The eye of the storm : Leaving New Orleans is not an easy choice

In the wee hours of yesterday morning, as we looked at computer models that put Hurricane Gustav closer and closer to New Orleans, my husband and I finally made the firm decision to leave the city. To go or not to go was not an easy choice because the act of leaving is sheer physical and emotional torture.

There is the physical impact of boarding up tall windows with plywood, going through the house to collect items of importance, packing said items into waterproof tubs and carrying them downstairs to the truck. And then there is the emotional toll which consists of the futility of boarding up windows when your entire home could be reduced to sticks, deciding which of your possessions qualify as keepers, distilling your life into the back of a truck and leaving this beloved town again.

The worst is saying goodbye to dear friends before we scatter to the winds again. When will we see each other again? In a few days, a month, years?

Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent failure of the federal levees is not a memory in this town; we live, breathe and eat the aftermath to this day. Will the levees hold this time? Will the city flood again? Are the authorities really prepared this time? How many will die? Will our homes be looted? What will happen?

While the uncertainty and helplessness are almost too much to bear, many here are hopeful. Friends all over the city, including a few in my neighbourhood, are staying to safeguard their properties. After the flood of three years ago, many of us were not allowed back in for a month. This, in the minds of New Orleans residents, contributed the most to the devastation. Homes that flooded to their roofs were total losses to begin with, but those that took on very little water were rendered irrecoverable after they were allowed to fester, and mould and vermin quickly took over. Given the ghastly military and police response three years ago, arsonists and looters had free reign; property untouched by wind and flood fell prey to fire and theft.

Most devastating of all was the loss of people. Thousands perished in the flood, and the longer New Orleanians were barred from their city after the deluge, it became impossible for them to find the financial, logistical and mental motivation to return. The evacuation for Hurricane Gustav has already become a drain on the wallets of many, those who have spent their life savings and more recovering from Katrina and the Flood.

Three years is too soon, but we realize the lack of control over tropical weather and flawed flood protection. By the time you read this, we will have climbed into the truck and headed northeast. Should Gustav prove to be nothing but heavy rains, we will turn right around and return as soon as possible. I will not be kept away from New Orleans.

Maitri Venkat-Ramani is a geophysicist who lives and works in New Orleans