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Gustav and Me

So last weekend I found myself in the middle of the mandatory evacuation of New Orleans as Hurricane Gustav barreled toward the Gulf Coast.

What in the world was I doing in New Orleans on the eve of a hurricane, you ask?

Well, I was a featured speaker (and performer) at one of my favorite writing workshops: Heather Graham’s Writers for New Orleans.     

I guess it might seem rash of me not to have just canceled the trip, but I went down on Wednesday, before anyone really knew where the storm was going to hit and a twhat strength, and I was committed to showing up at the workshop as long as itwas still on – it would have left Heather in too much of a lurch to have allher speakers canceling on her.

As it turned out, wespent a lot of the time we did have down there watching the weather forecasts and listening to half the locals say that everyone was overreacting – at the same time that businesses all over the French Quarter were closing down and boarding up.   Faux News was screaming gloom and doom, while the Weather Channel kept saying that no one would know anything until Monday.  No one could really talk about anything else.  

I have to say -earthquakes are less time-consuming. Really.  Because there’s no build up.    They hit, period, end of story, and then you deal with whatever the damage is.  No one talks about them before, because you never know at all when or if they’re going to hit.  Well, except for that anxiety that takes over native Californians when the winds are hot and dry off the desert –the infamous Santa Anas) and the ground seems to just bake under you.   We call that “earthquake weather”and it makes anyone who grew up in the state jittery, even though there’sapparently no proven correlation between Santa Anas and earthquakes.  

But with hurricanes, youknow they’re coming, but you don’t know exactly where.   It stops time and momentum.  All you can do is talk about it, but no one really knows how bad it’s going to be.  Having been through it now, I’m not a big fan of that tension, myself.  It’s the damn back-and-forth that will kill you.

Anyway, those of us whodecided to tough it out – including authors Harley Jane Kozak, F. Paul Wilson,Nathan Walpow, Dave Simms, Kathy Love, Erin McCarthy, Cathy Maxwell and KathyPickering; editors Kate Duffy, Leslie Wainger and Adam Wilson; Barbara Vey fromPublishers Weekly, Medallion Press publisher Helen Rosburg - just went on withthe show – rehearsal for Heather’s traditional Saturday musical (this year,“Pirates!  A Fractured History ofthe Lafitte Brothers in New Orleans”, with songs like Louie, Louie, Smoke on the Water, Come Sail Away, and You’re No Good), an opening party featuring vampire band The Impalers at the Monteleone Hotel, then on to Helen Rosburg’slavish Victorian party, upstairs at Muriel’s on Jackson Square – an old (and of course, haunted) New Orleans mansion preserved in period splendor – from formalr ooms to red wallpapered bordello and séance rooms crammed with Victoriana,from red velvet love seats to erotic paintings to sarcophagi.  Psychics were on hand to tell fortunes,a photographer was taking portraits of us in our Victorian garb (designed andbuilt by the fabulous Connie Perry) in the bordello room, and people playedcharades in the parlor, while others ate at the multiple carving stations inthe ballroom

After midnight (and changing out of poufy Victorian dresses) the party reconvened on BourbonStreet… with more Impalers… so to speak…

Even so, I got a decentsix hours of sleep that night… er, morning… for which I was grateful,considering how the next day turned out.

Saturday the openingbreakfast was served at the top of the hotel, a fabulous view of the Mississippi and a fabulous spread of food, and I was very grateful to have thechance to talk with legendary Kensington editor Kate Duffy at breakfast and confidemy third book what-do-I-call-the-damn-thing title woes; she offered to helpbrainstorm, but when I told her the front-running choice was THE UNSEEN, shetold me in Duffyesque pull-no-punches style – “But that IS the title.   It’s eerie, it’s two words andnine letters” (she said without even blinking; she must have one of thosecalculator minds)… “It fits perfectly on a cover – why are you still looking?”

Then the programstarted, with bestselling authors F. Paul Wilson  http://repairmanjack.com/   and Cathy Maxwell providing the featured chat over breakfast…and about half an hour into it the hotel manager interrupted to announce thatMayor Nagin had declared a mandatory evacuation and that the hotel was closingdown.   All tourists wereasked to go to the airport (there were shuttles provided at another hotel) andour flights would be rescheduled to get us out early.

Okay, fine.   We all knew this could happen.   We knew we were headed for a freeway that looked like a parking lot and an airport that wouldlook like a refugee camp, but it was so sunny and still… not like a hurricaneat all.  

