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Escape From New Orleans

A Katrina survivor recreates The Odyssey on his perilous journey from New Orleans to Memphis.

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The drama and horror of the continuing apocalypse that is New Orleans and the Mississippi coast have become familiar to the nation and the world. We all know the story. Our senses are glutted with it: the ferocity of the Category 4 hurricane, the cataclysmic consequences. In New Orleans, the television networks have dutifully recorded the breakdown of law and order, the looting and shooting, the rapes, the trapped thousands, the stench, the desperation, the bureaucratic snafus. The voracious monster flood.

What distinguishes 28-year-old Evan Wolf from the rest of us, even from his fellow denizens of the now destroyed Big Easy, is the extent to which he experienced all of these particulars personally -- from last Sunday morning, when, as an affiliate of the National Guard, he volunteered his services at the Superdome, to Wednesday night, when, exhausted and traumatized but in a curious way enlarged and exhilarated, he reached Memphis, concluding a desperate Odyssey.

The term "odyssey" is no literary embellishment. Though there was the occasional Lotus Land of relief -- bizarrely enough, a famous downtown bar called Miss May's was open briefly on Monday, the day after Katrina struck, serving cocktails with ice at a dollar a drink -- most of the experience corresponded to the other chapters of Homer's epic.

Overriding all was the transformation of the famous charming landscape of New Orleans into a facsimile of the ruins of Troy. On Sunday night, as the Superdome was battered by the first torrential gales, it became a Cave of the Winds. The outside city itself would become a virtual Hades, suffused with a river Styx of human remains and unspeakable other refuse. Wolf found himself at one point in a darkened Wal-Mart, an Underworld populated by looters and throbbing with the presence of unseen dangers. There was even a moment, as he waded through the dark and reeking waters in search of a way out, when Wolf saw his Cyclops -- the blinking green light of an emergency vehicle down the distance of devastated St. Charles Street.

But taken as myth or as literal experience, it was a near-primeval struggle for survival. Wolf, a nine-year resident of the city and a Tulane graduate, recounted the tale a day after his arrival in Memphis. It went something like this:

On Sunday, he and his roommates, veterans of scores of bad-weather warnings over the years, had decided to ride Katrina out. They lived in a vintage building on high ground downtown, four blocks from the Mississippi River. As a military reservist who was in the act of transferring his status from a Navy unit (where he was a Lt. J.G.) to an Army unit located at Carville, Louisiana, Wolf went down to the Superdome via motorcycle to offer his services to the various military, paramilitary, police, and emergency units involved in setting up shelter facilities.

Though he was operating without official admission into a given unit, Wolf had an interim military ID and was quickly involved in triage efforts, separating serious evacuation-worthy medical cases from others. At first the main problem was from TV weather reporters, who got in the way of the Guardsmen and others so they could "pose in the wind" for the camera.

"Late Sunday night," Wolf recalls, "I decided to get some sleep. I hadn't got much the night before because we'd stayed up late securing the house. I crawled up as high in the Superdome as I could and lay down on a concrete stairwell. I woke up, hearing the most horrendous noise I'd ever heard -- like screeching metal mixed with the howling of the wind. It sounded like God trying to claw his way in to get to us." There were some 15,000 mainly poor, mainly black citizens in the shelter at this point. Later, at about 5 or 6 in the morning, "chunks had started to tear off from the roof, just blowing away in the wind. We could see dark sky through the roof of the Superdome, and the rain was starting to come in. People would scream every time a big chunk got blown off and the water poured in after it."

Sometime between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Monday, the initial storm passed, and the city itself had been spared most of the impact. The power was out, however. There was some water in the streets, and more, it was said, in outlying areas, so Wolf rode his erratically operating motorcycle home, where he found minimal damage. He'd lost some shingles, but his home generator was working and he had food and water. Meanwhile, though, he discovered that his roommates had taken advantage of the lull and left town.

Wolf went looking for a boat to commandeer for the search-and-rescue efforts to come. It was then that he noticed groups of looters, "five or six at a time, young guys, some of them carrying handguns or knives or bats." Just in case, Wolf was armed with a .38 revolver in a side holster. It was on this errand that he stopped by Miss May's on Napoleon Boulevard, where the bar was open. Back at the Superdome, he attempted to tell some of the service personnel about the location of an available boat. "At this point, though, I was armed, I was not in uniform, and they were very suspicious." Besides, there was "very poor communication" between various official service groups, most of whom had been trying to communicate with suddenly inoperable cell phones. National Guard, Superdome, FEMA, and Fire Department and Police Department personnel -- all were in wrangles about simple issues such as how to unload materials.

Wolf spent that night back in his apartment. As it turned dark, he observed. "In one sense it was beautiful. The stars were visible. The storm had sucked all the clouds away. Nobody had seen the Milky Way like that in a hundred years. It was like being up at the boundary waters in Canada. You could see clearly for miles."

Out again on Tuesday morning, things, Wolf learned, had taken a decided turn for the worse. There was word of severely broken levees, and water was beginning to rise, but it was still unclear just how dire things would become. But Wolf had seen enough to decide that he, like his roommates before him, needed to try to find a way out of town. To do so, he needed a workable battery for his pickup truck, which had been stalled for days. There was an auto-parts store on Claiborne, and he decided to try to get there.

