Sunday, December 26, 2004

Over the Pass and Through the Swamp ...

... to Grandmother's House We Go ... or not.

So this is what we planned for Christmas: Everyone was going to be in New Orleans for the first time in a long time. Evelin, Celeste, and I flew down on Wednesday; my brother (A---), his wife (N---), and their twins were driving in the same day; all the other out-of-town cousins and my mother's sisters were making their way to the Big Easy; my grandmother was going to have her 15 great-grandchildren all in one place for the first time (and the 16th one is due any day now, so it could have been an even more hectic day).

While packing to head South, I called my mother to check the weather forecast and to see what baby supplies/furniture we needed to bring vs. what she'd assembled from friends and her sisters and she told me it was supposed to be a white Christmas in New Orleans. Yeah, right. I remember exactly one "snowfall" from my childhood and that was a Twelfth Night sleet/ice storm that left a bunch of soggy hailstones that my brother turned into our South Louisiana version of a snowman and snowballs. While I was in college, there was a winter slush fall one year back at home, but I was away and so it doesn't count.

According to newscasts, the last white Christmas in New Orleans was in 1954, the year my youngest aunt was born. [UPDATE: Actually, the news reports were based on a faulty report from the National Weather Service. Christmas 1954 was 70°F and sunny; Christmas 1953, however, trace amounts of snow fell at the downtown post office.]

This year it snowed pretty hard, keeping my parents, my brother and his family, and Evelin, Celeste, and me on the roads and out of New Orleans.

We were supposed to be at Aunt B---'s for 1:30 p.m. or so. We'd seen flurries and a bit of weather here on the North Shore and the weather and news reports were telling us that some of the elevated highways, including I-55, which runs from Hammond over Pass Manchac and down to LaPlace, and I-10, which runs from LaPlace to New Orleans, were closed.

But this was a command performance. We weren't going to let a little ice and snow stop us. A---, N---, the twins, and my mother were in one vehicle; Evelin, Celeste, my father and I were in the second. We headed south, taking the old frontage road that parallels I-55 through Manchac Swamp; there was a concern that the tall bridge at the Pass would be closed or icy, but there were no troubles. Tangipahoa Parish did a pretty good job of sanding overpasses and bridges.

St. John the Baptist Parish, however, did things a little differently. As we approached where the frontage road passed under I-55 and approached I-10, we hit a traffic jam. No big deal; we figured there might be some traffic with people coming off I-10 to get onto U.S. Highway 61 (Airline Highway), but it was pretty much progressing only a few inches at a time. When finally we reached the head of the line, we found a sheriff's car blocking one of the two lanes and everyone trying to pass was being challenged as to their destination one car at a time.

Of course, the most frustrating thing was not being able to figure out what was the problem. Was there a wreck? Was it just volume due to traffic being diverted from I-10? What approaches to the city were still open? We tried tuning to an all-news station, WWL(AM), but they were airing some "Christmas Around the World" musical program from Disney World; they broke away at the top of each hour for CBS Radio news, but the local situation — freak weather and major road closures throughout the listening area — was mentioned only twice during unscheduled cutaways from the program. We also tried tuning to WDSU-TV (87.7 MHz on the FM dial picks up the audio carrier channel for the TV Channel 6 station), but there was no news to be had; traffic information was being delivered via crawls, which don't work too well on radio. My brother's new XM Radio system also wasn't any help; New Orleans isn't among the metropoles that it provides traffic and weather information for. We ended up calling the neighbors back in Hammond to see if they could relay us any information from the TV news crawls.

Having figured it was something like this, we'd called my brother's car to coördinate stories; if the deputy asked, we were headed to LaPlace. This was true because we planned to take River Road to the Bonnet Carré Spillway, which we could cross on the old surface-level road. The deputy wasn't having any of it. "We're going to LaPlace." "Where in LaPlace are you going?" "We're headed to River Road" "Where on River Road are you going?"

He said he was just trying to spare us from clogged highways into a city where all the bridges were closing, but we didn't want to show our hand too much and he eventually let us pass. A--- may have said he was with us, because his interview process seemed to go more quickly.

