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Escape from New Orleans

{ Archive: the following essay appeared in Java Magazine in 2005 – Photos (except old family photo) by Jon Gipe }

The hurricane victims landed in Phoenix wearing the same clothes they’d been in for five days. I met them at the gate, the last two off the plane. Each hugged a faux leopard skin purse and a carry-on bag—literally a brown paper grocery sack—containing everything they owned. It wasn’t until we got home and laid out the contents of the bags that I learned just what everything they owned was. They wore, by their own admission, their very worst clothes—mismatched and tattered. In contrast they were bedecked in their finest jewels. Their faces were colorless, except for the dark hollows under their eyes. I would hardly have recognized them if it hadn’t been for the ash blonde wig one insisted on wearing—as a hat. They should have been given wheelchairs but, in the grand finale to all they’d been through, they walked the long jetway and collapsed on the first seats they found and began to cry. They looked like they’d been through battle and hadn’t slept in days—in actuality, they had and they hadn’t. One said she had aged 10 years (making her 103) since they evacuated their homes and headed for higher ground: a friend’s second-floor condo a few miles away.

The two sisters, my aunts, were born in New Orleans in the nineteen-teens. They married there, buried husbands there, and expected to die there. That’s not going to happen. They will probably return to New Orleans only to sell their property—or what’s left of it. Both lived in the area claimed by Lake Pontchartrain, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Rosalie is the oldest sister of four, born to Sicilian immigrant parents. Her age has always been a carefully guarded secret, even though everyone in the family knows exactly how old she is. Let’s just say she was alive when the Titanic sank. Although, had she been aboard, she probably would not have survived—most likely traveling as a third-class passenger. Lee had no children, leaving her and an adoring husband free to travel the world. Her home is still decorated with mementos of their many trips abroad to places like Thailand and Fiji. Recalling photographs of her as a young beauty with almost jet-black hair, she was exotic. She lost the love of her life to cancer almost 30 years ago and hasn’t recovered yet. Her second husband, also deceased, owned a plantation home that, thanks to Katrina, now sits nearer the road and catty-corner to its foundation. Lee rarely misses her weekly bridge game, but her favorite pastime, without a doubt, has been her frequent trips to Biloxi to feed coins into a slot machine. She left behind her beloved orange tabby, Minew.

Antoinette is the next born sister. Like Lee, she had no children. Unlike Lee, she traveled Lousiana and surrounding states instead of the world. She worked for the City of New Orleans until retiring in 1978. She could always be counted on when one of us needed an emergency copy of our birth certificate or a room at the sold-out Hotel Monteleone in the French Quarter. If you didn’t have a Key to the City of New Orleans, you didn’t know Aunt Toni. The year she retired her husband fell ill with emphysema. Her golden years have been spent tending his poor health and, after he died, her own. Toni considers herself the sensible one, and Lee the lucky one. She’s proud to say that she does for herself and doesn’t mind if you know that she recently turned 90. Since the Superdome opened 31 years ago, unless she was out of town (or in the hospital), she’s occupied the same seat for every Saints game. She left behind soggy season tickets and a brand-new DVD player. Lee and Toni are the two surviving members of a social club that calls themselves the Twenty-Niners.

Frances, Rosalie, Rosemary, Antoinette

A third sister, Rosemary, did follow the mayor’s order to evacuate New Orleans. She drove to Texas with friends before the hurricane hit. With plans to meet her new great granddaughter in Phoenix a week later, she was all packed for the trip. Unfortunately those bags are sitting on her bed at home, underwater. She’s recently widowed. Even more devastating, she had just decided to sell her home and move to Arizona to be close to her daughter.

My mother Frances is the baby. Even though she left New Orleans 40 years ago, New Orleans hasn’t left her. While most people can’t quite place her accent, her southern eccentricity is unmistakable. I’ve never seen her in the same outfit twice, and we’re no longer surprised when she shows up at family gatherings wearing a hot pink fur vest and matching boots. All four sisters own parasols, dance The Second Line, and know to watch out for flying cabbages when New Orleans puts on its St. Patrick’s Day Parade. They can open, pick, and suck the sweet meat from a boiled crab in record time and know the best places to get a muffuletta, an oyster po-boy, or a Sazerac. They talk loud and laugh a lot.

Because I had loved ones in the direct path of a Category 5 hurricane, on Monday, August 29, 2005, I turned on the TV, expecting news. I switched between CNN, MSNBC and The Weather Channel, at first annoyed and then oddly entertained by the idiotic newscasters, wearing brightly colored rain parkas emblazoned with their network’s insignia, standing under power lines and immense marquees, bracing themselves against 100 mph-plus winds as torrents of rain assaulted them and flying debris whipped past. When Katrina had finished her ravage, we breathed a sigh of relief. Then the levees broke.

