Talk Back

How Hurricane Katrina Changed My Life

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This time, ten years ago, I was sitting in my apartment just outside of New Orleans’ French Quarter, watching clouds gather. I don’t remember feeling afraid or panicked.  I was just, well, annoyed.

The night before, I’d been sitting at my friend Ken’s kitchen table, along with a few other members of the family of friends that I’d met in the 15 years since moving to New Orleans as a college freshman. We’d all lived through our share of hurricanes during that time of year. Some of us would use it as an excuse to get out of town for a few days, but, more times than not, we would hunker down, light candles, gather up our perishable food, and drink too much until the lights came back on. Even during hurricane season, the city’s motto of laissez les bon tons rouler -“let the good times roll”- was king.

This time was different. As we sat around that kitchen table talking and laughing, everyone seemed to keep one eye on the television screen. To this day, I don’t remember if it was all of the angry colors swirling around on the weather radar, or the weatherman who kept flashing a smile at the camera that quite never reached his eyes. Finally, it was Ken that spoke up and said, “Y’all, I don’t like this. I think I’m gonna leave town for this one.” We collectively rolled our eyes and nodded our heads, deciding that Ken had said what we were all thinking. After a while, a group of us made a plan to meet at our friend Ricardo’s home in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, about 100 miles east of New Orleans. So I drove home, stopping to fill up my tank to save time the next day.

So there I was, on August 27, in my apartment, annoyed that I had to leave, but kind of glad to be getting out of town and to have some time off work. The afternoon sky was darkening, but I still felt pretty unconcerned. I had packed my “hurricane bag” (toiletries, enough clothes for 2 or 3 days, and all the food from the fridge). By now, the mayor had called for a mandatory evacuation, and I wanted to beat traffic. On my way out, I noticed Ms. Lilly, the elderly woman who lived across the street, trying to close up her house while she waited for her son to pick her up. I stopped to help her carry her bags down to the sidewalk. We chatted for a while, and I offered to wait with her. She told me to go on and be careful. As I drove off, it never occurred to me that I would never see her again.

Of course, traffic was the kind of nightmare you’d expect when an entire city is trying to leave town at the same time. I-10E looked more like a parking lot than an interstate. The clouds continued to gather. When I could pick up speed, I began to notice strange things. Possessions left on the side of the road like rugs and small pieces of furniture. I also noticed cars that were veering off to the side. At first, I didn’t know what to think. Then it dawned on me that people were running out of gas, and had to pull over. And the abandoned items were drivers lightening their cars to save gas, or to make room for stranded people. At that point, the realness of the situation began to sink in, and stopping for gas the night before seemed like divine intervention. By the time I made it to the top of the Causeway Bridge, rain was coming down in sheets, gas was getting low, and I was on the phone reassuring family and friends while trying to keep the fear out of my voice.

By the time I made it to Ricardo’s house in Hattiesburg, I was a nervous wreck. A 1 ½ hour drive had taken almost 6. The highways were flooding, and Katrina hadn’t even made landfall yet. Finally, though, I felt safe. There were eight of us from New Orleans staying in the house, along with two dogs, a cat…and a ferret. Crowded, but safe. We spent the rest of the night and the next day getting to know each other. We were trying make a party out of a really awkward, frightening situation. Some of us had known each other for years, while some of us had just met. Either way, we knew we’d have to get along for the duration.

By August 29, we had spent so much time gathered around the television to track the hurricane that our hearts were slowly sinking. Exhausted, the house finally bedded down around midnight. At 3am, all hell broke loose. It was the only way to describe the howling wind that shook the house and rattled the windows. Katrina had come to Hattiesburg. After a terror-filled hour praying that we would, literally, not be blown to kingdom come, we realized that the deafening cracks of thunder we were hearing were, in fact, the trees in the neighborhood being pulled up by their roots. That was when the power went out. Plunged into darkness, with the world coming down around us, it seemed like all we could do was sit.

And wait.

By morning, the wind had suddenly stopped. We cautiously stepped outside to inspect the damage. Miraculously, only one tree had fallen in the yard. The rest of the street was in shambles. Trees on top of cars and of houses. Neighbors wandering in the street looking dazed. The woman next door came over with her two small children, because there was an oak tree where her living room used to be. Someone’s car radio reported that New Orleans was battered and bruised, but still standing. We were so relieved that we hardly noticed when the sky began to darken again. The brief quiet was just the eye of Katrina passing over, and now the back end of the storm was coming. More rain. More wind. More falling trees. More fear.

The next day we heard that the levees had broken. New Orleans was flooding. It was slowly, but surely disappearing. As we listened in horror, some of us drank, and some of us cried. We were all in shock. Here we were trapped in Hattiesburg, Mississippi while the water consumed our homes. Consumed our city. Consumed our lives. It was the kind of helplessness you only feel in the face of real tragedy.

For the next three days, the eight of us went through all of the stages of grief while the plumbing failed, our cell phones died, the food dwindled, and our nerves frayed. At one point, my friend Dan woke us up in the middle of the night because he thought there was a gas leak. A couple of us went outside to investigate. A city worker happened to be driving by. We told him what was going on and asked what we should do. He looked at us with a straight face and said, “I’m sorry. Everything is such a mess. Just try not to go to sleep.” Then he drove away. That’s when we knew we were on our own.

We were a motley crew of people who were different ages, races, genders, etc. But we had this common bond. It was Labor Day weekend when the first gas station opened up, and we were able to fill our tanks and go our separate ways. There were hugs, tears, and promises to stay in touch. Mostly, we just wanted to get out of Hattiesburg, and figure out what the hell was going to happen with the rest of our lives.

I remember making it as far as Memphis, as I headed towards my mother’s house in Gary, Indiana. I stopped at a motel and sat there alone, for the first time in days, eating hot food. And watching television. That was the first time I actually saw what was happening in New Orleans. My personal levee broke. All alone, and not having to worry about anyone else, I cried. I stumbled and fell, crying. I saw people screaming for help at the top of their lungs on the roofs of their homes. And wondering if the person next door was someone I knew, but couldn’t see.

The next morning, even that far north on I-55, the sky was this still this weird, ominous, shade of lavender. I noticed that the only traffic going south were Coast Guard vehicles. And as I wondered what lay ahead of me, it was much harder to look back at what I was leaving behind.