Life

What It Was Like Evacuating New Orleans This Time

A man walks through downtown New Orleans.
A street in New Orleans is seen on Sunday. Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images

My best friend Sarah Ravits, a fellow journalist, is an excellent writer, but if she gets any negative feedback from her editors, it’s that she tries to fit too much into her ledes. Sometimes, though, there’s no other way to introduce a story. Take this paragraph, which she wrote and filed from my in-laws’ dining room table in New Orleans last Sunday night, where we were relying on a generator and a hotspot as 100 mph winds howled overhead: “On the already-traumatic 16th anniversary of Katrina, Greater New Orleans is experiencing a parish-wide power outage in Orleans, a boil water advisory in Jefferson, ferries that free-floated down the Mississippi River unmanned after becoming detached from their ports, flash flood warnings, and tornado watches — all against the backdrop of a fourth surge of COVID-19 in a poorly vaccinated state where a hospital roof just blew off due to fierce winds.” It’s wordy, for sure, but it conveys the chaos of the situation so well.

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My life in the past four months has felt very much like that lede: a whole bunch of trauma and stress jampacked into a very short space. I’ve gone (very!) public about my rape, endured the sudden death of my beloved mother five days before Mother’s Day, ended up in the ER with a ruptured ovarian cyst, been rear-ended twice, overseen the care of my 83-year-old father with mild dementia, gotten both of my daughters enrolled in new schools, and tried to manage my own job at a high school in the midst of the worst COVID numbers we’ve ever seen in Louisiana. It’s been a lot.

So even though I’ve long relied on the hurricane evacuation adage of, “Cat 1 or 2, see it through; Cat 3 or more, hit the door,” I just couldn’t bring myself to evacuate when Hurricane Ida formed so quickly that our only options were to ride the storm out or endure massive traffic jams that could require us to be on the interstate for almost a full day. (Sarah ended up hunkered down with us after spending four hours on the interstate, not even getting 100 miles, giving up, and turning back around.) As voluntary evacuations were ordered, I inventoried my mental capacity and determined I was going to have to rely on my faithful companion, denial, to see me through.

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My husband and I packed up our two daughters, ages 9 and 14, and our dog and headed to my in-laws’ because they had a generator and hurricane shutters. We made sure we were stocked up on snacks for the kids, treats for the dog, and wine and bourbon for ourselves. I packed all of my finest pajamas, a couple of emergency Xanax, and a Babysitters Club book for comfort-reading (“The Truth About Stacey,” for the curious). The winds were scary, and a few times something slammed into our hurricane shutters hard enough that we all screamed, but by 10 p.m., the worst was over.

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The next day, Monday, we left my in-laws’, which held up remarkably well, and drove back to our home to assess the damage. We were not quite as lucky there. Our upstairs bathroom windows had blown out, we had some roof leaks and water intrusion, and my husband’s carefully tended backyard garden was beyond repair. But of course, it could’ve been worse, and our neighbors were quick to lend a hand, offering to tarp our roof and sharing lukewarm beers with us while generators roared in the background and sweat soaked through our shirts.

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By Tuesday, however, it was becoming obvious that we were going to have to leave. With no reasonable estimate from our utility company of when we could expect to have power again and 911 services suspended, it didn’t feel like a safe place to stay with two kids and a half-blind dog. Luckily, a dear friend came through with an offer for us to stay in his home in Tennessee, and we gratefully accepted.

Our evacuation, even though it wasn’t nearly as bad for us as it was for those who left pre-storm, was still an ordeal. We had two frazzled adults, a 9-year-old with ADHD who never stops talking or singing YouTube songs, a 14-year-old with erratic mood swings and dramatic eyeliner, and an 80-pound dog who is prone to carsickness shoehorned into a Toyota Corolla with all of our stuff, including my mom’s ashes. I can legitimately say that evacuating with my mom in an urn shoved under the passenger seat was not something I had anticipated for 2021.

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My mom – whose birthday is Friday and who was absolutely used to hurricanes completely scrambling her birthday plans – would always put a comforting hand on my shoulder when I was troubled as a child and say, “This too shall pass, my baby.” I’ve played her words over and over in my head these past few days, hearing them in her familiar voice.

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Around 8 p.m. on Tuesday, while driving up Interstate 59, I attempted to book two hotel rooms for that night using my phone and triumphantly announced to my family: “Done! Two rooms, reasonably priced, pet-friendly! Amazing!” Moments later, I got a confirmation text revealing that, due to a combination of stress and relying on my sketchy phone signal, I had booked these miracle rooms for Sept. 14 and could not change or cancel this reservation. (Special thanks to Murari with Expedia who was able to do an emergency override and get me my money back.) While I was on the phone dealing with that mess, the dog became violently ill, and although I was incredibly impressed that my older daughter managed to catch his barf in a bag, I wished she hadn’t chosen the bag full of our snacks. Still, though, at least it wasn’t all over our pillows and blankets.

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Finally, at midnight, we pulled into a motel in Tuscaloosa and paid an exorbitant sum of money, including a ridiculously steep pet deposit, just to be able to collapse in peace. The dog whimpered most of the night, and the girls bickered until they succumbed to sheer exhaustion, and I knocked the soap dispenser off the wall while taking a shower and burst into tears.

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In the morning, though, things looked brighter, and we completed our journey. We’re now thankful beyond words to be safe and more or less mentally sound in middle Tennessee, where we have power and clean water and the Disney Channel and reliable WiFi and a well-stocked Piggly Wiggly just 5 minutes up the road.

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As lucky as we are, things that seem so petty and small feel somehow also overwhelming now: not knowing where the utensils are in the kitchen of the home where I’m staying and constantly opening up the wrong drawers, having to drive an hour round-trip to get the right kind of dog food for my dog’s sensitive digestive system because we were due for an Amazon delivery of his special food three days after the storm hit.

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None of this is suffering, of course. I keep reading the stories of people still there, sweltering in the heat, waiting in six-hour lines for gasoline, struggling to find resources for chronically ill loved ones. We’re OK. We’re just far from home.

As we drove north on Tuesday, my husband let out a shuddering sigh.

“What’s wrong?” I said, knowing as I asked that it was a stupid question.

“New Orleans is that way,” he said. “We are going this way. I hate turning my back on home.”

“This too shall pass, my baby,” I told him, squeezing his hand.

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