And so Friday begins, on the side of the road, my head crusty with
overflowing shit and my feet pitch black from materials that I’d rather
not think about. What will today dangle in front of us? How many more
lies? How much more waiting? How many more fights will break out? I
Not too long into the day, a Salvation Army truck starts to pull down
the interstate. A very small truck, about the size of an Ice Cream
Truck. The side hatch opens up and they start to hand out sandwiches. A
piece of lunchmeat and two slices of bread. One bite and my head reels
and my stomach flips over. Why can’t I eat? Especially at a time like
this when food is so desperately needed in my system to help keep me
around a little bit to work some of the cramps out of my legs, and
running back and forth to the port-o-lets, I stumble across a fresh
looking face in a crisp medical uniform of some sort. Her hair is
haggard, but she doesn’t look as if she’s been out here too long.
Trying to find the ill and infirm to watch over. I finally get to
approach her and let her know my situation. “I have AIDS. My last cd4
was 80, and I’ve had diarrhea and vomiting for several days now, and
despite the extreme pressure in my bladder, I can’t pee.” To my good
fortune, she is the first medical person to take me seriously since
I’ve been here, and she turns around to a guy and says “he’s next.”
Ten minutes later I’m being herded into a helicopter with a woman and
her baby. With the helicopters coming and going all day yesterday and
last night and this morning, it never occurred to me that they are
taking people away from here too. It seemed like they were only
bringing more and more people. It’s very loud being in a helicopter. I
wish my first experience with one had been under better circumstances.
But hey, there are a lot of firsts that I’ve done this week and it took
a catastrophe for me to be able to do them.
I have no clue where we’re going in the helicopter. All the hospitals
were either closed or full from what I picked up listening to people
talk. Where are we going? Then I see it. The AIRPORT! Are we getting
flown out to a hospital? Am I sicker in appearance than I thought, that
I deserve such special treatment? Far from it.
Upon disembarking the helicopter, we’re told to follow the yellow line.
To where, who knows. But once I rounded a corner, I was greeted by a
line. Of course. A few thousand people were here at the airport. “What
are you in line for?” I ask. “The plane to San Antonio” a group of
girls finally tells me after getting grunts and grimaces from others in
the same line. SAN ANTONIO!! That’s close to Austin! I can try to get a
hold of Ryan and Lisa again, this time with better news. But I still
need medical attention. I can’t stand up in a line. Not with Mother
Nature calling my name every 15 minutes. After 20 minutes of stumbling
around the airport, trying to find someone that could direct me to
where the hospital is that they set up, I get put into a Triage line
for another half an hour. Just as I make it to the front of the line, a
guy in semi-official looking clothes comes up and tells the triage
nurse that the planes are about to take off and if anyone doesn’t seem
that serious, they should go and catch one of the planes to get out of
town and get medical attention at whichever shelter they end up at. I’m
ecstatic and I leave my place in line. Ten more minutes of wandering
around reveals another lie. The man was standing in the triage line.
FOUL! He made up the story about the planes leaving to further his own
cause and advance in the line. The things people do in times of crisis
amazes me. I did not realize humans were so hateful towards one another
when we need each other the most. I walked back up to the front of the
line. I am not waiting again. I swiped a fruit juice from someone
already, and it’s tearing me up inside. I need help.
I get past the armed guard with my hastily scrawled triage report and
make my way over to the “yellow” section. Not too important, but just
important enough. Wonderful yellow. Of course, the triage nurse was
just a Red Cross volunteer doing her best, and she was mis-coloring
The doctor for our section came over to help the guy next to me who had
cut his hand open breaking through some glass. While standing next to
me, I grabbed her attention and said “I’m gonna be a quick case. I just
want some Immodium so I can stand in line long enough to actually get
somewhere. And some Gatorade would be great. I need actual hydration,
not just water, it’s not working anymore when we actually get some.”
She seems pleased that I stopped her and gave her an easy task that
wasn’t too daunting after all that she’s apparently been through
lately. The poor dear, running around in the air conditioning with a
CocaCola sticking up out of her pocket. But I still understand. It’s
hard work when you get 200 patients all at once and you’re probably
used to 200 patients over a period of a couple weeks.
