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Evacuation reflections

(late August to mid September events, as recalled in late September)

Closing thought for the first week of school

On Friday August 26, I finished my first week as a teacher. Most class time had been spent on administrative topics like rules and procedures and setting a firm tone of respect. Hopefully my rosters would stop fluctuating so much by week #2, and I’d be able to start shifting focus to the math content. I walked out to my car that afternoon, more thankful than ever for the weekend. I initially didn’t even notice the student walking across the other end of the parking lot until he yelled out to me “Hey Mr. White, have a good weekend.” I returned the greeting and went on my way with slightly boosted spirits.

I wasn’t sure whether I was reaching the students at all. Most who had been able to keep their eyes open in my class only maintained a blank stare (Granted, administrivia wasn’t exciting stuff). I was admittedly encouraged that the young man who yelled to me in the parking lot was black. I didn’t even recognize him as one of my students, but his acknowledgement soothed one of my insecurities. After all, most students who greeted me in the halls were the Latinos who spoke little or no English. I think they had appreciated that I spent a few minutes addressing them in Spanish one day, even though I ultimately told them that I wouldn’t be able to run a bilingual classroom. In doing so however, I worried that I had ostracized the black and white kids. I explained to them that I was directly translating each sentence that I had just said in English, but race and ethnicity is such a touchy issue down here. One black girl complained when I addressed the Spanish-speaking students. Would my racial identity or perceived affiliation become an issue? As a biracial black/white man, I still have little idea how people identify me racially. I don’t really care either, as long as my students treat me with dignity, and respect my role as their teacher. Hopefully my race wouldn’t become a distraction.

Who’s Katrina?

A TGNO party was scheduled at a bar in New Orleans that night. I was exhausted and long overdue for sleep. I wavered about showing up, and perhaps it was that student in the parking lot who tipped my decision in favor of going. It would be fun to exchange experiences with my friends and members from the previous year’s TGNO cohort group. We met at “The Dock” next to Lake Pontchartrain. There wasn’t a huge turnout, but I enjoyed comparing experiences with my fellow new math teachers Michelle, Nihar, Leslie, and Channel. Throughout the night, the TVs mounted throughout the bar kept showing maps of some storm brewing in the Gulf of Mexico. These maps became familiar to me during the summer after living through Tropical Storm Cindy and the threat of Hurricane Dennis, but I was not yet able to judge the severity of a storm from the television graphics. My new apartment didn’t yet have cable, phone, or Internet, and this was the first I was hearing of this storm. The typical sentiment of those in the bar was that this would be just another hurricane that causes a big fuss among local news media, and then blows east to slam Alabama or Florida. I started to pay a little more attention when Nat & Joan called my cell phone to suggest that I prepare for evacuation, but they do tend to err on the side of caution. We continued socializing at The Dock well past midnight until I finally went home.

Saturday morning I woke up around 10am, in time for the appointment to have cable, Internet, and phone service installed. I talked to Nat & Joan again, who had reserved rooms for themselves and me at a hotel in Jackson, Mississippi. By 1pm I was also watching updated weather maps of the growing menace named Hurricane Katrina on TV, and beginning to accept that I would have to flee. I talked to Michelle, who was about to leave for Baton Rouge at the urging of a friend there. She welcomed me to join them. From the sound of things on TV, a mandatory evacuation would probably be ordered later in the day. I packed the car with Macy’s cage and several days’ worth of belongings. I moved almost all my other possessions to my bedroom upstairs as a precaution for flooding. What crappy timing, I thought – This was supposed to be a weekend spent settling into my apartment, recovering from my first days of school, and preparing for my second week. By 3pm, I called Nat & Joan and let them know that I was on the road headed for Baton Rouge.

Fleeing to Baton Rouge

Traffic was ugly, but not as horrendous as the previous year’s evacuation for Hurricane Ivan, during which the journey to Baton Rouge reportedly took up to 12 hours. I spent about 3.5 hours for what normally would take less than 1.5 hours. The direct route along I-10 was unexpectedly detoured (55 North, 190 West). I later heared that the whole interstate needed to be temporarily closed in order to implement “Contraflow,” the emergency plan by which all lanes would be directed to flow away from New Orleans.

I met Michelle and her friend from college (LSU) Donald in Baton Rouge that evening. We spent much of the evening at Donald’s condo, watching the news become more ominous. From Saturday morning to evening, the tone had shifted from the familiar “This could be a really bad storm” to “This will be a very dangerous hurricane” to “There’s no question about it – This will be the catastrophe that we’ve feared for decades.” Landfall was expected Monday morning, and Katrina was now heading directly towards New Orleans with very little time left to change course significantly. Michelle and I began to realize our mistake in planning for an evacuation of only a few days. This was going to be big. We both left messages at our friend Nihar’s home in the Midcity region of Orleans, pleading that he come join us.

We were thankful to Donald for letting us stay the night, but an entire family of evacuees was headed to his condo Sunday morning. Michelle and I (with Macy) headed over to stay with her friends Kelcy and Keith at their apartment next to the capitol building. Nihar had received our urgent messages, and met up with us late in the morning. We spent much of Sunday gathering food and emergency supplies from stores before they closed early and boarded up their windows. We ran into several people who were stocking up to evacuate from Baton Rouge, which made us question the wisdom of our decision to come there for shelter. By late afternoon, dark clouds rolled in and rain started to fall. As heavy rains poured down, Michelle and I made a run to a local bar to buy two gallons of “Hurricanes.” We parked our cars in an elevated lot near the apartment, and our cozy group “hunkered down” for the evening with our mixed drinks for a somewhat somber Hurricane party. Projected landfall was less than 12 hours away. We reassured ourselves that the apartment building was solidly constructed since it used to be Army barracks (or did it not?). Also, our proximity to the capitol building meant our power grid was more likely to be restored quickly in the event of a blackout. I emailed friends and family nonetheless, unsure of how much longer I’d enjoy the luxury of Internet access and electricity. At one point electricity did go out, but came back on about five seconds later. Some cheap religious-themed candles bought earlier in the day provided emergency lighting and a soothing atmosphere. Rain and strong winds were picking up as we all fell asleep an hour or two past midnight.

