Saturday, September 6, 2008



September 4-6, 2008

“It was like a brief intermission,” one stranger said to another when describing Hurricane Gustav in a Mid-City wine bar on Friday night.

“I know!” the other said. “One week later and all the same faces are back, as if nothing happened.”

New Orleans felt so much the same— so slightly changed— when we returned from our “Gustavaction” on Thursday evening. So our neighborhood had a few fallen trees. So what if one neighbor’s “For Sale” sign flew across the street and under my Corolla, covered with muddy cat prints. So what if one of our window screens flew into his yard and got tangled up with the fallen tree limbs. It was no big deal that our roof lost a single tile.

New Orleans as a city was lucky—incredibly lucky— and among its citizens we were the especially fortunate. We returned to a house with fully operational air-conditioning, lights, a pleasantly un-fragrant fridge, cable, and Internet. Inside, the only sign of a storm was the presence of our porch furniture in our kitchen, our bikes in the bedroom, and some cherished books and shoes stacked ridiculously high. We had left expecting a Katrina, or worse, and we returned to the aftermath of a mere tropical storm.

Our landlord estimated that we lost power for as much as a day, or as little as a few hours. Even the milk and cheese in our fridge was still edible.

Wow. As we drove around the city Friday night, we continued to say this word.

We drove through dark neighborhoods, neighborhoods without working traffic lights, maneuvered around more fallen trees and tree limbs, and counted the number of houses and businesses still boarded up from Katrina— not to be confused with the many still boarded up from Gustav.

Though most restaurants were closed, almost all bars were open. We stopped in for a free wine tasting at Swirl, a dog friendly wine bar in Mid-City. As the strangers I overheard observed, the place filled with thirsty patrons as if nothing had happened at all. The only clue was the word “Gustav,” heard every minute or two.

After sampling wine, we passed the unmistakable smell of rotting meat at the Market on Esplanade, whose doors were still fully shuttered.

“That could’ve been us,” Haz commented.

We drove around looking for food, figuring that something had to be open— after all, this was a city where going out to eat can almost be considered a vocation for some. Add to that the lack of electricity and groceries available, and you have a very hungry group of restaurant-needy ex-evacuees.

Some restaurants had their lights on, others just had doors open, perhaps to air out the stench. Still others were boarded up. Random passers-by sat at sidewalk tables as if eating, but really they were just passing the time. Downtown, National Guard troops took the place of tourists as they guarded department stores with M-16s. All over the city the streets were still surprisingly empty, quite unlike the average Friday night.

We passed a lot of pizza joints that were open and stuffed with patrons. Five Happiness, a Chinese restaurant on Carrollton was open too, with a jam-packed parking lot. All the bars we passed were also stuffed to capacity. So far our options were pizza, Chinese, or bar food.

On Magazine Street we found a few other options, most notably Nirvana, the best Indian cuisine in town. We pulled up to the curb and happily found a seat inside. Nirvana was serving their lunch brunch for dinner, which was a symbiotic situation: we were desperate to overeat and save a few dollars, they were desperate to get rid of their over supply of curries, breads, and salads.

After dinner we headed to Haz’s brother Hasan’s house on the West Bank, the side of the river everyone expected to heavily flood. The neighborhoods leading up to Hasan’s house were dark and largely vacant, though his street, like ours, was full of lights.

We stayed for a few hours and talked about the things evacuees talk about— the car ride back versus the car ride there; how this was so much better than Katrina; how to make a FEMA claim; can you believe Nagin really said that; did you actually watch the Republican National Convention; and what about Ike.

These were the same things we talked about with our landlords and our good friend Gerald the night before. Our landlords were spending a night at their old house on our street because their new house was without power; Gerald was also joining us because his apartment was in the dark. One of our landlords, Consuelo, came up to our porch in her pajamas, holding a cup of coffee. She was laughing as she re-told her horrific Katrina story, of how she and Dan, her partner and our other landlord, swam in five-feet deep toxic water to the railroad overpass. From there they walked 17 miles to safety.

Dan had wanted to stay for Gustav; Consuelo couldn’t face another disaster. They had evacuated at the last minute to Bogalusa, where their hotel lost power anyway.

Next topic? The convention. Sarah Palin. John McCain. We all vowed to move to Canada if Obama didn’t win. That would be one storm we could never recover from.

