What do you do when you are twelve hundred miles away, and your girlfriend is facing a hurricane alone in your house? You drive through the storm!
As Blue Star Owl said in her blog, a hurricane is a very surreal experience; a force so much larger than you, than anything you can conceive (sure, your educated mind knows what a hurricane is, but your emotional self can hardly accept the magnitude), is about to come bearing down on you with all of its force. Many people think of Nature as sweet and beautiful: bunnies hopping through spring grass, bluebirds singing on your back fence. But visit a hurricane sometime and see how pretty Nature can be.
The original predictions for Isaac had him hitting Florida. When we learned that lumbering, fickle Isaac had changed course and was headed for Louisiana, I was finishing my tour at the haunted hotel in Pennsylvania. I spoke to Lauren who was home in NOLA, and we decided I should stay in the hotel in case she needed to evacuate and meet me there. When no evacuation was called, I began packing to drive right into Isaac and get home as fast as I could.
On August 29, 2012, exactly seven years to the day after Katrina hit, I began the twelve hundred mile drive to NOLA.
I drove as far as I could the first day, making it through Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, and stopping in Alabama at our favorite rest stop: one of the Apollo rockets towers over the rest area. I slept in the shadow of the spaceship. All was sunny and beautiful the entire drive. A clear sky revealed a nearly full moon that night.
But the next morning was very cloudy. Sh*t was about to get real, as they say around here. By the time I got through Alabama and reached Mississippi, I was in Isaac's swirl of clouds, wind and rain. My entire drive through Mississippi was marked by periods of intense rains and high winds, so bad sometimes that I had to pull over and wait for them to pass. Oddly, I would also drive through pockets of sunshine and dryness: that's the nature of a hurricane.
I-59 through Mississippi, taken from my truck window.
Part of the Interstate was shut down outside of Hattiesburg. I spend about thirty miles driving on winding, partially flooded local roads. When I returned to the I-59 I saw why the road had been closed: trees had fallen across the Interstate, and crews were closing off sections of road to chainsaw away the huge tree trunks.
Caravans of FEMA rescue trucks and utility trucks traveling into Louisiana.
As I drove I encountered several caravans of FEMA trucks headed into the storm. I also saw caravans of Red Cross and Salvation Army teams. I cannot tell you how emotional I felt when I passed a convoy of Red Cross trucks (which sadly I failed to photograph: driving required about three hands at that point). FEMA workers are federal positions, paid to deal with emergencies (or not deal with them). But when I passed the Red Cross, and later this convoy of Salvation Army trucks, I was passing volunteers from all over the U.S. (and in the case of the Red Cross, perhaps all over the world) rushing to help Louisiana. If Katrina taught us anything, besides how completely unprepared the Federal Government is to handle a catastrophe, it's that Louisiana, and NOLA especially, are national treasures that are sadly vulnerable to the elements of wind and water, and people's response now to our needs are gallant and immediate. Thank you Red Cross and Salvation Army volunteers!
The worst weather was in southern Mississippi. The hurricane had passed slowly through NOLA at that point, and its fury was unleashed now on northern Louisiana and Mississippi. I saw downed trees and downed highway signs everywhere, and the wind was blowing furiously in some places. In others blinding rain was so intense I had to drive twenty MPH, or pull over completely. Believe me, if I had not had a wonderful, brave girlfriend at home facing this storm alone, I would have found a comfy hotel with power and AC in northern Mississippi that night!
But weary from lack of sleep and alert to the weather, I drove on. At one point mine was the only car on I-59. Then I saw some other cars with Louisana plates. Several waved at me as we passed by each other. By the time we neared the state line, we were a caravan of Louisiana cars all braving the wind and rain to get home.
After 2 days and 1200 miles of hurricane rain and wind, Louisiana at last! That's my pet possum Lady Gaga helping me navigate, my constant reminder of home while I am on the road.
Flooding north of New Orleans.
The storm over Lake Pontchartrain, coming over the causeway.
When I finally reached New Orleans, there were no traffic lights: all power to the city was down. Trees had fallen across major roadways, taking power lines with them. There was a city-wide curfew in effect to try to prevent looting. All was as it had been seven years ago to the day on this day.
Lauren walking through flooded streets in our neighborhood.
300-year-old oak trees fallen across Carrollton Avenue.
But New Orleans is a resilient city. By Thursday afternoon, amidst fallen oaks and downed power lines, despite lack of electricity, Internet and other services, children were playing in the playgrounds. Neighbors were cleaning up downed branches. The utility workers were racing to restore power and phone lines. I sit now in Buffa's, the bar where I perform every Saturday; the only bar in the Marigny with power (Buffa's is on the French Quarter power grid, which held in the storm). The place is packed with locals eating hot food (no power = no stove at home), using the Internet, and charging their cell phones. The mood here is light, the bar workers racing to fill orders and laughing at the very limited menu. People are sharing tables in the crowded room, and making friends. Someone is on the piano playing spirituals. New Orleans is still New Orleans.
Beyond fallen trees, children play in the local park.
Flooding on the neighborhood (above and below)
Above, utility workers restoring lines and clearing downed trees in my neighborhood; below, as a neighbor surveys the damage, the sun peaks out for the first time in three days.
From New Orleans, (and risking my life driving through Isaac), this is Kenny Klein explaining it all.