Jim and I met at Arnold Engineering around 1972 when my company, Allison Division of GM in Indianapolis, sent me to see Jim’s lab and holographic facilities. We haven’t seen each other much since then, but have kept in touch. I always seem to be needing his help on something. My wife, Judy, and I both retired the middle of last year and did a lot of traveling. First on the list was New Orleans. We generally travel by car. It was going to be expensive just to park the car at the hotel on St. Charles Ave in the Garden District. Since New Orleans has (had) a really good, cheap public transportation system, we opted to fly and use public transportation to go everywhere. We left Indianapolis on Sunday, August 21, 2005, one week before Katrina hit.
We got a two-way reservation with the Airport Shuttle service to take us to the Avenue Plaza hotel on St. Charles Street. We therefore had a reservation with them to pick us up at 6am the following Sunday to take us back to the airport about 8 miles northwest in the suburb of Kenner.
I checked into the trolley car schedule seeing as the trolley ran right past the hotel. There was no schedule, "they just show up", I was told. Being an engineer and a little anal about how things work, I went out to the tracks and checked my watch. I waited for a couple of trollies to pass in both directions so I could get an idea of the average time and variance of arrival since nobody at the hotel seemed to know or care. While standing there, a local came up to me to wait for a trolley. He inquired why I was checking my watch. When I told him he said, "This is the Big Easy. Nobody worries or cares about anything here. The trolley will get here when it gets here."
A week later that comment would be rolling over and over in my head.
Sure enough, in the next 40 minutes three trollies came by from downtown, but none going to downtown. In the next 10 minutes three trollies arrived going downtown, two of them within 30 feet of each other. Most of the people on the trollies were not tourists and their dress told me they didn’t have the better paying jobs if they had any at all. It turned out that New Orleans had a huge welfare population with no means of transportation other than public to get around the city. They had very few choices when it came to leaving the city.
I’m a big history buff and New Orleans had a WWII museum about a mile from the hotel. I went to the trolley tracks and with no trolley in my near future, I headed on foot toward the downtown area. The next trolley finally caught up with me about 200 feet from where it would have left me off had I waited to catch it. The museum was excellent and I was disappointed to hear that looters destroyed it along with most of what was left of the town.
We signed up for a motor coach tour of the city and spent an entire morning viewing and photographing all the worthwhile sights including the infamous levies. The driver pointed out that everybody has known for the last 40 years that the levies are too small for many hurricanes that might come ashore. Several times in the past few decades New Orleans had barely escaped a hurricane disaster when they changed direction at the last moment. Many seemed to think New Orleans was "charmed" or God was protecting them. Back in the ‘60s so they claimed, New Orleans had the money to improve the levies, but decided to build a football stadium instead. The city was mostly reclaimed swamp and much of it was lower than sea level. The common response about the authorities’ responsibility to protect the city was that they were all crooks that stole as much as they could before the voters replaced them with another set of crooks.
We toured the "famous" French Quarter and were disappointed at what we saw. The area is supposed to be about 6 blocks by 20 blocks. Most of it was boarded up, empty buildings. Only Bourbon Street was busy for about 12 blocks. Most of it was porn shows and T-shirt stores. Only a few restaurants and bars with bands playing. Duvall Street in Key West is much nicer as a street to walk, shop, and just enjoy the people and sights.
Toward the end of the week it was becoming very apparent that Katrina was going to hit New Orleans, maybe even dead center. On Thursday, politicians came on TV and started exhorting the population to get ready to evacuate. The people in the areas south of New Orleans were being evacuated first because they had to go through New Orleans to get to safety. Insurance companies bought TV time to tell people to make records of their possessions. Announcements were made advising which highways were designated evacuation routes and roads into New Orleans were scheduled to close to all non-government vehicles. The mayor didn’t want people from outside New Orleans coming in and looting the city after the hurricane. That was left to the street gangs and independent thugs who stayed. They evidently didn’t want to create any competition for looting rights that might have sparked territorial fighting and killing among the looters.
By Friday many politicians, not just the mayor, but the chief of police, the chief of the fire department and others were on TV virtually "round the clock" begging people to leave. They used phases like, "get outta Dodge" and "haul ass". The price of gas started going up as some gas stations ran out and the others decided it was gougin’ time.
