Editor’s Note: Alexandra Kane is a former New Yorker turned New Orleanian. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion on CNN.
“I don’t know if I want to exist without this place,” I told my boyfriend on Friday morning. Hurricane Ida was due to hit our New Orleans home in the next two days, and I was trying to decide if I should evacuate. He replied that he would wrestle me into the car if need be.
The truth is that evacuating is a privilege – one that requires money, transportation and a safe place to flee to. The thought of leaving (in my mind, abandoning) my neighbors, many of them who had no means to leave, made me feel guilty.
I moved here about six years ago and have lived for half that time in a great old mansion built in the 1800s that has been turned into apartments. During the pandemic, my neighbors and I became close friends, sharing meals on our big green porch – designed with curling ironwork – while debating what to do with the garden.
We have very little in common. A Navy veteran with a large German shepherd always willing to lend a hand despite his long-term hip injury. A gay hairdresser who had spent his early adult years performing in drag as Janet Jackson, his photo albums a time capsule of the queer culture of NOLA in the 80s and 90s. Someone we call the Duchess of the house has lived there for six years – the longest – is a woman with fantastic taste in antiques who loved to survey the group on important issues such as, “If you were in a movie, what song do you enter to?” A sailor with a refined palette who taught me more about food and beverages than anyone else I have ever met. An early twenties Vietnamese American man who kept an orchid so temperamental it needed a 15 minutes mist bath every day. I loved that we were so incredibly different.
Strangers becoming family is a common but precious phenomenon in the culture of this city.
I bought supplies in case we stayed and packed in case we left
The house is beautiful but has large windows that hadn’t been boarded up. They held through Hurricane Katrina without protection but could they handle the gusts of Ida? My living room ceiling had already leaked during another occasion and a portion of my balcony had recently rotted and needed replacing. Even if the other units held, I had serious concerns about mine being on the second floor.
There was a possibility that staying would have me living in the hallway or further burdening my neighbors by asking to share their place. The inevitable loss of power would mean that eventually in the aftermath I wouldn’t be able to confirm my safety with my family. Even with all of this, I couldn’t bring myself to make a final call on departing.
Vacillating between paralysis, tears and preparing, I bought supplies in case we stayed and packed in case we left.
I pack up my vintage 70s rain lamps, the ones I light up for parties. My boyfriend asks if I need them, and I think to myself that it’s like asking if I need Mardi Gras. The answer is yes. He was set on leaving because he had cats that needed shelter – and friends in Mobile, Alabama, offered him a place to stay.
I took a break from packing to wander the yard and photograph the koi pond built years ago by a former resident. Scrolling through my phone, I see the government has issued a mandatory evacuation of the parishes closer to the coast but none for us. My friend told me it was because they want to give those people a chance to leave before New Orleans residents add to the traffic. Then the mayor gave a news conference: there is no mandatory evacuation for New Orleans because there isn’t even time to establish one. Blood rushed to my head as the sun winked at me between tall elephant ear plants. I went back upstairs to keep packing.
We had a final meal Friday night at my favorite restaurant. They feature a new artist every month and I wonder if that person will see their art again. We could have gotten ahead of traffic but we were exhausted from racing around town getting supplies and taking my other vehicle to higher ground. Our friend who moved here a year ago doesn’t know anybody in the surrounding states, so we offer to bring her with us to Mobile – another reason to depart added to my list. If we leave, we can convince her just how serious this is as she is debating staying. I comfort myself with the thought of getting even one person out of harm’s way.
That night, after dinner, I listened closely to the sounds of my apartment. I wanted to memorize the clicking of the ceiling fan, the chime that hangs across the street, even the hum of the refrigerator was suddenly rendered sacred.
Finally convincing myself I’m doing the right thing
Thoughts circled around in my mind: I have the money to leave, I have a safe place to go, I am one less person in need of rescue. One less person for an already overburdened health care system to care for. The supplies I bought for staying will be left for neighbors – my extended family. I finally convinced myself that I am doing the right thing.
On Saturday morning, after leaving my keys with a neighbor, I climbed into my Subaru, piled high with instruments, albums and artwork and headed toward Mobile. What should be a two-hour drive becomes eight hours as we hit lots of traffic. I don’t cry until we listen to a podcast. The host talked about the sensation of missing the past before you have even left it. I think of dancing on the porch on Mardi Gras with my neighbors at 3 a.m., singing riotously loud and how badly I wanted that moment to last forever.
Waiting for the storm to pass was agonizing. Shortly after arriving in Mobile on Saturday night, I got a video of my neighbors, drinks in hand trading stories on the porch. My heart is gutted. I should be there, helping them, I think.
I regularly send out SMS texts with short messages to friends in the area. “Alive?” It reads. I don’t want them to waste their battery. There will be weeks of no power and eventually I know I won’t get a reply.
The Duchess of our home tells me my ceiling is leaking and that she has availed herself of the bottle of Ruffino in my fridge. Good. They can take anything of mine they need.
I’ve gotten regular updates in our group chat. My 10-foot windows are miraculously holding up. I am touched that they checked my place, but I’m also trying to get the image of my windows at any given moment raining glass down on them while they inspect my living room out of my head.
As of Tuesday morning, there is still no power. My neighbors have decided to try to evacuate to different parts of the country to be safe. There is no flooding, though the roof is damaged and a single pane of glass was broken in another unit.
I know leaving was the right thing for me to do but the thought that I could have been of help in any capacity haunts me. The ability to evacuate is an immense privilege that I was lucky to have.
When you fall in love with New Orleans, you accept that you might experience ultimate heartbreak. Each hurricane season that passes without incident is one to celebrate. I know that I will return to my beloved neighbors and our big green porch as soon as I can.