Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Our Katrina Expedition--New Orleans to Texas to Florida, and Stops In-Between

Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from god.

(Bokonon, Cat's Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.)

I don't think any of us who were involved with Katrina will ever forget those chaotic times. We watched the storm approach the city, as we'd watched so many in the past. At first, she looked like a little thing, especially compared to some we'd weathered. We were having some troubles at the time (but then, don't people always have troubles, especially at the worst of times?). We were pretty broke, we didn't have a car, and I'd had a hysterectomy ten days before, and had only been out of the hospital for a little less than a week. I was still taking lots of pain medicine, and moving around a little every day, but mainly just resting, trying to heal. As a diabetic and a massive heart-attack survivor, all surgeries were, and are, serious and difficult with me. My OB/GYN called on Friday, to tell me she had a new prescription of Percocet waiting for me, just in case Katrina got worse. I am so very, very grateful she did.

As it happened (or, as a Bokononist* would say, as it was supposed to happen), my husband's job sent him home early that Friday, so that everyone could prepare for the coming storm. He stopped and picked up my prescription, since it wasn't one that could be called in but had to be rewritten for every refill. We wrote a check to the local grocery for what tape, batteries, flashlights, water, tuna, peanut butter and pet food we could find, and decided to ride it out. But when we got up on Saturday, the news was growing worse by the hour, and mandatory evacuations were being called by the city.

We are truly blessed with some very special friends. Despite having recently gone through a divorce, our good friend Rick offered to take us, our big dog, and two cats with him, his two sons (one older, one younger than ours) and their big dog in his minivan. We talked for a while, and decided to evacuate to somewhere in the Houston area. Despite feeling lousy, I spent the day on the phone and the computer, talking to hotels, and Rick, trying to find a place that would take us. About 2am on Sunday we finally found a place that still had openings, and took pets, in Navasota, Texas. Rick immediately reserved two rooms, and we decided to all get a good night's sleep, planning to head out late Sunday morning.

With so many bodies, we all packed very lightly, just a couple of days worth of clothing, water, pet food and the cats' carriers. We had one standard cat carrier, since we rarely took both cats anywhere at once. But we did have an old guinea pig cage. My husband and son cleaned it thoroughly, and lined it with a towel. I packed up my insulin and heart medications and medical history list that I keep updated on the computer. We needed a cooler for my insulin, and other than that just took one small suitcase. We all thought we'd be back home in a couple of days.

The ride wasn't too bad, all things considered. We'd evacuated only once before, again with Rick and his family, for Hurricane Ivan. At that time they had two cars, and also evacuated their tenant, who had no place to go. That time too we'd headed for Houston. That was a nightmare trip, 26 hours on the road in bumper-to-bumper traffic, pulling over to pee in the bushes, going with out food or water except for brief stops. Finally, we'd left the interstate and had taken the country highways, which, despite being a longer route turned out to be faster. So this year we hit the highways right away. Despite all the people fleeing, it only took us about 10 or 12 hours to hit Navasota.

I took the front passenger seat, climbing in and out of the car, not to mention going down our front steps, were hard enough for me. I took a couple of body pillows, and used one for my back and another for the front to help hold my stitches together. My husband, the three teenage boys, both cats and both dogs all piled into the back. Our dog ended up lying on a suitcase, with her head on either the front cup holder or Rick's lap. Our little female cat was great, not a hint of complaint, and both dogs were good. Our male half-Siamese cat cried his head off in terror the entire trip. At one point Rick's dog, a big Lab/Sharpei mix, grabbed the back of his carrier and shook it, as if to say, "Enough! Shut up you whiny little s.o.b!" While we sympathized with her, none of us could really blame her.

Finally we hit the motel. Despite my pain-killers, I was worn out and in an awful lot of pain, and of course our rooms were on the second floor. So against doctor's orders, I was climbing concrete steps far too soon after surgery. We cleaned up a bit, went to grab a bite to eat, and decided to spend a day in Navasota so I could recover. It was hard to sleep that night, between our crowded room and all our worry over the storm. The last news we saw was hopeful, it looked as if Katrina might not make a direct hit on New Orleans. Still, I woke up very early, around 5am, and immediately turned on the TV. To my great relief, New Orleans was still standing. She'd taken a lot of wind damage, but seemed to be in far less dire condition than we'd feared. So the guys went out for a bit of sight-seeing (not that there was much to see in that little one-horse town), and I managed to get up long enough to go eat. That night, we decided to head back for New Orleans the next morning.

