The View From Plum Lick
Before the storm
Three days before Hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana, my wife and I were driving south from Baton Rouge, east on I-10 to New Orleans. We looked to the right to Metairie Cemetery and paid our traditional respects to relatives buried there in the city where Lalie was born.
We exited at the Superdome and again marveled at its enormity. We looked again at the nearby handsome building that once had been the site of Bradford Furniture Company, pride and joy of Lalie’s great-grandmother, Maria.
We crossed Canal Street, crowded with tourists and local pedestrians. Everyone seemed bound to make the most of the Big Easy’s battle cry: “Let the good times roll!”
We entered the French Quarter, while Bourbon Street was still open to vehicles. Crowds were spilling over on the banquettes, humanity eager to be as bawdy as the law would allow—there was music and there was laughter!
Steamboat Captain Clark “Doc” Hawley was waiting for us in his second-floor home on Barracks Street. We kicked back and relived old days on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, not once mentioning the possibility of a Category Five hurricane.
Katrina was still out in the Gulf, destination unknown—surely it would not hit the mouth of the Mississippi, would not roll over the soul called Crescent City.
Doc, Lalie, and I drove back toward Canal Street and parked near the corner of Bourbon and Iberville. We promptly were seated at Galatoire’s, where the food and service were impeccable—no, not a crumb out of place.
There was a time when we fantasized living out our lives in the French Quarter, as if nothing could ever go wrong there. On our way back to our car, we looked into the faces of the merrymakers and were tempted to join them—but only for a brief, burning moment. Just that and nothing more.
Something told us to be heading west on I-10, back to Baton Rouge. We were among the fortunate who had a car filled with fuel and a place where we’d be welcome. Still, there was no panic, not yet. We were, we believed, excused from misfortune and destruction.
The following night we went to dinner in Lafayette, Louisiana, where again there was no discussion of a hurricane, not a word to trouble the gumbo and fried oysters.
But back in Baton Rouge that Friday night, hurricane warnings were increasing in intensity, and there was a suggestion that Katrina might be growing from Category Four to Category Five.
Wasn’t that Camille of 1969? Nothing that bad could happen again to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, could it? Surely not! Oh, no. And New Orleans—wasn’t it safe and sound?
On Saturday morning, the dreaded Category Five was roaring up the Mississippi. It was absolutely clear to Lalie and me, it was high time to get out of Dodge. We headed up U.S. 61 to Woodville, Mississippi, where Lalie had spent her childhood. A night of fitful sleep there and then, on the eve of Katrina’s arrival, we were back on Highway 61 to Natchez, then northeast on the Natchez Trace to Jackson, Mississippi. After checking in with relatives there, we were back on the road, this time to Jackson, Tennessee.
On Monday, when Katrina broke the hearts and the levees of New Orleans, we had crossed over the last state line and we were again at home in Kentucky. We had run a race against the winds of time. But what had we gained? What had we learned?
• Preparation for worst possible outcomes is time well-spent.
• Problems of poverty demand individual and collective action.
• Habitual frivolity will one day earn its just deserts.
• Blame-seeking after the fact is a poor excuse for critical, prior assessment.
• Well-placed charity is an ethical imperative.
After all, hurricanes did not begin and end with Katrina. Rita quickly followed, hitting the Gulf Coast, and there will be more. We need to be ready.