This is the first of a short series of posts recounting what happened to our family over the weekend before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast of America on Monday 29 August 2009, and the immediate aftermath. At that time our home was south of Slidell, Louisiana, on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, a 35 minute drive from the French Quarter in New Orleans and less than a mile east of the Interstate 10 Twinspan Bridge crossing the lake.
Four sleepless nights in a row and finally my subconscious has broken through and I’ve clicked what’s going on. An anniversary I dread each year, which I normally avoid, and distract myself from, till the day has passed.
This year with so much else going on the days have slipped by unnoticed and I’ve not prepared mentally for this weekend and it has hit like a train. Made more difficult with the dates falling on the actual days events occurred.
I know exactly where I was on Friday, 26 August 2005, what I was wearing (a sky blue knee-length linen sleeveless shift dress and matching mules), what I did, and when.
At precisely 11.00am I had one of those intensely powerful moments of complete clarity heading west on Gause Boulevard East, Slidell, sitting in my vehicle at the lights by the intersection of the I10, heading home. One of those defining moments that hit you on the back of your head and take your breath away.
The new dock on our waterfront property we’d moved into only two months previously was being completed that day; we’d planned to celebrate with a bottle of champagne en famille later in the afternoon in preparation for a relaxing weekend. The hurricane currently crossing the southern tip of Florida was not going to be heading our way. Weakened and dissipating, the likelihood was it would fizzle out or, worse case, veer to the north east into the Florida panhandle around Destin/ Panama City, pushed east by the spin of the earth – assuming it crossed Florida at all.
We’d tracked this storm from its formation as a tropical depression off the west coast of Africa, as we did with storms every summer during hurricane season. Our computers were linked to all the N.O.A.A websites, and we talked regularly with our friend Terry, a naval meteorologist working at the Stennis Space centre across the state line in Mississippi.
Here in Louisiana the sun was shining, the sky that deep, deep, Louisiana blue I’ve never seen anywhere else and I was smiling. No-one was out stocking up food or panicking – we were hoping this storm would be well clear of us and not interfere with the weekend.
As I glanced at the trunk of the stationary vehicle in front of me, it was as if time stalled, everything moving in slow motion, sound muted, and dark shadows flitted through the bright corners of my mind and hovered there, unafraid and haunting. I felt the cold chill of premonition brush across my skin. I’ve learned never to ignore these feelings. I shivered.
The light mood of the day vanished and I switched on the radio.
Hurricane Katrina was heading into the Gulf with one skewed computer model projecting a direct trajectory for New Orleans, but all other projected tracks still anticipated landfall well east of the city. No one seemed unduly concerned. In a hurricane you want to be west of the eye of the storm; as it spins anti-clock wise all the ferocious winds, tornadoes and other bad stuff is situated in the NE quadrant, a place you don’t ever want to be. If the hurricane came in to the east of us we’d be fine. A tad windswept, maybe a bit of rain, but fine.
The traffic started moving and I slid on to the I10 southbound, taking the Oak Harbor exit before the Twinspan Bridge which crosses Lake Pontchartrain heading to New Orleans. I drove over the I10 and pulled in at our local gas station. It stood alone, built up out of the reclaimed land on a mound of dirt, taking it to thirteen feet above sea level.
Jumping out of the vehicle to fuel up, I landed in the blasting heat of a Louisianan August, hot dusty wind blowing from the lake across the scrubland, everything seemed so darn normal. Less than a quarter of a mile away the outline of the new Convention Center, only two months before we’d been celebrating its completion at a grand opening ball. Suddenly it looked small, insignificant and out of place here in the vast expanse of openness.
Uneasy and anxious I slipped back on the road taking me home to Lakeshore, wanting to check data on the hurricane, watch the local news stations on TV, see if anything was changing. And feeling the same as I’d had after September 11, 2001 – a need to have my children close. Our eldest son, Joe, was spending his summer working at a local hardware store before returning as a senior to UNO (University of New Orleans) so close to home, as was our youngest, Harry, eleven. Our daughter, Missy, had started as a freshman at LSU (Louisiana State University) the previous week and was living with girlfriends in Baton Rouge.