As on the day before, I woke up early Tuesday and again turned on the TV. To my shock and horror and heart-breaking disbelief, I saw our beloved city under water. My sobs woke the guys, who then went to wake Rick and his sons. We all felt shell-shocked. Our first reactions were not to worry about our homes and belongings, but all the people we feared dead. We knew how much of the city was below sea-level, and we knew who had stayed behind. Some stubborn folk, some thrill-seekers, people unwilling to leave their pets, but mainly those who had nowhere to go and no way to get there. New Orleans had great public service, we'd lived there over 20 years without a car. So all the people like us, who hadn't had a good friend, had been left behind. The poor had been left behind, because travel and motel rooms take ready cash. The elderly who'd ridden out Betsy and Camille and thought they could stand Katrina. So we worried, and wept, and spent the day in mourning, all traumatized.

Rick had family in Michigan, so that's where he wanted to go with his sons. We called all our relatives, trying to find someone who would take us and the pets, because we were determined to keep our little family together. My husband's parents in Florida said they could take us, but they didn't think they could make the drive all the way to Navasota. So Rick said he'd take us as far as Nashville, and my in-laws said they'd meet us there. Wednesday we were back on the road, and between the stress and tears, I was doing worse and worse. My son did get to see mountains for the first time in his life, and that was a small bright spot. We'd also passed through Kinder, Louisiana on the first leg of our trip. It was so small that if you blinked, you'd miss it, but it proudly proclaimed itself 'The Crossroads to Everywhere." So we made a bit of a game out of all the places we'd been since Kinder, Paris, Cairo, a slew of other towns with European and Middle Eastern names.

By the time we got to Nashville, we were all sick to death of being in a car. We'd alternated talking and listening to the radio, but the news just got worse and worse, and after a time we had to take a break from it. The in-laws had made reservations in Atlanta, and wanted to go there as soon as possible, so we only spent the night in Nashville. I was in agony, cramping, sick, my wound infected by this point. But everyone felt the need to press on, and so we did. We did take a little more time to rest in Atlanta, a day, I think. Some of my memories of this time are pretty scattered, I was taking more pills than I should have, but then, hysterectomy patients aren't supposed to criss-cross the South in cramped conditions, let alone climb stairs, hold dog leashes, and all the other rules I'd broken. I also broke down in tears oh, about every 15 minutes it seemed.

So we headed for my in-laws home in Fort Myers the next day, hoping to make it in one leg. By this time I wasn't sure I was going to survive the trip, and to this day I feel certain that I would have died if we'd had to have left our pets at home and taken the refuge of last resort in the Superdome. I also suffer from IBS, so after so much worry, so many tears, and so many days in a car, added to the things abdominal surgery does to one's innards, and the effect of narcotics on the digestive system, I was so blocked up that I couldn't pee any longer because my intestines were pressing against my bladder. I don't remember much of this last leg, a kindly lady heard me crying and complaining to my mother-in-law in the bathroom, and suggested some things from a pharmacy that might help. Once we finally reached their home, my husband immediately made a trip to see what he could get from the drugstore. I did manage to finally unblock my system, but that was an agony all its own.

Little did we realize then our journey had only begun. I'll discuss our pets in another blog this week, they did end up being regular little troopers. And I'll talk about where we went from Florida, far earlier than we'd anticipated. I wasn't sure how I'd feel about writing all this down, but it has helped. While many of those memories are fogged by pain and stress and drugs and tears, what I mainly remember is the worry over those left behind, and the kindness of people who saved at least my, the pets, and perhaps all our little family's, lives.

*Bokononist: A follower of Bokonon, the holy man in the jungle in Kurt Vonnegut's, Jr., most excellent novel, Cat's Cradle. If you have not read this book, I urge you to do so immediately. And if you don't get it, or like it, read it again and again and again until you do. Bokononism is based entirely upon foma, harmeless lies.
Live by the foma that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy. (frontispiece of Cat's Cradle)
This site lists just the known Books of Bokonon:

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