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  • Ellen Byron

Hurricane Ida: Our Evacuation Timeline

Updated: Sep 2, 2021

Wednesday, August 25, 2021: Bouchercon, the massive mystery convention I was supposed to attend, has been cancelled due to the Delta variant. But our daughter is a senior at Loyola University and my new mystery series is set in New Orleans, so I decide to make the trip anyway. In a case of famous last words, I say to my husband as I leave Los Angeles, “I hate the drought. If I don’t get some rain in New Orleans, I’ll be disappointed.”

I arrive to cloudy skies and a lovely room at the French Quarter Marriott where the convention was to be held. My kid and I meet for dinner at one of my favorite NOLA hangouts, Napoleon House. If there’s talk of an approaching hurricane, I miss it. I enjoy a nightcap in the lobby with fellow mystery author Mary Monnin and her husband Bob, who also made the trip to NOLA.

The view from my hotel window

Thursday, August 26, 2021: Bob, Mary, and I have a lovely time at the Milton Latter Library book sale, followed by lunch at Commander’s Palace, where I haven’t been in years. Talk of a hurricane coming is suddenly ramping up. After lunch, they return to the hotel. I wander the Garden District, where my new series is set, for a happy hour. Around 5:30 p.m., I rendezvous with my friend, book blogger Debra Jo Burnette, and we attend an art opening at the Newcomb Art Center on the campus of my alma mater, Tulane University. My friend Jan Gilbert, a renowned New Orleans artist, has a piece in the exhibit. We talk art… and the hurricane. The conversation continues over dinner. But we have not entered crisis mode, as you can see from these fun photos.

Mary and me, Debra Jo and me, and my squash salad at Commander's.

Friday, August 27, 2021: I go for a walk in the Quarter before checking out. The signs of an impending storm are making themselves apparent.

I leave the Marriott for an AirBnB uptown to be closer to my daughter. Rumblings about Ida have turned into a drumbeat of dread. My lodgings are lovely, as is my hostess, Giselle. But I feel terribly lonely and distressed. I can’t decide – do we stay or go? I have dinner with my pal Greg Herren, mystery author and VP of Mystery Writers of America. Our usual gabbing is punctuated by my Hamlet-like dilemma. To go or not to go? Greg drops me off at my kid’s apartment and she makes the decision for me. We’re going. But to where? We call Florida. No hotel rooms. Mobile might be in the hurricane cone. We settle on Houston. I’m so flummoxed at this point that I don’t remember I have four close friends in the city. We find a Marriott somewhere in Houston and book it for two nights.

Saturday, August 28, 2021: This day will go down as one of the most traumatic of my life. We set out for Houston. People recommend we take route 90, which I know goes through the area the hurricane but as friends point out, those residents have already evacuated. The journey starts out fine. Then we somehow get accidentally re-routed onto I-10. Don’t ask me how, but I am never, EVER traveling without a paper map again. When I say I-10 was parking lot, I am not exaggerating. We are going five miles an hour. When we’re moving at all. At this point, I honestly fear we will be on I-10 when the hurricane hits. I bring up turning around and riding out the storm at the kid’s apartment. She is adamant that we continue. She’s the veteran of the late October hurricane 2020, Hurricane Zeta, as are we to a smaller extent. We arrived the night after the hurricane to a partially blacked-out city and a cancelled hotel reservation because they had no power. We spent a cold night on the floor of the kid’s then-apartment, which also lacked power. In the morning, we found a hotel that had power. My very smart daughter did not want to take the chance of duplicating this experience, especially since Ida was forecast to be a much bigger monster than Zeta.

Eliza is driving. She reroutes us north to route 190. Also terrible traffic. She reroutes us straight up north. She’s been driving for five hours and every time we check the route, we’re still five hours from Houston. She develops a migraine, poor thing. We switch, and I drive the next eight hours.

