We drove through the night and arrived in Austin in the wee hours of the morning, or, more precisely, at our destination on the very southern edge of town. For the moment we are relying on the kindness of strangers, staying at the temporarily vacant house of parents of friends of friends, until we can find something longer term.
Did I mention that we've never actually been to Austin? We have lots of connections here, plenty of friends. In some ways we've always thought of it as our sibling town to the west. But for whatever reason we never actually made it here ourselves. Well, we're here now.
We left Perdido yesterday afternoon. Everybody else was departing as well. Miranda and Phillip were heading up east to spend time in North Carolina, visiting friends, until they can return to the city. Ana and Zack were heading to their home in Mississippi to pack up there belongings and will be joining us here in Austin in a couple of day. For them the move is permanent. They've been planning to migrate here for some time, and Katrina simply provided the catalyst to do it sooner rather than later.
As we headed out, there was a definite curiosity to see the area effected by the hurricane. Although this thing has made a jumble of our lives, those of us who evacuated ahead of the storm never actually saw the thing firsthand. We simply watched it on TV like everybody else. We wanted to somehow witness it, or at least its tangible aftermath, directly.
I-10 westbound through Alabama and Mississippi was chock full of vehicles moving in to the disaster area: roofers, tree services, big trucks towing trailers, big trucks towing airboats, a convoy of 30 Florida State Troopers, a humvee of soldiers in full combat gear including helmets. As we moved further west there was increasing evidence of the hurricane. Huge billboards advertising shows at now non-existent casinos were toppled and mangled. Large swathes of pine trees were snapped in half. Almost every house or building had damage. Some had been severely battered, and a few were entirely destroyed.
We drove as far as we could on I-10, just a short distance east of New Orleans, where the highway is closed, and then veered onto I-12 around the north side of Lake Pontchatrain. Night was falling and most of the area was still without power. For a long stretch everything was closed. Occasionally we saw large encampments of utility or military vehicles alongside the highway. The parking lot of one mall had been turned into a tent city Occasionally there were small bands of civilians camped alongside the road. Even though this was far from the worst of things, it was unlike anything I had ever seen. I imagine it looks a lot like the rear lines of a war zone.
We stopped in Hammond, a normally smallish, North Shore town that is now flooded with displaced people. The streets were jammed at 10 o'clock on a Saturday night even though most businesses were closed for curfew. Taco Bell, though, was open and full of Red Cross workers and evacuated teenagers from Slidell. A panhandler asked for 4 dollars. I said I was from New Orleans and had nothing to spare at the moment. He gave me a friendly wave and told me where I could find a hot meal and a cot for the night.
As we passed through Lafayette, our friend, Jeff, called. It was the first time we'd talked to him since he went into the city and the first time we'd gotten any details about his experiences. He essentially sweet-talked his way in, using every connection he had, hooked up with the police, and then set up a make-shift medical clinic in the gift shop of the Sheraton Inn on Canal Street. He's been administering to officers with supplies commandeered from a nearby pharmacy. Remarkable. What's even more remarkable is that he had to fight so hard to help. He has the skills. There's an obvious need. And yet the only way he managed to make it happen was by essentially bypassing all conventional channels.
What's also remarkable is that he's actually very optimistic about the fate of New Orleans. He thinks many things will be up and running again long before people anticipate. He's seen things first hand that most people haven't. I hope he's right.
As we drove in to Texas it began raining, the first rain since Katrina. I remembered that it was exactly two weeks from the night we drove to Memphis and the first rains from the hurricane moved through.
This morning we slept, and then did a couple of errands. This afternoon we made our first forays into downtown. This evening we met up with our Austin friends. They're good people. Our kids played with their kids (Louise and June are actually doing great through this whole thing - Louise is tremendously excited about Texas even though she doesn't know a thing about it and is constantly declaring that everything is "beautiful" and asking when she gets to ride a horse).
It was sad yesterday when our little Perdido commune broke up. At each step since Katrina the place we've been and the people we're with have become "home for now", first Memphis and then Perdido. Now Austin. I have no idea how long we'll be here. I've given up on trying to anticipate things like that. But we've got good folks here, and we'll figure it all out.
Now I'm very sleepy and must go to bed.