She comes back with the medicine but no Gatorade, and I am most
grateful to her for this small blessing. The little blessings are
around every corner. They are also followed by bigger disappointments.
I wandered around the airport for a while longer after waiting for a
little while to let the Immodium kick in. I was trying to feel out the
lines that were wrapping everywhere. Most thought they were in line to
get a ticket to San Antonio before they could get in the line for the
planes. Others in what seemed to be the same line thought they were
waiting to get on a plane. Curious, I walked around some more, and
found all the ticketing counters for the various airlines. None were
operational of course.
I started working my way over to a crowd of people, and they suddenly
announced that they will start screening bags and boarding planes. I
trade a pack of cigarettes for a stick of gum to chew on and keep my
mouth moist while waiting. There are to be no lighters, matches, or
sharp objects of any kind allowed past the checkpoint. They even made
people give up their MRE’s because there was a heating element and a
book of matches in the box. With all rules pretty much thrown out the
door at this point in our new civilization, cigarettes start lighting
up everywhere. If we have to leave behind our sources of fire now,
man’s most primitive weapon and source of life, we better smoke up
while we can.
Wonderful! Now where am I in the line?
How many hours will I be here? It was not an interminable wait like I
thought it would be. Two and a half hours found me being counted and
passed down the hall to be metal-detected. I sign in with the Air
Marshall’s and get put on the flight list of passengers. This is really
happening! I’m almost out of New Orleans.
A quick argument with a lady trying to take up three seats, finds me
sitting down right next to her waiting with everyone else to board the
plane. This wait is much quicker. Twenty minutes and they are bringing
us out to the tarmac. I see the huge plane and start to cry. I can’t
believe that I’m really getting my chance to leave and go to a better
place. Anywhere is better than here right now. I am first on the plane
by no lucky circumstances. I made sure that I walked faster than
everyone to be in that position. I could smell myself and others around
me and I didn’t want to be in the middle or back of the plane,
suffocating and gagging on a weeks worth of sewage and waste that has
accumulated on most of us. As it was, the lady who sat next to me
smelled like a diaper pail after a week of use and not being emptied.
Quickly blurted last minute instructions to remained seated through the
entire flight, and we were off!
More crying as the plane lifts off and I know that it is reality and
not just a sick tormented dream playing through my head.
Flying over the Mississippi River, I see a long line of barges unable
to reach their destination in New Orleans. A small poem floats through
my mind...All these boats where they should not be, trying to get out
to sea. Do they belong here? I think not. The river is now a parking
lot. A silly little poem, but I’m exhausted and flying in a plane for
the fourth time in my life; I’m allowed to make up stupid poems. There
are clouds all around us for most of the trip. Below us they rose up in
tall towers and mountains and above us they show flat bottoms of pink
and white shining in the evening sun. Looking down below at the ground
two and a half miles below, everything appears as it has for the past
several days. The haze makes it look as if the world is underwater. I
am so sick of seeing water everywhere. When will the world dry up?
The plane starts to turn and the most beautiful site comes into view. A
winding bank of clouds that stretches out beside us with billowing
clouds popping out of it. From right to left the formations are; a
tree, a salmon jumping out of the stream formed by clouds, and a bear
reaching out for the salmon. It’s all too fitting. The salmon is trying
to get upstream to start a new life, with the horrors right behind it.
We’re all trying to get upstream at this point and start new lives with
the horrors of New Orleans right behind us.
An hour or so into the flight we touched down in San Antonio. Everyone
is informed of a certain amnesty at this point. “If you have any
illegal narcotics, leave them on the plane and we’ll just ignore them.
If you get off this plane, and the dog stops at your bag, there will be
serious consequences.” Air-Marshals aren’t too bright apparently. The
drug supply to New Orleans was cut off almost a week ago and in times
of stress like these; restraint is not a word used commonly. No one has
anything to leave on the plane.
Another twenty minutes of standing around and several buses show up to
take us to a shelter. Luxury buses mixed with school buses. Just like
on the interstate. I hop on a mass-transit bus that has come down from
College Station to volunteer its time. We drive around Kelly Air Force
Base to a warehouse on the other side of the base that is no longer in
use. A man hops on the bus. “Welcome to San Antonio. We’re asking you
to wait about 30 minutes before getting off and getting in the
registration line. We’re triaging everyone going into the shelter.” One
more lie to add to the list.