We took a shortcut to get to Airline Highway and immediately saw that it was a parking lot, so the spillway-crossing plan was a go. Traveling along River Road was a breeze. We made good time along the winding road, but, as we approached the levee crossing we ran into traffic; an officer was blocking the access road to the spillway. We made our way to the head of the line and I got out to ask about options and was told that New Orleans was shut down. "The bridges are all closed," as was the spillway. He said that the Airline Highway bridge might reopen sometime soon, but he didn't want to tell us anything for certain so as not to get hopes up. Plus traffic on the highway was visibly a mess.

With this news, we called in our regrets to the New Orleans crowd and began retracing our route along the river and through the swamp. In all we were traveling for about three-and-a-half hours (Celeste slept the entire way). We got home a bit dejected for having missed the full-family affair, but settled into a quiet evening (well, as quiet as an evening can be with 15-month-old twins in the house), feasting on leftovers and finagling some leftover desserts from the next-door neighbors.

Sunday turned into our make-good day. I-10 and I-55 were still closed, but the Causeway was open, and we headed in to see everybody (just not at once). One aunt and her children and grandchildren were out in Metairie, staying at an old friend's house, so we stopped there for a visit first, and then headed into the city to see my grandmother. My youngest aunt and her husband, along with a first cousin once removed and her husband met up with us there and chatted for a while before we went to lunch with my grandmother. The final aunt we stopped by to see on our way out of town. It was a busy swing through the city for Celeste, but she will have plenty more visits to New Orleans in her life that she'll remember better, so I don't feel too bad about. There were a lot of cousins who we didn't get to see, and it would have been cool to have everyone together, but hopefully in another two years or so we can manage to pull it off again without the weather getting in the way. And, as nice as it would have been to have everyone together for Christmas, we did have a better quality visit (at least with my grandmother) on Boxing Day the way things turned out.

Along the drive home, I suggested taking the river route to see what the spillway route looked like (at this point the interstates and highways were all being reported as open, so we assumed the spillway would be too). The drive along the river was nice and we got roadside views of Destrehan and Ormond plantations, but when we got to the spillway, a big sign said "closed to through traffic." Well, "no through traffic" is not "no traffic," so we drove around the barricade and headed into the spillway.

As we were going along, we saw others in the spillway, but we also noticed some water leaking from the Mississippi River through the timbers that make up the spillway gates. My father remarked that the neighbor A--- had said the river was very high when he'd gone fishing on it south of New Orleans right before Christmas Eve. About two-thirds of the way across, we found out why the spillway was closed to through traffic and probably why it was closed the Christmas day: Water was running (fairly swiftly) over the road. We watched the truck ahead of us ford the water and decided to risk it, too. It was a few inches high and maybe 10 yards long, but my parents' Explorer had no trouble getting through, although my mother was a bit nervous. We probably could have made it across on Christmas day too, if the sheriff hadn't been blocking the roadway (although it might not have been passable if someone in a smaller car had gotten stuck in the water).

1 comment:

marchenland said...

Sounds like an insane trip; I'm glad y'all survived the S. Louisiana idiocy that always arrives with any and every snowflake.

I think it snowed on me on Xmas Eve, '88 (it might have been '89, but I *swear* it was Xmas eve). My best friend and I almost froze to death on the streets of NOLA that night (we had 1 pair of gloves between us). The snow and ice shut everything down, we were stuck downtown, far from Sarah's uptown apartment. We bar-hopped to every horrific dive-bar downtown (including the scariest leather bar ever, so bad that when I told my brother I'd been there, he expressed surprise we'd gotten out in one piece; the WC there was like the one in Trainspotting x 1000000), each one closing and kicking us out as it got too cold and miserable. I watched my cup of water freeze inside the Blue Crystal at 4am.

I even have photographic proof! (Well, not really. I can't prove it was Xmas eve or which year. Unfortunately, nothing on the web corroborates my story, so I must be wrong. I hate when that happens.)