At the beach condo in Florida, a heron was quacking, or doing whatever a heron does when it makes its quacking noise. If indeed it was a heron. We had taken a walk at dusk to see the ocean, my daughter and me. We peered at the rough waves, the wet white sand, and then we took a seat on a wooden bench.
We had arrived the previous night, just after midnight. For almost the entire twelve-hour drive, we were surrounded by cars with Louisiana plates. A traffic jam across several states, which I didn’t mind at all. I found it comforting. The solidarity of evacuation, even if each car was its own small ecosystem of panic, grief, and merriment. Some were full of people, some were crammed with stuff. For over an hour I was eye to eye with a droll white hound with a black splotch on one eye like a pirate, sitting in the rear of a hatchback, facing me. I will never forget his utter shock and mystification when the rear windshield wiper suddenly came to life, swept back and forth, and again became still.
Above all, the parade of evacuating vehicles felt austere. “We took what we needed,” each vehicle seemed to say. “Our phones, our loved ones, and ourselves.”
We woke up on Sunday morning and spent the day waiting for the hurricane, obsessed with our phones and the news they brought.
This walk at the end of the day was meant to cleanse the palette. But as the sky went from pale purple to deep purple, the roiling Gulf of Mexico disappearing into darkness, we again turned to our phones. First to mine, looking at images of the fallen trees, fallen houses, the map that indicated that power was out in all of New Orleans. Then she showed me her friends’ snaps, the ones who were still in New Orleans, “hunkering down,” in the parlance. “Riding it out.” The snap of water coming into the house, under a door; the snap of the doughy cookies that were in progress when the power went out.
Then we walked back to the condo where the blue pool was empty. And all the palm trees blew gently in the breeze. And the sound of the ocean waves nearby. Off to the side: the hot tub glowed like some strange aquamarine jewel. And I realized that my daughter, who had reluctantly acquiesced to a walk to the beach, but not to walk on the beach, and who had gone upstairs, was in a situation to do me a favor. I was feeling very much in touch with the favor economy.
A few minutes earlier, a woman with a brand new, beautiful, white BMW X5 had asked for my help as we returned from the beach.
“Do you know anything about cars?”
“No,” I said honestly. “But maybe I know more than you.”
Ten minutes later it was established that I could not in fact help her turn off the headlights, which were mysteriously refusing to turn off—no matter what button was pushed. She was also from New Orleans, “Old Metairie,” she explained when I asked what neighborhood. That’s the place that elected David Duke. Her husband was back there, in their house, she said. It had started taking on water. We commiserated about the city, the storm, and I marveled at the sleek and powerful curve of the new car’s body. But what would all that power and elegance mean if the battery died?
She said she had called the maintenance guy from the condo. “Call BMW,” was my advice. We wished each other luck.
Evacuating from a hurricane is like being asked to leave a room where your friend will soon be beaten up. You step into the adjoining room and can hear the blows, the cries of pain. A house is not a friend, exactly, but maybe a city is. You hear it all, but you can’t see it. Or you see it but you can’t stop it. Even before the lights go out, you are powerless. You simply have to endure it. Just things, you say, or people say to you. Possessions. Not as bad as actually dying and suffering. But it is very strange. Imagining the roof of your house blown off, the windows blown out, walls moldy and wet. Imagining all the people in New Orleans who don’t have to imagine because they lived through Katrina. I arrived three years after that event, when you could still smell the vapors of PTSD, and made the association with Phnom Penh. Two cities with the rare distinction of being completely emptied.
That it was sixteen years to the day between Katrina and Ida was the rare irony that felt obtuse.
On Thursday and Friday we were a city full of Hamlets—go or not to go, that was the question. But most people who could got off the fence by Friday night.
“Those that can leave should leave,” is how the mayor defined the voluntary evacuation for which she had called. Jarvis Deberry, a local columnist, quipped on Twitter that this was the definition of a mandatory evacuation, as well.
“Why is it always sunny before the storm,” my daughter had asked on the way out the door, on that bright and pleasant Saturday afternoon. We were late to go, and by then the city had become very still. It had emptied out. I drove down St. Charles Avenue slowly. The live oaks’ lattice of branches were like beautiful lace that might soon be torn.
It was night, now. I went and sat by the pool and realized I didn’t have a towel. So I texted my daughter and said, “Could you do me a favor?” And as a 14-year-old will say, even in the best mood, she replied, “What?”
“Throw me a towel.”
Our room was on the third floor. She came out onto the outdoor hallway overlooking the pool with a towel.
“Roll it up like a football!” I yelled. She did. There were some little palm trees at the base of the building. I worried that she would throw the towel and they would get stuck there—not only would I not have a towel but there would be this flapping object defacing the pleasant landscaping. A white flag.
But my daughter has a good arm. She flung the towel out. The sky was very black. The white towel unfurled against the black sky. I raised my hand up in anxiety that I would drop it, like it was a pass thrown in football or a pop-up flyball, or any of the other ball sports that I’ve bungled.
I caught the towel. But in the moment of panic as it opened and fell, it took the shape of a bird’s wing, a white wing against a black sky, and I had the first moment of relief from worrying about this hurricane.