30 August, 2008

Gustav menacing

My sister-in-law was scheduled to return to Russia today. For various reasons, we had her fly in and out of New Orleans rather than Gulfport. I left at 7.30 this morning and drove south on I-59, then turned east on I-10 until I came to Louis Armstrong International Airport. Traffic was very light in the direction I was traveling, but the opposite direction was already busy at 7.30am. The I-10 bridge east out of New Orleans was backed up for miles—it was also backed up the last time I drove there for some reason, but today was much worse—and the airport parking garage was more or less full.

Police at the airport directed anyone who wasn't catching an outbound flight away from the parking garage. I drove immediately to the top level and found a spot by virtue of Providence's sending someone out to their car at about the same time.

Once inside the airport I noticed a large number of uniforms. I talked with one who confirmed for me that TSA has flooded the place with out-of-towners in order to free up the locals for other duties; I also noticed a large number of police and military. They hadn't set up checkpoints and it didn't resemble a war zone, but I managed to get my sister-in-law checked in and through the security line quickly, then waited to make sure that her plane left with her on it. Another virtue of leaving when I did was that the security line was short; only twenty or thirty minutes later it grew to three or four times its previous length.

While waiting, I sat next to a couple of women. One of them was leaving after having flown in for an interview; the company had made an offer, and she had accepted. She's in her fifties I think, and her children have grown and asked her in bewilderment why she would want to move to New Orleans, especially at a time like this. It turns out that New Orleans is her hometown; she grew up there, left as a teenager, and has missed the place ever since. She and the other woman agree that there's no place like home,* and definitely no place like New Orleans; it's always in your blood.

The other told the first that she would have liked to leave, but her husband wouldn't be able to carry certain things, so they were going to try to ride it out. (This second woman looked middle-class. Remember that I was in an airport.) Her teenage son was watching a couple of large dogs in cages, and he wanted her to stay near him—I didn't catch it all, but he finished with, I'm gonna go off on him in a minute, referring to some man, presumably a uniform, who was apparently expressing displeasure with the cages' location. The woman stood up and followed her son, so I didn't learn more.

On my way out, I avoided I-10 and took the Ponchartrain Causeway, the longest bridge in the world.** Traffic there was remarkably light; in Covington I subsequently took LA-21 through an amazingly small town named Bush. In the wonderfully named Bogalusa I turned east into Mississippi, then followed US-11 most of the way home. There was no traffic to speak of on this largely rural route. It took me almost three hours, much longer than following the interstates.

I went that way because I wanted to avoid high traffic along the interstates. I already mentioned the long backup on I-10; what about the other interstates? In Hattiesburg I-59 had light traffic. The Hattiesburg American reports that one million residents are estimated to have fled the Gulf Coast today. The Governor will open contraflow patterns tomorrow morning on the Interstates, so they must be expecting a lot more tomorrow.

I mentioned yesterday the bus driver's remark that local hotels were full; I also wrote that I had heard various reasons for this, starting with the hurricane but including Southern Miss' football game this evening. It's the first game for the new coach, and the university's marketing department has whipped everyone into a frenzy. My entire Honors Calculus class—with a handful of exceptions—had donned yellow shirts as a show of school spirit.***

The Hattiesburg American's online website tells us more. The combination of the football game and the approaching hurricane are making it impossible for evacuees to find a place to stay.**** Shelters are opening around town and throughout Mississippi; the 10pm news showed fire trucks that had arrived from places as far away as Indiana, Pennsylvania and New York.***** The hurricane has grown to Category 4 and my neighbor, who works for the police, is being called to 24-hour duty Monday morning. His wife and daughter leave for Jackson tomorrow with friends.

According to the nightly news, Hattiesburg will endure nothing worse than tropical storm winds. I haven't decided yet if I'll leave, but I know that weather is mathematically chaotic, so I'm keeping an eye on things and have studied two routes already.

*No place like home: I sympathize with the women somewhat. I stopped in Raleigh a month ago and experienced a strong nostalgia. I wake in a strong melancholy from dreams where I am telling acquaintances in North Carolina how much I miss the place. Strangely, North Carolina isn't my home, and I didn't much care for the place my first two or three years there.

**Back when I lived in Rocky Mount or after I first came to Hattiesburg, I dreamt that I was driving my family on a bridge across an enormous body of water. The skyline of a city eventually materialized in the hazy distance. I remember nothing else about the dream, and I had quite forgotten it until I glanced in my rear view mirror while on the Ponchartrain Causeway. Deja vu, the image resembled the bridge, the water, and the skyline in that dream. The details differed substantially, but the general outline was exactly the same.

***yellow shirts: I asked them why, and they told me school spirit for the football game, so it must be true. I told them I never understood that, even when I was in college myself. To put this in perspective: I entered college before they were born. Dear God, I'm getting old… for which I thank you.

****Incidentally, why does it occur to no one to cancel the football game in order to free up resources (like hotel rooms) on the eve of a major hurricane? Well, it occurred to me. I thought about it, and realized that the risk of the hurricane's striking here must not be high enough to justify the immense loss of money that would follow from canceling the first game of the season. Yet there is a certainty of refugees looking for hotel rooms, regardless of the risk of the hurricane.

*****The station subsequently showed an amusing political commercial paid for by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, using Republican presidential nominee John McCain's well-known and harsh criticism of earmarks to attack Republican Senator Roger Wicker, who gave hundreds of thousands of dollars, or maybe even millions, to unnamed special interests. I won't comment further except to note that Southern Miss has a building named after Senator Thad Cochran and another after former Senator Trent Lott, and on my drive back from New Orleans today I passed an agricultural research institute run by Mississippi State University named after Cochran, who probably knows as much about agricultural science as I do. Wicker was named to replace Lott, who retired last year, so he hasn't been in office long enough to have anything named after him, but I don't expect I'll have to wait long. What I find amusing, aside from the clear irony that both McCain and Wicker are Republicans, is the rank hypocrisy of the DSCC in doing this:
  • half the state, including NASA's Stennis Space Center, is named after previous Democratic Senators who suffered no qualms about directing New York's taxes to Mississippi; and
  • their candidate, Ronnie Musgrove, will certainly behave no differently.

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