When Ida is over, we’re due a trip to Ireland to show my kids where their grit comes from

We made the decision to leave New Orleans with our family ahead of Hurricane Ida

Hurricane Ida: Darlene and Grant Dupre sit where their house used to be in Pointe-Aux-Chenes, about 70km southwest of New Orleans, on Monday. Photograph: Mark Felix/AFP via Getty

Hurricane Ida: Darlene and Grant Dupre sit where their house used to be in Pointe-Aux-Chenes, about 70km southwest of New Orleans, on Monday. Photograph: Mark Felix/AFP via Getty

 

I’m proud of my Irish heritage and my courageous great-grandmother who emigrated to the United States by herself as a teenager. She built a life in Philadelphia and returned to her home in Carrigart, Co Donegal, only once after she became a mother. My grandmother travelled back with her as an 11-year-old, and most of my early impressions of Ireland came from the stories she told.

I like to think the Irish DNA I inherited is enriched in genes for resilience and grit. Like my great-grandmother, I travelled across the pond solo as an adventurous young adult and made a home for myself in Dublin in 2004. After finishing my PhD in the States I took up postdoctoral work, researching arthritis mechanisms, at University College Dublin’s school of veterinary medicine.

The professional journey I thought would last a year stretched to nearly three after a grant from the Health Research Board. The craic was good in Dublin, I got to know my cousins up in Donegal, and I hosted many visitors from the States on their holidays in Ireland

We usually hunker down and aren’t too bothered by a couple of days without power. This time the threat of the storm escalated quickly, and we opted to get out of harm’s way while there was still time

When Hurricane Katrina struck, in 2005, I felt the impact living far away in Dublin and worried for friends and family affected by the flooding in New Orleans. Seeing the devastation did not deter me from eventually moving there to take up a faculty position – I am a professor of biological sciences at Loyola University New Orleans. I have been living in the city for 12 years, the longest I have ever lived in the same place in my entire life.

The culture is rich and the people are creative and resilient. I live with my husband and two children, who are 10 and seven, at the edge of the Irish Channel neighbourhood on Jackson Avenue, which was settled by Irish emigrants who dug canals in the city in the 1800s.

The neighbourhood’s Irish culture persists today, with multiple Irish pubs and the annual St Patrick’s Day parade that rolls by our house. The historical connection to Ireland is charming, but the main reason we settled in this part of the city is because it sits on high ground along the river and is not prone to flooding during storms.

Last week my husband and I decided to leave New Orleans with our family ahead of Hurricane Ida. We usually hunker down and aren’t too bothered by a couple of days without power. This time the threat of the storm escalated quickly, and we opted to get out of harm’s way while there was still time. We packed up after listening to the mayor’s midday press conference on Friday and hearing the call for a voluntary evacuation.

We planned for three days away from home, gathered our important papers, and secured loose items outside. After picking up our children from school, we ate a quick dinner and then hit the road. Traffic was congested leaving New Orleans, and we saw long lines at the gas stations. This would be our first long road trip in our electric car, and the threat of an approaching hurricane during a pandemic forced us to confront our range anxiety.

If we had waited a day we would have been in trouble. Despite being far from the path of the storm, gas stations were chaotic, and there was tension on the road as other evacuees rushed out of Louisiana

We aimed for Alexandria, a small city, northwest of New Orleans, that was outside Ida’s predicted path. The weather was perfect for the drive, and we had evening light for the 360km journey. We checked into our hotel, plugged in the car, and tucked in for the night.

The hotel was pretty empty, and we thought it would be a good base to hang out for a few days and watch the weather. We asked if we might extend our reservation, but we learned that the hotel was fully booked from the next day. At the geographic centre of the state, Alexandria was the perfect spot to stage rescue efforts. Crews from the federal emergency-management agency were already headed into town, and every room was booked out the next day in anticipation of Ida.

New Orleans evacuees: Kimberlee Mix and her daughter Priya take a break for ice cream at the Dairy Palace in Canton, Texas
New Orleans evacuees: Kimberlee Mix and her daughter Priya take a break for ice cream at the Dairy Palace in Canton, Texas

By Saturday morning we made the call to push on to Dallas, in Texas, to stay with my in-laws. It looked like New Orleans was going to get hit hard, and who knew when it would be safe to return to the city? We had another 500km of driving ahead of us, and we got lucky with charging opportunities at our lunch and ice-cream stops. Evacuating by electric vehicle was working out, but it did add an extra layer of stress. If we had waited a day we would have been in trouble. Despite being far from the path of the storm, gas stations were chaotic, and there was tension on the road as other evacuees rushed out of Louisiana.

Since arriving in Dallas we have been checking the news for updates and tuning into social media. It was frightening watching Ida inch closer to New Orleans on the TV and hearing words like “catastrophic” and “devastating” thrown about by reporters. Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast 16 years ago this weekend, and the media did not miss a beat ratcheting up the storm sensationalism.

Southeastern Louisiana took an enormous hit, but the most devastating impact of Ida on New Orleans has been the complete failure of the power grid supporting the entire city. The transmission infrastructure was severely damaged this weekend, and a critical tower that held strong during Katrina toppled into the Mississippi river. It could be weeks before systems are back online and the city is working again. Imagine the strain on the hospitals, powered by generators and already bulging with patients from the latest Covid surge.

Some of our friends rode out the storm, and they have been sharing updates. A neighbour checked the outside of our house yesterday, and we were relieved to hear there is no visible damage. A good friend is coming to check the inside today and clean out our refrigerator before things start to spoil. This is not the first time he has taken up this work for us, so we are very lucky.

Hurricane Ida: a chunk of roof that ripped off a building in the French Quarter of New Orleans on Monday. Photograph: Dan Anderson/EPA
Hurricane Ida: a chunk of roof that ripped off a building in the French Quarter of New Orleans on Monday. Photograph: Dan Anderson/EPA

The Irish Channel Neighbourhood Facebook page has been a great source of local information, dishing out details about fallen trees, free coffee spots, and hunts for lost pets. School has been cancelled indefinitely, and universities are evacuating their students and making plans for online learning. The spirit of New Orleans continues to be rugged, and there is a strong sense of community even though the lights are out.

Evacuees are being told not to return to the city right now. As we sit and wait for more information, we are comforted by the unexpected family time our evacuation has given us. The pandemic has prevented travel for our family over the past year and a half, but now our kids have the chance to catch up on some spoiling from their grandparents. We are lucky to have family within reach and a home away from home in Dallas. When this is all over and things inch back to normal, Covid permitting, we are due for a trip back to Ireland. It’s time to show my kids where some of their grit comes from.

If you’d like to support New Orleans, this article explains how

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