Saturday afternoon the airlines began announcing the flight numbers and times of their last flights out. Southwest said they would fly continuously to get people out until the weather was windy enough to prevent safe takeoffs. That turned out to be around 4:30pm on Sunday. Our flight was on Northwest just after 9am. Northwest announced that our flight would be the last one before they shut down.
I called the airport shuttle service around 6pm and then again just before they shut down their switchboard for the night at 10pm. Both times they assured me that they would be at the hotel by 6am the next morning to take us to the airport.
"We absolutely will be there to pick you up at 6:00 tomorrow morning!"
That evening, I rode the trolley down to the French Quarter one last time to take a few pictures of the preparations for the hurricane and to buy an XXL t-shirt for one of my sons. The place was nearly empty, but hardly anyone was making preparations to protect their property. A museum had placed a couple of sand bags in front of their doors and closed early. A very few businesses on the main street were actually boarding up their front windows. You could have hardly guessed that in 24 hours the hurricane winds would be over 40mph and climbing.
It was becoming painfully obvious that the city administration had no idea how to deal with this developing emergency. There was no way to get the poor out of the city. Likewise, there was no way to get visitors without cars out, either. They had a thousand or more school buses and probably people to drive them, but they sat in a field below sea level and were destroyed. There were hundreds of churches with small buses or vans to haul people out, but they could only make one trip and could not return. The same fate was dealt to the hotels that had shuttle buses with their hotel names written on them in foot-high letters. Baton Rouge was only 60 miles away and out of the path of destruction from Katrina.
Sunday morning, city officials announced that false information was being passed around by the population of "street" people that they could seek shelter in the dome. There was no plan to use the dome for shelter and no beds, food, or other supplies were available. There were no police officers available to maintain order. Still an estimated 30,000 people, many with their grocery carts, appeared outside the dome waiting to get in. The authorities had no alternative but to open the dome and provide shelter for them. We heard later that Amtrack had brought in a train right down town by the river to take people out but no announcements were made to advise people of its availability, so it left nearly empty. Is this beginning to sound like the Titanic?
We awoke about 5am and finished packing for the trip home. The clerk told us that the shuttle had shut down before 2am and their phones were disconnected. It didn’t occur to the hotel staff that just maybe anybody still there without a car might be needing that shuttle but, hey, this is the big easy. Nobody cares or worries about anything, here. Somehow a taxi rolling by was flagged down and a new, higher fixed fare was negotiated to take us to the airport. We loaded up and headed for Airport Road, highway 61.
We just got onto Airport Road when it became a parking lot. We were moving less than a tenth of a mile in 4 minutes. We weren’t going to make it at that rate. I asked the driver several times, an old guy who’d been driving a cab for over 30 years, if a faster way might be found in the neighborhoods or elsewhere. "No", was always the answer. The cab overheated in the slow traffic. I had suggested the driver put the transmission in neutral when we were stopped, but again he knew more than I. While the engine cooled down, he relaxed with a smoke. No need to care or worry.
We finally got to the airport a little after 9am, just in time to watch our plane take off. I spoke with a cop and asked what my options were. He said all the flights out were booked solid and I should have left for the airport sooner. When I told him we’d been on the road for nearly three hours, he was dumbfounded. Why didn’t the cabby take Metairie Ave. It was only four blocks north of Airport Road and was nearly empty since it ended at the airport. I started calling all the airport hotels from the courtesy phones. None would take us in until I got to La Quita. They said they would be over in their shuttle bus to pick us up.
When we went to check in we spoke with the manager, a gal named Diane. She told us that they technically had no rooms because they were under contract to hold most of their rooms for airline employees. Obviously, there weren’t going to be any that night, so we got one of the airline rooms. Diane told us, and everybody there, to fill our bathtubs with water. After we lost power and water pressure we would need it to flush the toilets. After the sewers started backing up they would provide us with plastic bags. I started down the road looking for some food. By now we knew we were going to have to ride it out. No gas stations were open. About a mile and half away a small liquor store with grocery shelves was still open. I bought some spam, cookies, breakfast rolls, and soft drinks. They were already out of bottled water. I walked around the hotel taking pictures of what it looked like before the hurricane hit. The hotel loaned me some duct tape and I went to work around our windows stuffing plastic bags into the cracks and covering them with tape. It was about 4pm by now and the wind was really picking up. We saw the last Southwest plane leave for Dallas about 4:30. One of the families in the hotel found a spot on a departing church van and after making a "donation," was picked up.