While we watched the horrifying updates, Lee and Toni passed the hours in the darkened condo with no running water, no air conditioning, and a dwindling supply of food. Amazingly, we had telephone contact with them. It’s scary to think what would have happened to them if we hadn’t. That’s how I learned that they were clueless about the conditions surrounding them. On Tuesday, the day after the hurricane, they reported the sun was out, the streets were dry, and the few other residents remaining at the complex were enjoying a swim in the community pool—probably taking a bath. It sounded like Shangri-La, except for one thing: their city was flooded, and polluted water was rising rapidly around them. The problem was, they didn’t believe it.

I called the Red Cross, redialing umpteen times before getting through, only to be placed on hold for hours. Their names were put on a list for evacuation, but it was clear they weren’t a priority. They had food, two gallons of drinking water, and they were on dry land. There were thousands that needed rescuing more urgently. I told the aunts that they should be ready to go if and when Red Cross arrived to take them to a shelter. They declined the offer, saying they preferred the condo to a shelter. Lee described it as luxurious and tried to convince me that an elegant gold-framed mirror that practically covered one wall of the living room was worth staying for. Certain they were better off in the artfully decorated condo, they resisted our efforts to see them rescued. Apparently it was no trouble hauling pitchers of water dipped from the swimming pool up more than a dozen steps every time they needed to flush the toilet—a frightening prospect considering that Toni, barely released from physical therapy after a fall fractured her pelvis, walks with a cane. And Lee is prone to dizzy spells.

All day Wednesday nieces and nephews across the country pleaded with them to call for help. It became increasingly difficult for outsiders to reach Red Cross, and when we did, we were told they would be picked up—eventually. We were unable to help them. They were on their fourth day in the condo, two days beyond the sandwich rations they had packed. They subsisted on peanut butter and crackers and still reported having two gallons of water. In an emotional attempt to convince Toni that they wouldn’t survive another day, Mr. Lee ordered her to call 911. She didn’t.

Thursday morning they woke up to find that the last remaining residents of the complex had evacuated during the night, leaving them completely alone. Toni was sleeping on and off all day, hardly eating. It was sweltering inside. The situation, while not considered an emergency by Red Cross, was grave. We were getting desperate. After two days phoning every resource from the Louisiana State Police to the U.S. Coast Guard, one cousin reached the local Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s office and arranged a rescue. Although it was good news, the feeling of helplessness grew. They would likely be dropped off at a shelter somewhere in the city and we would lose what contact we had. They were instructed to gather their belongings and leave with the civil sheriff—no questions asked. When I checked in an hour later I learned Toni was taking a nap. She knew nothing about the escape. Apparently confused, Lee had taken the call and forgot to mention it. They were disoriented and suffering from dehydration. They still had two gallons of water, which meant that they were doing a good job of conserving it by not drinking.

These two nonagenarians are no strangers to hurricanes. They have lived with the threat of one practically every year and survived the furies of Betsy and Camille. They’re accustomed to going days without electricity with nothing but a radio, a flashlight and a bag of batteries. This was the first mandatory evacuation they remember and only the second time they fled their homes. The sisters don’t agree on much, but on this point they emphatically do: ten hours stuffed in a car in bumper-to-bumper traffic to travel 78 miles only to turn around and come back the very next day wasn’t worth it. It’s no doubt why they didn’t bother to follow the lead of their peers who evacuated the city. Even the friend who owns the condo where they were staying left town. Instead they packed up a change of clothes, a few sandwiches, an arsenal of medicine, and all the jewelry they own. They convinced a neighbor to drop them off at the condo on her way to North Carolina.

While they waited for their rescue, I reminded Toni there would be two plane tickets waiting for them, and that their ultimate goal was to get to an airport. I told her to insist on it and made her repeat the mantra, “Get to the airport.” She’s a survivor. Still, that last phone call was difficult. Who knew when—or if—we’d talk again? Late that afternoon a retired officer, temporarily on duty to help with the disaster, showed up in his patrol car, gathered my aunts, their purses and brown paper sacks. They made a last-minute fumble in the dark for things like eyeglasses that unfortunately didn’t make the trip, and a wig that did. Most

important, they went with the officer—no questions asked. They even gave him a parting gift: the infamous two gallons of water and remaining ice cubes from the freezer, which were as good as gold. I did feel a twinge of guilt about unleashing my Aunt Toni on the unsuspecting police officer, but I’m certain it was due to her tenacity that the patrol car zoomed past shelter after shelter before delivering them to the New Orleans airport, where they boarded an unmarked aircraft, landed at a military airfield in Houston, and then got on a bus headed for the Astrodome, a bus on which they waited seven hours to be processed and rerouted when the Fire Marshal declared it full. Armed guards were placed at the bus exits, holding passengers inside. At 3:00 am, 12 hours after being retrieved from the condo, they ended up at the brand-new Reliant Arena just off the Astrodome—plush, as evacuation centers go.

