LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth
From New Orleans to Poodle Beach, the Tough Way
|by Fay Jacobs|
|Dan Canizzo was glad to be in Lewes. Frankly, he was glad to be anywhere but New Orleans, where he'd been holed up for several frightening days during the Big Easy flood.
This New Jersey resident, with a fondness for Rehoboth and environs, discussed his escape with friends Sandra Pace and Barbara Passikoff, along with this reporter on a bright sunny Labor Day weekend.
"That's the most amazing thing," Dan said, incredulously. "Right before the levees broke it was a gorgeous day like this. It was hard to believe anything bad could happen or that we couldn't get out of the city."
But they couldn't. Not for four more scary, uncomfortable, and infuriating days.
(Flood waters on Canal Street near the Sheraton Hotel.)
Prior to a planned Labor Day weekend in Rehobobth, Dan and three friends flew to New Orleans for a bachelor party weekend. They flew in on Friday morning, when forecasters had Hurricane Katrina aiming for Florida. All that day, they enjoyed the French Quarter, Caf Du Monde for chicory coffee, and fine dining on Bourbon Street. By Saturday morning, hearing of Katrina's change in trajectory, the guys confirmed their Sunday flights out of town. All was well.
But by Saturday night, following an evening at Good Friends and OZ, two well-known French Quarter gay bars, they returned to the Sheraton on Canal Street to learn that Katrina was heading directly their way. Checking with Delta Airlines again, they got a huge shock.
"They told us they sent all their planes away," Dan says. Delta evacuated all their planes leaving the passengers behind.
At this point, 450 hotel guests, along with staff (and family members who wanted to join them) were set to ride out Katrina in the well-engineered eight-floor hotel with its adjacent 49-floor tower of guest rooms.
"It was sunny all day and we were stuck there; we were shocked," says Dan. "Why didn't they send the planes out full? What about buses? What kind of evacuation plan is that? The sun is still shining and we have no way to get out."
Hurriedly, the guys went to a nearby convenience store to stock up on bottled water and crackers. "And in our case, a little vodka," Dan admits with a smile.
Trying to keep a sense of humor, the quartet wandered through the hotel and joked that the two-story atrium window would be perfect to see cows flying by. As it turns out, they might have seen them floating by.
Sunday, sun still shining, the hotel pumped as much air-conditioning as possible into its public areas, chilling the inhabitants. But food and drink flowed and the guys holed up in their tenth floor room in the guest tower.
Then, at 9 p.m. the public address system summoned everyone to the windowless fifth floor ballroom, asking that they bring a pillow and blanket, close the interior shutters in their rooms, place personal belongings in the bathroom, and fill the bathtub so the water could be used later to flush toilets.
The bachelor gang found themselves in the ballroom, camping amid families, screaming babies and at least 15 dogs. "It was a scene," says Dan, eyes rolling.
By 5 a.m. Monday, amid 180 mph hurricane winds and teeming rain, the city electric grid blacked out, and everything went dark. In the ballroom, emergency systems produced eerie shadowy light, but there could be no elevators or air-conditioning. Worse, impossible lines grew for the bathrooms.
At 8 a.m., as people listened to the wailing winds, a sonic-like boom shook the hotel as the all-glass eighth floor ballroom actually blew off the building, showering glass below. "That was unbelievably frightening." Dan says.
Next door, the Hyatt suffered a hundred blown-out windows, with rooms gaping open to the elements, furniture sucked out to the street below. Fortunately, at the Sheraton, with the exception of the missing top floor ballroom, all was intact.
"It was scary," Dan says, "but then it was over. We thought."
In fact, the staff let people exit the ballroom to venture outside to see the hurricane damage. Along Bourbon Street shops and bars re-opened and Dan and his friends ducked into a little restaurant for lunch.
Suddenly, police yelled for everyone to report back to their hotels, as there was widespread looting and shots fired just two blocks away. "We were surrounded by police and guns, it was like nothing I'd ever been through before."
Back at the hotel, the guys hiked up to their tenth floor room and waited, without TV, running water, A/C or windows that opened. With intermittent phone service available, Dan phoned Inez Conover, the proprietor of Rehoboth's Sea Witch B&B and begged forgiveness for having to cancel his Labor Day weekend reservation, as he had no idea if, or when he could get up North.
"We were so angry. The sun was out and we were stuck there."
And then the legendary levees broke.
Water oozed, then flowed, then gushed over the banks, past the Convention Center and Riverwalk Plaza and up Canal Street. "It was an astounding sight. We had no idea when it would stop." Fortunately the hotel was on high ground and the floodwaters ran out of forward motion just short of the lobby. Dan has the pictures to prove it.
Not only had streets become canals, but stories of mass looting, shootings and flood-ravaged neighborhoods ricocheted around the ballroom. And the windowless ballroom got hotter, steamier and more tense. The hotel continued to serve meals, but each meal become simpler and leaner than the last. "When we started out, before the hurricane, the meals were really good, with chicken dishes, vegetables, rice, and salad. But soon we were getting more beans and rice than anything," Dan said, and some people argued over portion size amid accusations of servers playing favorites. "It wasn't pretty," says Dan, "but at least we had food and water. We heard what was going on outside. No water, no food, total lawlessness, chaos."
The hotel kept guests apprised of the situation, warning that no one should leave, as they would not be let back into the city if they got stuck. Someone announced that two guests who drove out of town got robbed at gunpoint.
From his vantage point, gazing at the soggy street, Dan could see police officers throwing looters and their loot into patrol cars. TV trucks and reporters, with an entourage of a dozen cars, traveled the streets. If they can get in, why can't we get out? thought Dan. "That really surprised us."
On Tuesday, facing more beans and rice, continued discomfort, and flaring tempers, guests heard that buses might arrive by morning to take them out of the city. By this time, the rumpled and testy bachelor party gang got through to a friend to meet them in Baton Rougeif they could get there.
Wednesday morning, after standing in line for some partially moldy bread and one slice of processed turkey, the guys trudged back upstairs to pack. Then they walked ten flights back down to the lobby to await the buses. It was 9 a.m.
"You had to sign up on lists, and the Sheraton people really did a great job, just like they had throughout this whole thing," Dan recalls. "But it was still awful. I was nervous and scared." It seemed possible that the chaos outside could erupt inside as well, as people were reaching their boiling points.
Finally, six frustrating hours later, a bus pulled in to a throng of grungy, impatient people, piled together in the lobby, all jockeying for position to get out.
Disabled guests got on the first bus, but somehow Dan and his buddies worked their way onto the second, which, Dan reports, also included an armed escort.
"That was really scary. But we didn't understand the magnitude of the destruction and chaos until we got outside," Dan says. "We were in shock when we saw people with guns robbing trucks. We had been in a little bubble, bitching about no ice in our drinks. We had no idea about the magnitude of the disaster people clinging to rooftops, guests from small hotels camping in the street; it was just unimaginable."
The twenty minute trip to Baton Rouge took two hours. Then, it was another six hours to Houston, where the guys finally got showers and drinks with ice.
"I got home to New Jersey Thursday afternoon and just collapsed," says Dan.
But by Friday, still reeling but feeling thankful, Dan phoned a buddy. "Grab your purse, we're still going to Rehoboth. I'm not missing drag volleyball!"
Staying with Barb and Sandra in Lewes, they were relieved just to be here. "I'm still incredibly angry we couldn't get out faster, and shocked by the terrible emergency response, but having seen the devastation, I feel we were lucky to get out at all. It's been an incredible, incredible experience," Dan said.
And he was really, really glad to have been here for the annual Poodle Beach drag volleyball.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 15, No. 13 September 16, 2005