New Orleans escape handled via Internet from Baltimore

September 15, 2005|By Mike Himowitz

THE DAY the levees broke in New Orleans, Hugh Evans was on the phone, trying to talk his mother out of her decision to ride out Hurricane Katrina in the big brick house the family had occupied for 62 years.

The house had weathered the storm itself - as it had so often since it was built in 1903. But the water gushing from Lake Pontchartrain down Nashville Avenue toward their University District neighborhood was far different - something much scarier than Sally Reeves had seen before.

And therein lies one of the most ingenious escape tales I've heard among many from Hurricane Katrina.

We've all heard how the Internet quickly turned into a critical tool for fundraisers, people seeking homes and jobs and Gulf Coast residents desperate to find lost family members. But before that, the Web helped get this family out in time.

It was a desperate trip - plotted out by Evans, 39, a portfolio manager for T. Rowe Price, 1,100 miles away in Baltimore.

With power out in New Orleans, many residents had no way to find out what was happening around them. With less than an hour before the water reached the family home, and most streets flooded or blocked by debris and live wires, Evans had to find out what streets were still usable and devise a route that would get his family out of Dodge.

Here's how it happened, by Evans' account, with help from from Reeves, 63, a well-known New Orleans author, historian, preservationist and grande dame who is currently staying in Evans' home - and counting the days until she can get back to her beloved city.

First, understand that Reeves had no intention of leaving. "My grandfather died in that house, and I buried my first husband from that house, and I got married in that house twice, and the only way I was going out of that house was feet first," she said.

Trying to make sure that didn't come to pass, a worried Evans spent much of Tuesday, Aug. 31, trying to convince his mom that all was not well. The power was long gone, and with it, TV and radio. But Reeves' phone was still working and there was plenty food and water for the family, including her husband, Bill, her sister, Susie Hoskins, and another son, Charles, who had moved back in temporarily to watch over things.

There also were four large dogs - all abandoned animals that Reeves had taken in and nurtured. There was no way she would leave home without them.

"Over time, we started learning about the looting and stuff on the Internet and news channels up here," Evans said, "But she wasn't aware of that stuff, because they had no power and no TV. In many ways, the people who were outside watching on TV knew a lot more than the people on the inside.

"So she sent my little brother out on a scouting party, and he came back, and said, `I saw the water, it was pouring into Nashville Avenue [not far from the family home] and it's on the way.' So she knew that she had to get out of there, and do it in the space of half an hour. If the water got to them, they were stuck. The issue was how do you get out - because all the I-10 highways leading out of town were flooded."

Actually, it was worse than that, because even dry streets were often impassable.

Reeves, who has written books about the city's gardens, put it this way: "New Orleans has too many oak trees, and they hadn't been thinned - we hadn't had a big, winnowing old growth storm for a long time. So a lot of them went down, and a lot of streets were impassable with 100-year-old oak trees. And there were wires down everywhere; they were buzzing and sparking and hissing."

While her husband scouted for a route on a bicycle, Reeves and her sister hurriedly started packing up three cars (which makes it easier to move four large dogs).

In Baltimore, Evans was working the Internet.

"I had a news clip of a reporter from WDSU-TV - they'd set up a streaming video on their Web site. They sent him out to Tulane University [near the Reeves home], and he said the only way to get there was Tchoupitoulas Street. If you could get to Tchoupitoulas, you could get north and south."

A major industrial highway along the Mississippi River waterfront, Tchoupitoulas (pronounced chop-a-TOO-lis) is an ugly and barren thoroughfare, Reeves said. But in this case, it's an advantage - no oak trees. "Did you know," she added, "that Tchoupitoulas is an Indian word for a mud fish that produces a roe that's so good it tastes just like caviar?"

Back in Baltimore, Evans switched to the WWL-TV Web site, which had set up a blog by neighborhood, inviting viewers who still had Internet connections to post messages.

"People were just lobbing in comments, such as, `I'm here on State Street and there's 15 feet of water,' or `I live at the corner of this and this, and there's a big tree down,' or a transformer gone, or whatever they had to contribute," Evans said. "If you read the comments, you could figure out where the water was rising fastest, or what were the most obstructed parts of the neighborhood.

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