Such is life in our double recovering city, a city still heavily bruised from Katrina, but freshly battered from Gustav. There’s not much to do besides talk on your porch, go to a friend or family member’s house, go out for a quick bite or a drink, and make sure you return before curfew.

Ours is still at 10 p.m.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008


by Hazim Dayeh—featured writer

Nineteen and a half hours. The trip from New Orleans to Tallahassee normally takes about six. But, this was not an ordinary trip. Once again, and on the third anniversary of the storm we continue to live with, we found ourselves threatened by another major hurricane. For nineteen and a half hours, we drove through sometimes-squally weather, kissing the rear bumpers of vehicles that stretched ahead of us seemingly across the length of an entire nation. For nineteen and a half hours, home lay behind us, abandoned, deserted, and left again to an uncertain fate. And when we finally arrived at our hotel, travel-weary with two very confused cats, we had the rest of our time to watch alarmist news stations again spreading false information, this time about breached levees that hadn’t breached, as if willing something catastrophic to happen so they can keep a tragedy-obsessed nation watching advertisements. There was the one with the insurance companies’ favorite make-believe couple “Harry and Louise” once again attempting to kill health care reform. Then, there was the one with a cute cat who was partial to a new kind of cat food. An unidentified woman was selling me laundry detergent just before yielding to Wilford Brimley, who was saying something about “diabeetis.” One after another, television spots hawked everything from repetitive headache relief products to miraculous stain-removing goop sold by the loudest man on Earth. “More on Hurricane Gustav after the break.” And, when the levees didn’t fail, the networks turned to the old standby human interest stories – babies born during Gustav’s visit to the Louisiana coast, residents who rode out the storm and lived to tell their tale, and the ever-popular, ever-wishful mantra of “Will the levees hold?” America is alive and well and invading my hotel room as if it were a nation in possession of phantom weapons of mass destruction.

So, after another evacuation ordeal, after living under the threat of losing everything I deliberately left behind, along with more important things I forgot behind, several friends and family members have asked, “Why return?” After all, it’s just bound to happen again. In fact, as I write this, a storm named Ike is looks to be taking aim at some unfortunate place along the Gulf of Mexico. So why return? It’s an excellent question to someone who doesn’t know the city like so many of us do, and a stupid question to those of us who love our city so unconditionally. You see, New Orleans is our collective bad boyfriend, and we are its battered but adoring lovers. Time and again, he has given us reason to leave. And, just as often, we have forgiven him, succumbing to his mysterious and inexplicable hold on us. He is mean but charming, temperamental yet beautiful, spiteful though loving. The simple fact is that we love our city like no other. And, when we leave, however briefly, flirting with other attractive and not-so-attractive cities across this nation, we cannot help but feel a void that no other place can fill. We are New Orleans’ bitches, and we’re (mostly) ok with that. To those who cannot comprehend our love, we say, to know New Orleans is to love New Orleans. And, when we’re away, we know what it means to miss New Orleans.

For me, I miss sitting on my front porch, listening to talented high school marching bands spiritedly playing their instruments during a Friday or Saturday night football game. Sometimes, I could even hear major recording artists performing at Voodoo Fest in City Park. I miss the unbridled energy of the Rebirth Brass Band bringing down the house at Tipitina’s and leading a second line down Napoleon Ave. I miss the ferociously talented musicians who fill the humid late night air with music – Trombone Shorty, Irvin Mayfield, Charmaine Neville, Kermit Ruffins, Irma Thomas, Ellis Marsalis, Marva Wright, Big Sam’s Funky Nation, and so many others. I miss Mardi Gras with its pageantry, revelry, and weirdness, Jazz Fest with its many reasons to take a day or two off from work, Voodoo Fest with its eclectic mix of musical talent, French Quarter Fest with its unparalleled (free!) entertainment, and all the other festivals that celebrate our unique culture – Seafood/Creole Tomato/Satchmo/Just-For-the-Fuck-of-It Fests. In short, there are many cities in the world with plenty of culture and entertainment. But, in New Orleans, we live and breathe it, as though entertainment were an extra appendage attached to us, and culture a vital organ within us.

