With Hurricane Ike now heading toward Texas rather than Louisiana, we can plan on staying home on the weekend ahead. Two weekends ago, we had to flee Gustav, and it was not a pleasant journey.
That Sunday, September 1, was a beautiful day for a drive. But not with one million or more other people on the road.
Still, my wife and I thought we might get away over the Labor Day weekend ahead of Hurricane Gustav. Even as the forecasters pinpointed the Louisiana coast as Gustav's target, I thought (hoped? prayed?) the storm might edge farther west, into Texas, and spare New Orleans much of anything more than heavy wind and rain. But Saturday's late forecast and the mayor's evacuation order persuaded me to struggle the plywood out of the shed and onto the picture window and get packed.
We left early Sunday morning, I in my car, with maps, suitcases, cooler and sacks of provisions, my wife Kathy in her station wagon with our older son, our two golden retrievers and one cat and our son's two cats. Despite the opening of all four lanes on some of the interstate highways out of New Orleans – that scheme called "contraflow" -- the roads were clogged with cars, pickup trucks, vans, and at least one aged, multi-colored stretch limousine, inching along, stopping, inching. Once in a lane, a vehicle stayed in a lane, unless it could force its way to the shoulder. The highways through Mississippi have few exits, and individual drivers or groupings of family or friends sometimes parked on the side of the road to let the engines cool or to eat, drink and relieve themselves with only a vehicle to give them some privacy.
I became reacquainted with U.S highways. As a boy, I often traveled through Illinois on U.S. 51 in the back seat of my father's 1940 Studebaker Champion to visit grandmothers. Yesterday, I was in the front seat, and out of the city, beyond Lake Pontchartrain, I led our little caravan onto U.S. 51 rather than take the badly clogged I-55 toward Jackson, I picked up U.S. 51 off I-12, and took it to McComb, then turned onto U.S. 98 to Hattiesburg. There, sad to say, I left the 1940s and took the I-59 entrance into the 2000s. A bad choice; the interstate was rush-hour packed all the way from Slidell, La. to Birmingham, our destination.
In one stretch, traffic was moving fairly well, in between the blockages, and we made about 40 miles in one of the many hours of our exodus. But throughout the rest of the trip to Birmingham, in both Mississippi and Alabama, I-59 was often so jammed. that we hop-scotched between it and the nearly parallel U.S. 11. We would have been better off staying on the old road, I think now. Despite the stop signs and occasional red lights, we seemed to make better time. The driving was less frustrating, anyway.
A Google directions search had told me that the distance to Birmingham was 340 miles and the driving time five hours and six minutes. We got on I-10 in downtown New Orleans at about 7:30 a.m. We pulled in under the motel portico in Birmingham at about 10:30 that night. A fellow who walked up to the reservations desk just after I, told me he had started from Kenner, a New Orleans suburb, at just about the same time. He had taken a somewhat different route, but without the romance of revisiting those two-lane U.S. highways.
I don't remember a radio in that Studebaker. But I have one in my car and kept it on New Orleans' WWL, a news-talk station, that gave us capitve evacuee listeners hour after hour of information.
News conferences by public officials from the governor and members of his crisis team to parish presidents and their crisis teams filled too much time. I had gotten up at 4 a.m., and the news conferences nearly put me back to sleep. Gov Bobby Jindal, with his rapid, clipped monotone delivery, was the worst. On television, he uses a signer so the deaf will be able to understand him. For those of us who hear, he should have an interpreter to complete the words and sentences he leaves unfinished and to articulate the words he swallows. Beyond that, he loves detail, and this listener nearly nodded off while he ticked off the exact number of first responders coming and from which other cities, the exact number of National Guard forces on duty, the exact number of helicopters deployed and from which bases. And on and on.
Jindal was scheduled to be a speaker at the G.O.P convention, I believe, but given the crisis, he probably will not. Too bad. The nation will miss wonk to the tenth power delivered like an airline stewardess mindlessly rushing through the emergency procedures. I am rather sorry, in fact, that he will not be vice president and never be heard from again.
Many of the same officials called in for interviews by the hosts (closing mantra: "Thank you so much for giving us your time; and the inevitable inane response: "No problem"). Each hour, we had top-of-the-hour CBS news blocks with cuts from the same news conferences and interviews, followed by five minutes of local news with -- guess.
WWL-TV's chief meteorologist gave updates from the National Hurricane Center, and he assumed that we who were on the road gave a fat millibar about the the latitude-longitude coordinates. ("Bring back Jindal," the droopy-eyed driver yelled at the radio.) Sandwiched in among all that was a steady diet of rants by my fellow travelers calling in to vent their frustration at being parked on Mississippi interstates and to recommend improvements to the genius who dreamed up contraflow.
And the cliches. The endless parade of cliches. In harm's way. Keeping a close eye. Not out of the woods yet. The very latest.
Why am I listening to this? I asked myself at one point. And I thought of the old joke about the guy beating himself on the head with a hammer who, when asked why he did it, explained that it felt so good when he stopped. Of course I knew why. I needed to know what was going on out there with that storm so threatening that it forced me from my home. No matter how boring it was, how soporific, how repetitive, I needed to have it.
Somewhere long ago I came across Oliver Wendell Holmes' 1861 essay "Bread and the Newspaper," which eloquently emphasizes the importance of news to the public, especially in crises. That came floating in to me somewhere between the meteorologist and the governor. "Everything else we can do without," Holmes wrote. "Only bread and the newspapers we must have." How much worse it would have been, fleeing from the unknown in that Studebaker without a radio.
We finally arrived at our destination, a Birmingham motel, along with hundreds of our neighbors, to judge from the Louisiana license plates in the parking lot and the trash the travelers had tossed in the parking lot.
Some sat around the pool watching their children splashing about, but from what I heard in the hallways, the rest of us spent hour after hour switching the television channels back and forth to CNN and MSNBC and The Weather Channel. We swore at the information we knew to be wrong, the mispronunciations, the cliches and the hype of "breaking news" and "the very latest." But we listened and watched.
And we had the map out, plotting what would turn out to be a much less grueling trip home.