The 9 Year Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina
“Those who did better were those who didn’t wait idly for help to arrive. In the end, with systems crashing and failing, what mattered most and had the greatest immediate effects were the actions and decisions made in the midst of a crisis by individuals.”
― Sheri Fink, Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital
I have been working on what I would like to say about a day in history that will once again be topped by another Hurricane Camille, Andrew and/or Katrina. I’ve tried to wrap my mind around the science and pure ‘fury’ that nature can unleash. My goal, after listening to my grandmother, parents and others who were around that day during the summer of 1969, was to experience this sheer nightmare dished out by Mother Nature for myself.
On August 29, 2005, I could do nothing but watch and try to stay safe. Not from someone, but flying debris that was like throwing stars, damaging anything in its path. We had no idea how the rest of the residents on the coast were doing. We lived exactly one hour north of the storm surge so, no problems with the Gulf of Mexico threatening our living rooms.
All of the news channels were talking about us needing to prepare for 3 days without food or water. The actual preparation should’ve been for several days. We watched the storm from day one that it began to form because it was ‘Hurricane Season’ and down there you watch the Weather Channel from June-November. One thing I do know is that the true path of the storm is never a ‘sure thing’ until it settles in the Gulf of Mexico. And even then, it can turn on a moment’s notice in a completely opposite direction. So, even when it’s a close call individuals living in the lower, southern states stake their individual claims on bread, water and anything non-perishable.
The last two days prior to Katrina’s arrival were spent filling up cars and grills with fuel. Tieing everything down in the yard. And just waiting and watching for the ‘witching hour.’ This particular year it looked like the ‘perfect storm’ was being created. And she was forcasted to make landfall sometime close to high tide. I wasn’t too concerned but rather intrigued in a weird kind of a way. Other hurricanes we had planned for, turned at the last minute in a different direction. But, this year, ‘the wrath of God’ would be upon us.
Ask anyone what they were doing in the days leading up to the storm and they’ll tell you watching storm models and preparing for the worst. Also, never forget to run water in the bathtub even if you don’t have a stopper because, it’s a rule of surviving a storm apparently. The water is used for drinking and flushing the toilet. But there was no need for a toilet with this storm. All you had to do was check your pants. The younger generations seemed to be just as intrigued as I was. All we had ever heard of about a major hurricane was Camille and Hurricane Fredrick. Nothing like the magnitude that was predicted about Hurricane Katrina. It wasn’t until I saw the models of this storm that was taking the majority of the room in the Gulf of Mexico that I began to get nervous.
The morning she made landfall, I must admit that I was excited to see this for myself. This time, I could have a story to tell. Excitement quickly turned into absolute fear for the safety of my animals. Shingles from the top of the house were flying off like many puzzle pieces at one time. Bradford Pear trees were tumbling across my yard like a toy truck.
The usual 5-10 minute drive to my parents house, now took 2 hours. The debris on the roads was like nothing I have ever seen. It literally looked like the beautiful, big pine trees and oak trees were toppled like dominoes. My dogs, at the time, were tied to the axles of my husband’s truck. I watched a beautiful, old barn collapse like it was made from a deck of cards.
Gas was rationed. Tons of debris was all over the roads and on top of houses and vehicles. I remember thinking, “We are located an hour inland. What does the MS Gulf Coast look like?” At this point, all highways, interstates, ATMs, grocery stores, cell phones, most gas stations, banks and many other things were out of commission. Suddenly, everyone was at the same exact economic level. Everyone was now forced to get to know their neighbors, which was not necessarily a bad thing.
The first couple of days were difficult but ok. Damage had already begun being assessed. But, the freezers were filled with some of the best food I’ve ever put in my mouth. We were eating ‘high on the hog’ for a couple of days. Then, food began to spoil and it was sandwiches, crackers, chips or a pizza on the grill that was partially defrosted.
The heat in the middle of August in the southern United States must’ve come from Satan’s armpit. Everyone smelled like chili and onions because we weren’t able to take showers. If you just get fed up with the heat, mosquitoes and the lack of showering facilities well, you used the water hose in the front yard. Remember, the bathtubs were filled with sacred water that no one must touch. The mosquitoes were the size of house cats. I remember every night deciding on whether or not to sleep indoors where even the floors were a piping 90 degrees or risk getting the West Nile virus. Decisions, decisions, decisions.
