Day 1 – Sunday – Departure from home.
We departed Sherman at 9:15 - our plan was to rendezvous with the convoy in Hugo. They had a shorter drive from McAlester, but a convoy moves slowly. We ended up ahead - but watched them pass in Sawyer, OK. The first thing I noticed was the people who would stop and watch, the children who would wave. It's a thrilling and comforting sight to see a military convoy rolling through your city streets on the way to an important mission.
We were able to talk with the soldiers at our 1st stop in Idabel. They stopped for fuel, and with more than 20 heavy trucks, it takes awhile. The break found many of these men inside the cool confines of the convenience store - these Humvees have no AC. The best way to describe their journey is deliberate - their mission at this point is still not clear.
The convoy stops for the night outside New Boston, Texas at an armory. It’s the middle of the afternoon and temperatures near 95 degrees. Their job now is to wait on the rest of the 45th Infantry Brigade - who left Oklahoma City earlier, and is likely 3 to 4 hours behind this group.
We drive on to Shreveport, opting to check motels as opposed to camping for the night. To our surprise, several rooms are available at motels along the interstate. But once in our rooms, it’s clear that the displaced residents of the gulf coast are among us. They walk the hallways on cell phones - each wearing a look of shock or uncertainty. Many have brought their pets and as many belongings as they could carry. More than 6.5 hours away from the true devastation, we know that what we see at this motel will only be multiplied soon.
We're using a laptop computer to edit our stories that we gathered today. By 2am, the final edits are done and we're ready for Day 2.
Day 2 – Monday – The trip south.
We head out early - the plan is to get to Baton Rouge by 2pm to send our stories back via a satellite truck. As we drive south on I-49, the traffic is thick with vehicles on a mission. We see more military convoys, law enforcement, fire trucks, vans loaded with supplies and trucks pulling generators. And proof that humans aren't the only victims - we pass a van from the Waco Animal Shelter. By the time we reach Lafayette, we see the 1st signs of Hurricane Katrina - not in damage, but in a gas station that has just run dry. A few miles down the road we breathe a sigh of relief as a truck stop is pumping fuel - with no lines. The worst is yet to come.
20 miles outside Baton Rouge it’s clear that the eastbound lanes carry traffic bent on relief and rescue. But the westbound tells a different story. Buses, filled with evacuees. Cars, pick-ups and trailers loaded with any belongings they could carry.
We arrive in Baton Rouge on time - but you can quickly tell this is a city that is under stress. Its Labor Day, but the streets are thick with drivers. It looks as if few are relaxing on this holiday. We send our stories back and make phone contact with two brothers from Kemp, Oklahoma. They left on Friday night with airboats in tow - a mission of rescue and recovery. By phone they tell us they have been hard at work for 2 days straight. We decide to join up with them. The 180th convoy has stopped in Alexandria - they expecting orders late Monday that could have them in New Orleans by early-Tuesday. That should give us enough time to ride along with the airboat crew.
The drive east from Baton Rouge to Louisiana is on a state highway. Word of traffic jams and blockades on I-10 have us cautious. But by 5:30, fewer and fewer cars fill these eastbound lanes. The opposite side tells a different story. Sunday was the 1st day that authorities let residents back into damaged parts of New Orleans suburbs - now they flock back to the safe confines of Baton Rouge with as many possessions as they can carry in tow. By Kenner we not only see damage, but clear signs of this gas crisis. No stations open. The ones that do have power also have long lines waiting... or in many cases, neither. Just signs that say "no gas". We reach Metairie by 6:30pm. Surprisingly, although we pass several officers and military police, our access isn't checked. Before we know it, we're driving along the Causeway Boulevard and looking out on the floodwaters that have emptied this city of life. We drive north and see nothing but empty stores and shopping centers. We pass the occasional police or military vehicle, but there is a feeling of a ghost town.
Day 3 - Tuesday - Airboat rescues.
The next day sheds new light on the problems this city faces, and the rescuers who've come to help. We hitch a ride on an airboat with a boat pilot from Hendrix, Oklahoma. The sights we see are hard to digest - cars with water over their windows, sitting in the drive-thru at a fast food restaurant. A funeral hearse barely visible amid the floodwater - an ominous sign of what else the waters are hiding. Everywhere we look we see water - although parts of this city are dry, including most of the French Quarter, dozens of neighborhoods and downtown have seen severe flooding. In the area we're in, west of the Superdome, the water appears to have gone down about a foot in the past few days. But it's still 4 to 5 feet deep. We visit with survivors who claim to have swam through it to get around. The thought is hard to digest - this water is putrid, filled with parasites and disease.
Our boat comes upon a rundown apartment complex with 5 men inside. They'd been here for 8 days, and have so far refused to leave. They live on the 2nd floor - the 1st floor is nearly underwater. A New Orleans police officer refuses to accept no for an answer, and talks them into coming out. But that only happens after he scales the side of the balcony - a risky move with the toxic water below. We hear different reasons for why they stayed. For those of us who've watched the story unfold on television since last Sunday night, it’s hard to comprehend why they've stayed. But in many cases, they've had no TV or radio - no way to understand the scope of this tragedy. As they ride back and the flooded streets unfold before them, the looks on their faces tell the story. It's not just their neighborhood, but their entire city suffering under a blanket of water and death.
We depart the airboat as the crew heads back out for another run. We contact the convoy - they've been in traffic for 9 hours now, since 3am this morning when they left Alexandria, LA. The traffic into New Orleans is a nightmare. The same goes for sundown and the drive out. Through patchy cell phone reception, we manage to find the convoy as they roll into downtown New Orleans. But their 3 day trip isn't over yet. They head to the 1st location - a headquarters in downtown - but there is no room for them. After a 30 minute wait, they're redirected to the Garden District. These soldiers are dead on their feet - its clear all they want to do is rest. They'll get that the next day - patrols and security work finally begins on Thursday. They could be here for an entire month.
We depart Tuesday afternoon, but the going is slow. Everyone drives into New Orleans in the morning, and drives out in the late afternoon. Interstate 10 is clogged. It gives us time to reflect on all we've seen. But that's something that will likely take months to fully understand, much like it will take months and even years to rebuild this sunken city.