Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Lives Changed, History Made

 Hurricane Katrina

Seven years is still not long enough to wipe away the pain of those still hot days following Hurricane Katrina.

Not long after the storm,  I sat down and wrote my story. Not that I would be likely to ever forget that time. But, because with time things become dulled and we do not remember the details quite so well. Now as we wait in the limbo of, is it going to hit here? or there? with the latest storm Isaac, it seems like it is bringing the memories into the present with such clarity once again.

Every year on August 17th my mother brought out her story. Hers was one she wrote of another devastating hurricane named Camille. We would all sit on her bed and listen to her read it to us with a tear choked voice. I was a part of the story as I was only five months old. My sister had just turned 8 the day before. I can remember her telling of the awful horror of emerging from the storm shelter to find the world as they knew it gone.  Swept away. The stories of those who died in the storm surge. Those who had a hurricane party in the apartments on the beach. Now all that was left was what would be forever known to us as the steps to nowhere. We were always told this was the big one. A once in a life time storm.

After Camille, all the hurricanes that struck through my growing up years are a blur to me. Very few were memorable enough to even remember their names. Every few years though we went through the routine of preparing for a storm that was about to strike. Buy batteries, flashlights. Make sure you had wicks and kerosene for the lanterns. Buy canned goods, and water. Set the ice box on full cold blast so the food would remain cold longer. Make plenty of ice and bag it up. Gas up the cars. Board up the windows, or tape them so if they broke the tape would hopefully keep the pieces from shattering.  Pick up all loose items outside. Hunker down and wait!

I think most folks around here would tell you that we don't listen to just weather man to tell us that a storm is headed our way. There is an age old feeling inbreed within us that tells you when one is really going to strike. You watch the signs. The eerie quiet. One day the birds will be flying and chattering and the next the air is still. The cicadas that have been buzzing in the late August heat have even become quiet. No animals can be seen. A sudden hot still air descends upon us. The pressure changes. You can feel it. Something is not right. 

Sometimes the weather forecast says the storm is headed another way, but from the moment you hear the name a knowing in your bones tells you they are wrong. This is what happened with Katrina. I knew in my bones. Something was telling me each time they changed her pattern that they were wrong she was ours. Her hot breath would descend upon our shores, it was our time.

Now time for us will always be known as BK and AK: Before Katrina, and After Katrina.


It is Friday. There is a storm brewing out there and she is a monster of a storm. We are told once she hits the Gulf she will become a major hurricane. The fear takes hold of those who lived Camille. They knew what it was to survive such a monster. All day we can barely get through school, our minds are not on teaching today. We are worried about where this storm is going and what we are going to do. The teacher I worked with had plans to leave to Florida for safety. She was leaving right after work. The children started being checked out and we packed up the class getting it ready just in case. 

By the time I got home from school that day, they had said it was now supposed to head towards Alabama/Florida. I didn't feel that was going to happen. They always wobble to the west in the Gulf. I was frantic, I came home and started packing everything. I mean all my precious things that I could not live without. My children's christening gowns, their baby clothes, their baby photos and books. My precious heirlooms. Enough clothes to last a month, even sets of winter clothes, and nice clothes. I sat all night and backed up my files from the computer. All the while listening to the forecast. 

I barely slept that night. I remember waking about 5am and putting on the news to hear the latest. I sat there in the dark on the edge of my bed, and heard the news. Katrina was now predicted to hit  Waveland, Ms. It was like turning back the clock to Camille. 

I called my husband who was working at the fire department. He said he would be home to help in a few hours. Now I was in a frenzy. I was moving about on full speed. I don't think I stopped to eat.  My home would be gone, this I knew in my heart. So, now I had to get everything out. We had decided to move our furniture to my husband's father's home. He lived well inland from the coast, although closer to where the eye was going to come in, we felt it would be safer there.

