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Hurricane Gustav: The waiting is the hardest part

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 2, 2008- Here we are in Tylertown, Miss. -- about 90 miles from New Orleans. There are about two dozen humans and even more dogs. In the morning, the doors open and the rooms unload like clown cars. It's hard to tell how many of us there really are. People take shifts in the yard with their dogs. There's Hubig Pie, the beagle, watching over a pack of five shar peis, while my three hide in the pool house waiting their turn. Perhaps the scope of this can best be expressed with this one additional detail: Four of the dogs here are in wheelchairs, including Dag, a pit bull, Theo, a Doberman with a gunshot wound on his ass, Winnie, a crabby wiener dog, and Bandit, a crippled collie who everyone takes a turn spooning in front of the television.

And then there is me, a lousy hanger-on. This was my back-up plan for all my other back-up plans, my shelter of last resort. "Of course, come if you have to," they said. "But really, only if you have to." 

The television is permanently on the news, while we spoon Bandit, waiting for the permission to return. The official terminology is "re-entry," which sounds somehow painful, something to avoid. But as storms go, Gustav was a pretty dull visitor. Sure, there was the nauseating adrenaline rush that powered us out of the city Sunday, but once he fizzled out -- thank God -- our energy dropped as well. We spend the day taking marathon naps and nuzzling each others dogs and talking about how we'll return, when we'll return. We never talk about "re-entry."

We want to return to our own beds. We want to run our dogs in our own yards. We want to go to our favorite restaurant to celebrate, and we want to do it soon. Now and then, we slip into talk of what happened the last time, when things didn't move so quickly. Some of us were gone a month that time. Some six months. Now, we would rather rush back to a city without electricity, as if our spot as a resident of New Orleans might somehow be granted to someone else in our absence. Last time around, some of us lost our jobs. This time around, we don't have to worry about losing our homes, but the rest of these things remain unknown.

We're in this together this time. Up to a point. Sometimes who we are breaks down to: East Bank or West Bank. Orleans Parish or Jefferson. Upper Ninth Ward or Lower. Out in the pool house, "we" means me and my dogs. As Gustav teased us in the early part of the week, I tried to make plans. Booked a hotel to the west and another to the northeast. Stocked up on dog food and treats. Found a cabin on a lake in Alabama in case we really needed to stay gone. "We're going on vacation," I said to Brando, Zephyr and Sula -- the dogs -- and myself, knowing that once we packed ourselves into the car our heads would be filled with the last time, when we got caught in the hurricane's path, and bounced between various borrowed floors in borrowed cities before we could "re-enter."

By the time we left Sunday -- because how many nights in a hotel can anyone afford? -- we were caught in bumper to bumper traffic and spent seven hours on the road before giving up on our plans. At 10 miles an hour, it would take maybe 30 hours to drive to the first of our potential locations. And, to be honest, although I had checked to make sure pets were OK, I was worried they might change their minds when they saw that "we" included two pit bulls and a rottie mix.

We phone and text, checking in with everyone when we can. Gabriella is in Memphis with 13 people and 13 dogs. Emily and Trap Jack are in Batesville, in one of the hotel rooms I reserved. Brian emails from Hattiesburg, where Suzie and another foster dog, JP, have moved into boarding to ease the chaos in the house they are "visiting." Now and then I get an email wishing me a happy birthday, and I remember again.

My dogs, like me, aren't eating. Like everyone else in this house, and like our friends scattered in houses and hotel rooms around the country, we've put even the most basic actions of our lives on hold, while we wait for the magic words from the newscast, telling us we can return.

Normally a resident of New Orleans, Ken Foster is also the author of "The Dogs Who Found Me," "The Kind I'm Likely to Get," and editor of "The KGB Bar Reader" and "Dog Culture." 

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