Hurricane Gustav may not have been as powerful as many people feared, coming ashore Monday as a Category 2 storm, but it was strong enough to blow many gulf-area families into Newton County over Labor Day weekend.
The parking lots of area motels and hotels were dotted with cars sporting Louisiana or Mississippi car tags.
At the America's Best Value Inn, the Robertson and Mark clan were awaiting the "all clear" sign to return to their neighborhoods in Slidell, La., which sits east of New Orleans. They had cleared out of Slidell early last week, long before any order to evacuate, said family matriarch Bessie Mark.
"I thought about that water and I wasn't going to take no chance," Mark said.
She and about 20 other family members, caravanning in seven cars, left at 12:30 a.m. and drove about 12 hours until they reached Covington on Wednesday, where someone they knew had booked rooms for them at the America's Best Value Inn.
The family cleared out in 2005 the day before Katrina hit and found themselves in DeKalb County for nearly six months. When they were able to return to their neighborhoods, trees were still downed, electricity was unavailable and debris was still washed up in piles.
Slowly, neighbors trickled back - some taking months, some taking years, Mark said. One man had just returned to his home two months ago only to be told he had to leave again.
Though the route was packed, the traffic flowed surprisingly smoothly, said Troy Crawford.
Another group of about 30 people also from Louisiana staying in the Day's Inn across the road couldn't wait and headed back Tuesday morning, said Calvin Anderson of Slidell. He and his girlfriend Lori Thomas and their 2-month-old son had remained because they heard the power was still out from family members who stayed during the storm.
"We couldn't have a baby there like that," said Thomas, smiling as her infant son looked up in response. "He likes his air [conditioning]."
Thomas, who lived in St. Bernard Parish in 2005, remembers returning two weeks after Katrina to find her home had been submerged in 17 feet of water.
The couple ended up in Covington after a niece called and let them know there were rooms available. For long stretches near the roads, many motels and hotels were fully booked with nothing available, said Anderson.
Sharell Charles of Abbettville, La., was in the process of packing up and leaving the Super 8 Motel to go back on Tuesday evening. Traveling with three adults and six children, she said it took her group nearly 24 hours to reach Covington three days ago.
"It's tough, it's very tough," she said, ignoring the chaos that swirled around her.