For our anniversary, we used a gift card given to us at Christmas to enjoy dinner at the Red Fish Grill. We knew it would be special to eat at one of the Brennan restaurants in the Quarter. We did not know it would be our last meal in a fine New Orleans restaurant for many months to come.
It was late August, 2005. A few days later, we packed up our Precious Daughter, the four cats and a hedgehog and headed to Texas.
We left New Orleans fully expecting to be back in a few days. Everybody did. New Orleans, as you may have heard, is still not back. Not quite yet.
It's surreal to think about it now. There we were, the rightful inhabitants of this fertile delta, slipping away like thieves in the night, while Hurricane Katrina, uninvited, unwanted and unstoppable, came howling toward our home like a braggadocios minister bellowing to chase demons from the soul of the city.
In fact, it was surreal. The decision to leave was just the first to be made in the face of that hurricane. What to bring? What to leave? What about family elsewhere in the city? How do we secure the house? What about the neighbors?
Preparations consisting of a thousand decisions. I was worried that the solid wood driveway gate would be blown away by the storm. Could I secure it? No. So I pulled out the hinge pins and I carried the two large gate sections under the patio.
What about the cars? We would take my Darling Wife's Honda since it was newer and in better condition. The Toyota would be left behind. I drove it up the driveway and parked it as close to the side of the house as possible, thinking that the house might shield it from flying debris.
How about my guitars? Would love to take them, but no room. But what if a window breaks or the street floods and water gets into the house? I put my two guitars, a six-string acoustic and an electric bass in their cases and put them on the bed. Surely even if water got into the house, they would be safe on the bed.
Come Saturday, full scale evacuation was the order of the day. Governor Blanco was on the radio. "Get out." Mayor Nagin was on the TV. "Leave as soon as you can."
All lanes of the Interstate were converted to escape routes away from the city. Contraflow for the second time in just a few years.
Saturday traffic reports gave grim news. Slow going in all directions. Let's wait until late at night to leave. Maybe we'll catch a window and avoid the stress.
So many decisions, so many plans.
Contraflow worked. Our midnight run worked.
But inevitably, mistakes.
Two weeks later, I was a thousand miles away looking at the aerial photographs of the brown water that wrapped around every house in my neighborhood. I called my Darling Wife over to the computer. “Looks like the water goes right up to the house. I’m sure we got flooded.”
She leaned in to look. “Yes, but I wonder how deep?” These were, after all, overhead pictures.
I reminded her of the Toyota, the white Corolla we had left parked next to the house.
She looked closely. “I don’t see it. Where did it go?”
It’s still there, I speculated—just hidden by muddy water. That would make the water 5 to 6 feet deep, I guessed.
Brutal reality sets in.
When I finally got back to the house in October, I find the car is indeed right where I left it. And so are the wood gates.
And my guitars, having ridden the bed up to the ceiling and back down again, look unnaturally normal in the house where furniture and belongings have been haphazardly rearranged by dirty lake water.
But a closer look reveals the lie. The cases are damaged by water and covered with mold, and the guitars inside are warped by water and the relentless pull of their own strings. Both are lost and unplayable.
And now there are more decisions to be made. Where will we live? What can we save of our flooded belongings? What is to become of this house?
We left New Orleans in the middle of the night, leaving behind a city and another lifetime completely.
We entered the Contraflow two years ago, and we’re still traveling that road, hoping to arrive at our destination before too long.