So, while my husband and the two boys loaded trailer after trailer load of our furniture and took the thirty minute trip each way north to his father's house, I ran to the school. They had our checks ready for us. I also needed to go back through our class and lock stuff up to make it more secure being it would be used as a shelter. I will never forget our principal, he was in a frenzy trying to get the school ready to be opened as a shelter, and worried about his own family and home. He handed me the stack of checks and asked me to put them in everyone's mail box for him so they could just grab them when they came in.

Back home I continued to wash all the clothes, so as not to leave any dirty and pack and make lists of our property. I then went out and took photos of everything. By evening the winds were picking up and we started getting the first feeder bands. My mother called worried that we were not there yet. We were still busy locking the house up tight with boards and checking tie downs.


We finally made it to my mother's house around 10pm that night. I can remember everyone chatting and talking in those high nervous voices. My nerves were shot. I didn't want to talk. I just needed to sleep. Around midnight everyone decided to try to sleep. My family of five made pallets on my mother's living room floor. I was lying under the large window and could hear the wind and rain outside. I took my little radio out and put my ear phone in my ear and laid there for hours listening to them talk about the storm and what it was doing.

Around 5am my mother got up and started cooking breakfast. She made bacon, and donuts out of canned biscuits. Little did we know then that this would be the last REAL home cooked meal we would have for weeks. She just finished up when at 6:03am the lights went out. We did not have electricity again for over three weeks.


The winds really picked up. The trees we could see through the windows bending nearly to the ground. I watched as my parents shingles flew off their house and slammed into my vehicle parked outside. To this day it has those shingle scrapes etched into the windshield and side glass. We stood and watched the neighbors porch roof rip slowly off their house. We prayed as my parents garage roof lifted with each gust, you could see the cracks forming. The house groaned and shifted. It was terrifying. I knew in my heart if we were this far from the coast and we were having such a bad time ourselves that the coast must be gone.

My Aunt and Uncle live five blocks from the beach. Just over the railroad tracks which were sort of a barrier being they were built up high. So, they had a sort of levee between them and the gulf. Or so we hoped. My husband came and gave me the news I could not tell my mother. That the road my Aunt and Uncle lived on was so flooded that there was furniture floating down the street. Some of his firemen had tried to get down it due to a distress call from a tornado and could not.

The radio itself was torture to listen to. The calls were coming in from people who were in their attics. They were trapped in there by the rising water in their homes. They were asking for help. No, help could come. I went into my sister's old bedroom and lay on her bed facing the wall. My husband said for me to come out because we all needed to be together in case we had to get out. I could hear the stress and worry in his voice. I was numb inside. My mind was weary. I thought my mother's sister and brother were dead. I couldn't think anymore it was making me ill. I told him no, I was staying there.

Our cell phones wouldn't work. We couldn't contact my sister who lived in Connecticut. We had no idea that she thought us all dead. It seemed like the longest day of my life and it was only 10am. In such a few short hours our lives were so drastically changed. It did something to us. Made us a little crazy in the head for listening to those reports.

Around noon the winds shifted and my husband thought that he and I could get out and we would try to go south to my Aunt and Uncle to see if they were okay and get them out. We got in the truck and with shock we saw that at the end of my parents road where the hospital parking lot was located, that the cars in it were floating. The bayou had flooded in the storm surge and if my parent's did not live upon a hill we would have flooded too.

We had to go around. Each place we went we were blocked by trees and downed power lines. We had to back up several times to finally get to the highway. Down the highway the poles were down and laying across the roads, and we could see the devastation all around us. The Wal-Mart looked as though it were sitting in a pool. The hotel where they had put the sea lions from our Marine Life Aquarium, was washed out. The poor sea lions were flooded out of the pool. Suddenly we could go no further. We saw water. Water where it should not be. It looked as if the Gulf itself were in front of us.

I can remember crying and I said is that water? Is that the Gulf? My husband said, it is the storm surge. There was a line of police cars across the highway as a blockade. We could go no further.