"About halfway there, the flood waters were getting neck and chest high. I was in some very poor neighborhoods where a lot of people were stranded, looking desperate. As I somehow waded closer to Claiborne, I saw bodies floating, and I realized the water I was in was very foul. It had sewage in it, it had gasoline in it, it had rotting bodies of dogs and cats." And, he realized with horror, humans in it. "I consider myself a pretty bad dude," Wolf says, "but I wasn't going to go swimming in dead-body water just to get to a battery that may or may not be there.

"I decided I would try a Wal-Mart on Tchoupitoulas. I got there around twilight to find just a total scene of chaos. There was a lone police officer there trying to warn people about going inside. Eventually, he left. The storm shutters and front doors had all been torn open, and I went inside with just my flashlight. It was straight out of a zombie movie. The entire store was pitch-black. You could only see the little bit that was lit up by your flashlight. And Wal-Mart is very large, a couple of acres. Everything was torn up. You had to crawl over large piles of boxes and trash and discarded things. There was blood on the floor. Somebody had obviously been killed or beaten severely there. Everything had been broken into.

"I sensed there were other people in there. I saw a couple of other flashlights in the distance. And, even scarier, I heard people in there without a flashlight. Occasionally I'd hear footsteps or breathing. You have to wonder at that point: Is this someone else looking for some water, or is this somebody who escaped from the New Orleans Parish Prison or somebody who's strung out? I was trying to stay away from these people. I wasn't familiar with Wal-Mart, and I really didn't have any idea whether they had automotive supplies or where they were. Wal-Mart had obviously been criminally looted. All the digital cameras were missing, all the electronics were missing -- the things you wouldn't steal in order to survive."

Then came newcomers. "After I'd been searching about half an hour, NOPD showed up, on a re-supply mission. They came in and immediately were very aggressive. They knew there were other people in there. They came in and announced they were NOPD. They had flashlights and, obviously, firearms.

"And they were saying, 'Get the fuck out of here. We're going to shoot anyone we see! Move, move, move!' They started screaming, and everybody else rabbited. I still hadn't found a battery and didn't want to get shot as a looter, so I approached them very carefully with my hands up and my ID out and said, 'Look. I'm a National Guardsman. I've been separated from my unit. I'm not here to steal electronics. I'm looking for a battery so I can get out of town or be of some use. They said okay. They relaxed, and I assisted them in finding dry socks, batteries, water, and hip-waders."

Then came what Wolf characterized as a "foreboding" sight:

"We went through sporting goods and noticed that all the guns and knives had been stolen, which was like some literary function: It's a lot scarier to imply danger than to show it. And we knew then by virtue of carrying this small arsenal, Wal-Mart had assisted in arming a fair number of looters. I never found a car battery. The NOPD left. I went home."

Wolf spent Tuesday night at home, with a still-operating generator. "I had food, and I was armed. I even did some reading by candle and flashlight." By now Wolf had learned just how bad the flooding had become and that only one exit, via Interstate 10 West, was open. Before dawn, he left, resolved to find a stranded car to hotwire and escape with.

He found an untended white van and hotwired it, after first breaking down the steering column to gain access to the wiring. "I managed to get it started, reinstalled the steering column, drove back to my house, grabbed some water, some extra rounds, my digital camera, a toothbrush, and hopped back in the van."

Only one headlight was working on the vehicle as Wolf maneuvered it onto River Road, following the high ground toward I-10 West. "All those years growing up playing video games was perfect training. It was the most intense real-life video game I'd ever played. Every block was a different challenge. Power lines were always in the way at windshield level. I had to hope they weren't cables, because I kept going through them and they kept popping off. I had to make decisions quickly, whether to go right lane, left lane, or up in someone's yard. Things were in the road: Was that a body or just trash? Was that a soft tree that I could just bash through or a heavy oak that's going to bash this van and leave me stranded here?" As he drove, he could see groups of looters firing at each other.

Eventually he found himself on I-10, then heading north on I-55. His was the only vehicle headed in that direction. Along the way he passed a caravan of "a couple hundred trucks, all towing flat-bottom boats.'' The van broke down at the Mississippi border. He found some scrap paper and with a Sharpie he'd found in the van, he wrote a sign: "ANYWHERE AWAY FROM KATRINA."

It was while thumbing through Mississippi early Wednesday morning that Wolf first realized how widespread the emergency was. "I hitched a ride with about six different cars. Everybody was looking for gas, and there was little or none. There was no power anywhere, until we got to Jackson [Mississippi]. Most of the time I rode with people who were loaded up with their possessions, trying to get the hell away."

When he reached Grenada, Mississippi, Wolf was finally able to rent a car, "the last one, I think," from an Enterprise agency. He drove the rest of the way to Memphis, ending up late Wednesday night at the Chickasaw Gardens home of one of his former Tulane classmates.

The next day Wolf journeyed to Millington's Naval support base, where he managed to get outfitted in proper uniform and gear to return to New Orleans to try to hook up with a Guard unit. "I love that city," he said. "And I've got a sense of duty to respond. I didn't feel like I was doing enough before. And you can tell from how catastrophically inept the emergency responses were that we're stretched thin -- not just militarily, but psychologically, medically, economically, even morally."

The experience has even convinced Wolf to seek some future-tense involvement in politics -- much in the way that 9/11 caused a wave of enlistments in the military. "This crisis has too many corners. It won't be resolved without rethinking our whole internal position and position in the world," he said. "We've got a void of leadership and know-how, and we've got to start filling in the blanks whenever and wherever we can. New Orleans gives us a place to start."

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