The Friday before Christmas, my sister and I headed out to finish our shopping. The traffic around the mall is always bad. However, at Christmas, you can't leave home without a strategy. Our plan was to do all of our shopping in the stores that share a parking lot with Target. This would save us about thirty minutes (valuable nap time before going out that evening) by not trying to cross from one parking lot to another. The lunch part of our plan included Jack-In-The-Box.
However, much like Tim in New Orleans who cannot find a Popeye's since Hurricane Katrina, most of our Jack-In-The-Box restaurants in Beaumont are still closed because of Hurricane Rita. We soon found out that this was the case for the restaurant in the Target parking lot. As Bonnie and I passed the still closed restaurant, we spoke of one of the last times we ate there. It was the Saturday before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.
I remember the day exactly because, as Bonnie and I sat there eating our lunch, several families walked into the restaurant. As the smaller children ran around and played, the older children spoke in more hushed tones but were still teasing each other and goofing around. The parents, however, had the unmistakable look of adults who are worried but don't want their children to know the extent of their concern.
Because of our love for New Orleans, we had been obsessively tracking Hurricane Katrina. I looked at Bonnie and said, "I bet those people are evacuating ahead of the hurricane." This was later confirmed when we looked at their cars in the parking lot. At this point, no one had any idea of what was yet to come for New Orleans and, a month later, for Beaumont. Yet, our hearts went out to them and I can still feel the sadness I felt for those poor people. I often wonder what happened to them and to their families and homes.
Little did I know that, three weeks later, we would also be evacuees. At one of our stops in Shreveport, after being on the road for a total of seventeen hours over two days, we stopped at Burger King. I know we had the same battle worn looks on our faces that we had seen on the faces of the New Orleans evacuees in Beaumont. All along the way, as we traveled through Louisiana and Arkansas, people were especially kind to us when they noticed our Texas license plates, toilet paper rolls peeking from behind pillows in our rear windows and the four dogs with their nine humans trying to make their way to safe harbor.
Although we encountered many angels on our two-week evacuation odyssey, the strangest angel story occurred in Shreveport. After we left Burger King, we stopped at a gas station to fuel up again. We were so shell shocked from trying to find gas earlier along our evacuation route that we became compulsive about filling our tanks if the gas meter needle fell below half a tank.
As I stood filling up my car, I noticed an odd old African American woman who was talking to herself and walking toward the gas station. She would wave at cars on the busy street as they passed and loudly speak to no one in particular. As she got close to me, I turned my head toward the gas pump because I wasn't sure what kind of crazy she was. When she got right up to me, she looked me in the eye and said, "Dry land." I looked back into her eyes and didn't see crazy. I saw love and concern and a light in her eyes behind the concern. She said again, "Dry land."
She then walked up to each of our cars and spoke to everyone in our group saying over and over again, "Dry land." "Don't you worry." "Everything is going to be okay." "Dry land, darlin's. Dry land."
She then continued on her journey down that busy street waving to cars and talking to no one in particular. We all looked at each other and got in our cars and drove away. When we discussed it later, we were unable to account for her ability to know we were all together or that we were concerned about the coming rains and floods on their way to our homes which were now so far to our south. If anyone had been at the station and had been watching us for a while, they could have easily discerned the nature of our trip and that we were all together. However, I knew that this lady had just walked into the station from far up the road because I had watched her as she was walking up.
When we got home, we found that her words had been oddly prophetic. Although, we didn't exactly come back to ideal living conditions and undamaged homes or dry land (my aunt had three feet of water in her Port Arthur home and the rain did a number on my sister's badly damaged townhouse), Beaumont only got about eight inches of rain from the hurricane. That's about the amount we get occasionally from a bad summer storm. Also, if Hurricane Rita had made a direct hit on southeast Texas instead of southwest Louisiana, my aunt would have had about fifteen feet of water in her house rather than three feet.
The strange lady in Shreveport with her dry land prediction still haunts my thoughts as do the faces of the New Orleans evacuees we saw at Jack-In-The-Box that long ago Saturday in August. I hope they're all okay. To all the nice people we met along the way in Arkansas and Louisiana, we're doing okay, too.