol is in
such short supply and (in American eyes) so expensive that people are
starting to stay home and conserve what they have.

Food is in short supply, computers are in short supply, cell phones,
too. Whole aisles in grocery stores are empty. The phone networks, both
mobile and land, work only sometimes. Hibernia (the main regional bank)
had no ATMs or electronic facilities available for people from New
Orleans until today, because their network was submerged. Credit cards
get declined; I’m not sure why, but I assume the networks are so clogged
the approvals just don’t go through. Of course, it’s all infinitely
comfortable in comparison to what so many have suffered and continue to

Baton Rouge, like so many other US cities, has terrible public
transport, so life for car-less refugees is going to be exceedingly
difficult. And if the petrol pressure doesn’t ease, the lack of
efficient public transport is going to strand people.

I keep hoping all this will have a real jolting effect on the country.

We keep hearing from more and more friends who have survived. We’ve also
heard of others who didn’t. Some people we know lost friends in Pass
Christian, a Mississippi town which was almost erased by Katrina’s storm
surge. Mostly, we’ve been very fortunate. We worry about Lillie’s dad
and her uncle and aunt. This has been a terrible blow for old people,
clearly too much for many of them. And, at this stage of their lives,
they’ve been tossed to different parts of the country, away from their
friends and family.

Lillie’s dad sounds so exhausted (we talk to him when we can get through
on the phone to Monroe in the north of the state, where he is with
Lillie’s sister Jane and her Aunt Norma). Norma has Alzheimer’s, and so
the evacuation has been a terrible and bewildering ordeal for her, and
so, so hard for those with her. Friends report that their parents have
been really hit hard. We keep thinking of things we’ve lost. All our
favourite restaurants! We used to go to a great Indian place, Taj Mahal,
in our neighourhood, so regularly that Lillie and I were known as “The
flowers of Taj Mahal”. The maitre d’, Judd, was like a brother. We don’t
know his last name, so we have no way of knowing how he’s doing.

And we also keep thinking of the ironies. Just two weeks ago, we had
wonderful and expensive roll-down hurricane shutters installed on every
window of our house. We were so pleased to at last have protection from
the winds, and also to no longer need to climb on the roof to install
plywood over all the windows before a storm blew in – an exhausting and
sometimes dangerous job. We figure the storm shutters problem did a
sterling job protecting the windows; now they’re probably doing an
equally sterling job keeping the water from draining out! They’re not
paid off yet…

Another irony: Lillie trying to check to make sure her mortgage payment
had been debited. It’s really important to keep the payments up, because
otherwise we lose any insurance on the house as well as defaulting on
the mortgage. We won’t have any idea of the insurance we’ll get until we
can get into New Orleans with an insurance adjustor, which will probably
be months down the track.

Amusing things happen, too. When we were at Office Depot today, trying
to replace some equipment we lost, a couple of women approached and said
“You look familiar.” We replied that we didn’t think we knew them, but
that maybe it was our New Orleans look. We said “You look like you’re
from New Orleans, too.” And they were. It’s something you can see: the
complete exhaustion; the red eyes and nose from crying; the somewhat
bedraggled hair and clothes. It’s spottable.

These women were from St Bernard – the eastern parish that was
completely swamped, and we told them we were from near the 17th St
Canal, which has become our new New Orleans address. We immediately
recognised fellow submariners. They said “15 feet”, we said “12 feet”.
It’s a new way of identifying and empathising. We exchanged names and
handshakes and good wishes all around. It’s a part of our newly defined
community: a whole disbanded city of people with whom we share a common

Sorry this one has gone on for so long, but you’ll get a break tomorrow.
I’m going to put my feet up and take a rest if I can. You have no idea
how much work it is being displaced.

Lots of love,

Rose Vines