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Saturday, October 08, 2005

Tracking the Beast Backwards by John Biguenet

Oct. 7, 2005
Tracking the Beast Backwards

We were impatient to get on the road. After five weeks staying with relatives, Marsha and I wanted to get home, though we knew our house in New Orleans was probably uninhabitable. Our insurance company had called our daughter's home in New Jersey to tell us that the two cars we had left behind in our garage when we fled Hurricane Katrina would be declared total losses without an adjustors report required. If an insurance company was willing to pay off a claim without an inspection based simply upon our address, we knew our house had sustained major damage.

We had covered over a thousand miles in two days of driving back to New Orleans when we first noticed them in Alabama, doublewide mobile homes on the interstate traveling south with us. There were so many, we lost count as we passed the slower moving trailers, each with a simple sign taped to a rear window: FEMA. They were the first trace of the hurricane we had seen.

In the late afternoon, taking I-59 south out of Meridian, Mississippi, we saw a road sign that pointed the way to New Orleans, and I felt the surge of elation coming home always inspires in me. But almost immediately, we also saw evidence of the storm littering both sides of the highway. About 10 percent of the slender pine trees lining the interstate were snapped in two 10 or 12 feet up. On the right, the broken trunks had fallen into the forest; on the left, dead treetops fringed the edge of the highway. Every broken tree had toppled toward the west. The battering wind that had decimated the woods had spun out of the east, the counterclockwise wind of an advancing hurricane.

With the light thickening into early evening as we drove farther south, it seemed at first an optical illusion, the bowing toward the falling sun of the trees still standing on either side of the road. By now perhaps a third of the trees were snapped in half, always falling westward. Then, we passed a steel sign crumpled like a wad of green paper beside the interstate: New Orleans 98. We were less than 100 miles from home.

From that point on, we couldn’t read any of the signs along the highway; every one was doubled over backwards on its steel legs from the wind. Now half the pines were down, their needles rusting on the ground. We felt as if we were following the trail left by some terrible beast back to where its rampage had begun.

With the twin bridges of I-10 across Lake Pontchartrain both having been smashed by the hurricane, we had to follow I-12 along its northern shore to the 24-mile causeway that crosses the lake into Jefferson Parish, which adjoins New Orleans. This was the same bridge we had been forced to use the day we evacuated because the other routes out of the city were already jammed. That morning we had been nervous, crossing the open water of the choppy lake that would flood our house two days later after a levee had collapsed. Coming home in the dark across the long bridge, we were too exhausted to be nervous about the uncertain future that awaited us in the unlit city we could barely make out on the south shore.

Up ahead on the interstate into New Orleans, gigantic spotlights seemed to hover over the roadway. As we slowed, we saw a contingent of police manning a checkpoint barricading the highway. It was after eight o’clock; the curfew was in effect, and the city was closed for the night. Diverted from the interstate, we followed a back street littered with cracked pieces of sheetrock and shattered branches. Heaps of ruined carpets and mattresses and furniture and toys spilled from sidewalks into the gutters. Every house was sprayed with a red X; in each quadrant, a number reported what a search team had found: how many survivors on the right, how many bodies at the bottom.

We had been unable to find an apartment to rent by phone; a FEMA representative told us the nearest available rentals were in Mobile, Alabama. But a friend located a tiny apartment attached to the back of a daycare center that we could use until the end of the month.

We unloaded the car, found a bag of pretzels in the daycare center, and opened a going-away present from our Danish son-in-law, a bottle of Larsen’s brandy (Le Cognac des Vikings, according to the label). Marsha and I sank down on children’s chairs around a table 18 inches high, nibbling pretzels for our dinner and savoring cognac in red plastic cups. In the morning, we would see what the hurricane had done to our house.

But after five weeks away, we were nearly home.

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