Monday, September 08, 2008

Gustav and Me

So last weekend I found myself in the middle of the mandatory evacuation of New Orleans as Hurricane Gustav barreled toward the Gulf Coast.

What in the world was I doing in New Orleans on the eve of a hurricane, you ask?

Well, I was a featured speaker - and performer - at one of my favorite writing workshops, Heather Graham’s Writers for New Orleans Workshop.

I guess it must have seemed rash of me not to just cancel the trip, but I went down on Wednesday, before anyone really knew where the storm was going to hit and at what strength, and I was committed to showing up at the workshop as long as it was still on – it would have left Heather in too much of a lurch to have all her speakers canceling on her.

As it turned out, we spent a lot of the time we did have down there watching the weather forecasts and listening to half the locals say that everyone was overreacting – at the same time that businesses all over the French Quarter were closing down and boarding up. Faux News was screaming gloom and doom, while the Weather Channel kept saying that no one would know anything until Monday. No one could really talk about anything else.

I have to say - earthquakes are less time-consuming. Really. Because there’s no build up. They hit, period, end of story, and then you deal with whatever the damage is. No one talks about them before, because you never know at all when or if they’re going to hit. Well, except for that anxiety that takes over native Californians when the winds are hot and dry off the desert – the infamous Santa Anas) and the ground seems to just bake under you. We call that “earthquake weather” and it makes anyone who grew up in the state jittery, even though there’s apparently no proven correlation between Santa Anas and earthquakes.

But with hurricanes, you know they’re coming, but you don’t know exactly where. It stops time and momentum. All you can do is talk about it, but no one really knows how bad it’s going to be. Having been through it now, I’m not a big fan of that tension, myself. It’s the damn back-and-forth that will kill you.

Anyway, those of us who decided to tough it out – including authors Harley Jane Kozak, F. Paul Wilson, Nathan Walpow, Dave Simms, Kathy Love, Erin McCarthy, Cathy Maxwell and Kathy Pickering; editors Kate Duffy, Leslie Wainger and Adam Wilson; Barbara Vey from Publishers Weekly, Medallion Press publisher Helen Rosburg - just went on with the show – rehearsal for Heather’s traditional Saturday musical (this year, “Pirates! A Fractured History of the Lafitte Brothers in New Orleans”, with songs like "Louie, Louie", "Smoke on the Water", "Come Sail Away", and "You’re No Good"), then an opening party featuring vampire band The Impalers at the Monteleone Hotel, then on to Helen Rosburg’s lavish Victorian party, upstairs at Muriel’s on Jackson Square – an old (and of course, haunted) New Orleans mansion preserved in period splendor – from formal rooms to red wallpapered bordello and séance rooms crammed with Victoriana, from red velvet love seats to erotic paintings to sarcophagi. Psychics were on hand to tell fortunes, a photographer was taking portraits of us in our Victorian garb (designed and built by the fabulous Connie Perry) in the bordello room, and people played charades in the parlor, while others ate at the multiple carving stations in the ballroom

After midnight (and changing out of poufy Victorian dresses) the party reconvened on Bourbon Street… with more Impalers… so to speak…

Even so, I got a decent six hours of sleep that night… er, morning… for which I was grateful, considering how the next day turned out.

Saturday the opening breakfast was served at the top of the hotel, a fabulous view of the Mississippi and a fabulous spread of food, and I was very grateful to have the chance to talk with legendary Kensington editor Kate Duffy at breakfast and confide my third book what-do-I-call-the-damn-thing title woes; she offered to help brainstorm, but when I told her the front-running choice was THE UNSEEN, she told me in Duffyesque pull-no-punches style – “But that IS the title. It’s eerie, it’s two words and nine letters” (she said without even blinking; she must have one of those calculator minds)… “It fits perfectly on a cover – why are you still looking?”

Then the program started, with bestselling authors F. Paul Wilson and Cathy Maxwell providing the featured chat over breakfast… and about half an hour into it the hotel manager interrupted to announce that Mayor Nagin had declared a mandatory evacuation and that the hotel was closing down. All tourists were asked to go to the airport (there were shuttles provided at another hotel) and our flights would be rescheduled to get us out early.

Okay, fine. We all knew this could happen. We knew we were headed for a freeway that looked like a parking lot and an airport that would look like a refugee camp, but it was so sunny and still… not like a hurricane at all.

