The first one for me was Georges, back in 1998. I couldn't make a decision. All day everybody was saying they weren't leaving New Orleans because of the storm; then that night I noticed them packing. My next-door neighbor, who played in a local rock band called Bag of Donuts, stopped by our house in Lakeview and told us his family was leaving, so my daughter Kate and I jumped in our car and drove all night long in stop-and-go traffic. The storm passed, without hurting our city.
Then there was Lili three years ago. We didn't get word of that storm fast enough, so we were stuck in the city as it headed straight at us. Then it jogged and missed us.
When Ivan came along last year, the city thought it had a "contra-flow" traffic plan down, but that was a total flop and it took us 12 hours to get out of New Orleans. Some old people died while trying to leave. I had called a colleague, Del, who lived in Shreveport, because I couldn't find a hotel room and Del said, "I'll help you" and got us a room in the Beacon Motel. I drove all night trying to keep ahead of Ivan while struggling to keep awake by blasting the air conditioning and slapping myself in the face. The Beacon turned out to be a place for hookers. You could rent a room by the hour. But that night it was half full of people like me from New Orleans. I think we put the hookers out of work for a couple of days.
After that, I swore I would not evacuate again. I said they'd have to bring a body bag for me next time.
But then reason -- or fear -- kicks in. In July, during Tropical Storm Cindy, about 1,500 trees came down. Knowing that helped. People said if that was only a tropical storm and it could do that, we're not sticking around for a hurricane. So this time, when Katrina approached, a lot of people got out, and the contra-flow worked! I was stuck in traffic for only 45 minutes and got to Baton Rouge in three hours.
My best friend, Katherine, a really smart woman who teaches Shakespeare, has never left. Every other time I evacuated, I would come back and find that everyone had been enjoying a beautiful sunny day in New Orleans while I was driving back. Katherine would say the storms jog, they always do. She'd say they will turn east. And Hurricane Katrina did, but that didn't help New Orleans this time.
Five times I called Katherine before I left last week. I'm so angry at her. I'm furious at her. And I feel guilty that I didn't find better words to persuade her to leave. It was her cats. She didn't want to leave the cats. But she had a Camry and a full tank of gas and a place to stay in Baton Rouge. I'm mad at her for causing so much anxiety for her friends and her mother. I don't know what's become of her.
Inever really felt at home in New Orleans. I'm from Arizona and if you're an outsider, you're never at home in New Orleans. It's a foreign culture; the government is corrupt and the church bells blow you out of bed each morning. I think it's the wonderful food and music that kept me there. And my teaching job.
The house? I'm sure it is totally gone. It was a cute little house. I fixed it up the way I liked it. Great location. I could walk to work if I had to, or to the drugstore or dentist. Everything you need is right there. Or was. Life was easy. I spruced up the back yard with elephant ears and banana trees. But I'm not mourning the house, just feeling the insecurity of not having it. I could have sold it for a lot more than the insurance company will pay me for the water-logged remains now.
We used to live in Lake Terrace. There was nothing between us and the lake, except the levee. Ha-ha. Lakeshore, East and West. Lake Vista. Lakeview a little south of that. It was as though these developments and neighborhoods were advertising their vulnerability.
Friday was supposed to be payday. I've been teaching English at a community college to the basic New Orleans public school kids and adults who didn't get educated in high school. It was totally mixed, racially and by age. I liked working there. Probably a lot of the students I teach didn't get out. They couldn't. You have to have a good car to get out of town. I wouldn't get on that highway with a car that wasn't in good shape; otherwise it might overheat and stall out. Then you'd be standing on the side of the highway in the middle of a hurricane.
One student, an honors student, was in a motorized wheelchair that he rode on roads all over town. We always talked about how he needed reflective tape on it. I wonder whether he managed to get out or whether he's one of the people in the Superdome.
I don't know whether I'll still be employed or paid or when or whether classes will ever start. At least my son Davy, a musician, knows. He has no job. He has been playing jazz guitar regularly at the gorgeous Windsor Court Hotel down by the river. I saw Sean Penn there once, and Elvis Costello. Now all the musicians and waitresses will be out of work for God knows how long.
My daughter Kate is the one in mourning. She is one of those New Orleans people whose heart is broken and who feel she has lost her city. I just feel guilty that I didn't suffer like so many others stuck there -- and that I didn't talk my friend into getting out.
The other night, in the safety of Baton Rouge, I had this weird dream that Davy and I were taking apart a movie facade in a French Quarter-like setting. There were price tags on the backs of the facades. We were worried that they might fall and hurt someone. A reporter came and thought we were looters. We said we were just trying to prevent people from getting hurt.
But in our own ways, all of us ended up getting hurt.
Sally Mooney is a 26-year New Orleans resident and a professor of English at Delgado Community College.