Katrina and the Rise of the Laptop
ARTHUR NEAD ILLUSTRATION
When we evacuated from the oncoming Hurricane Katrina that horrible Sunday afternoon, Aug. 28, 2005, our valuables did not include a laptop. While personal computers were getting more common, they were not yet something that everyone had. We thought we had achieved Space Age status by having cell phones. Laptops seemed like an amusement for another day.
We realized that day had come about a week later. By then everyone knew about the devastation in New Orleans. Beyond the sorrow was the challenge of getting in touch with acquaintances. Anyone – and that included most of the people we knew – whose phone number was in the 504 area code was unreachable. The lines were down for weeks in some parts.
We were staying in Marksville in Central Louisiana when one day we drove to nearby Alexandria. While waiting for a prescription to be filled, we went to a coffee shop close by. We noticed that every table was occupied with students and every student was working on a laptop. Two of them were UNO exchange students from Sweden who suddenly found themselves in a different setting than what they had signed up for. If they could be in such easy contact with Northern Europe from a coffee shop in Alexandria, maybe, we realized, we should get a laptop, too.
There was a time when getting something as high-tech as a laptop in a small town, especially on a whim at night, would be impossible, but that was not the case. Marksville had a casino, and because of that there was a Wal-Mart nearby. That Wal-Mart would be our trading post for food, groceries and gas for the next few months. (One afternoon a few Sundays later we were invited to a reception for a local historical society. Everything I wore – shirt, tie and pants – had been purchased from that Wal-Mart earlier that day.)
After returning from Alexandria, in those pre iPad days, we purchased a Hewlett Packard PC. Later in the evening we reached out to the world. Dial-up was still the most common means of establishing contact. It was a painfully slow method with a lot of busy signals. The number we dialed to access the Internet was in Alexandria, and we dialed it often.
Wi-Fi was becoming available, but it was not widespread. One public place that had it was the hotel lobby at the Paragon Casino. We would usually take advantage of it on Sunday evenings, where we always saw other New Orleanians there doing the same. Most of the time, though, we relied on the dial-up day after day, night after night.
We were able to find lost friends. Gradually, enterprising users built contact sites; there was one for artists and another for entertainers. Every profession could have its niche. There was no form of communication like email with its ability to be forwarded and sent to groups.
I regard Katrina as the moment when the laptop came into its own – the first traumatic major event where people could find each other through cyberspace.
Our HP laptop lasted for a long time. By the time its screen turned blue for good it was a relic in a world of gizmos that start with the a lowercase letter “i” and in which people document their daily lives through social media. If ever there is another Katrina-like event, every fallen limb, every rising stream will be a photo news opportunity of the moment.
As much as we used our HP, there was one important fact that we did not realize. In rural areas phone users have several options for their long distance service. Because the place where we were staying seldom had need to call Alexandria 30 miles away, the owners opted to exclude the town from their local bill, making it instead a long distance call. We must have set some sort of record running up a long distance bill that was in the $400 range between such close towns.
In another era, maybe Siri could have advised us to know better.