We turned around and went back to my mother's. We told them what we had seen. Now we were going to try to make it to our house. My husband loaded up the chain saw and we headed off once again. We had to stop several times to cut trees and move them out of our way. We could see people staring at us through their taped up windows. They probably thought we were crazy. The wind gusts blew so hard I could barely stand up. Once he was out cutting a tree and I screamed a tornado, a tornado is coming. We both jumped back in the truck and waited until it had passed. It was so terrifying.

Our road was blocked, it looked like a whole forest of  power lines and trees had piled up in front of us. So, we backed up and went around, we cut and cut trees, finally we got to the houses in back of our land. We parked and trudged through the woods. The trees swayed and cracked around us. I worried that they would fall on us and no one would find us in the woods for weeks. The water was so high. It was up to my thighs. It made it hard to walk. I had to crawl over large trees that had come down. I remember looking at how all the trees were bent a certain way. It was strange. They never straightened, they all go to the right now.

Finally through the tall grasses, and trees, I could make it out. The back of our house. It was still standing. I always think of it as Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With The Wind. When the mist lifts and she saw Tara. I said, "It's there. It's still there!"

I ran, ran through the water, through the rain until I got to my back yard. My tin roof was ripped off my house. Part of it was laying in the pool as though someone neatly laid it there. The water had ripples and waves in it and was so clear. My back porch was underwater. A tree was on the shed. and the wooden privacy fence was down in spots. A window was broken out and my curtain was flapping in the wind. We went into the house and it was eerie how still it was, the carpet was soaking wet. The roof was gone. Thank God we had taken the new furniture out.

The strange thing was I remember picking up the phone. It still had a dial tone. In all the destruction, I still had a dial tone. I called my mother's house and she answered. We marveled that some small miracle had allowed me to get through to her on her phone.

We boarded up the window, spoke to the neighbors. Told them where we would be. Told them to use the water in the pool for washing, and flushing their toilets, and we left. It would be over a week before I would be able to go back.

When we got back to my mother's we told of all that had happened. I showed the videos I had taken. Then we were silent for awhile. My husband said he had to leave. He had to go to work as it was his civic duty. He was a district chief for the city fire station. I did not see my husband again for four days.


That night I lay there in my sister's old bed in her old room in my mother's house while everyone else sat around my mother's table playing Yahtzee. I was sick, heart sick. The place I knew and loved was changed forever. The window was open and I must have dozed off because I awoke to hear a truck pulling up outside. It was several of the firefighters from the nearby station. My husband had sent them to let us know that he had made it to my Aunt and Uncle's and they were alive. The house was damaged but they were alive.

My Aunt can only recall that she spent the entire storm bailing water out of the house. She says it was coming down the walls the water. Seeping in through the doors, the very foundation of the house. It was all she did the entire storm, bail water. 

The next morning I was lying there in my sisters bed and the phone rang. I could not believe it. I grabbed it and it was a cousin from Virginia. He had tried to call all night and had finally gotten through. I was able to tell him we were all alive, and in return he was able to tell me of the news footage that showed the total destruction of our coast. I went to wake my mother and tell her that her cousin was on the phone for her. Then took out  the battery operated tv and tried once again to get a signal. No luck. The towers were gone at the local station. The phone did not work again after that. I was so strange that he got through at all.

All day we heard the whine of chain saws. The noise of helicopters flying over head was constant. I felt as though we were in a war zone. 

That evening we heard that there were going to be some trucks with ice for us and they were at the grocery store. My daughter and I drove down and stood there in line waiting with hundreds of other people. I had never seen so many people looking so sad and scared. It was so hot. We stood for so long. They first told us at 8 they would start distributing then it was later. Then men with guns pulled up in military trucks and we were told to leave. We were not getting this ice. 

I went to my car and cried. Ice, my God. Who would have thought that ice would have meant this much to anyone. They wouldn't let us have the ice. Now we had been nearly 48 hours without electricity and our food would spoil without ice. For the first time in my life I was worried about what I was going to feed my children. The stores were gone. Two Wal-Mart's completely washed away along with many other stores. What was there had no way of operating.

