This is part 3 of a 3-part series about memorable stories from cab rides I’ve had over the years. (Click to read part 1, Finding Inspiration in a Las Vegas Taxi, and part 2, A Silver Lining in Orlando.) Today’s story, the third and final story in my trilogy, comes from New Orleans.
My trip to New Orleans was a powerful one in a lot of ways. I had almost planned a trip to New Orleans in 2005 that would have put me in the city right around the time Katrina hit, so when I did finally visit the city in 2008, Katrina overshadowed much of how I processed things. Locals I spoke with still talked about it. They had either made it through the storm in New Orleans or evacuated and returned to pick up the pieces of their lives. Outside the tourist areas, the city still needed much rebuilding (and still does). The most powerful story I heard, though, came from my cab driver, Eddie, who drove me to the airport on the day I left.
As we drove away from the French Quarter, Eddie (who was a tour guide before he became a cab driver), pointed out the watermarks on buildings and noted which areas had been flooded during Katrina. He stayed in New Orleans during the hurricane. I’d taken a tour earlier in the week with a guide who had talked about how repeated hurricane warnings over the years had made people numb to them–like “the boy who cried wolf”–and that’s why so many people stayed. So when I asked Eddie why he had stayed, I was able to couch it in the same terms without sounding like I thought he was crazy for doing so.
Eddie told me that it wasn’t until 15 hours before Katrina hit that the weathermen started emphasizing that the city was definitely going to flood and people needed to get out. But at the same time, the news reporters were shown on the evacuation route, pointing out the bumper-to-bumper traffic and saying the backup was hours long. At that point, no one who was still in the city was going to get out in time, Eddie said.
“You live in Vermont, right?” Eddie asked. (I had told him this earlier.) “When you hear there’s a blizzard coming, what do you do?”
I shrugged. “I make sure I’ve got supplies and hunker down in my house.”
He nodded. “Exactly. That’s what we do when we hear a hurricane’s coming. It just didn’t work out this time.”
He woke up to find his house flooded. But his mattress was floating. So he tipped it sideways to get it out the front door, threw his springer spaniel on top of it, and walked down the street, using the mattress as a flotation device, to a two-story apartment building. There, he found two other men and a dog. The three of them survived by breaking into empty apartment buildings for food and water. They left notes saying who they were and what they’d taken.
Things got hairy. They all had guns, and according to Eddie, that was a good thing when all hell broke loose during the aftermath, with gangs of looters roaming the streets. They took turns at night standing guard and wouldn’t let anyone else near the apartment building. Eventually, the National Guard came by to try to rescue them, but they wouldn’t take the dogs. Eddie and the other dog owner weren’t about to leave their best friends behind. They barricaded themselves in the apartment building and wouldn’t leave. Eventually, some Guardsmen came along who allowed them to bring the dogs and they were transported to the airport. But they couldn’t get on a plane with the dogs, so again, they stayed. Finally, they hopped in the back of a National Guard truck to Baton Rouge.
I expressed my wonder at what he’d been through.
“History’s really fascinating to read about,” Eddie replied. “But it sucks to live through it.”
But like so many other New Orleans residents I met during my stay, it didn’t stop him from coming back. In this classic “Man vs. Nature” story, man was bent, beaten and battered. . .but not broken. New Orleans and its people are survivors, and they love their city. Having visited New Orleans, I understand that love. It is truly one of the most unique cities in the country and well worth a visit by anyone traveling to or within the US.