Monday, August 28, 2006

Katrina Morning in Antlers

One year and one day ago I was sitting in a hotel in Antlers Oklahoma.  I had no idea where I was, or how exactly I got there.  When I left Baton Rouge the day before I had a plan. That plan when critically wrong in Shreveport, LA. But that's the end of this story. Let me start at the beginning.

The twins and I lived in a small apartment in a beach community of Pinellas County, FL.  We had made it through the 2004 hurricane season, and were pretty used to evacuations and keeping our valuables in water tight containers.  We had water stored, we had dried foods, and we were ready.   We learned that hurricanes were not predictable when we got no warning to evacuate for  Dennis, which was far out in the Gulf and supposedly no threat, but our little island was flooded.  We were lucky.  Houses to the north and south of us on the beach were flooded out, and tornados ripped the roofs off other homes.

Hurricanes weren't our problem though.  I'd just gotten news from my doctor. The CT scans revealed lesions on both kidneys.  The probable diagnosis: kidney cancer.  I knew I couldn't raise the girls alone and go though the tests and (God forbid) chemo, so I decided to move west to Long Beach, CA, where my daughter lived. That way, should worst come to worst, Girl_Scientist could raise her little sisters.

The plan was to leave September 1, 2005.  But the best laid plans... well, you know.

At some point I'll transcribe my hand written diary of the trip here.  For now it's in one of those afore mentioned waterproof containers in a pile in my closet.  But there's a lot that I remember very clearly.  When we heard about Katrina coming, I was concerned, and wanted to leave BEFORE  the storm hit.  The last thing I wanted was to "hunker down" and face gas shortages or hotels filled with evacuees.  I knew I was in a race against time at that point.

We packed up the car and went to bed, and awoke in the morning pretty confident that we had plenty of time to get out of the 'hot zone'. Since the TV and radio had been already packed, we had no idea where Katrina was or the storm track... Until we pulled out on the road, and found that Katrina had crossed over the FL peninsula further south than anticipated, and was in the Gulf.  I knew we had to hussle.  The prediction at the time was a Cat 2 or 3 to hit around Pensacola, FL... but I had my doubts.  I'd been tracking the winds and the Gulf temps, and was VERY AFRAID.  It didn't matter WHERE Katrina hit, I would be on Route 10, and in the danger zone along the Gulf, if I didn't move FAST.

By the time we hit the pan handle of Florida, we could see the utility trucks on Rt 10 driving eastwards.  They were getting out of the area and staging nearby to respond after the storm.  It was odd to see the trucks in long caravans driving down the quiet highways.  The further west we moved, the further west the track of the hurricane moved.  I wanted to be in Shreveport the first night. I knew it would be too long of a drive.

Along Rt10 just a bit north of New Orleans, we took a break at a quickstop type store and gas station atop a levee. We looked back over the long low bridge we had just crossed and had soda and doritos. At that point, I knew we would never make Shreveport. I was a little despondent... and, as I recall, the cat had peed in her carrier and I was cleaning it up.

Tay looked back at the bridge and told me how beautiful she thought it was. "Take a picture of it, mom" she said. "this is one of the things I want to remember forever."

Well, it's kinda hard to consider taking time to take yet ANOTHER picture of some (to my mind) unspectacular bridge when you're fleeing from a hurricane and cleaning up cat pee. "Let's just get going" I told her. "That bridge will be there forever. We'll come back some day and take a picture"

Those of you who are familiar with the term "foreshadowing" will understand that while it often happens in literature, it doesn't often happen in real life. I was convinced what I told my daughter was the absolute truth.

That night we only made it as far as Baton Rouge. I slept fairly well ( a surprise with all the stress I was under) Got up early, piled the kids in the car, and headed down to the gas station for a fill up. The gas station attendant looked at my license plates and laughed. "I guess you'll be heading back home now" he said. "Nah," I said, clueless as to why he'd say that. "I'm not stopping 'till I hit California." We both laughed. Me, because it was true, him because moving away from the hurricane susceptible areas was a common joke along the Gulf by then.

As I pulled away, people were starting to arrive. They were carrying gas cans as well as filling up. That's when I turned on my radio and found out we were now sitting on Ground Zero.

The next day was a blur. I knew I had to get north of Route 40 if I was ever going to get a hotel room. I had my route mapped out, and I had planned on driving AROUND Texas anyway (that's a whole OTHER tale)so this didn't cause a substantial change in plans. I was still leaving when evacuations were announced as voluntary... I figured I was driving about three hours ahead of the mandatory evacuation wave.

We had a number of problems along the way.First we stopped at a small store to get lunch and I was ill. When we came out the sky was black, and we hit the road to the sound of sirens. The radio blared out with the emergency tone. We were heading into a severe storm. The wind blew down trees and lightning struck. We were out in the boonies with no where to go. We just kept driving. Soon the sun came out, but our nerves were rattled. Then the headliner (that fabric on the ceiling of your car) came down in the middle of nowhere. It fell down over us like a collapsed tent. We had to pull off the side of the roof and rip it the rest of the way out.

Finally we made it to Shreveport. The car was now overheating, and I put in oil, and after it cooled down, coolant and water. My map made the turn to Route 71 look simple. I drove around Shreveport for 3 hours until I thought I found it. I didn't find it. But I had my compass and a map, and although I knew that even though I didn't know what road I was on, sooner or later I'd find a road I knew. "After all," I joked with the girls, "you can't overshoot Long Beach, California. You just drive west until you hit the ocean and stop."

I was still driving north, northwest, which is what I had planned, so I was fairly confident, but also was becoming more and more ill, and once I got a little ways into Arkansas, I knew I was in trouble. Around dinner time we were driving a two lane road that my map for some reason identified as a highway. Fine, we were still going the direction I wanted. Now and then a town hugged the road, and a rail track alongside. On the other side of the track was Texas, and I knew I didn't want to go THERE. I found a little critical care center that was just about to close along the side of the road. The doctor was surprised I found it, and was even more surprised when he looked at my labs. He gave me my prescription (Walmart was next door) and I headed out.

It took a lot of time to do a doctor's visit and fill a prescription, and it was getting dark. Once again I missed my turn, but was into Oklahoma, so I wasn't TOO worried. But the road we were on wound toward the south, and back, and soon I wasn't sure at ALL where I was. My plan to stay at Motel 6's all the way (because they allow pets) was shattered. I knew there was no Motel 6 anywhere around. There was, however, a small sign ahead announcing the Antler's Budget Inn. The word BUDGET at that point was just as welcome as INN.

Now I want to pause her from the story to give KUDOS to this little inn, out in a place where you'd expect cracked walls and stained comforters, but this little place, hunting themed, decorated with (yeah) ANTLERS, was a really comfortable place to stay.

The next morning we all woke up refreshed and turned on the TV. Katrina was hitting the coast. The girls and I watched the storm coverage, thankful that we had made it out safe. Suddenly Taylor pointed at the screen. "LOOK!" Sure enough, the announcer was standing at the very same levee we were on the day before. The bridge peeked out from the grey rain behind him. He was literally across the street from where we had stood and looked at that same bridge.

Then suddenly he turned. "Did you hear?" he said, obviously rattled. We looked on in horror as the far end of the bridge seemed to crumble into the river.

I felt horrible. I remembered the day before, and what I'd told my daughter. She remembered, too.

"You said it would last forever." she accused, tears in her eyes, "you said I could have a picture of it."

What could I say? She was right.

And now, I take pictures of everything. Nothing lasts forever.