Wednesday, August 30, 2006

More Katrina memories

Emails that I sent to friends and family one day after the storm, when we made our now famous 7-hour-long escape to Baton Rouge from the flooding Times-Picayune building in the backs of newspaper delivery semi-trucks. That's me, above, in the middle with the blue shirt. Click here to watch video of our escape.

(Tuesday, early morning)
The water outside has risen about three feet overnight, and continues to go up. Our building is an island. Another couple of feet and the water will start flooding our bottom floor.
This is "the worst case" scenario.
Things have turned very ominous here now. Senior management here is starting to talk about evacuating us. Local officials are pleading with people over t.v. and radio to get out of the city now. Aaron Broussard, president of Jeff. Parish, just said on the radio that he's told his wife not to come back for at least a month. This is the reality. We're all homeless now because we are cityless.
Fortunately, I think we're in a better situation than many others. We still have enough food and drinking water for a few days. We have at least three boats here. And the building is located next to the elevated highway. We can get, by boat, to the highway but getting picked up by vehicles isn't an option because the central part of the city is totally cut off from highway exits. It seems the only way for us to get out right now is by helicopter. That's certainly an option because a helicopter can land on the elevated highway.
Our ability to report is becoming more limited. With only a handful of boats, not many of us can get out to work. I suspect over the next couple of days, we'll start reporting on our website more and more about what's happening in our immediate viewing area and on our own personal experiences here at the building. But we still have limited power from our generator.
We're still able to communicate through some cell phones and computers over the Internet. We have supplies. We can't drink the water out of the faucet but we can use it for bathroom reasons.
The looting is pretty bad according to the reporters and photographers who went out into the city yesterday. Things will only get uglier as people start running out of resources and become more desperate. I'm guessing that at some point, we might get evacuated out of the city to the north shore or to the river parishes to the west.
Its becoming hard to imagine the city proper recovering from this. With highway damage, companies and businesses are going to have to relocate out of the city. People who can't come back to work - because their businesses and jobs in the city won't exist anymore - at some point will have to consider taking jobs somewhere else and establishing some semblance of a life somewhere else. How many of those people will come back? I'm afraid that the New Orleans we all knew is gone forever.
I know this sounds almost hysterical, but the devastation here is almost unimaginable. I'm charging my cell phone again but I don't know how well it is working today. I couldn't make any calls in or out yesterday. But many others here are able to use their cell phones. I'll call out as much as I can. Same with email. Pray for us.

(Tuesday, early morning)
We do have another way out right now. We can get on the highway in front of the building and cross the bridge over the Miss. River, then follow the highway west along the West Bank to St. Charles Parish, cross back over the river and reconnect with I-10 and head west. Our trucks still can get us out of here, but we don't know if they can bet onto the highway from here. The water appears to be rising about 1.5 inches per hour. people are starting to make their way to the elevated highway (Pontchartrain Expressway) and presumably walk across the bridge. The word we have is that the West Bank (on the other side of the river) is dry. About the only noise outside is from helicopters making constant passes over the city.

(Tuesday, late morning)
We're evacuating to the West Bank immediately, then possibly to Baton Rouge. Can't take much. Just my computer bag. not even clothes. trucks can still get to interstate but window of opportunity to get us out is closing. also beginning to smell fuel in building, probably from gas, diesel and oil in the flood water. So safety here will increasingly be at risk. Will update whenever possible. Not sure when.

(Tuesday evening)
After a long and somewhat harrowing trip out of hell, we arrived in Baton Rouge late this afternoon. I've got a few changes of clothes, my computer, cell phone, a box of ink pens, a note pad, my shower bag and, of course, my LSU football tickets :)
About 200 of us from the paper vacated the building around 9:30 a.m. as the flood water was entering the building and up to about 3 feet outside the building. We road in a convoy of seven semi-paper delivery trucks. Actually, we road on the floor in the backs of the trucks with the backs open for ventilation.
Things were quickly getting dangerous. We could smell diesel and gas fuels throughout the building (probably from the water)and we received word that prisoners were rioting in the prison just across the interstate from the building.
We crossed the main bridge over the Mississippi River to a dry West Bank. Then without any notice, my truck, the last in line, pulled over to the side of the elevated highway.
Our driver came to the back and called for his wife and son to get out, explaining that their house was only a mile or so away. They proceeded to unload about six pieces of fully stuff luggage and a large pet carrier with three dogs.
All the while, we were shouting for him to get back in the truck so we wouldn't lose the convoy. Remember, we didn't know where we were going and had no way to communicate with the other trucks.
Once his family and belongings were out, he turned to us and announced that we would need a new driver because he was staying with his family! We were stunned. After failing to convince him not to abandon us, the head of our I.T. department and one of my colleagues in the Money section took over the truck controls.
About two hours later, we caught up with the convoy when they stopped for a bathroom break. I say that loosely. Nothing is open in southeastern Louisiana, so our bathroom breaks were outdoors.
We went to Houma first, but their local paper could only accommodate a small contingent of our editorial staff. So we left for Baton Rouge. After getting lost and having to backtrack about half an hour, we finally arrived in Baton Rouge - 6.5 hours after we started! That's right, I spent 6.5 hours in the back of a semi in 95 degree weather.
My fellow business writer Greg Thomas and I are staying with my sister, Michele, and her husband, Eric.
When we arrived at the Advocate newspaper's downtown office, we were met by television news crews. I'm told that our evacuation from downtown New Orleans also made the ticker on CNN.
The paper has set up shop at a Baton Rouge technology center. After a strategy session for tomorrow's work, a church group arrived with hotplate diners for us - our first meal all day!
Greg and I have to be at work for 8 a.m. Editors were spending the night buying computers and other equipment, and renting SUV's to make trips back to the city.
I'm hoping to get into the city as soon as possible with the first power utility repair crews.
Looks like we'll relocate to our West Bank and North Shore bureaus as soon as power is restored there and the buildings are functional again, but that could be several weeks.
Things are as terrible as they look on TV and in the newspapers. The water continues to rise. It appear my neighborhood will have 10 to 15 feet of water by Wednesday. Thankfully, our house is raised about 12 feet off the ground. Hopefully we'll get by with minimal damage.
I finally have cell phone service again.
For my cousins in Austin, I'm planning to call into my friend Kevin at the local radio station to give him a live report on things here.
At this point, I'm taking things one hour at a time. Driving through the city and seeing the destruction was devastating. I've felt on the brink of collapse numerous times today. I think I'm due for a big huge cry sometime soon. It's all terribly sad.
Thanks for all of your offers of help and wishes of love and support. It sounds so like such a cliche, but they do give me comfort.
I've finally had time to think about all of my friends who stayed in the city. I haven't heard from any of them and don't know their fate. I pray for their safety and comfort.
Keep all of us in your prayers, especially the hundreds, if not thousands, of people who tonight are sleeping in homes, attics and on roofs in the city, stranded, alone and frightened.
Much love,

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