We then heard that there was ice being sold down the road in the parking lot of a store. We went down to see and sure enough they were selling ice. For five dollars a bag. My Gosh! How could anyone try to make a profit off ice and the poor souls who needed it! We sadly had to buy several bags. I mean we needed ice and they knew it. Shame on them!

The next day we were told that they had stations set up and we could get some ice and water. We drove through a long line and the National Guard loaded ice and water into our vehicles for us. Thank God for them. Their kindness to us and concern is something I will never forget. A bag of ice did not last long in the heat and we had to go twice a day to get a bag.

I took to sitting in my sister's room. I did nothing. I couldn't think. I didn't want to . I was scared. What were we going to do? I heard a beep from my phone. It was a text message from my sister in Connecticut. She said, Are ya'll okay? Please let me know. Can you text? I did not have text on my phone. I cried and cried. My sister thinks we are dead and I can't tell her we are alive.

That evening was the same as each day, hot and miserable. We had gone to get our ice and we ate our sandwiches for supper and my mother and kids went to play Yahtzee. I went outside to sit in the dark, and realized my cell phone needed to be charged. I went to my car and plugged it in and shut the door and turned the key to feel the air conditioner for a short while not caring if I was wasting precious gas. Then the phone rang. It rang!! It was a number that I did not know. I answered and it was a friend of my sister's and she said Michelle? I said YES! I was so happy to talk to someone. She said, "Oh my God! Is everyone okay?" I said yes and started crying hysterically. She was crying and she said "Let me call your sister and put you in on a three way call I don't want to risk losing you we have all tried so hard to get you guys." I hear her say to my sister I have Michelle on the line. Then I hear my sister's voice. She says Michelle? We both were crying. I had to get on the roof of my truck to get a signal because it started going out, and we both kept saying Can you hear me now? Like the stupid commercial. I could hear some of the neighbors chuckling in the dark from their porch as I was saying it. I was finally able to hear her and we were both laughing and crying and happy, and here I am standing on the roof of my truck. It was the best moment of my life.

I told her how bad it was. How we were under a military rule and we had nothing. We had no food because we couldn't cook what was in the freezer because we had no electricity and it was going bad because it wasn't cold. We were living off bread and ham, and it was nearly gone. She said they were leaving the next day, they were stopping at various friends and family along the way to pick up supplies each had gathered for us. Gas, food, money you name it they had it. I said there is no airport and the interstate is gone washed away in parts, you can't come. There is no way. She said, We will be there!

I went in and told my mother they were coming. The next day my husband finally came home. He was exhausted. He had seen many terrible things. He had to search the rubble for the bodies of those who did not make it. The fire station where he worked was located on the beach and it had been washed away in the storm surge. He lost all of the things he kept at the station. They found his helmet about a mile down from the station, it was the only thing they found.

He was able to come home finally because of the generosity of firemen from other states that came in and took over for them so they could go home and take care of their families. We were so happy to see him and he brought us real food a pizza. Dominos had set up a mobile truck for the emergency workers. I felt guilty eating it when others had nothing. He said we needed to try to get gas and see what we could find. So we all loaded up in the truck, and went out on the one lane of the interstate that was open to Alabama. There was no gas. We finally had to turn around.

On the way back we found a Lowe's hardware store that was open and we were able to get a generator. This was good news. Now we just needed gas. We heard there was a Kmart open. So we drove there. We stood in a line for over two hours. They were letting five people in at a time. We were allowed in and we had to work fast, get what we needed. Another lantern flashlight, a hand operated can opener, paper towels, water, baby wipes (for us to use as makeshift baths) bread, duct tape, hygiene products, animal food, these were things we needed and more. We got what we could and left feeling like it was Christmas with all these things in the back of the truck.