Three HOURS later and I’m talking to the backup driver standing outside
the bus that we're still on. She’s pretty cool. Telling me how they had
to draw names for who would come volunteer their time. So many people
wanted to help, but there weren’t enough buses to offer up for the
cause. She tells me that word has worked through the buses; the shelter
is full and they are trying to find some place else to take us.
Absolutely fabulous. At this point though, waiting in an air
conditioned bus is certainly a hell of a lot better than sitting on the
side of the interstate in a pile of shit and mud.
Finally we are on our way to the shelter, back on the other side of the
base. This is a Red Cross shelter that was set up previously, and as I
find out, was closed to more evacuees earlier in the day after reaching
its 500 person capacity. Now we are at least 800 more coming in a long
line of buses. We’re greeted with an order to discard any perishables
including any bottles of water that have been opened. THROW AWAY
WATER?!?! They must be mad! I’ve been walking around with SHIT on my
feet for days now because I wouldn’t use water to wash it off, and they
want me and all these people to THROW AWAY our water? As a consolation,
we are given ice cold Capri Sun sports drink. ELECTROLYTES! Hydration!
Not enough, but it’s a good start. Of course, a line stretches for 200
feet out the door of the shelter.
Standing up again, the Immodium from New Orleans has worn off now after
the countless hours of doing its job. The only toilets visible are two
port-o-lets at the end of the parking lot. This requires me having to
leave the line, trusting my bag to an androgynous person who has been
so sweet to everyone the entire time. Three times out of line, and the
fourth time, I do not return. I know they won’t let me back in line
after an hour and a half of standing there already and still thirty
feet from the front door.
have doubled the military presence inside, but with nowhere to put
anyone, the lobby is full of people, so no one else can come in right
now. The MP’s are going through everyone’s bag; item by item. They
discard whatever they decide should not be coming into the state of TX.
Such disregard for the personal property of people who have already
lost everything to Mother Nature. Now Uncle Sam is taking away what’s
left and the process only slows down even more. There is no way I can
go to the back of the line and be able to endure long enough to get
inside. But they aren’t letting people leave the site until they have
been through the doors of the shelter and searched.
chase down an ambulance driver and ask him how I can get inside to
receive medical attention when I’m too sick to even stand in the line.
He gives me sketchy directions to go see the other EMTs on the side of
the building to get my vital signs checked. If those are OK then there
is nothing they can do. I go get checked. I’m okay, vitally. But the
EMT is aware that I’m trying to get to Austin, via Lisa and Ryan, so
shows me the back way into the shelter. I’m relieved for another small
blessing. Once inside, I find the toilets. CLEAN SEATS! TOILET PAPER!
RUNNING WATER! Now if something would just come out of me one of these
times, instead of just gut wrenching pain.
An hour inside allows me to charge my phone and call Lisa several more
times at 3a.m. (sorry Lisa) and for the Red Cross staff to find me some
Immodium to take and stop the diarrhea for a while. While I’m sitting
there letting my phone charge and waiting for the Immodium to kick in,
the doctor in charge of the shelter stops by, and I let him know what
I’m going through. I sat in the chair, and let my body relax, as if I
was sitting on a toilet. He saw the look of contention on my face and
asked what was wrong. I said “I’m using the bathroom right now, and I’m
dry. There’s nothing left to come out, but the pressure is there like
I’m about to explode.” He’s a sweet old gay man with a jolly smile and
he suggests that I go to the hospital. I ask if he’s the one to talk to
get to the hospital. Of course he is. Perfect.
I get shuffled off to an ambulance that takes me to Baptist Hospital in
downtown San Antonio. It’s now 4:30a.m. Saturday is about to begin. I’m
still covered in shit and vile water, but at least I’m in a hospital
bed now. Things can only get better from here. In hindsight, I know
there is one more day of ruggedness to go through. It’s too bad I let
my guard down once I was in that bed.
The final installment will come tomorrow. Four days after the levees
broke and it feels like four weeks. I can only lay there and wait to
see what Saturday brings.