To those of us who love our abusive city, New Orleans is not merely another interesting American city. In fact, as a friend recently opined, New Orleans is not at all American. Its culture, its food, and its people are its own. We couldn’t possibly be less American if we spoke another language (and with the city’s colorful accents, one could argue that we do). This is the point that many outsiders cannot reconcile. To the city’s naysayers, we are an awkward, backwards people who do not seem to know how to operate a city efficiently. And yet, we are good enough for their conventions. On any given week, one can find these New Orleans critics walking our streets. They are the doctors, lawyers, and business executives who stumble and stagger along Bourbon Street, then return home to share pictures with their friends of their visit to “N’awlins.” To these platoons of America’s army invading our bars, we are good enough to party with, but too backwards to befriend. Thanks for the money, folks. Our beer taps will always flow for you.

Of course, like all bad and misunderstood lovers, New Orleans is not without its major flaws. Our crime is, indeed, bad enough to qualify us, technically, as an American city. Our poverty is legendary among other cities in this nation. And, of course, we are susceptible to tropical storms and hurricanes, some of which leave indelible physical and emotional scars, and some that scare us out of our comfort zone, then leave like a polite, if unwanted, guest. But, while we have weaknesses, we are strong. While our spirits sometimes suffer, we are resilient. While we have our share of insecurities, we are confident in our recovery. And, while our fair city is American, we are and always will be New Orleans.

Gustav Gossip, Phase 3


September 1-2, 2008

9am: wake up for breakfast and watch the news. Roll your eyes at all the people from Jefferson Parish complaining about the lack of news coverage of their area. Turn up the volume of the TV on purpose.

10am: Go back to sleep.

12pm: Wake up again. Cats may or may not be sleeping on your back. Shower, get dressed, watch the news. Make fun of McCain’s VP choice, Sarah Palin and her knocked-up daughter OR make fun of the sensationalized reporting on CNN.

2pm: Venture out for lunch. On Monday this meant going to the lame 80s-inspired Tallahassee Mall and eating decent Middle Eastern fast food. On Tuesday this meant settling for sub-par sushi at a downtown eatery, Jasmine CafĂ©. This latter location was also the unofficial headquarters for the area’s total six Obama supporters, who also enjoyed making fun of Palin.

3pm: Drive around Tallahassee looking for something, anything to do. On Monday we went to the hotel where Haz’s extended family were staying (pricier and nicer than ours); on Tuesday we drove around the FSU campus, around the state capital building, and around a skinny shaded area strangely called a park. On both days we figuratively kicked ourselves for evacuating here. Next time (and there will be a next time) we're going to Austin or Memphis or Dallas… or anywhere else.

4pm: Go back to the hotel. Watch the news. Get frustrated and read New Orleans blogs and forums online. Write ramblings for our own blog. Read. Pet the cats.

7:30pm: Go out for dinner. On Monday we went to Sahara, a Middle Eastern restaurant with Haz’s brother and family; on Tuesday we had Italian gourmet at the Olive Garden with Haz's sister and her family.

9pm-12am: Sit and talk and drink free coffee at the nicer, pricier hotel with Haz’s family, a collective total of 30 plus people. Make small talk with the Disaster Medical Assistance Team (DMAT) on hurricane "standby." Make fun of Palin and CNN reporters clinging to lamp posts in hurricane force winds. Get in trouble with the management for being too loud two nights in a row.

12am-3am: Update our blogs, watch the news, read, pet the cats, go to bed.

* This is the schedule we followed as soon as we found out that “the mother of all storms” had not hit New Orleans. We probably should’ve been celebrating that our city was not permanently damaged. But celebrating is hard to do when you’re an evacuee. Everyone feels sorry for you, including yourself, especially when your city’s mayor repeatedly tells you its not yet time to return.


* Many US state capital cities are insipid, soulless places. Baton Rouge and Tallahassee are no exception. Haz and I are not fans of Baton Rouge. We don't even like it a little. Like most New Orleanians, we detest BR. It generally receives all the state funding and has little personality or class to show for it. Plus, everyone is obsessed with LSU AND phony politician Bobby Jindal is King of BR. Still, BR is wayyyyyy better than Tallahassee. Here's why:

10. Baton Rouge is not part of the bible belt; Tallahassee definitely is.
9. Baton Rouge has a romantic sounding French name. Tallahassee, though probably Native American derived, sounds much more hick.
8. Baton Rouge has a very good mall. Tallahassee has two disappointing malls.
7. I would choose LSU over FSU anyday.
6. Baton Rouge has far less Jesus signs.
5. Baton Rouge has better restaurants.
4.Tallahassee isn't anywhere close to the fun things in Florida. Orlando, Miami, Tampa, and the manatees might as well be in a different country. Baton Rouge is only 1 hour from New Orleans, Lafayette, and swamps filled with friendly gators.
3. Random strangers don't try to get you to join their church in Baton Rouge. In Tallahassee, they do.
2. We didn't evacuate 20 hours to Baton Rouge.
1. Baton Rouge is much closer to New Orleans than Tallahassee. Enough said.


