It’s 1:30am on September 1, 2008 as I write this. I have not been to sleep in over 2 days! My body is bone-weary but my mind won’t allow me to sleep… so I write.
Antonio (my husband, Eliana (my 8 year old daughter), and I headed to my mom’s house. We evacuated with my mom (Josie Chretien), my stepdad (Clay Chretien), and my brother’s (Gary James’) four children (Jourdan – 10, Camrynn – 9, Ashlynn – 7, and Jasmynn – 6). My brother is a single parent and a police officer for the Louisiana Medical Center of New Orleans Emergency Response Team (ERT) so we have charge of his children during this evacuation.
We caravanned in four vehicles: Antonio, Camrynn and Eliana in one car; Clay and Jourdan in one car; my mom, Ashlynn, and Jasmynn in one car, and me by myself in my van because my AC had just gone out and we didn’t want any of the children to ride in the heat (Boy, did it get hot!!).
We decided to leave at night or rather, early AM so that it would be cooler and so that the children would sleep (less stopping when they are sleeping). After helping my parents pack their vehicles, we headed out around 2:00 am on Saturday, August 30, 2008. Our destination: Birmingham, Alabama.
We chose Birmingham because of its proximity inland and the fact that our oldest daugher, Soleil (18), could fly there from Houston. She was in Houston visiting her boyfriend. Her Southwest flight back to New Orleans was canceled. She attends Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge and we were concerned about getting her back to class after the storm, once classes resumed. We had her re-routed to Birmingham, Alabama, where we could pick her up and keep her out of harm’s way. At the time of our decision, Houston, Texas was within the cone of uncertainty as well.
It was pretty smooth sailing, leaving the West Bank (Jefferson Parish) and driving through the Crescent City Connection, which had suspended tolls, until we hit I-10 East toward Slidell, Louisiana. The traffic was bumper-to-bumper as you can see from the photo above.
Contraflow, when traffic is re-routed as all outgoing from the city, was supposed to begin at 3:00am. There was trouble. First, Alabama State Police would not allow evacuees into the state on I-10 East due to heavy congestion. That traffic was re-routed to Mississippi. Then Mississippi began having a problem and the Mississippi State Police shut down entrance into I-10 East into their state due to the same congestion problems. Both Mississippi and Alabama had their own contraflow instituted, evacuating their Gulf Coast residents. This caused an extreme bottleneck and back-up in Louisiana. Louisiana State Police had to redirect all traffic north on I-59. By daybreak, around 6:00am. we were still inching along, just leaving New Orleans East and entering Slidell.
There were no available restrooms, gas or food along the route as this point. We had to stop in Slidell, after having been on the road for just over 4 hours and not even making it out of Louisiana! We stopped at a RaceTrac gas station but it was closed and out of gas (of course).
Once we entered contraflow just past Slidell (we were like Brits, driving on the “wrong” side of the road), it seemed as though momentum had picked up. Wrong. Even with contraflow, traffic continued to back up for hundreds of miles because of the massive Gulf Coast Evacuations.
We crawled along in stop and go traffic until we reached Mississippi. Seeing no relief in the foreseeable future, we decided to try an alternate route. We stopped in McNeill, Mississippi and took Highway 11 North. Along the way, we found our first convenience store with a clean, working restroom! After that quick stop and stretch, we continued north on Highway 11. We drove through cute little Poplarville (I have fond memories of the Poplarville Blueberry Storytelling Festival) with no problems. All was fine until we reached Hattiesburg, Mississippi. There, Highway 11 ended and we were detoured back to I-59. By now, it was 11:56 am and we had been on the road for 10 hours. We fueled with 5 hour energy drinks, No Doze, and Diet Coke. I know that’s not healthy but we had to get to Birmingham, Alabama at a certain time to pick up Soleil from the airport by 5:45pm.
We kept in touch via 2-way radios, which were a Godsend. We were able to communicate when cell signals were unavailable and able to make on-the-spot routing decisions. We were able to stay together when traffic separated us at times and stop together when someone needed a break.
I-59 seemed to flow okay then Antonio heard news that there was a major delay in Meridien, Mississippi. We made a quick decision to head east on Hwy 84. It turned out to be a great decision. Highway 84 East had no traffic whatsoever. At the intersection of Highway 84 and Highway 69, we stopped in Coffeeville, Alabama at a country buffet restaurant. At this point, the adults had gone without food and the children had only PB&J sandwiches and light snacks. We needed a substantial meal. It was about 2:00pm and we had spent 12 hours on the road with short stops for gas, stretches, and refreshments and no naps. Here is a picture of the children under the four stags the restaurant owner hunted.
At this point, I knew we wouldn’t make it to Birmingham in time to pick up Soleil from the airport. I texted her and asked her to wait until we arrived. I knew she’d be okay at the airport for 1-2 hours.
We followed Highway 84 East to Highway 43 North. From 43, we took Highway 5 North to Birmingham. We stopped in Woodstock for a quick break. Highway 5 is a hurricane evacuation route, with signs posted along the way. Several times, we saw caravans of National Guardsmen heading in the opposite direction, probably to assist in Hurricane protection and relief efforts. I said a prayer for them and thanked God for their presence. Both my father and step-father served in the military. I was a military “brat” and I have a tremendous amount of respect and awe for our service men and women.
From Highway 5, we intersected with I-20 East. We followed I-20 East to I-65 North. After 16 and a half excruciating hours on the road, we finally made it to Fultondale, Alabama, just outside of Birmingham. Here is a picture of our “Home Suite Home.” When Antonio made reservations, there was only one room available. If we had to, we would all squeeze into one room. Angels must have been smiling upon us (thank you for your prayers) because when we checked in around 6:15pm, there was a cancellation and we were able to secure another room (the last one in the hotel). The best part is that our rooms are just across the hall from each other!
Antonio left to pick up Soleil from the airport (he got her around 7pm) and the whole family was together. Well, almost. My mother-in-law stayed with Antonio’s sister, Pam, in Baton Rouge. We are keeping in touch with them and praying that the storm has mercy on Baton Rouge. My mother-in-law, because of health issues, can no longer endure long hours in the car.
While traveling, I “Twittered” my updates, which were live on my website (Thank you, thank you, Heidi Hafner, my AWESOME web designer). I also checked my emails (though I was unable to respond) and was astounded at the volume of people around the world who took the time to send well-wishes and prayers for me and my family. I am so blessed to belong to such a beautiful community of people who always have their hearts open. Thank you everyone for your kindness and generosity.
We were offered homes across the country. I will be watching Hurricane Gustav as he makes landfall. At his current projected path, Jefferson Parish may flood like it has never flooded before. We pray, pray, pray for mercy…
To all of my friends in Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, and Alabama whose homes and lives are in hurricane danger zone, I pray for you as well. You are all in my thoughts. We’ll weather this storm together.
Until next time…