By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
"I ain't got no gas money," he said. "I don't know what I'm going to do. I'm hungry, that's why I'm trying to get home." The last time he ate was Monday evening, in a motel room. "Like, chips. There was no place you could get anything hot."
Who says the government can keep people out of their houses based not on many hundreds dead and entire neighborhoods submerged (Katrina), but just because of wind damage and power outages (Gustav)?
Actually, between spurts of outrage, the people of New Orleans seem prepared to give their government a break on this, at least for a day or two.
(In fact, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin announced late Tuesday that all city residents would be allowed to come back after 12:01 a.m. Thursday.)
It's hard to forget the last hurricane.
"I think this deal was run a whole lot better than Katrina," said Walter "Butch" Lewis.
Now we're at the Shell station, the LaPlace Travel Center, near the checkpoints on I-10 and I-55, the first open service station anyone has seen around here in days. Lewis and his wife, Karla, run the restaurant portion, the Huddle House, which was still closed, as were the restrooms.
Did the Lewises take officials' advice and evacuate from the area? Heck, no. They moved two big air mattresses into the windowless truckers lounge, next to the gas plaza's casino with slot machines (also closed for the storm), and rode out the hurricane with their four Chihuahuas and the Maltese.
Good thing, too, because they were there when the gas-thirsty hordes started arriving. A big $50,000 generator, installed after Katrina, provided power to the pumps. The casino was closed and so was the plaza convenience store (all those snacks!) because all the staff besides the Lewises had evacuated. The pumps still worked, though, after Karla fixed a computer glitch. There are "Mad Max" times, when gas can get more important than food.
Folks had to pay with credit cards, because there were no cashiers to deal with the money -- that's not the Lewises' department. This caused a problem. Not everybody fleeing a hurricane has a credit card.
But it was worked out: Some of the people with credit cards offered gas to the people with cash. Do you think they exploited the crisis and charged a profit? No, indeed. Did they give it away? Nope. The vital juice was re-sold to people in need at face value. And Floyd in his Camaro ran into a friend who spotted him 10 bucks.
Up and down the strip just off the interstates, the fast-food stores and other gas stations were closed. The Shell looked a little worse for wear, with big sheets of yellow-and-red aluminum dangling from the awning into the middle of the plaza.
Jane Lagarde and her 12-year-old daughter, Andi, slept in their Nissan Sentra in back of the plaza waiting for the gas station to open. They had driven from San Antonio, where they could have stayed in a shelter, but Lagarde didn't like the fact that the women's cots were mixed with the men's cots. They checked into a hotel for two nights, where they spent money they didn't really have. So they decided to come home. They were stopped at the checkpoint.
"In San Antonio, it was so nice," Lagarde said. "People were leading normal lives, and you wonder, why do I have to go through all this?"
She never got the message that she wouldn't be able to go home after the storm. "When they stop people, they should divert you to somewhere where there's a shelter and some restrooms," she said. With a defeated look on her face, she said she was heading back west, in search of another hotel.
Danielle Merritt can understand the checkpoint mentality, she really can. But after driving from McComb, Miss., and now being stopped 20 minutes from home in St. Charles Parish, she's not so patient.
"I don't care what danger's out there, I just want to see my house," she said. "I live in a little small town called Bayou Gauche, and we're completely surrounded by water as is. That's why I'm desperately trying to get home and see it." She works in a Winn-Dixie and was traveling by car with her 8-year-old daughter, Nicole, and caravanning with friends in four campers and another car. The campers had found a way around the police and were already home, ahead of the cars.
"We didn't have water or power where we were either, so we decided we'd rather camp in our yard," Merritt said.
"I don't think they're trying to keep people from their homes; they're trying to keep people out of danger," said Merritt's friend, Nicole Espey, a real estate agent who lives in Luling, La., traveling with her son Landon, 1, and her mother, Patricia Stanley. "But we were so close. And we were already without power and water."
The gas began to flow through the pump in Espey's hand. Like the campers, she would find another way back.
"Yes!" she cheered.
"Gas, gas, gas!" chanted Merritt.
"We're going home!" said Stanley, bouncing Landon in her arms. "We're going home!"