New Orleans – One Day to Gustave
August 31, 2008 – 4pm -- Pink sky colored the morning as cicadas buzz in waves in the old oak trees. What is it they say about “pink sky in morning…?” In New Orleans it is one day to Gustave.
A steady river of people arrived at the bus station, many walking from home. People lined up, men, women, young babies and people with walkers. Suitcases, Batman backpacks, pillowcases stuffed with belongings, even black plastic garbage bags clutched tightly in nervous hands.
How many of us would shove some things in a pillowcase, turn out the lights, leave our home and catch a bus filled with strangers going to places unknown? In New Orleans and all along the Gulf Coast, tens of thousands are doing exactly that.
Big 64 passenger buses roll into the station from across the country to pick up the people of New Orleans. Some going to public shelters, some to military bases, some to churches.
Spent the day unpacking and opening hundreds of boxes of MREs (military meals ready to eat) to distribute to people getting on buses out of town. Spaghetti, barbecue, even vegetarian in slick brown packets complete with plastic spoon. Tastes much better than you would think, especially if you are, as most are, pretty hungry.
Outside satellite TV trucks idle by waiting buses and ambulances. The sun is out and the wind is up. Soldiers, who yesterday clutched their M-16s, today sat on folding chairs texting their families.
Volunteers pitch in with city, state and federal officials. Every kind of police and military you can imagine, many in full battle gear.
Women volunteers in day-glow vests guide the blind, carry bags for the unable, and lift the wheelchairs into the ambulances. Hundreds and hundreds of people with walkers and canes and wheelchairs are flushed out of their homes and forced to flee.
The occasional big shot strolls through and people politely allow them to fantasize that they are in charge.
Outside the wind continues to pick up. The U.S. flag flaps ferociously clanging the chains against the metal flagpole.
Those who say they hate government please consider our situation. Since Katrina our Gulf Coast has benefited from thousands of faith-based groups and hundreds of thousands of volunteers. But we need the public sector to help make it all work. Think where New Orleans would be tonight without the buses we all helped pay for, the police and soldiers we all helped pay for, the water, the MREs, the bus drivers, the shelter workers and the Coast Guard. As you watch the disaster unfold on TV, think where we would be without public help. We need each other. In a complex society like ours, we help each other and build the common good through the public sector. If it is bad, we fix it, not destroy it. Please think about it.
Back home, a mandatory evacuation has started. Curfew starts at dusk. The buses continue to arrive and depart but the passengers slow to a trickle. Generators and engines roar as the air smells of dust, MREs, and humidity.
As dusk starts, waves of cicadas humm. Thousands of people are in shelters. Hundreds are still riding buses. Gustave is coming.
Bill is a human rights lawyer and law professor at Loyola University New Orleans. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org