Elgin Barden was happy to finally be on a bus, even just a bus to take him to another bus, which would eventually take him somewhere undetermined for an unspecified period of time. 

“I don’t care where I’m going,” Barden said on Saturday on a Regional Transit Authority bus en route to the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center from the Treme Center on North Villere Street. “I know it’s a better place.”

Barden, 41, was one of about a dozen people on the bus, all taking advantage of a new city program, announced by Mayor LaToya Cantrell on Thursday that will provide transportation for people who want to get out of the city to congregate shelters in north Louisiana and neighboring states. 

Barden had nothing with him besides a cell phone, and said he has been on the street since Hurricane Ida passed through on Sunday afternoon. Normally, he said, he stays with his family on the West Bank, but had been across the river for work — boarding up windows to prepare for the storm. He couldn’t get back before bus service shut down on Saturday in advance of Hurricane Ida, and rode out the storm at a friend’s house.

But he had to leave soon after, and with no buses running, Barden was unable to get back home with his family after the storm. (RTA announced the restoration of limited East Bank bus service on Friday.)

Elgin Barden on a bus from the Treme Center to the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center on Saturday, September 4, 2021. (Nicholas Chrastil/The Lens)

“I couldn’t get across the river,” Barden said. “I got stuck. … There was a point when I thought about walking across the bridge” 

His family was able to evacuate to Slidell earlier this week, he said, and were safe there. 

“Day five of me, by myself, same clothes and everything,” Barden said. “I’ve been trying to deal with the heat. This is the first time I actually heard about anybody evacuating in the last five days. So that’s why I’m here.”

Cantrell’s office says the out-of-town bus service isn’t an “evacuation” program, but rather “city assisted transportation to shelters.”  Nevertheless, when Barden got to the Convention Center he was given a yellow form that had his information filled out with “EVACUATION TICKET” written on top. 

None of the people who spoke to The Lens knew where they would end up on Saturday. Apparently no one did.

New Orleans residents wait at the Convention Center to board buses to shelters out of the city. September 4, 2021. (Nicholas Chrastil/The Lens)

“They’re going to put you on a bus and roll out,” said a man in a vest providing instructions to the evacuees after the bus reached the Convention Center. “I don’t know where you’re going.” 

Had it been available, Barden said that he would have taken advantage of the transportation out of the city sooner. 

“Who wants to stay in this heat?” he said. “This is miserable. This is miserable.”  

Highs have been in the 90s this week, with the heat index going into the 100s. And the vast majority of city residents still in town have ridden it out without air conditioning, due to a citywide blackout since the storm. 

On top of everything else, Barden has eczema, and the lack of access to medication along with the intense heat had exacerbated it, leaving his skin dry and cracked. 

“I have medicine I can’t get,” he said. “By me being in the heat, it gets worse and worse.” 

Donald Gillespie on the bus to the convention center. September 4, 2021. (Nicholas Chrastil/The Lens)

Sitting next to Barden on the bus from the Treme Center was Donald Gilesspie, who was leaving his home in the 7th Ward. He had two small bags, which he said primarily consisted of dirty clothes. He said he was hoping to do some laundry, and maybe have access to a television to keep up with the news when he got to wherever he was going. 

There was a sense of hope in the way Gillespie spoke of what was to come.

“This is the beginning of the sauce right now,” Gillespie said as the bus pulled up to the convention center. “This is the start of the story.” 

There was little hope to be discerned in the voice of Barbara Justice, who moved to New Orleans just weeks ago, on Friday, August 13. When Ida hit, the roof of the bedroom of the home she was staying in caved it. 

“I lost everything,” she said through tears while sitting in the line to board the bus. “I was here with somebody but they left. He left me by myself.” 

And on Saturday, she made the decision to evacuate by herself, with nothing but a purse and a wooden cane. Asked what her plan was going forward, she said she didn’t know.

“I’ve never gone through anything like this in my life,” she said. “There is nothing I can grasp on to make it ok. So I just cry.”

Barbara Justice waits to board a bus at the Convention Center. September 4, 2021. (Nicholas Chrastil/The Lens)

Wayne Hill was at the Convention Center to get away from the deteriorating situation at his apartment complex on Canal Street. Hill, who uses a walker to get around, was unable to get up to his fourth floor apartment, and he and other residents had been sleeping in the lobby of the building since the storm hit. 

“It’s miserable,” he said. “Everybody’s laying all over the floor in the lobby. … They opened the doors to let the air blow through.” 

Back on the bus, Barden said that he was hopeful that evacuating would allow for a brief moment of respite. 

“Relief, breathe, relax, bathe,” he said. “I hope getting to the Convention Center solves a lot of our problems.”

Hanging over the prospect of immediate relief, however, was the probability of more impending disaster. 

“This is just the beginning of hurricane season,” Barden said as he got off the bus. “That sucks.” 

Nick Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...