5:00 am in august/stuff that matters

5:02 am.

Traditionally the perfect time to think about losing all of your belongings in a catastrophic fire.

I've actually started making a plan of how we would do it- recover, I mean. In the event that we to find ourselves across the street in our pajamas, smelling faintly of campfire, holding onto each other and watching our home burn, wondering if a house fire selfie would be, like, totally boss or completely sick.

On the panicked flight from our crackling nest, what would we grab in the 10 or 15 seconds we have to spare? Which things would we linger to save? They need to be things that help us travel to wherever we would stay, and things that comfort us and would also be difficult or take a long time to replace. Here are my top 5:

1. Buster's car seat
2. Cell phones
3. Wallets
4. Chicken's pillow/Sully doll
5. Ryan's retainers (he grinds his teeth and really sleeps like shit without them)

Oh shit, and car keys. Car keys are, you know, key. Yuk yuk. Chicken's pillow and Sully can be replaced with trips to Target and the Disney store.

If it were, like, a minor league house fire - you know, a slow-burner in the basement or whatnot - and we had 2 minutes or so to "pack," I'd start sniffing around for the sentimental and irreplaceable. Chicken's ceramic handprints and his baby book. Photo albums from pre-cloud-storage yesteryear. Into a bag and out the door. 

Realistically, I would toss in a couple of boxes of contact lenses and the iPad. If I'm being honest. And the Ergo.

But again, if I'm being honest, there's something that feels pointless about pre-planning my loot from the fire evacuation. It also feels a little bit familiar.

I can't help but think about another evacuation, 9 years ago this month.

Hurricane Katrina was all over the local news. The bottled water aisle at the grocery store was nothing but gaping, empty shelves. Lines at the gas station were ten cars deep. The city pulsed with the excited fear that comes when you can watch your natural disaster rolling toward you for a few days before it hits.

I decided I wasn't going to leave this time. Who are we kidding, folks? On the day the storm "hits" it's going to sprinkle in the morning and then it will be 80 degrees and sunny, a perfect day to read and throw a frisbee at the levee. It's happened, like, every other time a hurricane has threatened to hit. We sit in traffic on our way into Texas, spend the night in a shitty motel or at someone's parents' house, and then the next day we sit in traffic on our way back.

But my parents kept calling. And then my aunt who lives in Houston gave me a ring.

Me: Hello?
Her: Katie? It's Aunt Susan.
Me: Hi! What's up?
Her: What's up? What's up? You mean other than the monster storm that's barreling toward you right this second?
Me: Um... yeah?

So we made a compromise. The hurricane was due to hit New Orleans on a Sunday. Friday night, my roommate Meg and I ordered a large pizza. We waited in line for 45 minutes to get gas, went to Blockbuster and rented a few movies. Ryan packed a small overnight bag and came over. We decided that I would set my alarm for 5:00 am. I'd wake up, check the Weather Channel, and if the storm were still on-track and rolling heavy, we'd get out of Dodge early and hopefully beat the traffic.

5:00 am came, and the Weather Channel anchors were tearing their hair out. "GET OUT! GET OUT NOW OR MAY GOD HAVE MERCY ON YOUR SOULS!" Okay, okay, sheesh. You guys are going to feel pretty silly when this storm turns or dissipates at the last minute. But their hysteria was catching.

The night before, I'd packed:

One sundress
One pair of yoga pants
One tee shirt
A couple pairs of underwear
My glasses

That early morning, I threw a few photo albums in a duffle bag, unplugged all my electronics to protect them from power surges, and tossed my bag in the car. We made a quick stop at Ryan's apartment, where he threw a few more things into his bag - laptop (whoops, I didn't bring mine, oh well), a few more clothes, checkbook (whoops... oh well.)

We met up with Meg, who was driving herself and her yellow lab, Sammy in her car. Ryan and I rode in my car. We were pumped from the thrill of the situation, but still absolutely in denial about the storm actually, you know, causing a problem of any kind. Case in point? We decided to meet at Starbucks so we could grab a coffee before hitting the road. Because 24 hours before a category 4 hurricane is going to hit, the Starbucks people are still making lattes, right? Yeah, it's part of the employee agreement. Baristas go down with the ship.