The thing is, there were about 18 in our immediate party, half of that being Heather’s family, with twovans to accommodate all of us - and you know how it is getting a group that size to do anything, even when there isn’t a hurricane and a mandatory evacuation…

It was kind of fascinating what happened.  We all were trying to pack at the same time that we were on our cell phones trying to get hold of our airlines to rebook flights and track down everyone else at the hotel, but theconnections kept dropping, and there was an adrenaline charge to the wholething… spaciness, fast compulsive talking, sudden outbreaks of tears.  It wasn’t as if we were in anyimmediate danger; the major stressor was trying to decide if we should take ourchances trying to get flights out of town at the New Orleans airport, which wasapparently going to shut down completely on Sunday at 6, or drive out of town to some other airport to fly out from there.   I didn’t like that idea myself, having seen endless news footage of what highways look like during an evacuation, but this was all new to me, so I busied myself collecting every available foodstuff and especially bottled water I could find in the hotel, since we’d heard that allthe airport vendors had already closed down their shops and left.

It was an interesting four-hour ride to the airport (which is usually about a half hour trip from theQuarter), too.   One hour wasstopping at the ER of Tulane Hospital, as one of our party had developed astaph infection that had to be treated right away and we didn’t want to splitup.   That was a bit surreal,as all of downtown was completely deserted except for a few construction crewsboarding up windows and a lot of emergency vehicles and National Guard.  The upside is that there was no waitingin the ER, as no other patients were there.   It was also hot as hell, with sun blazing down and no wind whatsoever.

On the freeway at last,it was, of course, a parking lot; the agonizing crawl only broken up once in awhile by the scream of police escorts taking buses of prisoners out of town.

We had another hourdetour on that ride when someone spotted a lone Burger King that was actuallyopen and we spent an hour in that drive-through line (they wouldn’t let anyoneinside the store) to get what might be the only hot meal we could get in thenext 24 hours.   All they hadleft were chicken nuggets, French fries and diet Cokes, but in evacuation panicmode we managed to get $150 worth of them.   I didn’t know it was possible to spend $150 in afast-food drive-through, but when we finally got to the airport the TSA guys jokedthat we should be able to get a dollar a fry inside  (we didn’t actually try.)

I had already missed thelast flight out that day on my airline (which I could have booked several hoursbefore, but I’d had a feeling I wouldn’t get to the airport in time).  Half of us were able to get out onstandby; the others of us, leaving about eight who’d have to fly out the nextday, so we staked out some floor in the main terminal and set up camp for thenight.   All the vendors wereindeed closed up except for the news shop, and we already really had all thejunk food we could eat, but there were a few travel blankets and pillows topurchase.  I built a little camp ofsuitcases for privacy (really mostly so that we wouldn’t get stepped on –people were uniformly dazed and spacy and weren’t very conscious of where theywere going). 

My fellow Murderati author Toni Causey very sweetlycalled and, so typically of her, offered to come pick all of us up and put usup at her house in Baton Rouge, but there really wasn’t any danger, and it madeno sense to have her or Carl try to drive hours down and hours back; we wereall resigned to getting what sleep we could on the floor.

It was a long, noisy,crowded and COLD night – I must have piled every piece of clothing I had on topof me and I was still freezing from the AC, even with all of those peoplecrowded nearby.  Barbara Vey was fun to have around, the intrepid reporter – she blogged live, with photos, andway early in the morning when the National Guard showed up with MREs and waterfor the masses, she had Heather film her opening various MREs and showing offthe contents.   I reflected inbetween dozing (awakened periodically by National Guard patrols) that all in all it was less stress than I would have felt actually rehearsing and performing the “Pirates!” show, although I really regretted not being able to do thepanels and my screenwriting tips for novelists workshop.  I do know that we’ll just be that muchmore ready to do “Pirates!” next year, so that’s a plus.

I had more anxiety inthe morning when I woke up to find that my flight had been delayed five hours –and as I waited I saw more and more flights on the board being canceled, notsomething you want to contemplate on 2 hours of sleep… and the airport wasshutting down at six… which made me feel rather like Dorothy staring at that damnedhourglass… But finally I did get on the plane, and it was an uneventful flightback.  Or maybe there was a foiledterrorist takeover, I was too fast asleep to notice.

The real anxiety startedwhen I was home obsessively watching CNN, wondering if New Orleans was done forthis time.   But as we allknow by now… lots of damage, but nothing catastrophic, thank God.

We’re still waiting tohear how much damage our favorite Louisiana bookstore, Bent Pages in Houma,sustained – we heard Molly and Kay lost the roof and are worried.  We’re all ready to fly down and do a benefit, though.  Um, “Pirates!”,anyone?

Otherwise, as they say,all’s well that ends well.

Except that, right,Fay is now headed straight for North Carolina.  No beach this weekend, that’s for sure.

Oh well, you know… itmakes a good story.



Starting this Monday, Sept. 8, my second novel, THE PRICE  -    http://alexandrasokoloff.com/books.html#price 

is the featured horror title at DearReader.com  http://www.dearreader.com/ , the online book club that e mails you about a chapter a day of a different book every week.   You can sign up to get excerpts of books in all genres, here  http://www.dearreader.com/ , and if you want to get your excerpts of THE PRICE, and a chance to win a free autographed copy, you can sign up here:  http://www.dearreader.com/suhorror.html