“The morning was gray, but I had the motivation; I drifted away and ran into more; Heavy weather off shore.” —Billy Joel, from the song “Storm Front”

Phase 2: August 30-31, 2008

his is the mother of all storms,” Mayor Ray Nagin warned New Orleanians during his Saturday night press conference.

Worse than Katrina.

Staying behind would be the worst decision of our lives.

Those that stay will have to ax their way out of their attic.

Those found wandering the streets would be sent straight to Angola Prison.

“Get your butts out of New Orleans,” Nagin said with his signature irreverent swagger.

So the message was clear— clearly exaggerated, though it still made me cry uncontrollably.

I always knew that an evacuation during hurricane season was possible— it's a reality New Orleanians live with every year, from June 1st through November 1st. But I never thought a storm comparable to Katrina would come our way.

Haz started to seriously worry for the first time a few minutes later, as Police commissioner Warren Riley gave his speech.

Riley told us he was telling most of his squad to evacuate due to the severity of the storm. Only a “skeleton crew” would be policing the streets.

I looked at my watch. Saturday: 10pm. The mandatory evacuation was starting at noon Sunday. Time to move.

No tears fell as I finishing packing and preparing.

I suddenly felt focused, calm.

I made 6 sandwiches for us to eat in the car (conscious of the notion that no restaurant would be open), washed our remaining dishes, and unearthed more photos to take with us. Haz and I dragged anything that could become a flying projectile in high wind—porch plants, porch furniture, and bicycles— inside.

Outside, our neighbors’ porches were bare like ours. On a night like this on Labor Day weekend, the porches should’ve been packed with conversation.

We unplugged everything, except our fridge. If this storm was going to rival Katrina, we could come back to a rotting, moldy mess. But there was always that chance that they could be wrong. Maybe we would get lucky.

I moved some books, clothes, and shoes to higher shelves. Our house, which is elevated 4 feet, took about 2 feet of water in Katrina. Anything left on the floor, or near the floor, could be lost, though a tornado or fire would destroy it all. This is how we were thinking now. I told Mom that I was prepared for nothing and everything to happen.

In other words, this storm could totally change our lives or be nothing but a forcible adventure.

Haz and I drank some tea before going to sleep at midnight. The alarm was set to wake us up 2 hours later: at 2 am. We figured we wouldn’t hit too much traffic if we got on the road 2 hours before the contra-flow, the evacuation strategy where both sides of the road become one massive one-way out.

We woke up promptly at 2am and started packing the car. Our cats Diamond and Moo jumped around and ran through the house. Our anxious shuffling and moving put them on edge. They knew something strange was going on.

In the car, we managed to fit two cat carriers, a litter box, cat food, human food, a cooler, two suitcases, one boxed wedding dress, two boxes of photos, a Playstation 3, Haz’s camera and tripod, four laptops, pillows, and blankets.

The cats were coerced into their carriers with relative ease. We placed them side-by-side on the backseat, with the litter box, food, and water within their reach.

We climbed into our Saturn Vue and quickly looked around before driving off. Our neighborhood was empty. Even the police officer who lives across the street boarded up his windows and left town.

As we pulled away in the thick, dark morning humidity, I looked back at our shotgun apartment and blew it a kiss. We might never live here again—

or we could be back here, laughing and shrugging, in a few days.

This is the uncertainty— the permanent impermanence that New Orleanians live with, pack, and take with them everywhere. Uncertainty is what makes New Orleans a party town. Live today, because you, your loved ones or your possessions could be gone tomorrow.

Uncertainty is also what keeps New Orleanians so humble, and yet so full of pride. Where else in America do citizens forcibly pack up their lives and leave, hurricane after hurricane, year after year? It’s a situation that makes so many Americans ask: so why do we live here?

I questioned this all week, and I still couldn’t find a good answer as we turned down Canal Boulevard in the first few minutes of our first evacuation together. We had just left behind nearly everything we had acquired together in dozens of countries over five years. As we drove towards the Interstate, I thought about everything we loved but couldn’t take— clothing from Japan and Vietnam; rugs and blankets from Jordan and Thailand; a doll from my childhood; framed artwork, signed books, and CDs. It was all just stuff. Later I would silently curse myself for not putting it all in the attic. It just wasn’t part of the “get out” equation.