Before and After
We turned on the TV and watched the tragedy start to unfold at the dome. Thousands of people were still standing outside in the wind and rain waiting to get in as night fell. My wife had brought along a tiny battery-powered TV that helped us and those around us stay informed after the electricity dropped around 3am on Monday morning. The wind was really howling by then. The rain was coming in through the air conditioner and through the (gap?) between the window frame and the concrete block wall. We used towels to route the water to two 6 gallon wastebaskets that had to be emptied every hour. The wind direction was right into our room windows. The pressure was more than enough to break the windows but we had blocked the gap at the bottom of our door and the air coming in through the air conditioner provided a balancing pressure to the inside of the room. Several rooms lost windows and many had the air conditioner pushed right into the room. We had pushed a table against ours. The air conditioners were sitting on a ledge and had only been caulked in place.
About 6am there was a knock on our door. Windows had broken in several rooms and the hotel staff was getting everyone to go into the hallway until the wind died down. Crazy me, I knew we would have to live in our room after the storm so I sneaked in every hour to empty the wastebaskets. We were the only ones on that side of the hotel that didn’t have a completely soaked floor. Only the first two feet from the windows was soaked. Of course, every time I opened the door there was a chance the windows would break, but we were on the end of the building and I assumed that the pressure on the windows was probably the lowest there.
A little before lunchtime we were herded down to the entrance where the staff had set up a buffet. There were three different kinds of breakfast cereal and milk. The doors were locked and Diane told us that looters would be out soon. They would not be getting into the La Quinta. After the storm the doors would be unlocked for short periods to allow people to go outside if they wished, but they would need their room key to get back into the building. Most of the tenants were locals, not visitors. They came to the hotel because it was much stronger than their homes nearby and it was the highest building in the area. Many of these locals brought their pets. The place was full of dogs and cats, but each had a small cage to house them. One young woman was caring for 17 dogs and cats.
We discovered that all through the storm the cell phones worked fine. We called the kids and told them we had survived. After the storm, as government offices came alive, they seemed to gain some control over the cell towers. Most of the time we could not make connections. More often then not, however, callers from outside could call in on our cell phones.
Monday afternoon the wind slowed to the point where a brave (or stupid) person could walk in it. From a window in a room down the hall, we could see looters come out from the neighborhood headed for a corner gas station. Someone called 911. Yes, our cell phones were still working. Eventually, a national guard truck drove up and about five soldiers with hand guns headed for the station just as the looters were coming out with a cash register and other stuff. The solders ran them all down, cuffed ‘em and stuffed ‘em. Very quickly, the looters figured out that the cops and soldiers would not follow them into the submerged neighborhoods where the water was too deep for vehicle traffic. As the wind died down more we could here the sound of breaking windows in the neighborhood all day long and into the night. Several times people walked up to our building and found the doors locked and several employees motioning them to leave.
The water was receding steadily. I went out to the street to stretch my legs, check out the area and take more pictures. Most of the street in front of the hotel was dry by now and trucks were moving slowly through the still-flooded intersection to the north. This intersection led to highway 10. Once on the highway you could get to Baton Rouge.
A pickup truck came up the street and stopped in front of me. The guy asked me if I knew where he could get some gas.
"WHAT??? There’s no gas and even if there was there’s no electricity to pump it. Where are you from?"
"I’m from the federal government. I’m out here checking out the area to report back how the area looks."
I suggested that he’d better get back to civilization while he still had the gas to get there. While he was at it, there was room in the truck for my wife and me and plenty of room in back for our luggage, but he wasn’t authorized to carry mere civilians to safety. I told him there were hotels with people and no food or medical supplies. Could he arrange for a bus to get us out…… No.
