Here I sit, in the waning days of a wet and steamy August, channel surfing through ever-more-urgent broadcasts about a hurricane that was supposed to be headed for Tampa but is now lumbering slowly west.
The parallels are eerie. Same path. Same date. Same warnings, same time frame. Hurricane Isaac will land somewhere along the Gulf Coast on Wednesday, Aug. 29, seven years to the day after its sister Katrina changed life as we knew it in New Orleans. Forever.
In many ways, the pre-storm routine for this newest storm is familiar territory. In four decades of Big Easy living, I have evacuated half a dozen times. Georges. Gustav. Cindy. Wasn’t there an Esther once? An Isadore?
The drill is familiar to anyone who has weathered a New Orleans hurricane season.
Lines at the market for water, batteries, junk food, alcohol, in case you stay. Lines at the gas station to top off the tank, in case you go. Shutters latched, lawn furniture collected, suitcases packed.
Since Katrina, however, there’s a new urgency to the drill. No longer do we toss a t-shirt or two into a carryall for a getaway, figuring we’ll be back in a day or two. Now, the possibility of extended – even permanent — exile is real.
No longer do we nonchalantly leave paintings and passports and papers behind. Now, the reality of possessions lost forever is real.
We’ve lived through the Big One, and it may have brothers.
Some of the similarities between Then and Now have their humorous aspects. Seven years ago, my middle daughter was set to fly to Italy for a semester abroad when Katrina derailed her plans. I spent hours on the phone with Lufthansa, trying to reroute her defunct New Orleans-D.C.-Rome ticket. If I could get her to D.C., could she get on the plane there? Of course not, I was told; one is not allowed to change the point of origination. Even if it’s under water.
Now, with my youngest daughter crossing paths with Isaac as she heads to Paris for a job abroad, she’s having the same conversation with United. Can she move up the flight? No. Can she go stand-by? No. Can she drive to Houston and get on the plane there, at her second stop? Of course not.
We are a wiser populace with our Katrina memories still fresh. We have learned to make copies of wills and birth certificates, insurance policies and bank statements. We have grab-and-go boxes packed with important stuff.
We have thought about what to take, and what to leave. We have thought about Where to Go.
We don’t leave food in the refrigerator. Ever.
I have friends who bought second homes post-K, with the idea that they will have evacuation destinations Next Time. I think that we should all choose a place where we can meet, one big New Orleans hurricane party in exile, Next Time.
I’ve had conversations about where might be “safe” – safe meaning no chance of storms, earthquakes, flash floods, avalanches or other forces of nature that can wreck one’s day. According to a company called Sustain Lane that claims to have researched these things, the U.S. city least likely to have a natural disaster is Mesa, Arizona. Internationally, it’s Qatar.
After losing my house to Katrina, and rebuilding it, many people asked if I would do it again. Come back. Rebuild. Aren’t you afraid, they ask?
My response is no, of course not: My house flooded because of where the 17th Street Canal levee was breached. There’s enough concrete at the spot now to build a space station on Mars. That stretch will never leak again.
Besides, though I’ve never been to Mesa, Arizona or Qatar, I don’t have any real hunger to visit either. They probably don’t even have red beans or Abita Amber there.
But if you are headed for either, let me know. And I’ll pass the word.
Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie.