November 16, 2018

Evacuating Hurricane Gustav

Dateline: Oxford, Alabama-

Time to pick up the travelogue as I will be doing the planes, trains, and automobiles thing for the next week or so. I’m not off to the most auspicious start. I left Birmingham last night late after my concert planning on spending the night in Atlanta somewhere. However, a major traffic accident that completely shut down I-20 East bound had other plans and, after something over three hours when I had only made it as far as Talladega, I decided to give up, call it a night and stay at the next available Hampton Inn which happened to be here in Oxford. Hampton Inn is my go to when I’m on the road. It’s left over from all my trips to rural West Virginia and Kentucky where it was the nicest hotel in town so I’ve been racking up the Hilton points for decades. I figure I have enough for a free stay at some posh Hilton in some world capital one of these days.

As I was sitting there in stop and go traffic, I couldn’t help but think of the hellacious traffic that must have existed as people tried to get out of Paradise, California last week. I lived for ten years in Sacramento when I was in my 20s and 30s and so I’m familiar with the gold rush towns of the Sierra Foothills and the roads in and out. I don’t think Alabamians have a clue as to how big a small town it was. Paradise was roughly five times the size of Jasper, the closest mountain town to Birmingham that would be an equivalent. (For the Seattle folks, five times the size of North Bend). I spend a good portion of my professional time these days doing rural house calls for the VA. Between that and all my years with the mine workers in and out of small town Appalachia, I have a pretty good picture of who lives in these areas. They are full of people with poor health, limited mobility, and straitened financial circumstance who cannot afford to live anywhere else. The ultimate death toll is likely to be in the hundreds.

I’m writing this on Saturday morning as I was in no mood to write last night after idling on the interstate for hours. It did bring my one and only experience with mass evacuation to mind. The year was 2008. Tommy and I, as we often did, decided to go to New Orleans for Labor Day Weekend. Labor Day Weekend in NOLA hosts a large festival for gay men known as Southern Decadence. Cheap drinks, street parties, lots of eye candy, a parade, and more. We arrived on Friday night, only to find out that Hurricane Gustav, which had been idling out in the gulf, was heading towards town. It was only three years after Katrina so everyone was on edge and the powers that be decided to close all the hotels as of Saturday at noon. Having just got there, we decided not to immediately head back (as the earliest landfall was predicted was early Monday morning) but rather to enjoy our Saturday as planned (and we had a place we could crash on Saturday night). Then, on Sunday morning, as we were finishing up brunch, the mandatory evacuation order for NOLA went out. Ah well, time to head home anyway and we had a full tank of gas. A little caravan of Birmingham friends headed off together for I-10 east bound across Lake Ponchartrain and then up I-59 through Mississippi. Unfortunately, we were joined by the entire population of the greater NOLA area. Even though all six lanes of the freeway were directed outbound, traffic came to a dead stop by the time we hit the Ponchartrain bridge and continued at a slow crawl through Slidell, Hattiesburg, Laurel. We eventually gave up and decided to try some back roads and became hopelessly lost for a while in the wilds of rural Mississippi. Sometime after midnight, we found I-20 near Meridian and were able to make it home. The trip which is usually between five and six hours had taken eighteen.

What I remember most vividly about the trip, other than Tommy and I sniping at each other out of boredom and because we had finished all the audiobooks we’d brought (pre downloading from Audible), was the relative good humor of all the evacuees. I didn’t see a lot of impatience or road rage. I also recall images of cars full of chronically ill and infirm people. We carry a hidden population of those who can’t do well for themselves in this society and we aren’t very good about helping them out in crisis situations. I wonder sometimes what sort of impact the inevitable aging and decline of the boomer is going to have on this particular piece of public policy. It’s a generation that has demanded and gotten what it’s wanted because of it’s size and demographic placement. Things are going to get awfully interesting starting in the 2030s when they hit their mid 80s. I should be retiring in the nick of time. God help my younger colleagues.

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