Evacuation vignettes

NEW ORLEANS – Harmonica player J.D. Hill played a gig at the St. Roch Tavern late into the night and expected a friend to come by Sunday to take his two dogs to a shelter before dropping him at the airport.

But area animal shelters closed last week. He called friend after friend, but kept getting a fast beep – cell towers were too busy to complete the call.

“I was worried about these dogs. But I’ve got to think about myself,” he said later.

He gave up waiting and headed out on foot about 1 p.m. A police cruiser took him, shepherd mix Bill and chestnut-brown mutt Lucy to Union Station, where his dogs were loaded into kennels. He planned to catch up with them in Shreveport.

Hill was the first resident of the Musicians’ Village, a cluster of homes Harry Connick Jr. and fellow New Orleans musician Branford Marsalis built through Habitat for Humanity after Hurricane Katrina. The village provides affordable housing for musicians and others who lost their homes in Katrina’s flooding.

The thought of losing everything all over again was too much. “I don’t want to lose my house,” Hill said as he waited on his bus. “Oh, boy. I just feel like crying.”

Remembering Rita

PORT ARTHUR, Texas – Few people waited here for Hurricane Gustav – they remember how Hurricane Rita swamped the flat marshland three years ago.

Streets were mostly empty in areas hit hard by Rita – Port Arthur, Sabine Pass, Orange and Beaumont. Just about the only travelers on the main road into Sabine Pass by mid-morning were a pair of plodding turtles.

Just about everyone who walked into The Boudain Hut for lunch Sunday told busy waitress Donna Rider it was the only place open in Port Arthur. In a subtle display of dark humor, the jukebox broke the low din of lunchtime chatter with Stevie Ray Vaughan’s song “Texas Flood.”

Ernie Crochet, 48, kept an eye on the television between shots at the pool table.

“We’re going to see what it looks like at 6 a.m.,” Crochet said. His main concern was his parents who are in their 70s. An evacuation would be hard on them, so he wanted to be sure it was worth it before leaving.

Shower, please

SHREVEPORT, La. – Hundreds of miles from the coast, an empty warehouse doubling as a shelter was filled with 2,600 people who claimed every cot spread under a roof the size of seven football fields.

Here, it was too soon to ask what happens if Gustav inundates New Orleans. Simpler requests came first.

“A shower man, that wouldn’t hurt nobody. And how am I going to change my clothes?” said Mike Watson, a 49-year-old construction worker who directed his family of four to sleep in a rectangle of protection from the throngs of strangers.

Watson was grateful for the safety – and to be in Louisiana, and not at the Arkansas shelter where officials would have sent his bus if this shelter was full when it arrived. He worried the bedding, bottled water and three hot meals provided here wouldn’t last if the storm hits with the same force as Hurricane Katrina.

“You haven’t seen anything to turn your stomach, yet,” he said. “Things could get bad.”

Patrick O’Palick, one of the few people at the shelter with a computer, monitored the weather on his laptop. He said he only owned a motorcycle, not a car, and that’s what led him to board a bus out of New Orleans. If the storm hits, planned to book a flight out of town.

“At least I have a place to go and a way to get there,” he said. “Most of these people don’t and it’s awful. Look at how many children there are here.”

No overreaction

LAFAYETTE, La. – As Richard Zuschlag listened to the days of dire pleas from Gov. Bobby Jindal to flee from south Louisiana, he thought it was an overreaction. No longer.

“In hindsight, I’m glad we started early or we would never have finished,” said Zuschlag, chief executive of Acadian Ambulance, which covers most of south Louisiana. “We could not have done it in 24 hours. It’s taken us almost 60 hours to get the job done.”

Acadian deployed almost all of its 250 ambulances and 500 crews into south Louisiana to move more than 1,000 nursing home patients too frail to be evacuated by bus. He expected the last would get out of Calcasieu Parish, near the Texas border, by midnight.

Zuschlag said ambulances from neighboring states arrived to help, and state officials brought in C-130s and C-117 ambulance planes to assist. But he said for all the planning, it almost wasn’t enough.

“We have a lot of nursing homes that are very upset with us because we were delayed,” Zuschlag said. “We never expected a hurricane to have us evacuate the entire Gulf Coast. We have to be better prepared, with better out-of-state help the next time.”

Watching, waiting

PENSACOLA, Fla. – A rest area across the Alabama border off Interstate 10, just west of Pensacola, looked like a way station for evacuees. The parking lot was full of cars with license plates from Louisiana, Alabama, Texas and Mississippi.

Dozens gathered around a bank of televisions inside the visitor centre watching for updates on Gustav’s path, sipping free Florida orange juice from tiny paper cups.

People walked their dogs and stretched their legs in the parking lot. Some napped in their cars, while others filled their gas tanks from 5-gallon cans, readying for a drive further east, hoping to get out of Gustav’s way. Workers even set up portable toilets in front of the building to handle the thousands stopping by for a break.

Perry Guidry, 50, of Lockport, La., said he was prepared to ride out Gustav, until he heard about the storm surge and the potential for massive flooding.

“I wasn’t afraid of the wind or tornadoes,” Guidry said. “I had a generator, but generators don’t work under water.”

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