Brad Vogel departed his home in the Uptown neighborhood of New Orleans early Saturday morning, one among more than a million persons from the city and surrounding coastal regions of Louisiana that have evacuated their homes over the weekend in advance of Hurricane Gustav.
The storm, which hit the Greater Antilles in succession over the last week before turning north into the Gulf of Mexico, is currently projected to make landfall again west of New Orleans on Monday morning, barely three years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Big Easy and surrounding areas in Louisiana and Mississippi.
A native of Kiel, Wisconsin and 2006 graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Vogel is a co-founder of Letters in Bottles, a blog covering politics and pop culture both in Madison and around the world, and an alumnus of the Badger Herald editorial board. He had just started his second year at Tulane University Law School last week before classes were suspended in anticipation of the storm, which is currently projected to hit Louisiana with considerable strength.
This is prompting a massive sequence of preparations across the Gulf Coast and a crescendo of media attention, with the widespread damage caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the subsequent disaster response and criticisms of it looming large for both observers and persons affected by the storm. It is also impacting the 2008 presidential campaign, with major changes already in the works for the Republican National Convention this week.
After evacuating New Orleans, Vogel drove north to St. Louis and responded via email to a series of questions from The Daily Page on Sunday afternoon. His thoughts on the pre-Hurricane Gustav mood in New Orleans, his evacuation, and the future of the city follow.
When you moved to New Orleans for school, what were your thoughts on the likelihood of another hurricane of this intensity landing so close to the city during your time there?
Vogel: When I moved to New Orleans in August 2007 for law school at Tulane, I figured the chances of another hurricane of Katrina magnitude or greater hitting the city or its environs was slim to none for the three years of school I had planned. Many of the buildings in NOLA are quite old, and it's hard to imagine how they've survived so long if hurricanes of immense destructive force were frequent and on target. However, I moved knowing full well that a storm might come with similar consequences -- so I assumed the risk to some extent. Unfortunately, it looks like Hurricane Gustav, given its current wind speeds and direction, could be even worse than Katrina.
What part of New Orleans do you live in? Are you concerned about the threat the hurricane may pose to your neighborhood?
I live in Uptown, which is upriver from the French Quarter. I'm not too far from Tulane University itself. My house and lot literally seem to be on the dividing line for flooding -- the great "bowl" of low-lying area in central New Orleans where bad flooding occurred last time begins essentially in my back yard.
If this storm is greater or the levees are breached, I am concerned for my house and my remaining belongings -- school and financial documents, clothing, furniture, keepsakes, artwork, technology -- even the mold that might result if the lower floor floods would be bad. Looting is an even greater concern, but hopefully the increased National Guard presence will be enough. My neighbor across the street, Anne, had her house looted during Katrina.
Did you make any preparations over the long term in anticipation of this possibility?
My preparations were mostly made in the form of living lightly -- I didn't purchase many big ticket items in NOLA, and I made sure to rent a place that was less prone to flooding based on Katrina. My place is right at about the sea level line. Floodwaters did not touch the first floor floorboards of the raised house in Uptown -- nobody has a basement in New Orleans -- and I share the upper half of the house with two roommates. But this time around, the prospect of hurricane force winds is greater, which is a different problem than mere aftermath flooding.
What was the mood like in New Orleans as it became increasingly clear that Hurricane Gustav would be approaching the city?
At first, all the old timers and skeptics told everyone to quit worrying, that the storm would surely go elsewhere if it was projected to hit NOLA at five or six days out. On Thursday evening, when Tulane announced it would close the university from Friday noon until at least Thursday, some people departed, but others stayed. Some of us went out to Bruno's, a college bar near the university. It was packed with people, although much of the conversation centered on potential evacuation plans. I hoped to ride the storm out (and live blog as best I could) and bought provisions accordingly -- right now, my house is still full of gallons of water and non-perishable food.
But when the storm grew in intensity and refused to swerve much from its projected path, people started acting a bit more gravely. My two roommates evacuated by Friday, and most of my classmates did too. The need to get out loomed in every conversation after that. New Orleans is like an island, really, with three major chokepoint escapes across long, narrow causeway highways raised above the water for miles. The mood deteriorated with each news update through Friday.
