We were sound asleep when the bullhorn from a police cruiser circling our cul-de-sac woke us up last Thursday morning at 2:30am. "This is a mandatory evacuation. Please leave your homes now." You just can't imagine how that makes you feel coming out of a deep sleep. In no way do I mean to imply any parity to the experience of the Katrina victims, especially since in the aftermath here things have turned out even better than expected. The point is simply that talking about disaster experiences like this can only help people in the future consider their own options.
We live in the current fire zone, but we did not think our particular area was in danger. The fires were miles away, firefighters were streaming into town and it looked like our entire area would have to burn down before we'd be in danger. Or so we thought. So we had no bags packed and had given no thought to what we would need if we were asked to leave. It was chaotic. Mere minutes to decide what you need — in the short term, like a change of clothes — and in the long term — items selected from a lifetime of accumulation.
We took the dogs, a suitcase of photo albums, the computer with all my files, passports, some cash, all our insurance and other documents, a few extra things to wear and, in my case, the notebook I needed for my pitch the next day at the Sci-Fi Channel. This was, admittedly, an odd last-second grab but it speaks to the human need to want to carry on. This is what I do so I stuffed the notebook in the bag and jumped in the car.We tried not to take anything we could buy again, although the lines fuzzed in our running about the house. In the end, we couldn't find a flashlight, but we did take a box of Pop-Tarts. Ironically, Pop-Tarts have a special place in our family — after the '94 Northridge Earthquake, our kids munched them in our van, watching Disney movies with the neighbors and it kept them calm.
We didn't know whether we should head north or south until, on our way out of the neighborhood, a cop told us to head south. On the way, my phone died because I hadn't left it on charge (note to self!) and my son had forgotten to take his. This was a problem considering my wife and daughter were in the other car. Eventually, we rendevouzed with friends in a parking lot next to a McDonald's at 3am and compared notes.
We ended up the first night at the home of the parents of friends, then found a hotel room the next day. We watched the local TV news and every location was one we knew well. Our home never seemed to be imminently in danger so it seemed odd that we were evacuated like we were while we watched others, with flames in their backyards, saying they weren't leaving until the firefighters told them to go. Despite planning efforts, I suspect that disasters have a built-in degree of randomness, something we should remember as we sort out Katrina and point fingers at everybody. It's a disaster, after all.