Starbucks was closed.

Well shit. Now I have to evacuate sans coffee. So annoying.

Also, we didn't pack any food for the road. Well, we're just going to Houston, which is like a 4-hour drive from New Orleans. We'll find a McDonalds for lunch.

Silly rabbit.

We hit our first heavy traffic getting on the highway. And we never un-hit it. We never got out of that long, slow parade of heavily-packed vehicles. Even though contraflow was in effect, so every single lane of the road was moving out of town. Even when we turned off the major highways so we could keep heading west to Texas because that's where our beds were waiting for us.

We saw two men get into a shoving match at a gas station, over whose turn it was next to gas up. We saw a family of 8 unload from a Suburban at a rest area where Meg was running Sammy, and unpack a lunch of Twinkies and Corn Nuts. Opportunistic young men sold dripping, cold bottles of water for $5 a pop.

We rolled down shabby small-town highways, making brief eye contact with old-timers who'd set out lawn chairs in their front yards to watch the procession. I don't think we ever moved faster than 40 mph, and we spent most of the day closer to 30.

We got on I-5 at 5:45 am.

We arrived at my aunt and uncle's house in Houston at 10:45 pm.

They greeted us with spaghetti, garlic bread, and a bottle of wine. They put us in bed, and I slept badly, the room too hot and the smell of the air unfamiliar, until my uncle popped his head in the next morning. "The first levee broke," he said.

I won't go into the details of how we spent the next week, because there aren't many. We mostly sat on the couch switching back and forth between news channels, raiding my aunt and uncle's pantry. It became immediately clear to us that our hurricane discomfort (having to sit in a car for a really long time, and then camping out on plush couches while stuffing our faces with homemade baked goods) hit pretty fucking low on the human suffering scale.

But this post is about what you bring out of your home when you have to flee. And it's also about how you start over.

Remember, I, in a spectacularly asshat-like fashion, blew town with one sundress and a pair of yoga pants. I brought my cell phone but no charger. Which was fine because my cell phone didn't work anyway. Like all the other cell phones with 504 area codes.

We went to the mall one day to pick up a few things.

Try to make a shopping list when you have nothing. There's a temptation to just replace everything, but you quickly realize that the stash of personal belongings it took you years to accumulate, select carefully or steal accidentally from an old boyfriend, cannot be picked up on one breezy trip through Nordstrom.

So you start over. You ask, "what do I really need?" That list gets long in a hurry.

Oh yeah, underwear
And bras
It's summer, maybe I can just get a pair of sandals and wait on the socks
Shirts? How many? Like, 4 shirts?
And a sweater or a sweatshirt to go over the shirts?
Exercise clothes? Probably not. Didn't bring running shoes. Maybe I should. OK. A pair of shorts, sports bra, tee shirt.
Running shoes
So that puts socks back on the menu
Hair ties
Face wash...

It went on and on.

At the end of the day I think I left the mall with one good pair of jeans and a couple of shirts. I also bought a bag of cosmetics, randomly, because the Nordstrom cosmetics girls really wanted me to have the stuff and I just kind of nodded and said okay. Everything else on the "list," such as it was, just felt unimportant, shameful even. When faced with the absolute devastation of a city full of souls, I didn't really feel like I could say, "but I might need a sweater."

So I lie awake, 9 years later, on another hot August night, imagining the absolute devastation of my home. I make a mental list of what I will need. I find that not much has changed - that list gets long in a hurry. It changes from "what do I need" to "what do I need to avoid discomfort or inconvenience."

If we needed to get out of our burning house, what would I take? Myself. My sons. My husband. End of file.

It's a comfort to know that if I were to wake up and need to react, immediately, to the threat to my family, I wouldn't stop for the Ergo or my contact lenses. I wouldn't turn back from the door to grab the iPad, for fuck's sake. If the beating hearts make it out of this house, I'm calling that a win. Everything else is just stuff. 


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