Fated to End Sometime

Category: Hurricane Katrina

The gallon water jug in The Long Dark

A little less than ten years ago, my wife, two daughters and I were sheltering in my employer's home in New Orleans, slowly starving and suffering from the effects of dehydration. In that two-story building were five adults, two children, two dogs and a two cats. The first floor of the building had flooded, and the water was mixed with oil and contaminated by broken sewer pipes and floating dead bodies. Although they were not in our immediate vicinity, some of those bodies were human, people who had been alive just a few days before. There were also downed power lines trailing into the water, and no way to know whether any of them were energized. We were effectively trapped.

We had only managed to rescue a limited amount of food, and there were only two five-gallon containers of water to be shared among all of us. Of course the children were permitted water before the adults, but my wife was also two months pregnant with our third child, and she was suffering from the daily temperatures that were now reaching as high as 120 degrees Fahrenheit. There was no power, therefore no air conditioning or fans, and also no running water. We also had no way to treat the contaminated water that surrounded the building, nor did we want to wade into it to fetch things because we would have no way to properly clean ourselves afterward. The situation was rapidly becoming dire, and one of the women sheltering in the house decided to scale the roof in an unsuccessful attempt to flag down passing helicopters. She began consuming the precious potable water more rapidly than anyone else as a direct result.

She was the first one to notice the two men passing by out front of the building in their canoe, sometimes with a passenger when they returned, going in the opposite direction. She ended up shouting to the two men to let them know we had little children in the house, and they offered to take our daughters to the nearest safe shelter, which was something that initially sounded appealing. We did not want our daughters to die from dehydration. Reality sank in as I realized what would happen to a two and four year old girl outside of the supervision of their parents, and I grimly declared, "Either we all go, or none of us goes."

Thankfully, the men responded by saying, "Mom and Dad can come too."

My wife and I waded through the oily water and carefully got into the canoe, then each of us held our daughters in our lap. The men wasted no time setting off, but mentioned almost casually that they would be taking a roundabout route so that our girls would be spared from the sight of the floating dead. We quietly thanked the men, and stared around us in awe as we could finally comprehend the amount of water all around us, all of it the direct result from a levee system broken by a runaway barge.

The men decided to take us to their home briefly, although they had us wait in the canoe. A woman stepped out, and one of the men said something to her. She went back inside, and when she returned she was carrying a white, plastic gallon jug. They must have frozen it before the hurricane, because it was still at least half frozen when they gave it to us. This, along with the canoe ride, was a gift like no other. We each took a drink of cold, clean water for the first time in several days, and I began feeling more optimistic that we were all going to make it.

They took us to dry land where they introduced us to a friend who had been giving rides to people in his SUV while preparing to leave the city with his own family. He was kind enough to take us to the nearest hospital, but due to the looting they would not let us in, and a guard armed with a rifle indicated we needed to leave immediately. We walked down the road, the jug carried in my one hand, and my daughter's hand held in the other, until we found a police officer who unwillingly drove us to a staging area and dropped us off in a sea of humanity. We walked into the crowd and settled down to wait for the buses that were promised to come and take us to another staging area.

While we waited, a pickup truck arrived with a bed full of bags of ice. People scrambled, pushed and shoved to get to the truck, frantically grabbing ice bags even though there were clearly enough to go around. I waited patiently until everyone else grabbed their bag and took one from the driver, who was looking rather annoyed by everyone's behavior. I thanked him profusely and his attitude improved slightly. When I returned to my family I opened the bag and poured the ice into our gallon jug, which had almost reached empty by this point. The bag filled it back up again, and in the summer heat it rapidly began to melt.

As dusk approached it became obvious that no buses were coming, so several of us began migrating down the small highway in the direction of the final staging area, designated as the point where I-10 and the Causeway intersected. As we walked we were harassed by police who told us to get off the road, but offered us no assistance with reaching our destination. At that point we were on an overpass and there was no way off the road except to keep going, so we did. Finally, more pickup trucks arrived and we climbed into the back of one along with several others before it lurched forward and took us to the final staging area.

I held on to our plastic gallon water jug through all of this, and we each took sips of water as needed. People around us, noticing we had children, offered them bits of food, and we gratefully accepted knowing full well the food had been looted. At this point, however, it was a matter of survival, and our children needed the food more than we did. I did find it ironic at this point, however, that it was those people who were in a similar situation to our own that were offering the most help to my family, whereas the police and other people we would ordinarily depend upon had offered very little assistance thus far.

We managed to secure a ride on a coach leaving New Orleans, and we were transported to a sports dome in Jefferson, Louisiana. Exhausted, but already knowing some of what had occurred in the New Orleans Superdome due to the reports we had heard over the radio, we opted to avoid the sports dome and try to make our way to a hotel. We walked down the highway trying to get to a gas station where I could make a phone call to a taxi service and get transported to a hotel, but the first gas station we reached refused to sell me a phone card until 7am. It was 4am at this point. So we shuffled out of the gas station, the other patrons intentionally ignoring us as we left, and kept walking until a stranger decided to pull over in his pickup truck and ask us if we needed any help. After explaining the situation, and why we couldn't take shelter in the dome, he agreed to take us to where he worked so that I could use their phone and attempt to secure a place to stay.

As his coworkers began arriving and he let them know what was going on, they began to head out and fetch us food, clean clothes, and a mattress to nap on until we could get a hotel room. Upon finding out there were no available rooms in any hotel in town, one of the employees brought his camper to the business so we could have a place to stay until we could get a flight at the airport. It was at that point that I knew we were safe, and I finally set down that plastic gallon water jug, never to pick it up again. A part of me wishes that I still had it, but every time I see one, I remember.

In the video game The Long Dark, the protagonist can melt snow and boil the water to make it potable. It is stored in a plastic gallon jug when carried. I'm sure you can imagine my surprise and also my appreciation the first time I saw this in this game which is all about survival.