We turned onto the Interstate and found it stuffed full of cars. So much for beating the evacuation rush: we were now in it.

The cats meowed and panted as we crawled towards New Orleans East on I-610, heading towards I-10 East. We had decided to head towards a hotel in Tallahassee, safely out of the track of the storm. Haz’s brother Hassan and other family members were headed there. A car ride there would normally take six hours, which was much closer than Dallas, where we both had family.

The cats calmed down a little as we edged closer to Lake Pontchartrain. We listened to our favorite local news, WDSU, on the radio. The voices of familiar reporters suddenly told us I-10 east was closed due to a severe traffic jam in Biloxi and Mobile. We weren’t counting on this. We had no Plan B.

“Let’s go to Dallas,” I sighed, ready to get some sleep.

Haz looked pensive as he turned onto a dark, empty road. He remembered that Highway 90 could also take us across the Lake— and into Mississippi and Alabama along the Gulf.

But Highway 90 was even more congested than I-610. The drivers of cars filled with dogs, cats, TVs, furniture, boxes, blankets, coolers, wheelchairs and bicycles stared straight ahead with flat expressions. No one was honking, screeching their tires, or yelling. Everyone was just trying to keep sane. Our cats remained calm and napped on and off.

I also took a nap and woke up two hours later. We weren’t even across the lake yet. Normally it takes us only 45 minutes to cross Pontchartrain. So far this was 3 hours and counting.

Traffic came to a complete stop shortly after we crossed a narrow sliver of Pontchartrain next to Lake Borgne. Passengers piled out of their cars and stretched. Drivers stepped out and left their car doors open. Our cats woke up, confused. The cause of the halt was unknown. News on the radio told us nothing.

Haz and a few other drivers crossed into the wrong side of traffic to take a quick detour back to I-610, where we started. In Slidell, drivers pulled off as soon as a McDonald's and gas station came into view. Police blocked off the gas station. McDonald's was closed.

So there would be no bathrooms, food, or gas on this trip. We were suffering the same fate as our cats: boxed up inside a cage against our will.

I took over driving as I-10 north became I-59. We couldn’t go east the way we planned, so we would first have to go north to Picayune and take route 43 to I-10 east. As the contra-flow started and all northbound traffic was routed to the “wrong” side of the road, we yelled in tired disbelief when we found that the Picayune exit was closed.

So we crawled our way to Poplarville, where the radio told us we could catch route 26 to Mobile. But that too was closed.

Was this a conspiracy or just the twilight zone? Somebody didn’t want us to leave Mississippi.

So we crawled all the way on I-59 to Laurel, MS, some 30 miles north of Hattiesburg. Our top speed of 50 mph happened only twice, for no more than 2 minutes. Our average speed fluctuated between 10 and 20 miles per hour. Sometimes it was no more than a single digit.

Some passengers adjusted very well to the situation. An old old man shuffled with his cane in the middle of traffic, puffing away at his inhaler, pausing to pet a dog in a stranger’s car. Another man raced alongside a car for fun. Yet another started walking to see if he could go further faster. He did.

We opened the cat carriers and encouraged Diamond and Moo to explore the car. Moo happily crunched on her dry food while Diamond explored every corner and crevice. She finally landed on my lap, where she would spend most of the ride, purring and shedding too much fur from stress. Her presence put me at ease.

We clapped when Senator Barack Obama called our local news station to express his concern.

“My heart goes out to those whose lives have been interrupted,” he remarked.

Lives, interrupted, stuck on a highway in Mississippi. Obama’s voice was oddly comforting. Our own President still hadn’t commented on the situation. I paused to consider how simple everything had become: everything we needed was in our car. We used a highway map to navigate the state with the slogan “Like Coming Home.” We listened to AM radio for storm and traffic information. We ate bagels out of our cooler and, one of us was even forced to use a plastic bottle to urinate. Was it desperation or making the best of a bad situation? I was pretty sure it was the latter. As I looked at other Louisianans crawling by in cars, no one looked even remotely irate. Many smiled. Everyone was doing the same thing: listening to the news on the radio, moving their right foot from gas to brake, looking straight ahead.

And we all desperately needed the bathroom. Many couldn’t wait. In fact, we passed several urine-filled plastic bottles before we reached Laurel, which happens to be my middle name.