Still, I had no idea if they made it out of New Orleans. Just when it felt like we’d really thrown them to the wolves—two frightened old women huddled in a dark corner of a crowded, smelly shelter clutching their jewels and dreaming longingly of the chic condo they had been forced to evacuate—the phone rang. On the other end of a terrible connection, Lee was elated to report that they made it all the way to Houston. She was giddy—a rare occurrence. Toni managed to raise hell about the seven hours stuck waiting on the bus. This was a good sign that she was fine. I told them to find a Red Cross volunteer with a phone, and call back in half an hour. I bought seats on the next flight to Phoenix and waited for their call. It didn’t come until 4:30 the next morning. A stranger identified himself as a volunteer, and I could hear familiar voices in the background. Chris wasn’t with Red Cross, just a genuinely kind human being who showed up to offer whatever help he could. He said he couldn’t just sit back and watch it on TV anymore. I gave him the flight details and he promised to get them to the airport. The aunts had one question: Did I get the senior citizen discount?

Getting to the airport meant hailing a taxi at the opposite end of the Astrodome from the Reliant Arena. When the aunts refused a lift on a golf cart because they would have to split up, Chris finagled a ride from the Houston Fire Department, which happened to have a vehicle nearby. If Toni and Lee had been keeping track, they could have added a fire truck to their long list of transportation devices used that day. The firemen handed them over to the Houston Police Department, who hailed a cab. When they arrived at the airport they were questioned about having one-way tickets and no evidence of luggage. Toni set them straight and told the agents at security to be careful with her Dorinac’s grocery sack because it was the only one she had.

Meanwhile I fixed up a room and emptied some drawers and a tiny space in the closet. On the way to the airport I stopped for a few groceries and picked up some prunes—just in case. We had a teary reunion at Gate 6A, followed by a loud reunion at my house with all four sisters and assorted nieces. My mother showed up with what she considers some of life’s essentials: palettes of eye-shadow and blush from her days as a Mary Kay consultant.

The aunts have been staying with me temporarily. Of course, we’ve had to set up a few ground rules. No sitting behind me while I’m working—I can hear you sighing. Repeating and reminding: three times max. And what is with all the talcum powder on the bathroom floor and walls? White handprints in the door jambs and footprints on the carpet leading to the bed—it looks like the crime scene of an unfortunate powdered beignet.

On my last visit to New Orleans, ironically only two weeks before Hurricane Katrina was born, Lee and Toni told me they were too old to travel. When I reminded them of that conversation, we laughed. They are strong women, these two. They have been through an incredible ordeal. They’ve lost everything and we’re trying to help them pick up the pieces. We’ll take them back in a few months to salvage what they can, but they’ll likely be settling out west permanently. And when they do, I’m sure we’ll have a parade.

Update September 2005: We just learned that certain areas adjacent to Lake Pontchartrain didn’t receive as severe damage as others. Lee’s house is nearest the levee breach, but it sits on higher ground. Her slightly skinnier cat, Minew, survived. Toni had one comment: “Lee’s so damn lucky!”

Update July 2011: Toni died in November, 2007 without ever making it back to New Orleans, or having closure for her loss. She never recovered, and I count her as one of the casualties of Katrina. In January of 2006, five months after the hurricane, I delivered Lee back to her home in New Orleans, where she has lived ever since. She’s ninety-nine.

Update Final: Lee died at the end of August, 2011. A little more than a week earlier she went to the beauty parlor, had her hair colored, and made a last trip to the casino. When I asked how she did, she replied, “Pitiful! I didn’t win a red nickel.” That makes sense because she was playing the penny slots. The night before she died, I called her and told her I loved her. She couldn’t respond, but I heard her trying. I’m sure she was telling me she loved me too. After that phone call I broke down. I knew it was the end of an era. I would never again hear her say, “You’re crazy, you know that. Just like your daddy.”

These two women loved life. They didn’t have children, but they did a good job of mothering six nieces.

They say that when we lose our parents we lose our biggest fans. I know that I’ve lost two more of mine.

View the series, New Orleans, 1979, and New Orleans, 1986, black and white photographs by Jon Gipe

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