When the mayor of New Orleans (referring to the approaching Hurricane Gustav) described the Doppler radar image as the “mother of all storms” and decreed a mandatory evacuation of the city, I packed my bags in a hurry. The fear factor was escalated when reporter Geraldo Rivera followed with a description of the storm as “an awesome killing machine.” Despite my experience that the media hyperbole does not always match the facts in these atmospheric predictions, I obeyed marching orders.
Evacuating Aug. 31 at 4 a.m. was a bumper-to-bumper ordeal. Frustration and fear bundled in the karmic memory of Hurricane Katrina, I listened to the radio for any breaking news. Top speed was 10 mph all the way to Baton Rouge, which is 60 miles away. All the gas stations in New Orleans had run out of gas. I felt smug, knowing that I had filled up the day before. I kept telling myself that I was doing the right thing. No second-guessing.
Contra-flow. Four lanes of traffic on I-10 streaming out of harm’s way. Headlights, strung out like a long band of pearls, weaving their way through the darkness of the surrounding swamp. My cell phone rang. It was trainer and friend Danny Peitz, asking me questions at the same time that he was giving instructions to an exercise rider. “Did you make it out in time? How are you? Where are you going?” were his concerns. Ten minutes later another call. This time it was Robby Albarado’s valet, Garrett Broussard, asking if I needed a place to stay. To the critics who proclaim horse racing is a mess, I point to where my real friends are and what they do for a living.
Breakfast at the Waffle House in Lafayette and the evidence of the pain of evacuation for the elderly is heartbreaking. An old couple is arguing. Fussing. The woman had forgotten her medicine and was blaming the husband. Forty years of marriage and she feels alone. It was his idea to leave, she reminds him, and then becomes weepy. For a while her frail fingers strum to the beat of a Marvin Gaye tune on the juke box. Then, trembling, she pushes away the plate of eggs and bacon. Untouched.
Across the street, a young woman in khaki shorts is exercising her black Labrador in the front, grassy yard of a hotel. There is no room at the inn. It’s already 95 degrees. Out of money and her credit cards useless, she sprays the dog (now off the leash) with a garden hose. She seems unfazed by her predicament. Two happy companions facing a long night on the road.
Passing by Evangeline Downs in Opelousas, the single carrier horse vans enter the caravan of controlled panic. Trainers seeking refuge for $10,000 maiden-claimers join the escape route north. Cars out of gas or with over-heated radiators begin to pull over onto the shoulder. Slowly, inching by these stranded families, it becomes a habit to avoid eye contact.
I find myself behind a pickup truck with a blue tarp, covering possessions that include a mattress, a garden rake, and a bird cage. Strange what articles people grab when they are on the run. Traffic speeds up. At 45 mph, the tarp begins to unravel and flap. Feathers from the parakeet begin to swirl out of the back of the truck. Just when the mattress begins to slide off, I find an opening and pass, glancing at the little bird pinned to the cage.
Suffering fuels the economy. The line of people outside the Burger King in Alexandria coils out onto the sidewalk. Standing motionless, shuffling forward. Fast food in slow motion. It takes more than a half hour to get to the cashier. The drink machine is out of ice and they have run out of napkins. Re-fried confusion. A man in a wheelchair gets my fish filet order by mistake and I end up with his double Whopper. There is no point in complaining. Everybody is hungry. Thirsty.
After 12 hours on the highway, I check into a hotel in Shreveport. Exhausted. First things first—I power up the laptop to check the results of the fifth at Monmouth. Secretly, I wished the horse I had been waiting to play for weeks had finished out of the money. I scrolled down.
There she was on top. Diamond Dina. $12.20.
Hurricane Gustav had yet to reach the coastline of Louisiana and I had already been shut out.