In Laurel we finally found a bathroom and gas station and a ton of New Orleanians lining up for both. I chatted with a girl from Metairie who had also been in the car for 9 hours. We had been in the car for 8. On a normal day, Laurel would’ve taken us no more than two.

The town of Laurel connected us with highway 84, a windy and beautifully empty road. 84 took us straight across the southern width of Alabama. Gustav’s preemptive strikes brought us pockets of wind and rain; we even saw the makings of a tornado, spinning dangerously close to land in the distance. Diamond burrowed her head in my arms and Moo willingly hid in her cage as rain pounded our roof.

We were mostly the only vehicle on the road. No more evacuees, no more gas stations or bathrooms— our landscape now consisted of rolling hills, trees, cow pastures and billboards advertising God.

When we finally exited route 84 and the deceptively wide state of Alabama, it was after 10 p.m. 18 hours on the road. Moo continued to hunker down in her cage as I fed her cat treats. Diamond hid in a tiny space wedged between the Playstation 3 and a suitcase as Highway 231 took us down into Florida.

30 miles outside of Tallahassee, a car accident caused traffic to backup in a freakishly familiar way. We followed a detour that took us down narrow one-way hills. A rabbit narrowly escaped our wheels. Moo started meowing uncontrollably as she jumped around the backseat, nervous and stir crazy from the long ride and the winding roads. What could happen next?

Luckily “next” finally happened to be our hotel. We pulled up to the reception hall at 12:30 a.m. Haz and I congratulated the cats, whose patience and remarkable adaptability had well surpassed ours. They were officially New Orleans cats, pet evacuees. We knew they could endure this again, if they had to. But could we?

Haz told the guy at reception that we had been in the car for exactly 19 point 5 hours.

“Well, you’ve been through enough,” he said as he passed Haz the room key.

And we still had no idea what was in store for us, or our city.

But at least we knew our cats would weather the storm.


Monday, September 1, 2008


—Should we stay or should we go now? If we go there will be trouble… and if we stay it will be double… by The Clash

PHASE 1: August 26-30 2008

I stepped outside to look around.
The air is thick with water; the sun’s heat is fierce.
My neighbor across the street throws coolers, pillows, and boxes into his car.
He’s wearing an “I love NOLA” shirt.
In the sky, a helicopter swings by.
The Sunday paper is at my feet. I almost trip on it.
After all, it’s only Saturday.

So it’s officially real. Our Sunday paper was delivered on Saturday and it carries the same message: get out.

Gustav, the storm we’ve been hearing about for almost a week is finally making its slow, mean path towards here: to New Orleans, on the 3rd anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. The irony is so spellbinding that one local meteorologist just called Gustav Katrina by mistake.

So I shut off the TV. We’ve been watching the news nonstop since Tuesday, stopping briefly to watch the historic speeches of the Democratic National Convention so we wouldn’t miss out. Brian Williams interrupted one speech to bring us news of a monster storm headed for the Gulf. The anniversary of Hurricane Katrina was mentioned in the same sentence.

On Wednesday morning, as I was delivering my fidgety second grade students to physical education class, the PE instructor yelled a question across the yard:

“Ms. Dayeh! Did you get your flight yet?”

Flight? I looked at Ms. W with a confused expression. Then it hit me.

“Ohhhh…. “

She laughed as she told me she was going back to Tennessee, where she passed time for months after Katrina. This wasn’t the lackadaisical approach New Orleanians were famous for. This was pretty alarmist, even paranoid.

I smiled and shrugged. “I guess we might go to Dallas. My brother-in-law and Uncle are there . . . “

That evening my school held a faculty meeting devoted to “storm preparation.” We were urged to move all classroom items away from the windows no later than Friday. At the time, the storm was still in Haiti.

I came home that night and started to pack. I threw our wedding albums, passports, marriage license, birth certificates, social security cards, university diplomas, and cherished photos into a box. These are the things Katrina survivors told me they needed most. I even unearthed my boxed wedding dress and two cat carriers.

This preparation made me feel better, like I was being responsible, and not “waiting ‘till the last minute” as the news urged me not to. Haz declared that I was officially a New Orleanian, or rather a Post-Katrina New Orleanian— a new brand of Big Easy resident. While the former New Orleans city dweller would be quite fine with riding out the storm, or at least considering it, this new brand of citizen doesn’t even consider it. Not even for one minute. Not since Katrina.

