NEW ORLEANS, La. — Looking back, there’s always that fateful moment.
Coming home with hurricane supplies a few hours before Hurricane Zeta struck, Kimberly Laque parked her 1997 Honda CRV in front of Z’otz Cafe, about 30 feet back from her door. She opened the tailgate so that she and her children could run the supplies upstairs to their second-story apartment.
Z’otz stands next door to her building on Oak Street in New Orleans. But the cafe still had some hanging baskets of plants outside, so Laque, fearing the flowerpots might fly loose in Zeta’s high winds, walked back downstairs and pulled her car forward — for the last time.
By the next day, her burgundy Honda, crushed by three 1,000-pound electrical transformers, had become one of the symbols of a furious late-season storm that tore into the city with winds approaching 100 miles per hour.
At that point, Laque, 52, had lived in New Orleans for 12 days.
She had arrived Oct. 16 in her 23-year-old SUV, packed with household goods and the family Chihuahua, Dobby. She’d picked up stakes in Destrehan to be closer to her two children, who had both received academic scholarships to attend Tulane University: son Louis, 18, a freshman majoring in neuroscience, and daughter Regan, 20, who is studying public health.
As Zeta approached southeast Louisiana the morning of Oct. 28, Laque drove her Honda to Kenner, where she works at the Olive Garden as a server. But after sizing up the weather, her bosses sent her home early. She stopped at a few places to pick up water and other supplies and got home at about noon.
After emptying the car and repositioning it away from Z’otz, the family headed upstairs to unpack moving boxes that had been put to the side while the children went through exams. By the time Zeta’s winds began buffeting their building, they were playing poker in the front room.
Laque kept a close eye on a building across the street, where some loose siding seemed ready to peel off. Then as the hurricane’s eyewall approached, she saw a light pole down the street sway like a rubber pencil. Her building shook with such intensity that the family retreated to the stairwell for a few minutes.
Several hours earlier, when Laque locked the car and walked upstairs, she had barely noticed another utility pole, a wooden one, that stood directly across the street from her car.
Because of street flooding and boil-water advisories, New Orleans residents facing tropical storms usually focus on other infrastructure: drains, pumps, levees, floodgates and canals. Streetlights, utility poles and pole-mounted transformers often fall into the backdrop, unnoticed.
Then came Zeta. Laque saw the wooden pole snap in half. Then she saw something dangling.
As she approached the window, she saw that the top half of the pole had fallen toward them. And as it did, 11/2 tons of metal transformers slid off directly onto the family car.
Her children hugged her as they looked down. “We just couldn’t believe it,” Laque said.
The kids had grown up in that car. It had taken them back and forth to school and softball and baseball practices, filled with books and gear. The family had taken road trips to Tennessee a few times, to stay in cabins there. For camping trips to Mississippi, the roomy Honda could fit Laque, the two kids and Dobby, along with a tent and canopy, sleeping bags, a cooking stove and a cooler.
Dobby’s tiny tail started to wag as soon they walked toward the Honda, one of his two favorite places, along with Laque’s bed.
It’s unclear what will happen next. Laque had only liability insurance on the car, not comprehensive coverage that might have covered the transformer tragedy. Someone from Entergy told her that the company will file a claim, but who knows how long before a check arrives?
First, the utility focused on getting the apartment’s power back. Six days after Zeta, Regan got a ride to the polls on Election Day; by the time she got home from the voting, the power was back on.
The streetlights up and down Oak Street are lit again. Fallen trees branches are pushed to the side, waiting to be collected. Looking out her front window, Laque can now see a brand-new utility pole, hung with shiny new transformers. In its shadow stands the flattened Laque family Honda, one last reminder of Zeta’s ferocity.
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