Thursday, September 22, 2005

Part 4: Where do we go now? Where do we go now? Ahhhahhahhhahhhahhhh...

Recap: The Entercom Bigwigs were just telling us that we had two choices: Go to the Superdome, or try our luck in an SUV. People without SUVs (us included) started panicking and crying. We didn't know what to do. The Dome was not an option for us, but we didn't have an SUV, either.

Mark remembered that Spud McConnell was talking about his 4Runner earlier, and how he had half a mind, as the waters started coming up, to just get in and leave. But he wouldn't do that to the company. He had a job to do. He signed up for it. He wouldn't abandon it. But now his job was ordering him to do it.

Before the people in charge finished speaking, Mark silently got off the couch next to me and made his way over to Spud. My mind racing a billion miles an hour, worrying about our lives and the cats' lives, I lowered my head into my hands. Suddenly, Mark was back at my side.

"Spud's going to take us," he whispered. I looked up quickly at him, then at Spud. The speech was over. Two more people walked up to Spud, Layla, a news girl, and Charlie, Mark's former supervisor when the Bayou was still adult contemporary and he was a DJ there. I looked at Mark again. "What about the cats?"

"Spud said we can bring them."

We ran down to the production room, packed as many things onto our backs as we could, leaving cat litter and water and our pillows behind. We met up with Spud near the stairs. He ran back to his office to get something.

The generator system was set up weird. There was one just for broadcasting purposes, and one just for living purposes. That one had been shut off for conservation, I assume. So all of Entercom, friends, family, and pets included, had to go down four flights of pitch black stairs in order to make it to safety. At one point, just as I didn't think I could make it anymore, Oldies sation Kool 95.7 DJ Tommy Tucker appeared behind me and offered to take Lily's carrier from me. He carried her until we reached the bottom and we had to split up to go to our respective parking garages.

Spud was parked in the Superdome garage. We were in the New Orleans Center garage. We did not have time to even check on our car. We had to go. Spud opened the back of his 4Runner and threw out his kids' sports equipment and a baby seat. "We needed a new one of these anyway," he said. He threw out a few jugs of water. A security guard walked past. "HEY!" Spud called, gesturing to the jugs. "Take these. You may need them!" The guard waved in acknowledgement. We piled all of our belongings into his vehicle. As we were about to pull off, Spud said, "Whose suitcase is that over there? That's not any of yours, is it?" Charlie looked at it.

"No, but it IS yours."

"Shit." He threw the car into park and grabbed it. I held it on my lap.

We flew out of the garage and met water instantly. We eased onto the street. We followed the directions we had been given for our evacuation. The water got deeper and deeper.

I should mention here that when they told us to evacuate, the water was only about halfway up the hubcaps of the cars left on the street. It took us maybe 15 minutes to get downstairs and load the car, then pull onto the street. By this point, the water was up to the windows of the 4Runner. That's about 3 or 4 FEET. In 15 MINUTES.

We ventured into the deep water. Suddenly, we stalled. In water up to the windows between the Dome and the New Orleans Arena. No one said a word. I closed my eyes and whispered, "Oh please oh please oh please oh please" over and over to myself. Spud kept turning it over and over and over, sweet talking the engine. "Come on, baby. Come on." I was running through my head what we could leave in the truck in order to save the cats, thinking we were about to lose my textbooks and our clothes and bathroom gear, when suddenly, the 4Runner purred to life. Spud thre the car in reverse and sped backwards. He turned around and went flying past the FEMA, National Guard, Red Cross, and local law enforcement guys. They all motioned for him to slow down, as he was kicking up an impressive wake. He rolled down his window and said, "No way. Not if I want to make it out!" A couple of large trucks from Wildlife and Fisheries pulled in front of us and went slowly. We were afraid of stalling again.