The old brand of New Orleanian— as Haz most definitely is— looks at these storms and shrugs.

“Ah, could go anywhere,” he sighed.
“But it could come here,” I insisted.
“Yeah, but let’s wait a few days. These things always change,” he replied. “its part of the fun of living here.”

“Fun” is what storm evacuations used to be. Some even called them “e-vacations.” New Orleanians used to delight in throwing a few days’ worth of clothes in a bag, and randomly taking off for Memphis, Houston, Atlanta, the Gulf Coast beaches, or other scattered destinations. It was part of what made New Orleans permanently feel as a temporary place— the idea that at any time you might have to drop everything and go.

That was before what everyone calls “the storm.” Since Katrina, there hasn’t been even one single evacuation. Not even a real scare. So this Gustav, threatening to knock down our door, is the one we’ve all been waiting for.

We all knew the first “big one” after Katrina would be bad. I just didn’t think New Orleanians were capable of such mass hysteria.

Thursday night, as I sat in one of my grad classes at the University of New Orleans, everyone asked each other “so we are y’all gonna go?” The message was clear. The word evacuation wasn’t necessary. My professor ended class an hour early so we could all “go home and prepare.”

I went home that night and watched the news. To me, it looked like Gustav wanted to go to Houston, but was contemplating New Orleans. Haz, having spent most of his years in the area pre-Katrina, continued to consider the whole ordeal a farce.

“The damn thing hasn’t hit Cuba yet!” he said.

By Friday it was in Jamaica. The red swirly swirl was getting larger on the weather reports. An eye was now visible. Parents came to pick up their children early at school. I asked one mother:

“So what are your plans? Are y’all leaving?”

She turned and looked at me and said:

“Yes, indeed. We’re outta here.”


“Tonight. Not a minute later.”

Her son looked up.

“Does that mean no football practice?”

She laughed. “No way. Time to get on the road.”

Earlier that day, my students arrived in the classroom full of questions and comments of the hurricane variety. They had actually been talking about it since Wednesday.

“I’m gonna lose everything again!” one girl exclaimed.

“That thing is going to blow the city away!” a boy yelled.

I tried to calm them. I tried to reassure them that it “might” come this way, but it also “might” go to Texas, or Florida. I told them it wasn’t as big as storm as Katrina.

Later, when the custodial staff covered my classroom computers with garbage bags, they all asked “why?”

I gulped and lied. “The classroom gets really dusty on the weekends. The bags protect the computers from getting too dirty.”

I think they actually believed me.

But there was no point in talking like this to the parents. They noticed the garbage-bag covered computers and nodded, as if that confirmed their resolve to leave. This time wouldn’t be like the last.

Many of my coworkers, some of them Katrina survivors, felt the same. I had to sign an “evacuation list” before I left work on Friday. Our school’s faculty is now scattered all over the country: in Mississippi, Texas, Colorado, New York, and Illinois. Our principal already declared no school until Thursday next week.

Haz and I decided to go out to dinner that night. We drove across the city, past the Superdome, Arena, and central business district and across the Mississippi river to our favorite Vietnamese restaurant, Pho Tau Bay.

Pho Tau was as packed as usual. We gobbled down spring rolls and talked about where we should go. If we went. I mean, the storm was still being ambivalent. As we paid our bill, the cashier asked our plans and lamented the state of the city’s levees.

We watched the news until late that night. I threw 5 days’ worth of clothes and toilettries in a bag, along with some magazines and two books, in case I finished one.

We both woke up earlier than usual, today, on Saturday. Nearby local parishes were requiring mandatory evacuations, but not in Orleans. Haz’s extended family was heading out east to Tallahassee, where the storm most certainly wouldn’t go. We spent the day contemplating Dallas or Tallahassee, Dallas or Tallahassee. One destination would put us in a budget hotel for 4 days with 2 cats, while the other would put us at Haz’s brother’s house, though potentially on the wrong side of the storm.

As I started to read the Sunday paper and showed it to Haz, our doorbell rang. It was our neighbor, Peggy, who had to be airlifted out of a building during Hurricane Katrina.

“I’m outta here, guys, just wanted to say goodbye.”

The panic in her voice and the frenzy in her gesturing hands made it all seem too close, too immediate. We weren’t finished packing. We still didn’t have a definite plan. The cats had no idea they were about to be in a car for as much as 12 hours. And the storm was now hitting Cuba.