Now when we went through our daily routine of going through the line to get water, they gave us food! Canned goods and things that wonderful people from all over America had sent in for us. Little Debbie snacks, bread, canned goods, cereals. They also gave us boxes of something called MRE'S I had no idea what this was. My father who was retired military informed us that these were meals ready to eat, military rations.One of the guys peered into my truck and saw my daughter sitting there. He said wait and walked back to a pile of boxes. He dug in the box and brought something back. It was a purple lunch box. He gave it to my daughter. In it was a note from two lovely ladies from South Carolina. They wished us well and were praying for all of us. I later contacted the newspaper for the town given on the note and told them to please put my letter in their paper thanking whomever had sent the lunch box. It made us know how truly wonderful people really were.

That night I sat outside and cried quietly in the darkness. I did not want to stress my mother any more that she was, or my children. I had been so worried. I had felt such a responsibility to feed all these people and how were we going to eat. I had lost so much weight because I mainly drank water, and ate ice cubes, and took very little food from fear of my children having nothing to eat.

Seven days after the storm, my sister and brother in law made it in. They could not believe what they had seen. It was one thing to hear about it on the news but to see it with your own eyes made it real. I can never thank them and those that helped us out enough! We went and got a window air conditioner and used the generator to cool the living room off for our 90 year old aunt who we had brought over to stay with us. We ran it only a few hours at night. But it was heaven to sit in the living room. My mother hung blankets to partition the living room off from the rest of the house to keep the air in there.

The greatest thing that happened was that after seven days we realized we had a trickle of cold water coming from the faucet. Of course we could not drink it, but we could finally wash up. That cold water felt so good! A real shower, in the dark with flashlights and candles. This was a treat. Now we could also wash our clothing in the tub and hang them out to dry.

My sister had brought us plenty of food in a cooler and now we just had to keep ice on it everyday! They also brought cans and cans of gas. They had stopped in each state and friends and family members donated things to us. They will never know exactly what this meant to us. My sister stayed about three days and decided to go home because it was a hardship on us and our food supply to have them there and although they would worry about us and we would miss them, they had to go.

With my aunt, uncle and great aunt also living with my parents, I made the decision to go back to my own home. Although we had no roof and it was wet and smelled of mildew it would be better for us to go home. We spent the day pulling out the wet carpet and dragging it to the road. After a while the end of our yard became a humongous pile if trash and debris. Everywhere you looked there were piles of debris. Twenty years of marriage, twenty years of children, and life, thrown into a debris pile. But we were lucky, we were alive and together.

While cleaning the debris, we had some injuries, while attempting to stand our power meter pole up that had snapped off at the bottom, the strap broke and the pole hit a glancing blow on my shoulder. Making me black and blue and possibly breaking my collar bone. We don't know because I wouldn't go to the Navy Ship or the MASH tents for an xray. But, I could barely move it for months. While removing the large sheet of tin from the pool it sliced my husband's arm open. I had to take him to the MASH tents set up as temporary hospitals in our flooded out hospital parking lot to get stitched up.

My husband had gotten some blue tarps and they put them on our roof. That was our protection from the rain. I pulled the mattress off the bed and let it air out and dry outside. Everything inside was bleached and then we slept on the living room floor on our mattresses. We did this until November when we became the proud recipients of a FEMA trailer.


Seven years later, I still refuse to drive near the beach. My husband used his pass to take us down to the beach about a week after Katrina had hit. What I saw I will never forget. I do not want to see the emptiness still there seven years later. The tattered trees that were once majestic oaks break my heart. The beautiful antebellum homes that lined our coast are gone. Few have rebuilt.It is a stark reminder of that day.

We now live further north from the coast. Our old home having been condemned. There is a great sadness in me that I fear will never go away. My life forever changed that day. We struggled and came together as neighbors and friends. If one needed gas or food we shared what we had with one another. We worked to clean and clear the debris together, shoulder to shoulder. When the levees broke in Louisiana, and the people stood out on their rooftops and the over passes, the media went wild with their story. We here in Mississippi were forgotten. We did not wait for the help to come. We made what we had left work for us. Some lived in their sheds or tents because that was all they had left. Neighbors took in neighbors. We took care of us, and when we received help, we appreciated what we were given.

This is my story, my remembrances of that terrible time.

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