When we got to Loyola Drive, it was DRY. We flew down Loyola and made it to the first on-ramp to take us to the Crescent City Connection. When we got up the ramp, three vehicles were in front of us, and a fire engine was blocking our path. They were not allowing us up there. Spud backed down the ramp and went to Tchoupitoulas St., and was able to get on there. We made it onto the CCC and crossed the Mississippi River. We looked over and saw what we had just escaped. The Hyatt and the Dominion Tower looked like Oklahoma City. As we drove up the ramp and over the bridge, we saw old-time New Orleans-style houses that had collapsed. Bricks were everywhere. Trees were in buildings. Rooftops were missing. Water was rising everywhere around the CBD. The Dome? Even more impressive in its nakidity now that we could see the whole thing. No one looked back. Just ahead and sideways. We drove silently on.

Until Spud spoke.

"You know," said our actor savior, "In the movie version of all of this," he looked next to him at Layla. "You and I would be having an affair." He glanced behind him to see Mark behind Layla and me in the middle. "You two would still be married, but you would be 9 months pregnant and ready to pop." He looked in the mirror and saw Charlie on my left. "And you would be gay."

"Wait, why am I the gay one?"

"Two reasons. One, you're the only one I can't pair up with someone. And two, I'm not going to be the gay one. This is my movie."

We needed that. So desperately. We all lost it and giggled like school girls. Then we made it across the bridge.

Here on the West Bank, it was not water damage but wind damage. Billboard signs were bent in half. Buildings were missing fronts. Trees were down, blocking HWY 90. Spud messed up his antenna driving through the forest that was now HWY 90. We basically rode in silence, listening to WWL. It hit us. There were people on the air who were supposed to be leaving with us. Evidently, they didn't make it out due to the water. It was people we'd seen gathering their stuff and heading to vehicles. At the same time we were. They must have been in a different parking garage and were unable to get out.

We got to the 310 exit, and headed towards Baton Rouge. Spud asked if we had anywhere in particular we'd like to be dropped off. At this point, we had not even considered it. We just wanted out. Charlie and Layla are both LSU grads and had contacts. Charlie worked for a radio station, so he was going there. Layla's friend's parents live in Baton Rouge, so she was going there. Our cell phones were not working. We had no way of contacting anyone to tell them what we were doing or to see if someone could take us in.

I reached in my purse for a pack of gum. I realized that I had not brushed my teeth since Sunday night. That was also the last time I'd showered. On top of that, I'd just put on my clothes from Sunday after my shower because I was rushing to get back to the Dominion Tower before the Hyatt's evacuation took place and grabbed the wrong clothes. It was now Tuesday morning. We realized we were all probably pretty ripe. This was especially true for Charlie, Spud, Mark, and me, since we'd been in our sanctioned looting of the Sundries shop.

We discussed at one point that we felt like all of our work raiding the shop was for nothing. But once we turned on the radio and heard their stranded coworkers back on air, we felt we'd done something good. They would have plenty of food, drinks, and medicinal supplies. Enough to last for a while, if necessary.

We all chomped on that gum in silence. Everyone was grateful for it, as we were all so rank.

Around Gonzales, I checked my phone again. It worked!!! Verizon towers in the Baton Rouge area were apparently unharmed. I called my parents and told them that we were forced to evacuate. We were headed to Baton Rouge, but that was all we knew. Mark called his parents. They said they would pick us up in Baton Rouge and bring us to their house in Morgan City, which still had electricity. Charlie said we could hang out at the radio station until they came, if we needed to. We had a plan. Finally.

Spud decided he wanted to go to a Baton Rouge news station, because he felt they would want the personal story of us making it out of the storm, and going through it, too. We pulled up at Channel 2 Baton Rouge, and Spud led the way. He spoke to some people, who liked the idea, and they mic'd him up and put him on. They let us stand in the back, behind the camera man, to watch.

Here, we saw visuals of the city for the first time. We saw the extensive flooding. We saw buildings on fire. We saw flaming gas leaks. We saw submerged homes and cars. We saw crumpled buildings. We saw people waving for help on rooftops. We saw people carrying bags through chest-high water. We saw crying babies, children, adults, and eldery. We saw lost wet pets wandering streets and standing on houses. We saw trees down. We saw things you see in blockbuster summer disaster movies.

