Sunday, August 29, 2010

My Personal Katrina Experience

I remember the Friday before Katrina. I had only been back in nursing school for five days down in Gulfport. And before that I had just moved back down to Mississippi a week before. I remember being let out of school about 4 hours early. I didn't even know about the hurricane that was growing and getting stronger in the Gulf.

As I was driving home, I lived about 30 miles north from the Coast, I could see the sky beginning to change. A Hurricane Sunset. The sky changes to a palate of colors unlike anything you've ever seen. And what's more is that this change was happening days before the Hurricane even made landfall. Listening to the radio, they were speaking rapidly about it. This was going to be BIG.

I went to my cousin's house and told her about the hurricane. She was incredulous. She didn't believe me when I said that it was going to be big until she turned on the Weather Channel and saw the massive swirling in the Gulf. Category 5. My other cousin came home with a friend at that moment, carrying Chinese food. I suggested to everyone that we head to Walmart to buy provisions because this could be serious. They pretty much dismissed it. I guess when you've been through as many hurricanes as we have you get a bit jaded. I was like, ok...

Back in New Orleans, my mom and brothers, and aunts and uncle and their families had already packed up and were heading to Texas. Good thing, as time progressed, traffic flow out of the area became GHASTLY. I was staying at my grandmother's house in the country, as her primary residence was in New Orleans. I was supposed to have the place pretty much to myself while I was going to school, provided I pay the utilities and deal with occasional droppings in.

My grandmother was already on her way to Mississippi to stay at the house, and eventually my other uncle and his family made their way. Eventually I decided to go stay at my cousin's house a few doors down, because my grandmother, my uncle, and myself frequently clashed due to personalities. And besides, my cousin had a gas stove as opposed to electric. Good thing I did leave, as more people tried to leave Louisiana at the last minute, they had a hard time getting far and made a detour to my grandmother's house and quarters got VERY cramped by that Sunday.

I talked to my mother on the phone that Saturday evening and she said they had already arrived in Austin and had gotten hotel rooms. We all thought that everything would be temporary. Usually the protocol was that if a hurricane looked really bad, we'd batten down the hatches and secure everything we could. Sometimes we'd have hurricane parties, but mainly we'd just go to sleep and wake up after the hurricane because there were pretty much nothing you could do beyond that. If you evacuated, you'd return after a couple days, clean up the mess and deal with the minor flooding and then move on with life.

Flash forward to Monday morning. I awoke at about 9:30 in the morning, although it was so dark outside you'd think it was 9:30 at night. I could hear the violent thrashing outside caused by the rain and wind. Everyone else was already up and we had a few other additions, more cousins (I reckon) that didn't make it out of the area in time. They were listening to updates on the radio, the power had already gone out. I didn't know when. I walked out into the carport to have a cigarette and watch the horizontal sheets of rain pummel everything in sight. The wind had blown down branches everywhere and shingles were flying off houses. The back driver's side window of our visitors' Cadillac had been shattered by a flying tree branch and rain was pouring in. There really was no way to run out and try to temporarily mend the damage because going out that far could prove dangerous and also the attempt would be fruitless anyway. I wondered where all the stray dogs and cows in the field had managed to hide. They weren't in their usual spot. There really wasn't much to do so I went back to sleep. The hurricane raged on all day and all night.

For days after, all that could be done was to sit around in the sweltering heat and humidity and listen to the radio at the events that played out. I remember how everyone cheered when Nagin decided to go all "New Orleans" on everyone. I just sighed and informed everyone that he just shot us all in the foot. In a way I was glad that at the time I didn't have a TV to see everything that had happened. I would have been infuriated and sickened. I was later infuriated to see the images of the RTA and school buses in the bus yard left underwater instead of used to evacuate those who could not get out themselves. That bus depot was no more than a mile to a mile and a half from my mother's house. I felt my heart jump into my throat when I saw the covers of Time magazine with the Treme underwater and homes with the spray paint on them. They looked like tombs in the cemeteries.

Condensing this story a bit:

Power was not restored for about 2 1/2 weeks. Food consisted of whatever was leftover (and edible) in the refrigerator, canned goods, and MREs. Bottled water was cooled with ice supplied by the military and Red Cross, and all melted ice was boiled (thank goodness for my cousin's gas range) for simple bathing and for flushing the toilet. My cousin made regular trips to a local pond to get additional water for toilet flushing. To further add to the indignity, I was suffering from a gastrointestinal disease, which had conveniently come out of remission. I had to conceal this fact from everyone. My other cousin (almost the entire town is my cousin in one way or another), who was a state trooper, got us access to MREs, water and ice. We drove around the neighborhoods dropping off provisions to the more elderly and infirm.

Early attempts to get out of town were unsuccessful as trees and bushes blocked side roads. The main highway, 49, after it had been cleared off, was pretty much restricted to military and emergency vehicles. There was really no power anywhere in town but the Walmart stayed open. People were allowed to shop pretty much one at a time, and the store was monitored by guards with semi-automatic weapons. I guess Walmart had at least auxillary power.

