the Path of Hurricane Georges
up my trip down the Mississippi for the children's book
that was published in the spring of 2000, I came to New
Orleans for good food and a rest after traveling 2200 miles
from Lake Itasca in Minnesota, and came, instead, into a
city thrown into panic by an oncoming hurricane. The
following is taken from my Mississippi River Journal.
Saturday, September 26, 1998
Hurricane Georges is heading straight for the Mississippi
Delta with 110 mph winds and rain beyond anything since
Betsy came to New Orleans 33 years ago in 1965. The bellhop
at the hotel can't remember Betsy becuase he wasn't alive
In the Atlantic and Gulf, meterologists are tracking no
less than four hurricanes simultaneously--the first time
this has occurred in recorded history. Last evening when
I came down to the French Quarter, Interstate 10 going north
was locked in miles of traffic of fleeing people. I breezed
down the ghostly highway heading into the oncoming hurricane
feeling a little stupid, but excited, too.
After a brilliantly sunny day, the first teaser of rain
came to New Orleans and flopped around on the roof of this
old hotel across from St. Louis Cathedral on Jackson Square.
At nine-forty-seven on Saturday night, I heard the lonely
sound of someone boarding up windows on the street outside.
On the pillow in the room a note From the Management read,
"A power outage of some duration is likely. Our hotel
does not have emergency generators....Please cooperate with
us during this very difficult period...."
Possible flooding from combined rain and high tides, the
weather wizzards are saying, might run as high as 17 to
19 feet. That could put the first floor of this hotel underwater.
No one is quite sure. Anything over 14 inches of rain
will flood the street.
My car, with the canoe on top, is on the first floor of
the garage. It won't fit into the garage elevator. So by
the time I take the canoe off and lash it down to something
on the first floor, the electricity will have gone and there
will be no saving the car. I should get the canoe off sometime
early Sunday a.m. Might need it. What a picture that would
make. Canoeing Bourbon Street.
The French Quarter is the highest part of downtown New Orleans,
but nevertheless is eight feet below sea level. Its electrical
power comes from underground and there are two substations
on either end of the Quarter. The city has shut off 100
control gates in the surrounding levees, closing off the
rising Mississippi on one side and Lake Pontchartrain on
the other . There was all kinds of hurricane talk in the
Pere Antoine's when I ate dinner at 7 last night but tourists,
mostly German, seemed calm and excited. By nine the rain
started, and a wind that was mild, but scary because it
shook the roof of the hotel. I'm on the fifth and top floor.
Images of roofs being torn off buildings were running rampant
on the weather Channel, to which the people in the shelters
are glued. I would say the level of adrenaline is about
as high as it gets before a bit of panic.
Now by ten all the rain and wind has stopped except the
pounding of owners putting up huge plywood boards against
the windows of their hotels and eateries. A few college-aged
kids rove St. Ann's street, but just down two blocks Bourbon
Street is hopping, with lights and bums and music and bars
and balcony peepers. It's a thinner show than usual, but
a show nevertheless.
One man on a tall step-ladder was taking down the swinging
sign for the Charthouse restaurant on Jackson Square
Sunday, September 27
Slept fitfully, but when I woke the sky was bright gray.
Georges is a slowmover and is still off shore by two hundred
miles, coming at us at only 10 miles an hour. The weather
people keep talking about being able to see the eye of the
hurricane on the satellite photos, which, they say, is not
good, because it means the hurricane is not weakening, and
might even increase in ferocity.
Walked down to the river and saw the tugs all moored together
along both sides of the
Mississippi like cows or horses or goats or sheep. The captain
on an offshore utility tug threw me a hauser to put around
a capstan. He said he'd been moored further down toward
the Gulf but wasn't secure there, so he came to downtown
for safer harbor. Like the pilot and captain I met on a
tow in Vicksburg, this one too had long hair. Must be a
sort of fraternity among Mississippi captains and pilots.
He said I could come back when they opened the levee gates
and maybe even have some food with him. He'd be onboard
for the duration.
Police cars and sirens blasting. Only a few stores open.
Everyone stocking up on fruit and water. I have freeze-dried
stuff from camping in Minnesota. The lady making the coffee
downstairs is doing it all day and maybe for the duration.
I want to tip her really well.
Many parishes (counties), including this one, now have mandatory
evacuation. Apparently 1.5 million people have left the
city. Some have reached as far north as Jackson, Mississippi,
and apparently are now furious to discover that the city
has opened the superdome as a shelter, capable of holding
up to 100,000 people. Evacuees are being asked to bring
their own food and water. Not, and the talking heads on
t.v. emphasize, their furniture....
