Saturday, August 29, 2009

Our Katrina Story

Today is the fourth anniversary of the day that hurricane Katrina hit our area. Four years ago today was one of the most frightening days of my life. We did not evacuate in advance of Katrina - we stayed at our home in Jefferson Parish just west of the city of New Orleans. Most people in our neighborhood left, as did all of our extended family members living in the area. Katrina hit early on a Monday morning. On the Saturday before, we hadn't even committed to boarding up our windows! You see, we were used to the weather people saying the storm was going to hit nearby, only to have the storm change direction at the last minute, sparing our city. At the time, we were very short on money, and evacuation would have meant taking both vehicles (one for me and the baby - 5 months old at the time, and one for my husband and the 4 dogs), and finding and paying for a hotel room (or rooms) that would accept dogs. To be blunt, evacuating is a real pain in the butt, and even more so when you have family pets. Although they've instituted contraflow traffic patterns (where all interstate lanes head out of town), traffic still gets backed up and it can sometimes take HOURS to get where you are moving at a reasonable speed. Let me put this in perspective: while evacuating, a friend of ours took 18 hours to drive from New Orleans 80 miles west to Baton Rouge. I did not want to be in that boat!
We watched the news and listened to the radio reports all weekend. About 11pm Saturday night, we decided it was probably best to board up our windows. The local hardware stores were closed, so my husband went out at 6am Sunday to get plywood. Home Depot had only a skeleton crew, so they were only letting 5 customers in at a time to get supplies. He came home and worked on the windows, while I took the baby out to go look for ice and propane, neither of which were to be found. While driving, I was listening to the local news radio station when a man being interviewed said that this was not going to be a search and rescue after the storm - it was going to be a recovery effort of bodies, and that they had ordered many body bags that would likely be needed. Hearing that made my heart sink and my eyes well up with tears. What the hell were we doing staying through this one - it was the big one that everyone always feared! I got home and cried to my husband, but we both knew full well that it was too late to change plans. Traffic was at a standstill in all directions heading out, and if we left there'd be a chance we'd be stuck in the hurricane in our vehicles. A friend of ours also had plans to stay, so we invited him to ride it out with us at our house instead of at his apartment by the lake.
The winds began picking up on Sunday afternoon, and the hurricane force winds began overnight. The eye of Katrina made landfall Monday morning near Buras, LA, southeast of us. The house we were living in was L-shaped, and when the winds were coming from the west, I was actually able to stand outside and watch the debris fly down the street. We saw neighbors' roof shingles peel off, and wooden fence posts and furniture fly away. It was scary seeing the street flood with the rainwater, and I just kept praying that it would stop and subside. It didn't. Even after the rain stopped and the weather cleared up, the water kept rising. We did not know at the time that there had been a levee breach. We had no power or phone service, so we were cut off from everyone. My husband had borrowed an inflatable boat from a neighbor, so he took off to take a look around. There were a few neighbors that had stayed behind, but there were also looters. Smashed car windows alluded to that. One of our neighbors was a sheriff's deputy and a gun collector and had given my husband the keys to his house and gun cabinet so that we could protect ourselves and our property against looters. Luckily it didn't come to that.
After the storm was long gone, there was an eerie silence. The weather was beautiful, but we were stuck in our house and on our porch - we were completely surrounded by water. We spent both Monday and Tuesday nights listening to the local news by radio (a battery-powered one from a neighbor). The people calling into the radio show were telling of their own horrors: elderly people stuck inside a nursing home facility running out of food and medicine, people saying they were trying to walk out of town on foot only to be turned around by authorities. It was hell out there and I was scared for them, and for us.
The water didn't recede until Wednesday morning. Once it did, we grabbed all that we could and left town. Since we didn't prepare as we should have, we had less than $3 cash on us! Thankfully, we were able to make it far enough away on the gas we had to be able to use our credit and debit cards. My car was flooded and ruined, so all 7 of us (me, my husband, the baby, and the 4 dogs) all crammed into my husband's pick up truck, and threw the belongings we could grab into the bed. On the way out of town, we had to dodge downed trees, electrical lines, and debris, and we happened upon a couple walking with a dog and a grocery cart. We stopped and had them climb in the back of the truck, and took them where they needed to go.
We made it to somewhere in Alabama where my sister and mother had found and reserved 2 rooms for us. There were so many people looking for shelter, so I gave up one of our rooms to a crew heading down to help out. In fact, along the way, the caravans of utility workers headed south were mind-blowing. I want to thank each and every one of those people who gave of themselves to help those of us affected by the storm.
The next morning, we left Alabama and headed towards my parents' house in West Virginia. My mom met us in Tennessee, and to be honest, when she saw me I didn't know if she was going to hug me or kill me for putting her through all that worry! (In case anyone is wondering, she hugged me, but I certainly did hear about it from her!) We stayed at my parents' house for a couple of weeks, and then bought a house of our own up near where my company was opening a new office. In October, once the moving van was allowed in to get our belongings, my mom and husband went back to the old house. I did not go. In November, we sold our house in Louisiana.
We were among the very lucky ones. We did not lose all of our belongings, and none of our family members lost their lives. But we came closer than I ever want to again.
We're back in Louisiana and hurricane season is upon us, so I relive our Katrina experience often. Now we have 2 kids, and the same 4 dogs, so evacuating is still a major expense and decision for us.
If you're still here, thanks for reading. Its cathartic for me to get this out. In closing, please pray for all those who did lose everything four years ago. I am.


  1. I just can't imagine how scary that was. I've lived through massive flooding..I grew up in FL, and we had a few hurricanes skim the coastline. Floodgates were opened to protect wealthy areas, causing us po' folk to get flooded out. I'll never forget stepping off the front porch into a canoe and paddling down the driveway. Insane.

  2. Thanks for sharing that. My heart ached for the people who were affected by Katrina. My family had been through Hurricane Hugo and our little, beach front motel where we also lived was destroyed and no flood insurance. Glad no one in your family was hurt and everyone made it out okay.