Nihar and I were awoken in the guest bedroom early that morning (maybe 5am?) by a pounding noise. One side of the canopy outside the window had snapped, and was striking the building. Fearing that it might break the glass, we opened the window and I yanked the other side of the structure from the wall, pulling the canopy inside. That would end up being the worst damage suffered by Kelcy and Keith’s apartment.

As we all woke up Monday morning and started watching the news again, we counted ourselves rather lucky. Fallen trees and thousands (?) of residences without power left Baton Rouge a little bruised. The story on New Orleans, however, was perplexing. Katrina had swung slightly east of a direct hit on the city, and reporters were claiming that the worst of the storm had already passed. Sure, the powerful winds had torn apart many buildings and left the roof of the Superdome in tatters. The storm surge had flooded coastlines, but where was all the unprecedented devastation? Reports were failing to measure up to the apocalyptic predictions made in the previous days. Even today, I’m still not sure how to explain the discrepancy I saw at that time.

But then the levees broke. That’s when all hell broke loose. Many neighborhoods of the Greater New Orleans area were suddenly flooded. Television showed us the rooftops peeking above water lines. People were being plucked from rooftops. Rampant speculation began regarding the fates of all those who had failed to evacuate.

I’ll leave it to the history books and media articles to tell the unfolding of events that we helplessly witnessed on TV along with the rest of world. The flocks of people wandering along I-10 without direction in deadly heat and humidity. The debacle in transporting those who sought refuge in the Superdome out of the city. The mounting death toll and excruciatingly slow rescue operation.

I experienced an uncomfortable withdrawal throughout the aftermath of this historic disaster. Television was showing me the unimaginable human suffering and powerful wrath of nature in a part of the country that I now called home. Streets and landmarks now quite familiar to me were being filmed with unimaginable lifelessness. (Even The Dock, the bar where I had spent my last evening in Louisiana, was shown on TV burning down among the floodwater). Everything about this was unimaginable, and I kept a safe emotional distance from the whole episode. For many years I’ve seen catastrophic deadly tragedies play out on TV, usually in other parts of the world. Famine in Africa, genocides in Europe and Asia, endless bloodshed in the Middle East. Perhaps this has all hardened me to disasters of this magnitude. Maybe a need to preserve my own sanity keeps me from believing that events of this scale could be true. Like astronomical concepts such as black holes and stars imploding billions of light years away, this hurricane’s fury was too enormous for me to grasp. I find it so much easier and more manageable to let myself grieve for a child dying in an apartment fire than for the incomprehensible loss of life brought on by Katrina.

Fleeing to Texas

The emotional distance was soon accompanied by a greater physical distance from Katrina’s “ground zero.” Kelcy and Keith were great hosts for two nights, but what we initially thought would be a weekend escape would clearly have to last much longer. Five of us (plus a cat and my rat) couldn’t stay in that apartment indefinitely. By Tuesday, Michelle, Nihar and I packed up once again and headed for Texas. Michelle’s parents in Spring would be our next hosts, just north of Houston.

Despite Michelle’s exasperation about being back home just a few months after moving away, the living conditions at the Ferbers’ house were extremely comfortable. With four bedrooms, each of us evacuees had our own room. I was elated that each place I had taken refuge was so accommodating to my sweet baby Macy. Michael and Ann Ferber treated us all like family, and made us feel welcome to stay as long as we needed. We were each able to spend the days as we pleased: Mrs. Ferber, a middle school English teacher, arranged for us to observe several math classes at her school one afternoon. We caught up on sleep. We watched our fill of the Katrina aftermath on TV. We socialized with some of Michelle’s friends. We caught up with our TGNO friend Robert who eventually landed in Houston. We sought assistance from FEMA, Red Cross, Texas Health and Human Services (for food stamps), and other organizations. We attended a Houston Independent School District job fair when we were led to believe we wouldn’t be able to return home for months. We anxiously scoured the Internet trying to find flooding and damage info about our homes and schools. I eventually even called a couple former managers at Lockheed and got verbal agreements for them to rehire me for a few months until I could return to teaching in Louisiana.

We rode the emotional highs and lows as rumors and speculations trickled in. At one point I had convinced myself to accept that my apartment was underwater… and then an Internet discussion board posting indicated that the complex was in generally good condition. We heard Jefferson Parish schools would open in December… then November… then January… and then finally early October. I was encouraged to hear that Bonnabel High School had been used as a shelter through the storm… only to later read reports of major flooding and damage… and then read that it wouldn’t open until the next school year at the earliest.

Throughout all the uncertainty and anxiety, I was surprised that my spirits never dipped too low. Part of this was my emotional distance, and part was due to a newfound maturity and willingness to become more flexible to the curveballs in life. However, I also have to admit that Texas was awfully good to us. The Ferbers, their immediate neighborhood, and the greater community of businesses and aid organizations were extremely welcoming and helpful. I had enjoyed a free YMCA gym membership, several months of credit on a food stamp card (I ain’t too proud), and the hospitality of many individuals. By the time we were called back to Louisiana by Jefferson Parish School System, I felt physically and emotionally able to address the challenges and surprises that certainly awaited us back home.