Wrapping up my trip down the Mississippi for the children's book that will be published in the spring of 2000, I came to New Orleans for good food and a rest after traveling 2200 miles from Lake Itasca in Minnesota, and came, instead, across a city in panic.
Saturday, September 26,
In the Atlantic and Gulf, meterologists are tracking no less than four hurricanes simultaneously--the first time this has occurred in recorded history. Last evening when I came down to the French Quarter, Interstate 10 going north was locked in miles of traffic of fleeing people. I breezed down the ghostly highway heading into the oncoming hurricane feeling a little stupid, but excited, too.
After a brilliantly sunny day, the first teaser of rain came to New Orleans and flopped around on the roof of this old hotel across from St. Louis Cathedral on Jackson Square. At nine-forty-seven on Saturday night, I heard the lonely sound of someone boarding up windows on the street outside.
On the pillow in the room a note From the Management read, "A power outage of some duration is likely. Our hotel does not have emergency generators....Please cooperate with us during this very difficult period...."
Possible flooding from combined rain and high tides, the weather wizzards are saying, might run as high as 17 to 19 feet. That could put the first floor of this hotel underwater. No one is quite sure. Anything over 14 inches of rain will flood the street.
My car, with the canoe on top, is on the first floor of the garage. It won't fit into the garage elevator. So by the time I take the canoe off and lash it down to something on the first floor, the electricity will have gone and there will be no saving the car. I should get the canoe off sometime early Sunday a.m. Might need it. What a picture that would make. Canoeing Bourbon Street.
The French Quarter is the highest part of downtown New Orleans, but nevertheless is eight feet below sea level. Its electrical power comes from underground and there are two substations on either end of the Quarter. The city has shut off 100 control gates in the surrounding levees, closing off the rising Mississippi on one side and Lake Pontchartrain on the other . There was all kinds of hurricane talk in the Pere Antoine's when I ate dinner at 7 last night but tourists, mostly German, seemed calm and excited. By nine the rain started, and a wind that was mild, but scary because it shook the roof of the hotel. I'm on the fifth and top floor. Images of roofs being torn off buildings were running rampant on the weather Channel, to which the people in the shelters are glued. I would say the level of adrenaline is about as high as it gets before a bit of panic.
Now by ten all the rain and wind has stopped except the pounding of owners putting up huge plywood boards against the windows of their hotels and eateries. A few college-aged kids rove St. Ann's street, but just down two blocks Bourbon Street is hopping, with lights and bums and music and bars and balcony peepers. It's a thinner show than usual, but a show nevertheless.
One man on a tall step-ladder was taking down the swinging sign for the Charthouse restaurant on Jackson Square
Sunday, September 27
Walked down to the river and
saw the tugs all moored together along both sides of the
Police cars and sirens blasting. Only a few stores open. Everyone stocking up on fruit and water. I have freeze-dried stuff from camping in Minnesota. The lady making the coffee downstairs is doing it all day and maybe for the duration. I want to tip her really well.
Many parishes (counties), including this one, now have mandatory evacuation. Apparently 1.5 million people have left the city. Some have reached as far north as Jackson, Mississippi, and apparently are now furious to discover that the city has opened the superdome as a shelter, capable of holding up to 100,000 people. Evacuees are being asked to bring their own food and water. Not, and the talking heads on t.v. emphasize, their furniture....
But of course not everyone can go to a shelter. And now the hotel is even filling up with locals who want a solid building on higher ground. I'm pretty positive they'll close the bridge over the Mississippi here. Someone said on the news that it can take up to 75 mph winds. But the city is expecting at least that.
I photographed the big flood gates that allow traffic to go through the levee to the river. These steel doors on tracks will be shutting soon, and there will be no way out. I have flashlight, mace, whistle, lifejacked, paddles and of course my trusty canoe. Mace? What about looting???
11:00 A.M. Sunday.
Disturbance might go east of
the city by a few miles. Heaviest of rain, what they are calling the
Along Bourbon and Chartres Street, the tourists walk around as if awaiting a parade, a bit stunned that the hurricane hasn't hit yet. If the hurricane stalls when it hits the coast, it could bring the rainfall (storm surge because we are below sea level) to 30 inches, which would definitely flood the French Quarter. I have to watch out with the local people when I say that I'm hoping for the worst. The New Orleans people look at me with a nasty sort of look when I say that I'm writing a kid's book about the Mississippi River and canoeing up Bourbon Street would be a cool ending.
One t.v. announcer said the curfew begins at six and "you WILL be arrested if you're caught out on the streets." The curfew is partly to guard against looting.
Watching television and the swirling red, orange and green patterns of Georges making landfall, it's as if some kind of monster is swirling its way into New Orleans. A thing with an intelligence. This storm left Africa two weeks ago and has been a hurricane for many days. It seems to be zeroing in on the French Quarter. That's intelligence.
They sky has suddenly turned a morbid purple as it darkens. Not far above them is a fast-moving group of puffy gray clouds, and breaks in the sky with blue. The church bells sound eerie in the purple darkening light. Many here have been praying that the eye goes east of the city. Looks like now the talking heads are saying the eye might brush East New Orleans but head mostly north and not west, thereby giving us only tropical storm velocity winds (39-73) instead of hurricane velocity (74-110).
But anything could happen at this point and it seems the storm is slowing, which means more rain and rain. The direction is still unpredictable since the direction of Georges is determined by very high winds in the system.
Across the street a woman has come out onto her balcony for a minute, then enters her house and comes out the door downstairs with a full-sized poodle. She is picking up refuse collected in the street.
5 a.m. Monday
The coffee urn is getting low, and hardly anything to eat left. The radio up in Vermont is telling my friends that the path of the storm could change and New Orleans could still get hit pretty severely. It is continuing to rain and tropical force winds keep on coming. Jean Craighead George says in an email message this morning, " My father loved hurricanes, like you. He did stay out of them, though, but could not wait to see what damage they had done [Mr. Craighead was a well-known naturalist in the Everglades] and how the flora repaired this damage -- all the mangroves put out adventicious growth days after Hurricane Donna went through. With the tiny leaves all over stems and branches and trunks -- they survived the salt water. I did want to see you paddling down Bourbon street."
The wind here is starting to howl and the rain pelting out of the mean, gray sky. I want to get out and do some photographing, but the curfew is still in effect. I think all of us in this hotel and in the region and in the shelters are getting pretty stir-crazy. Fourteen thousand people are being held (some say "hostage") at the superdome and some are trying to get out, getting angry now, tired and yearning for home. The novelty is quickly wearing off. Half of them brought no food, so they have been given hotdogs and cornflakes with condensed milk. Which doesn't make their stay a nice one.
In the aftermath now, winds still high, but not that high, and a growing public criticism of the extended curfews and closed highways and bridges. The 14,000 stuck in the superdome are getting really restless. The governor is being blasted for keeping people from their homes, even when the hurricane is north of us. Also many of the churches are being criticized for turning away the masses instead of providing a place of refuge.
for Global Environmental Education