But of course not everyone can go to a shelter. And now
the hotel is even filling up with locals who want a solid
building on higher ground. I'm pretty positive they'll close
the bridge over the Mississippi here. Someone said on the
news that it can take up to 75 mph winds. But the city is
expecting at least that.
I photographed the big flood gates that allow traffic to
go through the levee to the river. These steel doors on
tracks will be shutting soon, and there will be no way out.
I have flashlight, mace, whistle, lifejacked, paddles and
of course my trusty canoe. Mace? What about looting???
11:00 A.M. Sunday.
Gates all shut in the levee. It took three to four men to
pull the heavy doors shut. The hotel is filling up. One
guy in the hotel is from ABC and is interviewing people.
Meeting people is what this storm is all about. There is
near panic in the air, but also great humanity. In the hotel
lobby, I met the former captain of a mine sweeper. He talked
about the terror of facing hurricanes at sea. How you run
from them hours before they hit, how once in the Straits
of Taiwan he and other merchant vessels found the lee of
a two-mile-long island and simply circled for days while
the storm played its course.
Some breaking figures on the storm. Wind already gusting
to 41 even though the eye is still 175 miles southeast of
the city of New Orleans and has slowed to 8 miles per hour.
Georges is 75 milessoutheast of the actual mouth of the
river, where 31-foot waves and 58 mph winds have kicked
up the seas. The fear now is that Georges will come over
the city and stall, creating as much as 30 inches of rain.
The winds are still 110 mph and are forecasted to go to
120 mph before it hits land making it a force 3 storm. The
cut off between force 2 & 3 is 110/111. The mayor of
the city has ordered a curfew after 6 pm. Tropical force
winds (40 mph) will hit us this evening, gusting to 70 mph.
The center is to hit us Monday around seven a.m.
Disturbance might go east of the city by a few miles. Heaviest
of rain, what they are calling the
storm surge, will be heaviest just east of us. But all that
water may back up in the lake and flood back on us. Interstates
are now closed. Bridges are closed.
It's a muggy 93 degrees, and the superdome and the convention
center are now filling up with last-minute evacuees. Concern
now is what happens if the superdome loses its electricity
with thousands of confused tired and fearful people in it.
People are arriving at the superdome with big bags of supplies
and pillows and sleeping gear. And are reminded not to bring
Along Bourbon and Chartres Street, the tourists walk around
as if awaiting a parade, a bit stunned that the hurricane
hasn't hit yet. If the hurricane stalls when it hits the
coast, it could bring the rainfall (storm surge because
we are below sea level) to 30 inches, which would definitely
flood the French Quarter. I have to watch out with the local
people when I say that I'm hoping for the worst. The New
Orleans people look at me with a nasty sort of look when
I say that I'm writing a kid's book about the Mississippi
River and canoeing up Bourbon Street would be a cool ending.
One t.v. announcer said the curfew begins at six and "you
WILL be arrested if you're caught out on the streets."
The curfew is partly to guard against looting.
Starting to rain lightly. Wind not so bad here in the French
Quarter, but some gusts come as
surprises. The ringing of bells from St. Louis. I've lashed
my canoe to the ceiling of the first floor of the hotel
garage, and the car has gone to level four. That's good.
Watching television and the swirling red, orange and green
patterns of Georges making landfall, it's as if some kind
of monster is swirling its way into New Orleans. A thing
with an intelligence. This storm left Africa two weeks ago
and has been a hurricane for many days. It seems to be zeroing
in on the French Quarter. That's intelligence.
I see outside the streets are empty. This city is ready.
The light has gone yellow and the swallows have taken over
the sky above the church, over the French and Spanish rooftops.
They are drunk in the wild wind. They hardly use their wings.
I wonder if they're panicking or if this is just good fun.
They sky has suddenly turned a morbid purple as it darkens.
Not far above them is a fast-moving group of puffy gray
clouds, and breaks in the sky with blue. The church bells
sound eerie in the purple darkening light. Many here have
been praying that the eye goes east of the city. Looks like
now the talking heads are saying the eye might brush East
New Orleans but head mostly north and not west, thereby
giving us only tropical storm velocity winds (39-73) instead
of hurricane velocity (74-110).
But anything could happen at this point and it seems the
storm is slowing, which means more rain and rain. The direction
is still unpredictable since the direction of Georges is
determined by very high winds in the system.
