Everybody has a job when they are in college. My job was super sweet. I was the manager of the student union. I had a bunch of different tasks, but the important one for this story is the information desk. You know the kiosk you go to for asking questions. I was one of the people behind the desk.
But, for student Orientation. It was a whole other deal. With tons of freshman and their parents invading campus, the information desk was going to be a tent in the middle of a quad, centrally located to all the dorms. One of those four sided tables with “Information Desk” written at every corner.
That was going to be my day. We had prepared a little bit in the weeks leading up to it. Preparing for parents looking for a place to take their son/daughter to eat, concerned folks trying to find their way into a city they had never stepped foot in.
You see, Tulane is the type of place that is the fallback school of alot of the well-to-do east coast (and a little west coast) lot. And so thats what we prepared for.
Leading into this particular day, I was coming off the best summer of my life.
You see, I finally got a full year of complete independence. I rented half of a duplex, just right off campus. So close that on days it flooded, I just parked in the campus parking garage and walked home. Really goddamn sweet.
To pay for the summer months, I ran a deal with my fall roommate to pay for the summer (I would continue paying in the winter when I was out of town for an internship). In addition, I did a patchwork of jobs to pay rent. My favorite of which was running movies on campus for the summer school folks. They couldn’t pay me in cash, but they paid me in 6 hours of college classes. Fantastic deal. I took History of Music in New Orleans that year. The biggest part of that was having to go to 8 different musician’s shows (of my choosing) and write papers about them.
I learned more about the city I called home than any other time that I had been at school.
So, I was making money, learning my city finally, living alone with my own space, and having the centrally located house. I hosted a bunch of my friends who needed a place to stay in the city.
It was just a fucking great time. The bros would call it chill. I remember reading, drinking beer, and watching the rainwater fall during the storms that happened every afternoon around 2 or 3pm.
Week leading into it was good to. Big punk rock party for a friend of mine. I got back to New Orleans to work orientation the next day, really fucking late.
I was on cloud 9
I had completely forgotten that there was a hurricane in the gulf. Katrina.
You see congregation, alot of people forget that there were a ton of named hurricanes that made it into the gulf. And in fact, Katrina was just one of at least two or three that almost missed Louisiana.
So, to be honest, I did not pay it any mind or respect. I was feeling good.
The morning of the orientation, I get up. Morning routine. Put on my information desk shirt.
Walk into campus. I get a call from my dad on the way. Asking if I want him to drive up and get all of my stuff out of my apartment. I said, “Fuck no man. We gunna be alright here. Pfffttt”
I head to the information desk out on the quad.
First part of the day is completely quiet.
I see plenty of parents come and go. College mini-fridges. Suitcases full of clothes. Giant posters. Desktop computers (cause that was still a thing).
I had a few people come nervously ask about the hurricane. One or two looking for breakfast or lunch. Mostly people asking about where buildings are, looking for a campus map (of which we had tons).
Then, out of no where, out of what seemed like the vast chasm of nothingness. Comes the president of the university. Driving up on a golf cart. I never actually met the man before this.
He shook all of our hands, and then dropped a giant stack of flyers with us, “The entire campus is evacuating. Hand these out.”
The next 5-6 hours was a giant fucking blur. Apparently my girlfriend (now wife) called me 3 or 4 times with hurricane updates, but I didn’t answer the phone.
I sat their dolling out information.
We had a stack of City of New Orleans/State of Louisiana maps. Probably about 100-150. They were all gone in the span of an hour.
I made a series of logical judgements. There was no instruction here. No one telling me what to do. My boss, an administrator, was too busy with hurricane prep. So this was all improvisation.
I was telling people how to get to Atlanta. See, I figured I-10 toward Houston was going to be a fucking shitshow (it was), and the fastest way to get out of the city and get to a major airport that would still have flights was Atlanta. I sent alot of people the I-59/I-20 route to avoid hurricane traffic. Because I had evacuated before. once you got past slidell and took the interstate toward Harrisburg, you would be gravy.
I went through two highlighters, highlighting atlases (pre-google maps, Rand McNally atlas was still a thing), and the maps of Louisiana/New Orleans I had to tell people how to get out.
I took the last one and highlighted the route, and put it above all the other flyers we had about campus food options and dorm rules.
I remember distinctly that rental cars were going at a premium. There was a woman who spent an hour at least on her cell phone next to our tent, trying to get a car. She eventually walked up to the desk, slamming her phone down, “I got a 12 foot Penske truck, how do I get to Atlanta.”
She had overheard my instructions that Houston was going to be a problem.