The thing is, there were about 18 in our immediate party, half of that being Heather’s family, with two vans to accommodate all of us - and you know how it is getting a group that size to do anything, even when there isn’t a hurricane and a mandatory evacuation…

It was kind of fascinating what happened. We all were trying to pack at the same time that we were on our cell phones trying to get hold of our airlines to rebook flights and track down everyone else at the hotel, but the connections kept dropping, and there was an adrenaline charge to the whole thing… spaciness, fast compulsive talking, sudden outbreaks of tears. It wasn’t as if we were in any immediate danger; the major stressor was trying to decide if we should take our chances trying to get flights out of town at the New Orleans airport, which was apparently going to shut down completely on Sunday at 6, or drive out of town to some other airport to fly out from there. I didn’t like that idea myself, having seen endless news footage of what highways look like during an evacuation, but this was all new to me, so I busied myself collecting every available foodstuff and especially bottled water I could find in the hotel, since we’d heard that all the airport vendors had already closed down their shops and left.

It was an interesting four-hour ride to the airport (which is usually about a half hour trip from the Quarter). One hour was stopping at the ER of Tulane Hospital, as one of our party had developed a staph infection that had to be treated right away and we didn’t want to split up. That was a bit surreal, as all of downtown was completely deserted except for a few construction crews boarding up windows and a lot of emergency vehicles and National Guard. The upside is that there was no waiting in the ER, as no other patients were there. It was also hot as hell, with sun blazing down and no wind whatsoever.

On the freeway at last, it was, of course, a parking lot; the agonizing crawl only broken up once in a while by the scream of police escorts taking buses of prisoners out of town.

We had another hour detour on that ride when someone spotted a lone Burger King that was actually open and we spent an hour in that drive-through line (they wouldn’t let anyone inside the store) to get what might be the only hot meal we could get in the next 24 hours. All they had left were chicken nuggets, French fries and diet Cokes, but in evacuation panic mode we managed to get $150 worth of them. I didn’t know it was possible to spend $150 in a fast-food drive-through, but when we finally got to the airport the TSA guys joked that we should be able to get a dollar a fry inside (we didn’t actually try.)

I had already missed the last flight out that day on my airline (which I could have booked several hours before, but I’d had a feeling I wouldn’t get to the airport in time). Half of us were able to get out on standby; the others of us, leaving about eight who’d have to fly out the next day, so we staked out some floor in the main terminal and set up camp for the night. All the vendors were indeed closed up except for the news shop, and we already really had all the junk food we could eat, but there were a few travel blankets and pillows to purchase. I built a little camp of suitcases for privacy (really mostly so that we wouldn’t get stepped on – people were uniformly dazed and spacy and weren’t very conscious of where they were going).

Toni Causey very sweetly called and, so typically of her, offered to come pick all of us up and put us up at her house in Baton Rouge, but there really wasn’t any danger, and it made no sense to have her or Carl try to drive hours down and hours back; we were all resigned to getting what sleep we could on the floor.

It was a long, noisy, crowded and COLD night – I must have piled every piece of clothing I had on top of me and I was still freezing from the AC, even with all of those people crowded nearby. Barbara Vey was fun to have around, the intrepid reporter – she blogged live, with photos, and way early in the morning when the National Guard showed up with MREs and water for the masses, she had Heather film her opening various MREs and showing off the contents. I reflected in between dozing (awakened periodically by National Guard patrols) that all in all it was less stress than I would have felt actually rehearsing and performing the “Pirates!” show, although I really regretted not being able to do the panels and my screenwriting tips for novelists workshop. I do know that we’ll just be that much more ready to do “Pirates!” next year, so that’s a plus.

I had more anxiety in the morning when I woke up to find that my flight had been delayed five hours – and as I waited I saw more and more flights on the board being canceled, not something you want to contemplate on 2 hours of sleep… and the airport was shutting down at six… which made me feel rather like Dorothy staring at that damned hourglass… But finally I did get on the plane, and it was an uneventful flight back. Or maybe there was a foiled terrorist takeover, I was too fast asleep to notice.

The real anxiety started when I was home obsessively watching CNN, wondering if New Orleans was done for this time. But as we all know by now… lots of damage, but nothing catastrophic, thank God.

We’re still waiting to hear how much damage our favorite Louisiana bookstore, Bent Pages in Houma, sustained – we heard Molly and Kay lost the roof and are worried. We’re all ready to fly down and do a benefit, though. Um, “Pirates!”, anyone?

Otherwise, as they say, all’s well that ends well.

And you know… it makes a good story.

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