Gustav Evac

Little Rock       The last leg from Buenos Aires for me was on a smallish American Airline hop from Dallas after the all-night flight from Santiago.  Standing around in front of the gate was not the usual group of passengers.  In fact this American flight had become a company plane in a different sense.  There were almost no civilians heading for New Orleans.  There is logic to this of course.  Why fly into New Orleans in order to evacuate from New Orleans, since the mandatory evacuation had been declared while we waited for the plane as I could see watching Mayor Ray Nagin on the overhead CNN screen at the D/FW airport. 

 Most of the waiting crowd was in various kinds of AA uniforms and carrying gear.  I talked to one for a while.  What was up?  Special overtime in the contract?  Motivation to help?  No, he gave me an answer from deep down in the soul of the working class:  it was something different to do.  I understood him completely.
 We boarded a couple of minutes late.  A strange group that all looked as if they were from foreign countries, but from the back seemed to be wearing the same uniform, suddenly appeared and without stopping for anything at the counter or check-in, marched through the door and down the aisle.  As I passed them moments later in first class I finally saw an emblem on a jacket that said:  FAM or Federal Air Marshall.  These were the secret flyers suddenly uniformed up and dispatched with open guns to New Orleans.
 As we lost altitude to land coming in over the Bonne Carre Spillway outside the City, I finally could see what I was looking for the I-10 and the evacuation route.  The contra-flow was on, meaning that all lanes on both sides of the interstate only went one way:  out!  The lane going north towards Baton Rouge looked almost empty.  The one on the right moving towards Mississippi and I-55 was bumper to bumper past the airport but then seemed to break up near the end of the spillway. 
 I expected the airport to be a madhouse.  I was wrong.  It was a ghost town with nothing but the last people trying to get out.  It was also an armed camp.  Everywhere there were FAM and TSA and guns galore.  Leaving the plane about 50 feet down the concourse I looked over a railing and there was a staging area for boxes of supplies and water and a briefing going on with about a 100 people standing up and getting assignments.
 In the luggage area I got my bag but there were no cabs.  I was stranded.  An armed agent said they were upstairs.  They were not.  I finally flagged down one last lone gypsy cab trolling for stragglers, and I was that today.  We couldn’t take the expressway to the 9th ward where I live because of the contraflow.   The cabbie lived in Gentilly near Fillmore and Elysian Fields, so we both knew the city well.  We managed to take the service roads until Causeway and then zip into the city.  The interstates were deserted.  The streets were empty.  We came through Elysian Fields and took the u-turn in front of the old office.  There were National Guardsmen and an NOPD cop stationed across from the office with M-16’s out, cocked and ready.  I had seen an earlier team up the road at Elysian Fields and N. Robertson in front of the AutoZone.  Going downtown along St. Claude we saw the same teams stationed every 5-6 blocks until the Press Street tracks, but none as we got deeper into Bywater.
 The family had gathered.  My brother and mother had left before 5 AM for Baton Rouge and were already there staying with a friend of my mother’s who had sheltered my parents for weeks after Katrina as they made their way back to the city.  The kids were there and they had picked up a couple of other stragglers without cars, so we would be six with two cars leaving.  The house was largely boarded thanks to Chaco and his roommate, David, and a lot of work on Saturday.  My truck was parked up in the yard and bolted down.   Chaco’s Jeep was packed on the rack with the skill of the old Boy Scout Quartermaster he had been in order to leave space for Cheyenne to ride in the back. 
 Two hours later, we had showered, done more wash, unpacked and repacked for a week, learning a lesson from Katrina that you had to have more than two days worth of clothes.  We waited until noon, because I was convinced the traffic jams had to be receding since it seemed so few were in the city.
 For a while it seemed we were right.  We sailed past the Bonne Carre to I-55 north.  We high fived, we fist bumped, we were going to have no problems. 
 We were wrong.  From Manchac Pass north we seemed to never be able to escape traffic.  Once we made the north shore the contraflow was on again and didn’t end until Brookhaven, Mississippi.  Normally it would have taken us about 2 hours to make it that far from New Orleans.  Instead it took us more than 5 hours.  More than an 1 1/2 hour to go from McComb to Brookhaven, which is a spit.
 Long and short, exhausted we pulled into my brother-in-law’s driveway in western Little Rock about 1230 AM.  The men stayed there and tied up Cheyenne in the back yard.  We made it to an old high school friend of the boss’s after that and by 2 AM collapsed leaving the Weather Channel to fight the storm alone.
 By six we were up.  Gustav seemed to be weakening and was going in to the west near Houma and Morgan City.  There were reports of a overtopping of the levee and seepage on the Industrial Canal on the upper 9th Ward side.  That’s the side we live on, but we crossed our fingers and hoped for the best.  We were high and dry.

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