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August 24, 2010

One Man’s Tale of Fleeing New Orleans on the Eve of Katrina


“The worst thing was riding in one of those Greyhound Scenicrusiers… Do you remember that time I went to Baton Rouge in one of those? I vomited several times. The driver had to stop the bus somewhere in the swamps to let me off and walk around for a while. The other passengers were rather angry. They must have had stomachs of iron to ride in that awful machine. Leaving New Orleans also frightened me considerably. Outside of the heart of darkness, the true wasteland begins.” —Ignatius Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces

On the Saturday night and into the Sunday morning before Katrina landed, the hotel bar kept its shutters open and the libation flowing well after the bartender’s shift had ended. All the televisions were tuned to the Weather Channel and workers buttressed the hotel’s smoked-glass windows with sheets of plywood. BAMM-BAMMM-BAMMM-BAMMM. Through the discord, I was telling a pal about the statue of Jefferson Davis on Canal Street, and how it was covered in pigeon shit, and none of the ghettoized disenfranchised seemed in any hurry to clean it up. News reached the bar that a) rental cars were now nonexistent and b) the airlines had canceled the remaining flights out of Louis Armstrong Airport and c) that tourists, travelers and townsfolk were on their own. A besotted patron began bellowing a truck-driving song with the lyric, “Roll truck roll/take me to baby/gotta’ get back, Donner Summit is closed.” The song ended with a refrain of “I’ll be late getting home.” Between sips of her mint julep, some saucy siren at the bar asked the tipsy troubadour where Donner Summit was and why it was closed. Suddenly, the conversation became a drunken history lesson about cannibalism, which became a grim metaphor for the dark turns humanity takes when it is trumped by the awesome power of Nature.

At that point, Katrina was no longer a cable news abstraction—it had morphed into a supercollider. Those who could not get out of town would be swimming with the cottonmouths or tossed to the moon. I was among the fortunate. My travel agent booked me on a bus leaving Sunday morning to the nearest airport out of harm’s way, and one that had the ability to get a bird in the air to LAX, George Bush Intercontinental in Houston, Texas.

I left New Orleans early Sunday. As I checked out of my hotel, I asked the clerk when he planned on getting out. “Oh, we’re planning on staying. The hotel is staying open, and I’ll be here until we decide to close.” I had a mental flash-forward of pinwheeling shards of glass flying through the hotel lobby at 170 mph and cutting bellhops in two. The clerk’s selflessness struck me as noble and yet somehow misguided. Would this young man running my credit card even be alive by the time the transaction found its way to my bank statement?

It was a twenty-hour bus ride to Houston. Before we even got off Convention Center Boulevard, it was clear as a clarinet that Ignatius was right: This was a ride out of the heart of darkness and into the wasteland. We climbed onto Interstate 10 West somewhere between the Confederate Museum and the Superdome, and immediately the road was pinched and gridlocked and pointless. Only half the interstate was being used—and it wasn’t like there was any great demand to get into the city at this point. Frustrated, our busman got off I-10 and double-clutched down onto surface streets before making a right on Highway 61. There the exodus ground to a halt again. Motors idled, and tailpipes puffed and nobody was going anywhere.

The first ten miles took six hours. The skies continued to darken over the Mississippi River. The winds began to gust. We were stuck on the flip side of downtown’s steel and smoked-glass Convention Center and Vegas-inspired mega-mall Riverwalk. The windows offered a relentless montage of a Dickensian underclass, a panorama of the doomed, the tableaux the Chamber of Commerce doesn’t want you to see: strip malls strewn with broken glass; rusting automobiles and ramshackle liquor stores stocked only with pork rinds, cigarettes and the cheap stuff. Poor people lined the sidewalks. It was like a tracking shot from the dreariest of Russian movies.

New Orleans is a complete two-class society, with the middle class having hot-lapped out of there to tract homes on the north side of the Causeway before the masters of chain-casino gaming could prop up a Harrah’s between the Convention Center and Pat O’Brien’s. With the middle-class vacuum, the only jobs left are those serving the tourists: restaurant and casino work, drug dealing and private security. The industry is dressed up real pretty, and thrives because of the exotic crustaceans endemic to Lake Pontchartrain— even though, locally speaking, serving crawfish étouffée in N’Awlins is just a gussier version of supersizing a Big Mac.

When the same homeless guy passed our bus for the third time, I thought: Looting is just a matter of time.

Once we passed the shuttered airport, our bus driver bailed on the interstates and took parish highways through swamps, plantation country and sugar cane fields, which allowed for a lengthy meditation on the duality of the South as well as the imminent devastation. Thirty-six hours later, while my plane was stuck on the tarmac in Houston, floodwaters began washing up the Confederate dead in Mississippi, floating Civil War coffins over coastal highways. –Cole Coonce (from LA Weekly, 9/05)

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