Remembering Katrina, Part II: Our 'Happy Ticket'
August 28, 2005: Ballerina Day. Sunday morning, an American Airlines rep left a voicemail on my cell phone saying that they’d added a last flight out of Baton Rouge at 2:30 p.m., bound for Dallas. She’d booked it if we wanted it, if we could get to Baton Rouge in time.
If we wanted it!!! I called her back, overwhelmed with gratitude that she cared enough to keep looking for us and save us those tickets. To my shame, I’ve forgotten her name, but I’ll never forget that she almost certainly saved my mom’s life. Every time I see images of the elderly, the sick, the disabled, stranded in Katrina, and dying in the Superdome or the Convention Center, I think, “That’s my mom. That could have – would have – been my mom.”
Now, how do we get to Baton Rouge? My car battery’s still dead as a doornail, and with the westward exodus from Greater New Orleans, how on earth do we get transportation?
A nephew, who was going to ride it out at home, cheerfully agreed to drive us. My sister is convinced that saved his life. For after dropping us off at the airport, he decided to keep on driving to Texas.
Sitting in the Baton Rouge airport, I was still paranoid about whether our flight would actually leave. I held on to my one last shred of sanity by knowing that, even if this one got canceled, we could be squatters at the airport.
It didn’t help my state of mind to see the airport TVs, seemingly all tuned to CNN, constantly displaying the radar images of Katrina motoring through the Gulf. That giant buzzsaw would have been a beautiful spectacle of nature if it hadn’t been a killer. As I sat there at the gate, numb, I kept wondering, “How many thousands of people, alive right now, are going to die?”
Other thoughts kept crossing my mind, intermittently, almost in Rain Man fashion: “Happy Ticket’s running at Saratoga today. Happy Ticket’s in the Ballerina. I wonder how Happy Ticket will do in the Ballerina. Happy Ticket and her people are safe. I wonder if we’ll be safe.”
Happy Ticket, of course, was a Louisiana-bred who I’d seen up close and personal at Fair Grounds. She wasn’t a lofty Kentucky-bred who condescended to winter with us in the Crescent City, like Shadow Cast; she was one of us. And at any other time, I could have reveled in her doing our state proud at Saratoga.
Instead, I was contemplating our struggle to get plane tickets. I so wanted to think that this extra flight out of Baton Rouge was our “happy ticket.” Even as we boarded the plane, I feared that there would be a delay, a mechanical problem, anything to keep us on the ground. Even as the plane began to taxi away from the terminal and toward the runway, I was still afraid something would go wrong.
Only when we took off, and I felt that marvelous jet propulsion aloft, could I really be sure. Yes, this was our “happy ticket” to safety. But I didn’t forget my fellow citizens who had no “happy ticket.”
Later, I saw that Happy Ticket not only won. She crushed them.
August 29, 2005: Ballston Spa Day. Ensconced in a palatial hotel near the Dallas airport, we had a great day.
As Katrina made landfall and moved inland, the media narrative was “New Orleans dodged the bullet.” The news from Saratoga was most welcome. I was excited about the Australian mare Alinghi’s U.S. debut in the Ballston Spa, and thrilled that she won. We could now start thinking about booking a return flight home – maybe Wednesday, to give my mom a little extra time to recover from the ordeal.
Until late that night. I was reading the neighborhood forums on the Times-Picayune website and saw a post entitled “Gentilly underwater.” What? The hurricane’s over! That’s how I learned of one of the levee breaks. More and more posts on the forums corroborating this – it was no sick joke, no combox troll. Our neighborhoods were inundated, not by the storm surge of a landfalling hurricane, but by the broken down levees.
We can’t go home. Do we have a home? It was the middle of the night. My mom was sound asleep, blissfully unaware. How do I tell her that our home is under water? That we’ve lost everything?
I literally knelt down and made an act of abandonment to God, giving Him everything and consenting to the loss of everything. It was a possibly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to offer that kind of radical prayer, and I wasn’t going to waste it.
Early September 2005: Google Earth posted aerial images of the flood-ravaged city, and I decided to make bold and try to find our street. My mom thought it was a hopeless task, but I had to do it. Watching the livestream of WWL-TV over the past few days, and seeing the apocalyptic images of gas fires breaking out all over, I wondered if there were a plume of flame by our house too.
I started by finding that lovable oval of the Fair Grounds (pictured right, before and after Katrina). That was an unmistakable reference point, and not far from our neighborhood. I followed the arc of Gentilly Boulevard from there to its intersection with Franklin Avenue, one block north of our street.
My eyes looked one street down, to mine. That was also straightforward to locate, since the parking lot of my parish church, St James Major, and its school faced my street. The little cottage that once served as the school library was directly across from our house, 2652 Wisteria St., which I could further identify by the big tree in front. The big, still-standing tree in front!
I was stunned when further studying the picture – I could see our old air conditioner compressor, peeking above the putrid water that surrounded it! It was no more than three feet high. If the compressor were visible, the water could not have been as high on our block as in the surrounding blocks. For the first time in several days, I had hope that maybe, just maybe, we didn’t lose everything.
Weeks later, when residents were allowed to trickle back in to check on their homes, a cousin went to our house and confirmed that water never got inside! Our stuff was safe. There was hurricane damage to the roof, which needed to be replaced, and a broken front window, and muddy filth from the water lurking under the house. But as Katrina damage went, we were better off than most. Our street was a virtual island, given a few precious feet of protection atop the “Gentilly Ridge.”
August 2015: I haven’t returned to New Orleans since Katrina. My mom and I stayed with relatives in Houston for a couple of weeks before moving to Lexington, Kentucky, in mid-September 2005.
Although many helped us, I must specially thank two members of what was then Team Stonerside – John Adger, for his sage advice, and Vicky Van Camp, who noticed the job opportunity in Brisnet.com’s Editorial Department. Thanks to Happy Broadbent, who took a chance on a hurricane refugee, figuratively washed up in the human flotsam and jetsam of Katrina, I’m nearing my 10th anniversary here.
My last relic of my New Orleans identity is my (504) cell phone number, and I can’t – I won’t – give it up. Fellow Katrina exiles will understand. And I use the same old binder to log the European results. Ten years ago, it was left by the computer, near that front window that would be broken by Katrina. The Katrina winds threw that binder open, and the Katrina rains smudged the ink on a couple of pages. I was reunited with it when my sainted sister packed up all of our stuff and shipped it to us.
Now the binder’s dilapidated, and taped up, but I can’t part with it. It's a hurricane survivor. It bears the marks of Katrina. And so do we.
Fair Grounds images courtesy of DigitalGlobe, accessible at http://forums.catholic.com/showthread.php?t=72825&page=8.