That evening, the staff prepared sandwiches with sliced ham and turkey, washed down with soft drinks. We were told that on Wednesday morning, the management had been ordered to abandon the building and bring whatever and whoever they could to Baton Rouge. By now many of the locals were making arrangements to move in with nearby relatives. Our daughter in Colorado Springs got through and we asked her to either get us a room in Baton Rouge or reserve a rental car. She called back with a reservation for the last National rental car in Baton Rouge. They had a car scheduled to be returned before 3pm Wednesday afternoon.
The hotel shuttle bus pulled up next to the front door about 8am. It was only half full when we pulled out. Several of the employees who had cars were taking other visitors to alternate locations. One family from England were taken all the way to Houston by a La Quita employee. They even stopped by the employee’s house to take a shower.
The destruction was pretty bad all around where we stayed. As we headed across the long bridges north of New Orleans, there were alligators everywhere displaced by the storm surge. Trees were down for miles along the interstate. There was a convoy of trucks heading into New Orleans with tree chippers and cranes.
We arrived in Baton Rouge about 10:30 after making several stops along the way to drop off employees. The bus dropped some people at a La Quinta in Baton Rouge and headed for the airport. The National Car Rental counter was empty except for one lone employee. All the other rental counters were empty and had a sign, "No Cars Available" posted. We approached and gave our name. The clerk flashed a big smile. It seems the car had just come in and was being prepped . We completed the paperwork and dragged our bags to the adjacent pickup area. The car was just being brought around still wet. As we loaded the car the National employees closed up shop. They were done for the day. The rental cost to pickup the car in Louisiana and drop it in Indianapolis was $147 for one day, a bargain under the circumstances. We even opted for the return empty at $2.47/gal since we knew that gas in Indy was already over $3.
We headed east to get to interstate 55 north to Memphis. We turned off the first exit on 55 to get something to eat since we hadn’t had any food since the sandwiches the evening before. Wow! What a sight! There was gas station and a McDonalds with portable power generators in their parking lots. Everybody in the county must have been there to get gas and a sandwich. There was no electricity in the bottom 90% of Mississippi. Exit after exit the same story. Finally, about 20 miles from Memphis, Tennessee, we saw electric lights on for the first time since leaving Baton Rouge. We stopped for food and a little later our first tank of $3+ gas.
Around 1am the following morning we pulled into our driveway in Indianapolis, just over 900 miles. The low fuel light came on just as we got off the interstate 2 miles from the house.
Northwest Airlines refunded our airline tickets although "legally" they were not obligated to do so.
We never got a refund on our airport shuttle tickets.
La Quinta never billed us for the three days. Granted, most of the time we had no running water, electricity, air conditioning, or working telephone, but we weren’t complaining even when the room temperature went as high as 106 during the evening hours. We sent them a letter full of praise for their manager, Diane and her staff. La Quinta responded by sending us a voucher for a free night’s stay at any La Quinta Inn.
We feel that the local authorities (read that as the "mayor") had the first responsibility to get the population out of New Orleans and to have in place a set of programs to deal with the evacuation. It would have cost next to nothing to plan for this emergency and have transportation ready when it was needed. The thousand or so school buses that were left underwater could have been used to get people out and save the buses, too. There are three or four sets of railroad tracks that go right downtown. Even if they had to use box cars to haul people out, they would still have gotten out. It’s easier to get a grocery cart into a box car than into a passenger car. Put it on the back of FEMA (if you want to) to set up the temporary camps for people to live in until more permanent arrangements can be made. When a hurricane hit Kauai, the northernmost island in Hawaii, in 1992, the islanders took care of everything themselves, finding shelter for the visitors and others, and taking care of rebuilding much of the island. You never heard about that, did ya?
We discovered that New Orleans was virtually controlled by street gangs especially at night. They stayed and looted everything that survived. They set buildings on fire and shot at firemen who tried to put out the fires. We’re going to rebuild this city for them??
It looks like the people of New Orleans learned nothing from the experience. I think they are about to reelect the same officials who got many of them killed because of their incompetence. In Indianapolis, the mayor lives and dies based on how well he keeps the snow off the streets during the winter. If two feet of snow falls some night, he’s out there working, not complaining about where’s FEMA.