Where exactly was FEMA? Yea, we’re still waiting on those bastards to get through the red bureaucratic tape. The term FEMA which was meant stand for the “Federal Emergency Management Agency” soon became “Fix Everything My Ass!” I couldn’t agree more. We did manage to get a blue tarp to cover the roof, but we didn’t start meth labs in FEMA trailers which seem to be some individual’s way of excelling at chemistry until you heard the loud BANG of a trailer exploding.
It wasn’t the storm that was the issue. It was the lack of federal help that wasn’t available to those in need. It was the babies that didn’t have formula. The elderly without access to insulin or other medications because there wasn’t a way to keep things cool unless, of course, you were one of the few that were able to find a bag of ice and make it last 2 days. Plus, at the time, my 85 year old grandmother was just as grouchy as ‘an old wet setting hen.’ It was annoying at times to hear her incessant bitching about how hot it was. But, I would give anything to hear her gripe about anything now.
The above pictures were common sites along the MS Gulf Coast. The middle picture is an aerial photo of one of the casinos that was tossed across Hwy 90, which runs along the beach, onto the other side of the highway. I was either fortunate or unfortunate to have access to Hwy 90 because William Carey University’s gulf coast campus was located directly off Hwy 90 in Gulfport, MS.
The reason I say that I was fortunate to have access is due to several reasons. I was currently attending the Hattiesburg, MS campus and also worked in the financial aid office as work study. Also, the National Guard had shut down parts of Hwy 90 because well…..there were pieces missing. So, I was able to navigate into areas that most didn’t dare go. I didn’t count on one thing….no landmarks. Basically, everything was gone or damaged beyond recognition. The Biloxi lighthouse that has now survived both Hurricanes Camille and Katrina was one of the only landmarks that made it. I’m pretty sure that it will survive the second coming of Christ too.
Not only did I get to see, feel and smell the utter devastation, I met some amazingly resilient people along the way. The scenes of the biohazard waste removal teams attempting to deal with both the raw sewage that smelled like a turd sandwich and the rotting fish from several destroyed refrigerated trucks are one thing. But, what happened along the way is why I’ll never forget that storm. The people that I encountered were beyond devastated. All along the coast was the scenes of people rummaging through the rubble of their once home. Amid the tears, were the robotic type movements that I observed that resembled something like unmotivated zombies. Their lives had just been shattered into a million pieces. The amount of grief and loss that these people suffered was more than I could comprehend. My heart hurt and cried for these people that had their comforts and now it was all gone including some family members. However, I couldn’t get enough of the damage. I was down there just about every weekend for a couple of months taking pictures. I never saw it as a ‘gawking’ session. I was fascinated by the science behind this beast.
I sat and cried with some of the individuals that I met. I didn’t see it as important to know their names. I knew that they were a human being that was in immense pain that I could do nothing about but listen. All some could do was just point at their surroundings. Others began crying, when asked how they were doing. The suicide rates soon increased not only within citizens, but also within the law enforcement community. There was just too much that couldn’t be done. Bodies lying on the streets were mostly seen in New Orleans, LA. But, dammit, Mississippi was also heavily damaged. As I looked out into the Gulf of Mexico, I saw cars, lawnmowers, etc. In the trees I saw, boats, vehicles, wooden fences that were impaled, clothes and bed linens. In recent years, the state has not only continued to be overlooked. But, now it’s simply known as the ‘landmass between Louisiana and Alabama.’
Even today, just mentioning Hurricane Katrina can make all the hair stand up on the back of my neck. Each year, I shed tears for the ones that lost all they had including the ones they loved. The energy of the people that I met continues to plague me today. Where I once loved bad weather, I now fear the wind. When it floods, and it does in the desert, I begin getting nauseous and scared. But, rest assured knowing that June 1st every year (which signifies the start of hurricane season), I am constantly aware of what’s happening with the weather in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. Luckily, I have yet to see a hurricane in New Mexico.
August 29th has become like a national day of mourning for me. So many memories that were not all bad, I smile about. But, most of the time, I still shed just one more tear on that date for the heartache of the thousands of people’s lives that were touched in both positive and negative ways.
“I’ll never forget Hurricane Katrina – the mix of a natural and a man-made catastrophe that resulted in the death of over 1,500 of our neighbors. Millions of folks were marked by the tragedy.”