Then we saw Spud cry.

He lost it on the news. In front of the viewers. In front of the cameras. In front of the anchors. In front of us. We teared up with him. he shook his head, placing it in his massive paws. "I keep thinking of all of those people who called me last night. I bet 60 percent of those who called me, asking to be saved, scared out of their minds....I bet I was the last person they spoke to. And I couldn't help them. I bet 60 percent of those people are gone." He dissolved into tears.

Watching this large, confident, boisterous man break down in front of people was hard. He was our cheerleader. He was our savior. He was our guardian angel.

I swear, if anyone had told me a few days earlier that my guardian angel would be a very large foul-mouthed chain-smoking actor named Spud, I'd have laughed in that person's face. But here we were.

I leaned into Mark and cried quietly into his chest. Layla and Charlie wiped tears from their eyes. The anchors looked like they didn't know what to do. We composed ourselves, and Spud told the story of the rising waters, what the CBD looked like, and our dramatic escape. Then we were interrupted by a confirmation on where the 17th Street Canal breeched.

It was on the New Orleans side of the Canal. Near the Old Hammond Hwy. Bridge. One street and about 6-10 blocks away from our house. It was two blocks long, and there was no stopping the water yet. I choked back a huge sob. Mark pulled me out to the newsroom and outside. I launched into hysterics. I grabbed my cell phone and called my parents. I held myself together long enough until I told them the news. Then I was inconsolable again. This meant that not only did we lose our home and everything in it, we lost my car and my father's BP service station. We still weren't sure of the status of my brother's house in Old Metairie, nor did we know about my parents' house in North Metairie. Quite possibly, my family was completely wiped out.

Between Mark and my father, I quieted down. Then I talked to my mom and my brother and had to be calmed down every time I spoke to a new person. By this point, it was almost noon. We'd left Entercom around 6:45, 7 a.m. Spud was ready to roll.

We went to find food. We found out that Great Wall in Baton Rouge was open, and Spud praised it to the skies. When we got there, we were given a choice between a long table and a round table. Spud said, "Give us the round one. We want to be able to look at each other." It was a buffet, and it was just what we needed.

I thought back and realized that all I'd eaten since Sunday afternoon was: a small bowl of chicken and sausage gumbo, a packet of cheese and peanut butter crackers, a couple of Pringles, and a hot dog or two. It was now lunchtime on Tuesday. I hadn't eaten anything that day.

We scarfed our food like we would never see food again. Buffet was a great idea. We were so hungry. When the bill came, Spud grabbed the check. He wouldn't let us pay. He said that he had another job working on a movie in St. Francisville, but our jobs were probably doubtful. He said he makes a lot more money off movies than radio, so lunch was on him. He wouldn't let us touch the check. We were even more in this man's debt, but he wouldn't hear any of it from any of us. His word was final.

We dropped off Charlie and Layla at the radio station. Spud brought us back to Channel 2. Before he left, I gave him a huge hug. We sat around waiting for Mark's parents.

They got there shortly after, and we took the almost two-hour ride to Morgan City. We were supposed to be there the next weekend, Labor Day Weekend, for the Shrimp and Petroleum Festival. (Yes, you read that right. I like to call it "The Greasy Prawns Festival.")

Stay tuned for Part 5: Everything starts sinking in in Morgan City.


Blake said...

Wow. That's incredible, Aimee -- I'm so glad you guys are safe, and so sorry you had to go through all that. And if there's anything I can do to help, just let me know.

Y'know, I listen to Spud all the time -- I've even talked to him a few times, since he draws editorial cartoons for us at the Guide, and I wish his listeners could hear stories like this to know what a class act he really is.

Misti said...

Wow...that's just amazing. I can't believe all what you went through. Be glad you have journaled it all.

Em said...

Sitting here I just can't take in what you went through. But thank you for writing it and sharing it with us.