Saturday, August 29, 2015

Katrina 10 years

I can hardly believe it's been ten years since the storm that changed our lives here on the Coast. I can barely go down to the beach front any longer, it hurts too much still. All the emptiness. I like to keep the image of childhood in my mind. Miles of beautiful old homes right across from the beach with ancient oaks sprawling alongside. Their limbs reaching out to create a canopy over the roadway that a five year old girl laying in the back of a station wagon studied upon passing beneath once upon a time.

I was five months old during the worst storm to ever hit the Mississippi Coast. Her name was Camille. Every year on the anniversary of Camille, my mother would get out her worn pages of "her" story to read us. The story of how in 1969 we survived a monster storm when so many did not.

I never thought that I would one day have my own story to write.

Living on the coast hurricanes are a way of life. I can remember so many, Frederick in 1979, Bob that was just a small wind storm and we went out side in and let the winds blow us gently. Elena, Georges, Ivan and so many more.I always get a funny feeling when it is still way out and I seem to always know the ones that are going to hit us. Katrina I knew was coming for us. Even when they said New Orleans, I knew they were wrong. The Mississippi River always pulls them in and puts us on the bad side.

I began to pack my house up. All my kids baby items, all the clothing for school, all the photo albums. Everything that would fit in the back of the car we put there. We were told to evacuate and we left for my mother's house to stay with them for the storm. We all slept on the living room floor that night. Actually I never slept. I lay there listening to the squall lines that were starting to come in and a transistor radio for news updates. About 5 am my mother got up and started to cook us breakfast, she fried bacon and made canned biscuit donuts. She just took the last donuts out of the pan when the winds got up enough the the electricity went out. it was only a little after 6am. We sat there together in the dining room and ate out last hot meal for weeks. None of us knowing that our lives were about to change forever. Soon the winds were howling and the roof was lifting up and setting back down, you could see the crack on the wall where it was coming off. We could see across at the neighbors their roof doing the same thing. Trees cracked and splintered until we could no longer see the back yard. It was just a maze of trees down. The radio was reporting rescues and people calling for help trapped in their attics with the water rising below them.We worried about our family members who were a few blocks off the beach. A report came in that there was a large tornado in their area and that on their street there was furniture floating in the roadway. I couldn't take anymore and went and lay on the bed and stared at the wall. Finally my husband came in and said you have to be with us in case we have to get out. I don't know how much longer this roof is going to hold. I remember feeling numb and I looked at him and said I don't care. Didn't you hear it's all gone. They said the gulf has come all the way up the highway. That means its all gone. I went and sat and just prayed for it to end.
Finally around noon, I couldn't take it anymore, I wanted to know if my home was still there. I wanted to see if my Aunt and Uncle were alive. The eye had passed and the winds had shifted so my husband and I decided to try to get out to see. What we found was horrifying. At the end of my parents road is a major hospital, the parking lot was filled with the bayou and the cars were floating in it. We managed to get to the highway after my husband stopped a dozen times to cut trees out of the way. We got just a few miles and I could see the shopping center and movie theater had water in them. Flooded. Looked like a large lake. Then when we got near the Walmart it too was flooded. I began to cry. The hotels were flooded and people were standing together on the balconies talking. The very hotel where they had put our beloved sea lions in the hotel pool for safety was flooded over and the sea lions were washed out into the gulf. To be found later. Poor babies.  Suddenly we had to stop. Ahead of us was a wall of water. I said what is that? Oh my God that is the Gulf? It is this far north? If the water was pushed this far north of the coast there can't be anything left south of us. We had to turn around and head back. We finally made it to our neighborhood but the power lines were across the road and we couldn't get through so we decided to go the back way around and park and walk through the woods to our house. I will never forget until the day I die the sounds of those trees creaking around me as I walked through knee deep water to get to my house. What was once thick forest was now a bunch of bare spindly sticks bent from the force of the wind and they were loudly creaking. I was about to jump out of my skin waiting for one to  snap, Finally in what I can only describe as a Scareltt O'Hara moment, I ran ahead of my husband to see it, climbing over downed trees, I had made it, and I saw it, It was there. My home still stood, minus the tin roof that was now in the pool. We walked around front and saw our bedroom window curtains flapping in the breeze. The window was busted. We went inside and the carpet was drenched. I was walking around looking to see if everything seemed ok minus the rain coming down inside of my house, when a miracle happened. The phone rang. I manage to find it and in a sort of awe answered it to hear my daughter yelling I got through its them. Mom are ya'll ok?? We are scared are you coming back? I laughed and said yes we have to board up the window so no one can get in and we will be back. Our neighbor helped us board the window up and in exchange for using our pool water to flush their toilets they agreed to watch the house.
We trudged back through the woods to the car and headed back to my parents house.After we got settled in my husband decided that he had to get in to work as he was a District Chief for the Cities Fire Department and people needed help. He kissed us all goodbye and packed his things, little did we know we wouldn't see one another again for 6 days. He promised me he would get to my Aunt and Uncles and let u know if they were alive.
That evening we were all exhausted. We listened to the radio reports with heavy hearts. Our cellphones did not work because the towers were down. Our land lines would sometimes work but the lines were jammed. We heard they were sending trucks with ice and we could go pick it up in the grocery parking lot. We loaded into the car and headed that way knowing what food we had left had to be iced down. It was getting dark and we stood in line next to those refrigerated trucks for several hours waiting for them to get the order to start unloading. The drivers sat in their trucks staring at us and we just stood there  waiting. Finally the police showed up and we were told they were sorry there was a mistake and we would not be getting ice tonight after all. So we all went home heavy hearted. We had no supper that night. I went and lay on the bed in my sister's old room and opened the window. I could hear my family talking quietly I dozed. Suddenly I hear a loud truck and a familiar noise it was a fire truck pulled up outside my parents home. Two men were standing at the window and I spoke to them. They said my husband had sent them to tell me he had made it in ok and had seen my Aunt and Uncle. They were ok. They had spent the entire storm bailing water and standing in half a foot of water, said the water was just running down the walls. But they were ok as was our 93 year old great aunt who lived with them.
Sleep came and before we knew it it was 6am and we were up to try to find ice. We followed whatever lead was given on the radio eventually getting a bag of ice per family. It was the greatest feeling getting that ice. I can not even fully explain what the fear of suddenly not being able to provide food for your family is like. I lost 20pound in the next few weeks making sure my kids ate before I did, and often only drinking water. The next day was full of loud sounds. The firemen and neighbors were everywhere cutting trees. We heard the levees broke in New Orleans.

