Yet another personal account of the disaster in New Orleans.
I was born in Louisiana and lived here for most of my life. We cajuns have always lived with the nagging fear of death and destruction falling from the skies. We remember Betsy and Camille. We've also seen the loss of our barrier islands and marshes that served as a buffer against the storms and knew that something bad was going to happen sooner or later.
My family is from Houma and the surrounding communities, about 60 miles south of New Orleans. Parts of Houma are 12 feet above sea level, whereas New Orleans averages about 5 feet below sea level, so in my seven years of living in the Big City, my first choice of where to evacuate (I've done this three times now, go figure) was south to Houma, a direction that always puzzled quite a number of my friends.
When I finally went to bed that Saturday, I suspected that the storm would at least sideswipe New Orleans. If memory serves, the winds were up to 135 MPH, but when I woke up 4 hours later at 6:30 AM (thanks, Amber), they had increased by 30 MPH. I couldn't believe that the windspeed had increased so much in such a short time. The storm looked huge on TV, and its eye stared at me onimously. I knew right then that we had to leave Metairie. We lived right off Metaire Road in Old Metairie at about 8 feet elevation, but I had been listening to Bob Breck for 7 years rant and rave about the bowl filling up and drowning everything in the entire metro area, so sticking around was not really an option.
To tell the truth, I really didn't feel comfortable weathering the storm at my parents' house. I was sure the storm was going to hit Terrebonne Parish. Andrew back in the 90s did considerable damage to the parish, and my Mom said that when the hurricane passed by, they thought the roof was going to come off due to the high winds. Fortunately, their roof sustained only minor damage. I was afraid that Katrina would pass even closer to their house, and that perhaps even the eye wall would pass over the area. My heart was filled with fear about the winds, because of the fact that in the space of just a few hours, the winds increased by 30 MPH, and by late morning they were reaching 175 MPH. I feared that they were going to strike our parish at speeds approaching 200 MPH, which would totally destroy any house standing in its path, in my mind. After talking it over with my Mom, I reluctantly decided to head down to their house to ride out the storm.
I managed to get our two vehicles packed and on the road by 12:30PM Sunday. I took what I deemed essential --- my business records, a few data CDs, 3 laptops, my desktop and a new server I had just acquired, the technical books I had recently been studying, and a few changes of clothes. My wife also packed the things she thought were necessary into her car and we left the city.
Airline Highway was jammed with cars, so we took the overpass to Jefferson Highway, made it to the Huey P. Long Bridge, and headed westbound down US Highway 90. As I anticipated, there was a bit of traffic from Avondale to Boutte. Once we got past the I-310 interchange, traffic was flowing quite well, and I think I got up to 65 MPH for a mile or so. However, as we approached the Raceland exit, there was a line of cars stretching for about a mile, and we were completely stopped for probably 20 minutes. Finally we started moving, and I considered getting off at the Kraemer exit, which would have brought us to Highway 308, but I decided against it and immediately regretted it. I did get off at Raceland once we started to move again, and 308 was clear, as was old Highway 90 (I forget the new name for it). We didn't have any more trouble getting to Mom's house.
During the drive to Mom's, my wife and I communicated with a pair of walkie-talkies I had picked up at Home Depot a few months earlier. I hadn't ever used them until the hurricane, but they worked very well, to my surprise. Incidentally, the trip normally takes 1 hour, but with all the traffic we made it in about 2.5 hours.