Sunday, August 31, 2008

Gustav Preliminary Update

Hello, Friends of SMC NOLA! We are glad to hear from so many of our friends this week, but we are very sad that we are hearing from them and about them because another storm is threatening the Gulf Coast just after the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. As we hear from some of the families you know from our blogs, we will post updates so that everyone can know all that we learn.

At the moment (it's Sunday night, August 31, 2008), it is very difficult to get any calls through to any cellphone network serving the New Orleans area. Still, we have managed to talk to a few of our longtime friends in the Ninth Ward.

Our beloved friend Rosie Boitmann is currently in Mississippi, staying with friends of her cousin Flo. (For the SMC NOLA peeps, this is the cousin who loaned us the metal detector with which we tried to find Rosie's buried jar of nickels. As you recall, we never found the nickels, despite a day of digging an area roughly 15' x 15'.) Rosie waited until today to drive out, because she was unsure which direction to drive to escape a double hit. That is, if she fled west and then the storm hit Texas, her situation would be twice as bad. She finally decided to drive east. When we caught her she was driving in thick traffic through Slidell.

In her car was the suitcase that she has had packed since we first moved her back into her house. One of the closet floors was reserved for the evacuation kit and today was the day that decision paid off. She also packed up her one remaining cat, Tony, and her two birds, one of which is a squawky macaw named Magoo and the other of which is a rescued wren from the time when she was a refugee.

Rosie's friend and adviser (and her host when she was a refugee), Lisa Trigo, had asked Rosie to flee to Dallas with Lisa and her daughter on Saturday in the wee hours of the morning, but Rosie waited until today and drove the other direction instead. Lisa had given Rosie lots of advice, including a recommendation that she fill her car with gas and do any necessary banking before the end of the week. It's not entirely clear if Rosie followed Lisa's advice.

One thing that Rosie sadly had to leave behind was her new set of teeth. She got fitted with them on Friday and was supposed to go pick them up either this week or the next. She has lived without them for quite awhile, but was excited to have a toothy smile for the first time in a long time. If all goes well, her sunny new smile will not be far away.

For now, though, as anyone can guess, Rose is very sad, very upset, and very apprehensive about what might come next. She said, "I can't take this. And I really don't know if I can go back. No matter what." We invited her to come to California and wait out the impact of the storm with us. She liked the idea, but instead sent her love to all of the students and asked for prayers in return.

As for the Trigos, Lisa and youngest daughter Lauren are currently in Dallas with Lauren's older brother Andrew. They left at 3:30 a.m. on Saturday to outwit the traffic problems that they knew they would face if they left in the daytime. Their strategy worked and their trip wasn't nearly as difficult as other people's evacuations have been.

Lisa gathered up all of her pictures and took them with her in the van, but didn't worry about many other possessions. She mentioned that her Aunt Té also took only pictures, though her aunt's pictures were almost all reprints that she had re-collected from family members who did not lose everything in Katrina, as she did. Té's grandson stuffed the car in which he rode as full of his possessions as he could, saying "Don't you remember how hard it was to replace all of that stuff the last time? I don't want to have to do that again!"

Apart from their own needs, all of the evacuees are worrying about other people as well. As one of the case managers for Catholic Charities' rebuilding efforts, Lisa is particularly troubled to have left three of her families who were supposed to move into their completed homes this week. She hopes that the move-in plans won't be delayed for long.

While Lisa and Lauren are with Andrew in Dallas, Lisa's husband Bruce is staying home because he works for the public utility company Entergy. He is on the first crew that will respond to the effects of the storm. He is keeping track of his family by cellphone for now.

Their other daughter Amanda and her new husband (Blake?) are in Baton Rouge with his family. Baton Rouge might well suffer some effects of the storm, but they didn't want to go too far from New Orleans, especially because they left behind most of what they own in a new apartment that is not yet covered by renter's insurance.

In general, Lisa believes that the entire area was better prepared for the approach of this storm, but she still fears that even though the evacuation went relatively smoothly, there is no way for the return to match it. She is aware that many gas stations have already run out of fuel and even if families can return next week, it will be almost impossible to do so. In fact, thinking about how, when, and where to get gas is one of the huge questions that occupies the minds of the evacuees, even though the issue of fuel probably barely occurs to those of us outside of the storm-affected areas.

Lisa said over and over again, "Let's just hope it doesn't go the same way this time." All of our friends in New Orleans wonder how many people will have the strength to return to the city again, whether or not it is ruined by this storm. Like Rosie, Lisa sends all of us her love and asks for our thoughts and prayers.

We finally got a call through to our friend Sarah Mercadel as well. Hers is the house we painted "tennis ball green" in January 2007. Once she figured out who was on the phone, her first concern was for Rosie; she immediately "tattled," saying "I don't think Rosie left. You've gotta call Rosie and get her to leave!" When she learned that Rosie is, in fact, safe in Mississippi, she assured us that she, too, is safe.

She was a little unclear, though, about where she is at the moment. She called out into the noisy room and asked, "Where are we? Where are we right now?" Though at first it seemed like perhaps she was in a crowded car or bus, it turned out that she was in fact in a shelter. Different people gave different answers to her question, but it seems most likely that she is in Lacombe, Mississippi. It was so difficult to hear (from either end of the phone), that we don't have many more details on Sarah. We do, though, have a solid promise that she will keep us posted from this point forward.

The last family that we can account for at the moment is the Palmer family. Don, Troylyn, and their son "Little Don" all live next door to Rosie. We helped them gut their house in January 2006 and repair it in 2007, and we gutted two houses owned by Don's dad, Leroy, over the years. All of the Palmers are gathered now in Baton Rouge, at the same house where Leroy has been staying since Katrina, which belongs to Little Don's aunt (Big Don's sister).

Little Don visited all of us last May as he contemplated whether or not to start college. He started classes two weeks ago in New Orleans, studying mortuary science. Now he gets a few days off from classes, but if the delay is very long there is a way to continue his studies through a related program in Baton Rouge. Little Don assures us that all is well. He was quick to report that their new dog is with them and is also safe.

From our end, we are in a bit of a frenzy full of fear and "what ifs . . . ?." We are keeping each other posted about Facebook messages from other volunteers or from our NOLA family members, about text and cell messages/conversations, and about the latest news reports that we've heard. On their end, they are learning some of what they know from us. The neighbors didn't all hear about each other's plans, but now they all know where the people of their corner of the world have landed, at least for now.

We hope that all of this anticipation and action turn out to be unnecessary. No matter which way things go, we will post updates when we have them. Thoughts, prayers, hopes, and best wishes should all be directed to the Gulf Coast tonight . . .