We were so desperate for ice. We bought a bag of $1 ice for $10. There is a special place in hell for that person!
My mother began to cook everything in the deep freeze before it would spoil. She cooked on a coleman stove.
Now we were told the National Guard was coming and we were getting MRE's. Thanks to all the wonderful people across our nation we were also getting supplies. Our shopping center that was under water from the bayou 2 days before would be the distribution center. Every morning we had a routine we got up got in line and received a box of MRE's and a bag of ice and a case of water. Sometimes a packet of necessities.  Dog and cat food,  toilet paper. One day we were about to pull off after the guardsmen had loaded my car and one yelled hang on and pulled out what looked like a pink bag. He handed it to my daughter it was a lunch box. She cried because hers was ruined in our now molding wet house. Inside was an uplifting letter from the person who had sent it from North Carolina. We were all crying by time we got home from the spirit of human kindness.
Those guardsmen became like family to us. We saw them at least twice a day,once in the morning to get ice and again in the evening to get ice.
Our nights were filled with the noise of generators, and scary tales of people stealing them and chain saws and gasoline. Our neighbors stayed up at night guarding with their guns. On the third night I got a phone call from my sisters friend she wanted to know if we were alive as the news they were getting was scary. I said yes, and she said hold on I am going to try to connect you to your sister through a three way call. I went outside trying to keep the signal and climbed on top of my SUV and from there in the darkness I heard my sister's voice and I was crying and yelling out. I got you, I can hear you, can you hear me? and I could hear the neighbors laughter as they celebrated with me.
When I told her everything she said ya'll hold on we are coming. We have people here who are donating cash and gasoline we are stopping at family and friends all the way from Connecticut to Mississippi. I said there are no more bridges you can't even get in from Alabama, she said we will get there and they did. The brought food, Sandwich meat, fresh bread, dog food, and best of all gasoline.

Before they came though my husband showed up out of the blue, he had a pizza for the kids from Pizza Hut. They had donated it to the firemen and he did not feel right eating it when his kids only had a sandwich. I warmed that thing upon foil on the gas grill and we ate like kings that night!

It was two weeks before we got power back which was pretty quick considering. Thanks to all the out of state help. My husband finally got to come home and help his family due to all the fire trucks coming in from out of state to relieve them.

We lost a lot, all my clothing and furniture were piled up on the roadside to be collected as trash. The Coast lost everything, but together as a people we pulled together and helped one another. We shared our food, water and ice, protected one another. We became stronger. We survived!
The damage, debris piles
Volunteers in the distribution line

Waiting in line for ice

The line of cars in the distribution line

1 comment:

  1. It was difficult to read your story, Michelle; very emotional stuff, but how much more so it was for you and your family to live through this tragedy.