I have no idea where we are or where we’re going. Even though we’re only a quarter of a tank down on gas, I stop to top off the tank. I’m exhausted and considering giving up on Houston and searching for lodgings wherever we are. I see a state trooper and ask if the town we’re near is in the cone. “From what they’re telling us,” he says, “the whole state is in the cone.” We continue to Texas.

The next few hours will forever be emblazoned on my brain. We’re forced to trust GPS as it directs down empty two-lane roads in the pitch dark, through small towns, and half-abandoned (and one full-on abandoned) villages.

We drove down Route 12 in the pitch dark.

The gas stations in the towns that are inhabited are all out of gas. We have half a tank, but we’re still hours from Houston. The only thing keeping me from hysteria is knowing I need to be strong for my kid. She’s all I care about. After a year of Covid misery, she was so happy and excited to having classes and activities back on campus again. It’s all I want for her. Desperately. She wakes up and I try to lighten the mood by making up a short story – a murder story, of course. She groans in amusement and then in pain and goes back to sleep. Finally, finally, we see a sign: Welcome to Texas. I’ve learned that by the time we get to our hotel, the bar will be closed, so I buy this because I know that after our thirteen-hour journey, I will need a drink…

Sunday, August 29, 2021, the sixteenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina: The blessed Marriott Westchase upgraded us to a suite. I pace the two rooms, watching the news. New Orleans’ airport is closed. I was supposed to fly out Monday. My Houston friends have all offered to shelter us past our two-night hotel stay. Stew, who only lives about fifteen minutes from the hotel, is the "lucky" winner. He invites us over for dinner. It’s an amazing meal of parmigiana made from an eggplant he grew himself, and pesto he also created from homegrown ingredients. But I’m depressed and my stomach is roiling, partly from the shrimp I’d devoured the night before which had been sitting in the car for thirteen hours – we never stopped for food – and partly from feeling terrible that I was enjoying a lovely meal while my friends and beloved New Orleans, home of my heart, was suffering Ida’s impact. I check Twitter and see a thread about evacuee guilt. I’m comforted in knowing I’m not alone in this feeling. Debra Jo sends me this picture. The main power grid to New Orleans is down.

Monday, August 30, 2021: We move to Stew’s. And learn that the power grid to New Orleans has suffered catastrophic damage. Classes at Loyola are canceled for two weeks, then online for what the school president has optimistically determined will be one week. I pray she is right. My heart breaks for my kid. For New Orleans. My friends. The businesses. My stomach continues to roil. We make the decision to fly back to Los Angeles. Stew, our guardian angel, says we can park my kid’s car in his driveway for as long as we need to. I know that my dear friends Charlotte and Pam and Gayle and Millie would have made the same offer. I am so grateful to all these amazing people. And so grateful we chose to evacuate to Houston before I even remembered due to my panicked evacuation fog that I had friends there.

Tuesday, August 31st, 2021: We land at LAX during rush hour due to a flight delay. It takes Jer an hour and a half to get to us thanks to Los Angeles traffic. It’s all so normal. And yet so not normal. We finally get home. I’ve been gone seven days. It feels like I’ve been gone a year.

Wednesday, September 1st, 2021: I wake up at 5:30 in the morning. I can’t sleep. Then I remember it’s the 1st of the month and I follow the superstition of saying “Rabbit, Rabbit” as the first words to say on the first day of the month to bring good luck. Some people say “Bunny, Bunny,” so I say that too. I also say, “Loyola, Loyola” and “New Orleans, New Orleans.”

It’s now 9:12 a.m. on Wednesday. I couldn’t go back to sleep because I was writing this in my head, so I sat down to write it on my computer. A curious thing happened before I left town last week. I found my late Nonna’s rosary. I was so happy because I thought I’d lost it. Due to Covid, I don’t know if any of our local Catholic churches are allowing walk-ins, but I’m going to see if I can find one that’s open. I will bring Nonna’s rosary, light a candle for her, and say prayers for New Orleans, Louisiana, Loyola, and my kid’s future.

Rabbit, rabbit. Bunny, bunny. Loyola, Loyola. New Orleans, New Orleans.

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