It’s been awful to be away these last few days, taking surgery call and running in the mountains while my loved ones have been going through the motions of boarding up houses, tucking away important papers, having barbeques to use up what’s in the fridge. I don’t have a TV so I’ve been getting my news from friends and family. They all sound so weary and capable. Right now, at 4 am, if they haven’t done so yet, they are packing, or driving, or they’ve already arrived at the far-flung places they’re going. They are bringing pets and photographs and documents. There is no deliberation, no frenzied stuffing of pillows and kitchen tongs in the backseat while forgetting ATM cards and prescriptions. They know what to bring. They know when to leave. They know where they’re going. They’ve done this before. They know.
There is no carnival aspect to this evacuation, as far as I can tell. In the past, even before Katrina, during the last few days before a hurricane came—or didn’t—there was an almost festive air in the city. People boarding up their houses would decorate the plywood with spray-painted sayings, admonishing the storm to go away. There were always a few restaurants defiantly staying open, serving nonperishable food and whisky to the diehards vowing to stick it out. Stores were full of people stocking up on bottled water and batteries, jovially agreeing with each other in the checkout line that it’s always better to stay than to evacuate. There were hurricane parties, and special hurricane masses, and voodoo ceremonies, and smaller rituals throughout the city, some of which had been performed before every impending disaster since the mid-1800s.
Those were innocent times.
Here’s what I’ve been hearing about this one: People have been leaving for days. Neighbors have been watching each other line up suitcases by cars, the houselights turning off, the streets gradually darkening as the life is drained from them. I spent last night on the phone with friends who were evacuating patients from the hospital, taking phone calls about transports while catching me up on their evacuation plans. People have been wandering through the streets with luggage, as though homeless already. Trains and buses have been picking up the lines of the poor and elderly who have noplace else to go, shuttling everyone north. A church in the Bywater evacuated all its members to a resort. Even from here the streets seem gray and somber. The tourists all had to leave by noon yesterday. Instead of drag queens out in full force for the Southern Decadence festival this weekend, soldiers with machine guns are patrolling the streets. There is one, a friend says, on every corner. “I should’ve taken pictures, I guess,” she says. “But. Well. I didn’t.”
Something strangely funny to me is that I keep inadvertently calling this hurricane “Katrina.” As in, “How you doing, Catherine?” “Oh, I guess all right. But I’m really worried about Katrina.” It’s like Katrina’s been out there somewhere this whole time while we’ve been working valiantly, in ways both epic and tiny, to heal. And now she’s coming back.
While I was writing this I got a text message from a friend who was on the road in evacuation traffic, checking in. I called her up and talked with her and her boyfriend on speakerphone as they inched through New Orleans East in a long line of cars and trucks and minivans. We’ve been meaning to talk for weeks, this friend and I, and at 5am on this dark morning we finally caught up, not only about the hurricane but also about internship, our other friends, our patients who have died. Every now and then they’d break in with an update: “We’re still in New Orleans East!” “We’re going between 0 and 3 miles per hour!” “That car has a huge bird in it and the other one has an amazing dog! Everybody’s got their pets with them!” In the middle of a really intense story about a hospice patient dying in the ER, my friend interrupted herself and said, “Whoa, that guy’s barbequing in the back of his pickup truck!” And there, in that long slow line of barely-moving traffic, was a man strapped into a chair in the back of a truck, throwing motor oil on a grill to get it to light, flames shooting wild orange into the chilly night sky.
“This city,” my friends sighed.
Maybe yesterday or the day before, when I had one of those what-else-can-you-do-besides-pray moments, I made a little New Orleans altar in this cubbyhole in my wall that seems like it was created for precisely that purpose. It’s full of random things, like beads and this purple-green-and-gold flower I got one Mardi Gras, and a silver sequined garter I wore in a wedding procession, and a bottle of Abita, and photographs of secondlines and Mardi Gras Indians and my neighborhood and the people I love. I’ve got a candle burning there constantly, keeping vigil along with me.
“Don’t you miss this?” My friend asked me sarcastically while she sat in that crowded pre-dawn traffic. Oh, yes, I answered with utmost seriousness from the calm of my comfy glowing candlelit house. Here, I’m just another displaced New Orleanian, waiting breathless for the inevitable. Right now there’s nowhere I’d rather be than right there with them, in the achingly slow traffic, that long procession of our people, together for the last time until who can say when, leaving home behind like we’d leave our hands, or true love; listening to each other’s voices and the calm barking of the dogs from the open windows of everyone’s cars in the cool predawn dark, together before we all scatter, again, to the edges of this country, those bright orange flames lighting everyone’s way to uneasy, temporary safety.