Gas was running low in everyone's cars. I remember waiting in a line at least a half a mile to a mile long for four hours just to get about $40 worth of gas, only to be turned away as soon as I got to the station because it had run out. We eventually managed to siphon about 7 gallons of gas from a non-working vehicle and split it between two cars (2 gallons each) and a generator (1 gallon). I used that gas to travel to Hattiesburg to do loads of laundry, buy the rationed $40 worth of gas, and finally call my mother and a few friends to let them know I was alive. This was two weeks after the storm.

School reopened 3 weeks after the storm, but I came back to half my class. Some couldn't make it back, some were injured, and others simply didn't come back. It was a huge blow to the morale of the class. I decided to move into the dorms because my grandmother's and uncle and his family's stay became permanent, and the conflict became overwhelming. I couldn't get a job because so many businesses were destroyed, so therefore I had no money. My mom and dad would wire me money, a few hundred here and there. I applied for assistance from FEMA, was interviewed, and waited three weeks before being rejected. I sometimes waited on hold for up to 2 and 3 hours to speak with someone regarding the status of my application. I was told that I was rejected because I had not been physically displaced and had sustained no substantial loss of property. The extent of any aid I got was $300 from the Red Cross.

Around November or so I talked to my mom and she said she had been back to our house in New Orleans. She told me to not even bother going back to see it because she knew how I was and that I would freak out. I really couldn't have gone back if I wanted to because the route I'd take to go home, the Twin Span Bridge, was destroyed. I later found out that my grandmother and uncles had gotten 8 feet of water in their homes. My mother and aunt, who lived one street away from each other, got 5 feet on the street, but due to the elevated porches, had only gotten 2 feet in the house, but as we all found out, that's good enough to cause a significant amount of damage.

Initially I was motivated to be a part of the rebuilding, but one day during my clinicals, I looked out the window on the 6th floor of the hospital where I was and saw that the first 3 floors of a condominium on the beach had been completely washed away and all that remained were the wood beams holding the other floors up. I could see straight through to the beach. I also reflected on how I could barely find my way along Highway 90 because all the landmarks, the casinos, souvenir shops, restaurants, and expensive homes, had been all washed and blown away, sometimes leaving nothing more than a concrete slab where a home had been. Biloxi looked like Paris after after Germans had stormed through it. The VA Hospital in Gulfport looked like an urban warfare simulation. Nothing remained but the hollow stone buildings themselves.

My soul began to be eroded more and more with despair. I began to get more and more depressed. I felt as if I was drowning in all the chaos and destruction around me. I knew I had to save myself. I tried my best to complete my semester but ended up withdrawing before finals because the stress became too great. I made the decision to contact the patient care director at the hospital at which I'd interned the previous summer here in Virginia and asked for a regular job. I called a friend and arranged to stay with him while I got back on my feet.

I didn't go back to see my mother's house for 10 months, and it looked like one of the tombs with the spray paint markings and hanging siding panels. I could see the water line on the side of house. The pictures my aunt sent me of the interior of her house, with the 6 feet of mold creeping up the walls, buckled wooden floors and toppled things that were left behind, were horrific.

My city looked like an almost barren ghost town. I still haven't watched When the Levees Broke. It took me months to be able to watch Treme for the first time and even still I cry. I'm still debating on whether or not I want to waste my time to watch New Orleans Rising. I don't consider myself a victim. If I must have any label on me I'd rather it be "survivor".

I know that many, myself included, wish not to have the issue repeatedly rehashed. It's like constantly reopening a wound. I do admit that I have a MAJOR love/hate relationship with my home town, but I could NEVER be on board with some who so foolishly suggest that we should just leave New Orleans to languish. New Orleans has given this entire world so much.

Don't get me wrong. I'm in no way proclaiming that my experience was anything like what those who were in New Orleans proper experienced. This is just MY personal account.


  1. Dear "Beltway Belle" -
    I am a producer with The Takeaway, a nationally-broadcast morning radio program, produced by WNYC in cooperation with The New York Times, BBC and Public Radio International.
    We are trying to contact people who were at the Restoring Honor rally on Saturday, who can give us their perspective on where they think the movement is headed.
    I saw from your Twitter feed that you might have been at the rally. If so, and if you are available to speak with us, I would greatly appreciate it if you could call us back at 646-829-4060 or write to me at

    Thanks for you time ... All the best,
    Kateri Jochum

  2. Thanks for sharing this with the world. As I watched the new HBO special this weekend I made a comment to my husband that I'm tired of them showing the worst of who and what people are and where are the documentaries on what is RIGHT with world. Kudos to you and your strong sense of who you are and what you want your world to be. It inspires me even if sometimes I don't agree with it. Thank you.

  3. And thank you for taking the time to read it.

  4. Thank you for your touching account. It amazes me the tenacity of these strong people coming through this. Some of the strongest and bravest I've ever seen. Thank you, again for sharing.