What preparations did you make to evacuate the city?
Ultimately, I decided late Friday night that I was getting out of Dodge before the sun rose Saturday, mainly to avoid hellish traffic on the causeways. But sadly, the storm didn't look quite as bad, so I didn't pack everything I would've liked, thinking we would return to the city more rapidly than I now anticipate.
I went through the "What would you take if you only had a few hours to leave?" in the wee hours of Saturday morning, taking two dresser drawers full of documents and keepsakes, my great grandfather's accordion, a cheese box full of photos, clothes, my laptop, my law school books, all of my work for the Tulane Maritime Law Review, food, two bottles of red wine, a few key CDs, a pile of resumes, and my camera.
I cleaned out the fridge and freezer, shut the blinds, unplugged electrical equipment, cleared the yard of small potential missiles (like my grill), and did my best to barricade the front and back doors so it would be very difficult, although not impossible, for a looter to get in.
I also made sure my 93 year-old neighbor downstairs, Inge Elsas -- who fled the Nazis in Germany back in the 1930s -- had an escape plan to make it to her son's house across the lake.
You mentioned a "freezer-clean-out-dinner" in advance of evacuations. What was this, and what was the mood like amongst your friends and other acquaintances as the hurricane approached?
The power almost always goes out with big hurricanes, so my landlord demanded that we empty everything out of the fridge and freezer to keep things from molding in the event of a long evacuation.
Two of my friends and neighbors, Chris and Kristen, remained in the city on Friday night, and we tried to lighten the mood a bit. I ate blueberry toaster strudels all afternoon, and then I brought ice cream, peppers, pork chops, bacon, spinach, eggs, and more for Kristen to cook up. She made a great frittata and salad out of some diverse ingredients. While the food was great, eeriness kept punctuating the evening, as we would suddenly start talking about evacuation plans, or wonder aloud where people had evacuated to in the South. And we tried to call other people we thought were still in town from our class, and nobody seemed to be around at all.
Finally, two of Kristen's friends arrived, and they said they had been out around town trying to find gas in advance of evacuating on Saturday. They had hunted for quite some time, finally finding a single gas station that still had fuel. It was at that point that a sort of darkness settled on me, and I decided there was no way I was sticking around, that I would get out before sunrise. I had filled up my tank earlier.
How long did it take for you to evacuate the city? Where are you going to wait out the storm, and potentially, its aftermath?
I was definitely going to wait out the storm. I talked to enough people who made it through Katrina in Uptown, which didn't flood as much because it's on the old, natural river levee, with slightly higher ground. I bought food, water, batteries, flashlights, duct tape, and more. And I was preparing to go out to buy a shotgun.
But when it seemed to storm was growing more powerful and wasn't deviating from its track -- and that a curfew would be imposed on anyone remaining, so I wouldn't be able to get out and about to report for my blog and take photos -- I decided I wasn't going to risk it. Plus, the phone lines and electricity would likely have gone down quickly, making it impossible for me to communicate anything anyway.
Do you know anybody who is remaining behind? Why are they doing so?
I have one classmate who is staying for sure. He has a connection with essential city services. That is all I can say at this time.
Are you concerned about being able to start your second year of law school? What will students at Tulane or other New Orleans institutions be doing next week?
I am concerned. We had one week in thus far. If New Orleans is cordoned off beyond next week, I'm not sure what we do. Tulane's administration has moved to Nashville as of today, I understand. I'm not sure if other schools would be willing or able to take us. As I said, I don't think it's quite as morally incumbent upon them this time around. But we'll cross that bridge after the storm has hit.
For the next week, most of us will likely be staying with friends, family, and in hotels as we try to figure out what happens next, and make sure everyone else is okay. Our law journals are still intending to publish, so I know some people are trying to simply do their work and get their reading done in advance. People are all over: Austin, Dallas, Houston (which is also evacuating in part now, I hear), Shreveport (which should probably evacuate), Baton Rouge (one friend was evacuating farther north this morning), Memphis, Kansas City, Jackson, Nashville, Montgomery, Birmingham, Atlanta, and Tallahassee. Others flew out to places farther north. It's turning into quite the little diaspora.
