No Easy Road Home
Wednesday, September 3, 2008
NEW ORLEANS, Sept. 2 -- The sky was royal blue between the puffy clouds, and the sun was so hot that marbles of sweat were rolling down the face of the Louisiana state trooper as he told the people he encountered at an interstate roadblock that, sorry, it was just way too dangerous for them to be going home now.
This news seemed incredible to some folks who had been driving all night, had run out of gas and money, and just wanted to go home. But such are the ironies of a hurricane's aftermath: Even on a beautiful day, bad weather can foil you. The reason you can't go home, officials tell you over and over on the radio, is your home has no power -- but neither does the motel room where you took shelter, so what's the difference?
The final irony: The lessons of Katrina that worked so well during Gustav were starting to be unlearned yesterday. As generals fight the last war, so people prepare for the last hurricane.
"The next one, I'm staying," vowed Reynold LeBouef Jr., who, after Katrina, shrewdly got in the house-raising business to supplement his and his dad's struggling shrimp trawling operation in Terrebonne Parish. "I have better resources."
"I'm not leaving no matter what no more," said his father and shrimping partner, Reynold Sr. "I'm putting up with too much [expletive]."
Those hassles included, they said, renting two rooms in a motel near Baton Rouge, where the roof blew off and the rain seeped into their bottom-floor rooms, where Tunisia, junior's mother and senior's wife, was also staying, along with their border collie, Lady Byrd Dawg. They were still charged $61.05 per room per night, then watched the motel staff lock the office and evacuate themselves. Trying to get home, they were detoured twice by police, and were finally blocked from continuing east on Interstate 10 about 20 miles west of New Orleans.
They caravanned in two pickup trucks and a Dodge minivan with Rhonda Bruce and her fiance, Sedrick Johnson, who also had learned his new lesson: "It's better to stay. Look where we are now. We're in a worse position."
Where they were now was near the roadblock at the only gas station plaza open for miles, a Shell station where a borderline "Mad Max" scene was unfolding, with credit cards instead of guns. But before we go there, let's return to the roadblocks, where plump dragonflies were buzzing merrily back and forth across the police lines in the summer sun.
Listen, Lt. Eddie Moses of the state police is not a hardhearted man. He had sympathy for these folks. But the governor and local officials had decided it would be easier to fix the city without the citizens.
"I am looking at the nature and the need of it," he said, explaining his method of screening people. Folks with one of two types of passes indicating they were business owners or first responders, he waved right through. The easiest way to apply for those passes was online -- an impossibility for anyone who forgot to deal with it before the power went out.
A Kia SUV rolled up to a nearby checkpoint running on fumes and stopped dead a few feet beyond. One of Moses's colleagues in his squad car gave it a push to the gas station. The family inside had actually made it home to St. John Parish from the Jackson, Miss., area, then ran out of gas hunting for an open store in order to buy food.
Herbert Floyd, 25, a carpenter, got stopped in his red Camaro, trying to get home to New Orleans. The needle of his gas gauge was on E.