Across the street a woman has come out onto her balcony
for a minute, then enters her house and comes out the door
downstairs with a full-sized poodle. She is picking up refuse
collected in the street.
The t.v. just went out, thank god. I'm sick of the talking
heads, almost as sick as I am of the heads talking about
Clinton and Lewinsky. I have my marine radio. Rain oderately
hard now, wind gusting in New Orleans to 68 and at the mouth
of the river to 79. At the moment Georges is only 30 miles
southeast of the mouth of the river and 130 miles southeast
of the French Quarter. High tide is expected tomorrow morning
and with all the rain we're going to get, it's anyone's
guess exactly what the totals will be. Last hurricane one
of the levees broke and flooding in that area was immense.
So much of forecasting here depends on levees holding, on
how wind and rain are combined with direction and duration
of storm in any one location. Also pumps. New Orleans has
a pumping system....???
5 a.m. Monday
Waking up to the locals' glee that Hurricane Georges has
taken a more northerly path and gone towards Biloxi, MS.
No one here is thinking much about the people in Biloxi.
Just that New Orleans has "dodged a bullet," as
one radio guy said. Power lines down some places, t.v. not
working yet, curfew still in effect, shelters holding people.
But the city is happy. And I suppose there will be no whitewater
paddling on Bourbon Street.
Downstairs in the hotel lobby an older woman is telling
earthquake stories about the time she was in a bad one and
her daughter thought the earth was about to end, and everyone
was dropping things on the floor as the house shook like
The coffee urn is getting low, and hardly anything to eat
left. The radio up in Vermont is telling my friends that
the path of the storm could change and New Orleans could
still get hit pretty severely. It is continuing to rain
and tropical force winds keep on coming. Jean Craighead
George says in an email message this morning, " My
father loved hurricanes, like you. He did stay out of them,
though, but could not wait to see what damage they had done
[Mr. Craighead was a well-known naturalist in the Everglades]
and how the flora repaired this damage -- all the mangroves
put out adventicious growth days after Hurricane Donna went
through. With the tiny leaves all over stems and branches
and trunks -- they survived the salt water. I did want to
see you paddling down Bourbon street."
The wind here is starting to howl and the rain pelting out
of the mean, gray sky. I want to get out and do some photographing,
but the curfew is still in effect. I think all of us in
this hotel and in the region and in the shelters are getting
pretty stir-crazy. Fourteen thousand people are being held
(some say "hostage") at the superdome and some
are trying to get out, getting angry now, tired and yearning
for home. The novelty is quickly wearing off. Half of them
brought no food, so they have been given hotdogs and cornflakes
with condensed milk. Which doesn't make their stay a nice
Wind and rain picking up. Maybe this thing isn't over yet.
Funny how we are optimists, and with our optimism we try
to put the hurricane into a little bottle, so we can put
it out to sea for some other unlucky souls to recover.
Tropical force winds still with us. Downed lines, lots of
neighborhoods with no electricity, some flooding happening
I broke curfew and roamed the empty city. I was not allowed
up the World Trade Center; all the rooftop observation balconies
in town have closed to the public. I found a hot meal in
the Mariott and photographed an empty Jackson Square. Restaurants
all closed for the day. Lots of tourists in the hotels are
busting to spend their money, but with nowhere to spend
In the aftermath now, winds still high, but not that high,
and a growing public criticism of the extended curfews and
closed highways and bridges. The 14,000 stuck in the superdome
are getting really restless. The governor is being blasted
for keeping people from their homes, even when the hurricane
is north of us. Also many of the churches are being criticized
for turning away the masses instead of providing a place
Evacuees who escaped the city are waiting en mass to come
home. They're waiting in Alabama, they're waiting in Mississippi,
they're waiting in Jackson and Memphis. Millions. They're
waiting in the superdome and they're waiting all over the
south to come home, and because the highways are still closed,
these people are getting really angry. They wish they'd
never left in the first place. Maybe they won't evacuate
the next time.
Update on Georges, which is now above Biloxi, drifting north
at 3 miles an hour. Wind speed has dropped to a tropical
storm, maximum wind now 70 mph. Roads open now. All highways
are going to be jammed with people coming back. Millions
of cars are hitting the road as I write this. That's it.
The storm is dying its land-death, Bourbon Street is back
in action, and the radio announcer is yelling at the top
of his lungs, "Come on home, come on home."
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one of Peter's School Visits
it downloads onto your computer, it will be called
From A Presentation."