What is the general mood you experienced before leaving the city regarding the hurricane's potential threat to it and the ongoing efforts to rebuild and revitalize areas devastated in 2005?
The city seemed to be taking this in a much more business-like manner than Katrina. Governor Jindal and Mayor Nagin likely want to over-prepare to avoid catastrophe to the extent possible. And individuals don't want to go through Katrina again, so I think this storm will result in less loss of life, at the very least, no matter how damaging it is. People are definitely unsure of how safe the levee system will be this time around, though. I know the West Bank, the area of Jefferson Parish just across the river from New Orleans where I worked this summer, is under the gun. And the levee system is not complete there at this time.
What about elsewhere in the city? Are the same general areas that were affected most significantly in 2005 at risk now?
The West Bank, as I said, is probably at far greater risk this time -- it really didn't suffer much last time around at all. As for the other areas of New Orleans that are still getting back on their feet -- New Orleans East, the Lower 9th Ward, Gentilly, Lakeview, and Mid-City -- it really depends on whether the levees and pumps hold.
If a Category 4 or 5 Gustav comes ashore at or very near New Orleans, I'm not so sure they would hold.
You have previously written about pile-driving in New Orleans as part of a construction project and your concerns about its effects on the integrity of levies. Is this something you're still concerned about?
While the pile driving near levees concern was very real this spring, it was primarily in relation to the unordinarily high waters of the Mississippi River due to increased snowfall in the Upper Midwest. The river is actually very, very low right now by comparison. The river levees weren't a problem in Katrina, only the levees north of the city on Lake Pontchartrain and along the Industrial Canal and Mississippi-River Gulf Outlet -- which are to the east of the city.
Again, the river levees might be a problem if the storm hits the West Bank more fiercely, or dumps massive quantities of water into the river, jeopardizing the East Bank levees.
From your perspective as a newcomer to New Orleans, how smoothly has this evacuation gone over the course of your experiences during the last few days?
The evacuation has gone quite smoothly compared to Katrina. Talking to friends who've been evacuating while I've had them on the phone, everyone seems to say that individuals are handling this much more methodically, being a bit more patient, and failing to argue with the overriding need to get out. Tulane was good about keeping us updated, and Governor Jindal, especially, seemed to take an extraordinary amount of care to get an early start on preparation and evacuation -- whether for purely political considerations or not.
What message do you have for Madisonians regarding the hurricane?
Please help in any way you can. It may be tempting to think people in New Orleans brought this upon themselves, but the sheer bad luck of having another major storm this soon after Katrina -- and on the anniversary, just as people are healing at long last -- needs an empathetic response. Evacuating, as harried as it was for me, had to be far more traumatic for those who know the consequences of hurricanes in New Orleans firsthand.
If you are looking to donate to a relief agency, find one with low overhead, or find an individual through your social networks who is directly engaged in relief work so that you are assured the money is going to those who need it. A number of Katrina-related non-profits have turned out to be less than altruistic.
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
Will New Orleans come back? This topic has come up with multiple classmates in exile over the phone and email. If the city suffers another Katrina-like inundation and devastation, I'm not sure how feasible it will be to bring back a critical mass of population to the Big Easy. I love New Orleans. New Orleanians love New Orleans. And the city is a unique and irreplaceable part of our national heritage.
I only hope that by some twist of fate, Gustav is not the end of that cherished place.
Vogel is driving from St. Louis to the Twin Cities on Sunday evening, and will be reporting live from the Republican National Convention in St. Paul and trying to raise awareness for New Orleans relief efforts. Hurricane Gustav and the situation along the Gulf Coast continues to develop rapidly, meanwhile. Ongoing reports about the storm are being provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Hurricane Center, as well as in blogs published by Dr. Jeff Masters on Weather Underground and by New Orleans meteorologist Bob Breck. Additionally, ongoing reports from and about the city and its inhabitants can be found in a blog published by Gambit Weekly and at NOLA.com.
"To my friends still in New Orleans," declared Vogel upon reaching St. Louis, "I'm thinking of you unceasingly."