By 4.30pm we were sat on our new dock. The boys had dragged the garden furniture onto its pristine planks and we cracked that bottle of champagne along with a few beers. The sun was beating down, the blue dress changed out with shorts and flip-flops. The outside speakers on the terrace blasted out, the bright upbeat sound swimming through the sticky air down to the dock. A light breeze from the water keeping us cool.
That image of us sat round laughing, joshing, having fun, the dogs barking with excitement as they ran up and down the newly installed dog ramp to the water and swimming, a great weekend ahead of us, is a treasured snapshot. It was the last time we would be this relaxed and carefree for a very long time.
My husband, affectionately known as the Captain, was deep in thought when his cell phone rang. He answered it, moved awkwardly from his chair to get clear of the laughter and noise and walked slowly round the garden while he talked, stopping occasionally to kick the grass absent mindedly with his toe. As the boys laughed and egged each other to swim, I watched his back while I sipped my drink. I saw him stop, disconnect the phone, take a deep breath and push his shoulders back as he inhaled. Exhaling, his shoulders slumped and he turned and looked directly into my eyes as he walked back.
One son had pushed the other off the dock into the water with much yelling and screeching, and the dogs were swimming noisily, none of them aware of us. My spouse sat beside me, quiet and thoughtful, eyes wary.
‘She’s coming this way,’ I didn’t have to ask who. ‘I have to go secure the (chemical) terminal (down river from New Orleans) now. And we need to get the hell out of here by Sunday.’
I felt the sick knot in my stomach tighten and the increased heart-rate pump adrenaline through my system. The prickling hot feeling under the skin like the beginning of a bad fever, the shakiness, the trembling, the nausea. Over the months to come I would learn to call these feelings ‘friend’ – they would be with me, part of me, living inside me, a separate toxic entity.
My husband reached for my hand. ’We’ll be fine, we can do this, we’ve done it before. I’ll be back late tonight and we can board the house up tomorrow, get packed and on the road to Houston.’ We had friends there with a reciprocal arrangement that if they had a storm coming to them, they came to us and vice versa. We’d been in phone contact all this week, as a precaution, a bit of a joke, but the beds were ready for us.
‘Katrina hasn’t stalled – the Gulf water is warmer than it should be and it’s feeding the hurricane, not slowing it. They think she might even make a category 5 and she’s moving fast.’ The highest category on the Saffir–Simpson Hurricane Scale with sustained winds of 155 mph and a storm surge (the wall of sea water pushed ahead of the storm) in excess of sixteen feet. Our house was thirteen feet above sea level.
A category 5 moving at speed would be a force to be reckoned with, a storm that size would not turn easily. As she headed west out into the Gulf of Mexico from southern Florida, a slow turn eastward would put her on a northerly track, with the Louisiana coast firmly in the crosshairs.
I remember the numbness, the feeling of having been caught out, not prepared. We had boards ready but not cut to fit the windows, hell, we’d not even completely unpacked from moving in. We had no file of photographs showing what our house looked like before the storm, what furniture we had or what belongings we owned.
There were calls to make to friends and family, see who was evacuating where, when they were leaving, exchanging phone numbers of mutual friends outside the area who we could leave messages with to say we were safe – we knew when the storm hit the phones would be the first thing we’d lose. Plans made to ride to Houston in convoy.
How to prepare the house to survive a storm – which was the biggest risk, flooding or the roof blowing off? We had hurricane clips on the roof, would they hold? How much time did we have?
We walked to my husband’s truck, I wanted to wave him off, uneasy he was heading south down the river, not knowing how long he’d be gone. The boys had seen us talking, knew the score, they’d headed quietly into the house to shower before we started to plan the exodus. They knew the drill too, we’d evacuated twice before.
Climbing stairs, weighed down with boxes to put in the attic, the enormity of what might be ahead hit home. I placed the boxes on the bedroom floor and walked over to the window resting my forehead on the cool glass. Darkness was falling and in the distance to the west the Twinspan bridge could be seen against the fading light, outlined with what looked like strands of Christmas lights.
With a nauseous realisation it dawned on my numbing brain they were the headlights of hardly moving vehicles heading north out of New Orleans from Grand Isle and the lower Parishes in the Mississippi Delta. They were designated ’First to Leave’ in the well regulated evacuation plan for Louisiana. The lower parishes, New Orleans, and then us, if we hadn’t left before the mandatory evacuation order we were sure would come.
The first wave of evacuees. It had begun.