I remember another guy that came up. “My parents speak no English. They have a flight back to [Insert Eastern Bloc country here] on Monday, will they make it?”
Another thing people forget, the storm was supposed to hit on Monday. It sped up at the end and hit Sunday Morning.
I said hell no. Years of living in rural Louisiana prepared me for this. I told them get them on the next Crescent Line Amtrak out (which he actually did, he got so lucky). You see, the Crescent line goes to Atlanta. I asked him what airport his parents flight was out of and he said LaGuardia. I said, fantastic. Tell them to take the Amtrak, get off in Atlanta. Schedule a car to pick them up and take them to Hartsfield Jackson. Book a flight to NYC on sunday to get them to LaGuardia. Get a hotel nearby, and have them taken care of.
Never found out what happened to that guy.
After 5 hours of furious thinking, I was exhausted.
I couldn’t think. I finally called my girlfriend back on the way back to my apartment. She was crying. Wanted me to leave now. I said, “Worst come to worst, Ill go to baton rouge and stay with my friend Swole and his crew.”
She kept crying. The call ended sometime around when I got back to the apartment.
My roommate literally just moved in, and was still in that honeymoon phase of the apartment. He was contemplating heading back to Boston to evacuate. I was playing World of Warcraft.
No shit. Picture the scene. My roommate is on the phone with his family, his girlfriend, whatever. I am playing WoW. Fox 8 is on in the background.
Eventually, the phone calls subside, I am still doing stupid shit in the video game, I get a phone call from my girfriend. She found a flight for DIRT cheap out of Baton Rouge for me to ride out the storm with her in Virginia.
My roommate upon hearing this, looks up the flight, and finds the same flight. Going through Nashville, then I go to Virginia and he goes to Boston.
We both book it out of sheer economic value.
We are then packing up, and packing way too light. We do think ahead about what could happen. In my simple brain, I figure we wont get more than a few feet inside tops, unless the Mississippi levee busts, in which case, fuck everything. So I just put some stuff on the couch (stupid idea), and a bunch of stuff under a tarp on my bed (smart idea).
My roommate and I finally made it to the fridge. Back then, the liquor wasn’t a major part of my life, but it was for him. And he just bought a case of Killians, and we were trying to decide what to do with it.
When Bob Breck came on.
Bob Breck was Louisiana’s weatherman for a long long time, and he was the guiding voice. This was about 11pm.
I would put in the video of it if I could find it [Editor’s Note: if you have it, please email me here]. But here is the strong skinny of it. Their latest model had it going right up the mouth of the Mississippi River (it turned at the last minute). And then he said this.
“Look. The evacuation will probably come tomorrow. But, my family has left. Mayor Nagin’s family has left. Gov. Blanco’s family has left. The Landrieu family has left. Do with that information what you will.”
And I said, “why the fuck are we arguing over this beer. We have to fucking leave right now.
My first thought is head toward Swole’s place in Baton Rouge and wait for our ass early flights in the morning. We load up whatever we were bringing (I had my accounting textbooks I just bought, my laptop, my Desktop tower [no monitor or any peripherals], 3 shirts, one pair of jeans, and thats it) into my car. And I start it up.
I forgot to fill the tank. It had a less than a quarter of a tank.
I go, “This will be enough to get close to Baton Rouge. I know a place were we can stop”
So we ride out on Contraflow.
I don’t know if my readers know what is, but Contraflow is when you can’t go into a place, so they turn the opposite lanes of an interstate into the same direction. Out. Driving contraflow is fucking terrifying. Imagine the red reflection designed to tell you that you are going the wrong way, following you the entire way out. It felt like driving into hell.
Contraflow ends just outside of Baton Rouge, not far from the first Gonzales exit I know. We hit the shell station right at the entrance. All tanks out of gas. I get to the Chevron station that I was much more familiar with, skipping pistons as I pulled in. They had plenty of gas, just only Supreme. I took in a full tank of Supreme, thanking the lucky stars that we had made it.
We got to Swole’s place, put up our shit, and slept for like 3 hours. Swole and Karate Explosion (his roommate) were headed to the LSU practice grounds where they were bringing in the sick and wounded from the New Orleans hospitals. So they dropped us off at the airport ass early on their way in.
I said my goodbyes to Swole et al, made it into the airport, and got on the plane to Nashville, which was half empty.
The plane was fully of people who were much more sophisticated at the internet than the average Louisianian. There were stories of insane shit going down at the New Orleans airport, so a ton of people were getting out on that flight.
I remember taking off, watching sun come up, and wondering what the fuck was going to happen to the place I loved.