Thursday, September 15, 2005

Back To The Front? Part III

Maybe I've got a sick sense of humor, because even with all the chaos around me, I kept seeing little absurdities that made me laugh. Such was my feeling as I approached a gas station that had been taken over by the local police. The sight of an armed officer wearing a bulletproof vest and pumping gasoline for police and other emergency vehicles required that I stop and take a couple of pictures.

I know... I'm a weirdo.

I was starting to get a little too far away from downtown at this point, so I turned around and headed back West. As I drove, I noticed that the short, tree-littered streets to my right ran directly up to what looked to be a part of the NOLA levee system. The area appeared to be a fairly new and mid-upper middle class neighborhood. I was a little apprehensive about going into a residential area because of all the looter paranoia (not unfounded), and also because it seemed that I was virtually the only person in the greater New Orleans area without a firearm.

There were plenty of clearing crews in the vicinity, though, and the cops really hadn't afforded me anything other than a casual glance as they drove by, so I decided to head up one of the streets, winding my way slowly around fallen trees and other wind-strewn debris.

There was another road running parallel to the base of the levee, so I turned onto it and parked. I walked up the incline, and cresting the top, was rather surprised what I saw: Three large barges had been washed/smashed up onto the levee, and a ferry boat had suffered a similar fate perhaps a half-mile East of my location. I took several pictures of the barges, but for some reason, I didn't grab shots of the ferry. I don't know what I was thinking. The coolest looking barge had hit the levee mostly straight-on, and it's prow was raised up into the air. It's front-right corner had been smashed and split open, presumably when it first ran into the levee.

Google Maps has post-Katrina (and flooding) satellite imagery from New Orleans. Although much of the area I was in is obscured by cloud cover, one of the barges I saw is visible. It looks to be the one that hit the levee almost head-on.

Satellite Photo of barge on levee

One barge was almost completely beached. I walked down to get a better look at it. The first thing I noticed was that a corner of the vessel had carved a groove right up into the concrete face of the levee.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but the levee looked to be nothing more than an earthen mound, hardened on the water side by a thick sheet of this concrete. Maybe it has a rocky, gravel core, but I don't know. What I do know, though, is that there was obviously significant damage to this area of the city's defenses, and if they had broken, the West Bank would have been as screwed as New Orleans proper. Maybe even worse, because NOLA was flooded by a lake with a limited amount of water, whereas this area would have been flooded the the Mississippi River itself! Needless to say, they're going to have to do some major repairs here.

One of the readers of this blog, A Girl From Texas, wrote in the comments of this previous post about the possibility of a barge on Lake Ponchartrain having been at fault for the downtown levee breaks:

I've been speaking with some evacuees that have been transplanted in my community and they say that there is a RUMOUR, and I do mean RUMOUR, that Beau Brothers Construction had some barges near the levees that were not tied properly; and as a result they banged against the walls and weakened them during the storm. I don't know anything more about it than what I just posted.

I don't know about that either, and I have heard absolutely no other mention of the possibility other than A Girl From Texas' comment, so I'll reserve my judgment. So many boats had been tossed around by the hurricane that I think it'd be hard to fault anybody, anyway. I tried using Google Maps, to find any evidence of this, but so far I've found none. I'd love to hear about it if anyone reading this knows more.

At this point, I figured that I'd take another shot at getting into downtown. I walked back to my car and noticed that while I had been there, the cleanup crews had cleared the street using a front-end loader. That was nice, since it would be easier going for my tires. I still hadn't replaced the one that blew out at the beginning of my trip.

I headed back to the expressway, looking for an on-ramp that would take me toward the bridge, and thinking about what I'd say to try and get past the cops. I figured that if I told the officers that I was a freelance photographer heading to Baton Rouge to link up with a National Guard unit, they might let me cross the bridge, after which I could just get off the highway and go where I wanted. The I-10 freeway runs right through New Orleans, and heading West, it goes directly to Baton Rouge. The only other way I knew of to get there was to follow the 90 back the way I came for about 30 miles, then get on I-310 North for another 20 or so miles, before linking back up to the I-10. It's a pretty serious detour and I hoped to look official enough for the cops to let me take the shortcut through town.

They didn't buy it.

The officer I spoke with started out, "Well, you need to turn around and drive back about 30 miles to the..." Yeah. I got it. Just tell me where to find the on-ramp to get back on the 90 in the other direction. He told me, and I drove off. I was determined to get in there, damn it, but at this point I didn't know what I was going to do.

I had been lying to the cops about actually going to Baton Rouge, but by the time I had gotten all the way out of town, I decided to take the detour there anyway. I hadn't found any internet access anywhere around NOLA and I was getting behind in my posting. I also had a bunch of new pictures that needed messing with, and I figured that I could find a decent spot to do both if I went back. Might as well have a beer or two while I'm there, you know... for medicinal purposes.

It was 5:30 or 6 PM at this point, and I was starting to crash. I had gotten little enough sleep on the way down here, and at most, 30 minutes the night before. I needed to pull over and take a few laps around the car or something. I-310 is an elevated highway, passing over the Mississippi, its tributaries, and the surrounding wetlands. There are two lanes going each way, but it has a really small shoulder on the right where I didn't think it would be wise to stop. I began looking for an exit. 15 miles to the next one, the sign said. At this point I was trying to keep from falling asleep at the wheel, shaking my head and slapping myself in the face. Hard.

I don't really remember seeing the sign for the exit, but all of a sudden my head nodded and I looked up. I was in an exit lane, but it was barricaded by a concrete divider, an old couple was stopped right in front of the barricade changing a tire, and I'm doing 70 MPH toward them!

"JESUS CHRIST!" I slammed on the breaks, finally stopping as I pulled up alongside their car. I was definitely awake at this point. I paused to compose myself and looked over at them, trying to play it off, "Uh, can I help you folks change your tire?"

The man was red faced, and looked like he could keel over with any more exertion. The woman had a little dog that she was trying to keep from running into the highway. I got out of my car, and a couple of minutes later they were ready to roll. I was rewarded with a cold Coke for my troubles. I needed it.

I hit an RV park just outside of Baton Rouge. They were kind enough to let me use their showers, but refused any payment. I grabbed some grub at a family-owned BBQ joint just down the street. There were at least 3 or 4 generations of the same family working the place. Good genetics, judging by the 20-something girls running the register and waitressing...

When I got to Baton Rouge, the feeling of the place had changed. The traffic was tremendous, and people were everywhere. Looking at the other drivers, I could tell they were going crazy. Funny. I actually felt quite at home, have been driving to work through unbelievable traffic in Los Angeles for the last six years. I stopped by the local Wal-Mart, the biggest one I've ever seen, and it was a sellout. People were everywhere, but the shelves were starting to look bare. The population explosion of the last week was really showing. I made my way through traffic to just outside of the LSU campus and parked the car. There was an internet café/coffee shop right there, and I ate and drank at a Mexican place just across the street.

It was starting to get late, so I drove back down highway 1 (The I-10 East was closed near New Orleans) and ended up sleeping in my car at a truck stop just across the 90 from Beck's Bar. I was so tired that I managed to rack for almost 8 hours in that hot, uncomfortable, little car.


Blogger A Girl From Texas said...

Wow, an honorary mention in your post! :)

This is good reading, I really do enjoy your posts.

7:29 PM  

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