This is the fourth and continuing part of a short series 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. Our story continues,
What to say about that Monday?
The events unravelling would impact my family, my friends, my town, my city in ways no-one could have predicted, for longer than any of us would have imagined.
It was good we didn’t know then because we may have turned our faces to the wall and given up, the path too steep , the load too heavy for any of us to bear.
As it was, Monday was strangely quiet after the frenetic activity and intense emotional strain of the past days. It was difficult to adjust to being somewhere normal, ordinary, as if the last three days had been imagined or dreamed. We put it down to being tired, exhausted, disoriented.
The weather outside was glorious, the neighbours in Dave’s cul-de-sac going about their business, living their lives. We felt disconnected; our hearts and minds weren’t in the here and now, they were back in the place we had left.
The vehicles were unloaded and we sat at the kitchen table drinking coffee, it was surreal – I could sense Elizabeth felt the same. As soon as we’d arrived both of us rushed to the television to get some handle on what had been happening while we’d been on our seventeen hour evacuation, mostly without the radio.
Just after midnight, while we were somewhere in the wilds of Mississippi, Katrina had been 160 miles away from New Orleans, the northern edge of the storm only 90 miles from the coast. In Alabama gale force winds had been coming ashore with water pouring inland and power going out. At the eye wall waves were 60 feet high.
The high temperature of the water in the Gulf fed the storm and there was no wind shear to break the upper clouds. The only good news was that as Katrina moved closer to landfall she weakened slightly to a category 4 hurricane, with the western wall predicted to have 120-125 mph winds, the eastern and most destructive 155 mph winds.
This slight weakening allowed a slight shift to occur, ever-so-slightly to the east, maybe east of the city of New Orleans, that old, gracious pearl of the South.
Unfortunately that slight shift put our home, our town, right in the bull’s-eye. The water pushing ahead of the storm would rush into Lake Pontchartrain straight for us, and as the surged forced its way into the lake it would threaten New Orleans from the north of the city, at the same time as water would be rushing up from the south across the vastness of the wetlands.
What had offered protection to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in the past were the barrier islands and the wetlands; they slowed down the rush of water and acted as a speed bump. For every 2.7 miles of wetlands, storm surges are reduced by one foot. Sadly both had been decimated by Hurricane Ivan the previous September and the city was more vulnerable than she’d ever been.
At 09.00am, while we were drinking coffee, the eye of the storm – 32 miles wide – was moving over the Louisiana/Mississippi coast, spreading out over 1300 miles north to south.
In New Orleans 120 mph winds shrieked through the city, the Superdome damaged and leaking.
While the storm moved through there would be little news, the television stations already re-running old footage, showing adrenaline fuelled reporters trying to stand upright in ever increasing winds, but little else. There would be nothing new for a few hours.
We unpacked, showered and changed, realising how few clothes we had brought with us, and tired, but wide awake, decided to head out for breakfast. The kids needed food and it wasn’t helpful for us to sit around.
The Waffle House was the nearest place. We walked in to curious stares and a slight lull in conversation. Looking back it was easy to spot New Orleanians, tired, bedraggled, haunted. We ordered food, we made what plans we could. There was nothing we could do until the storm had passed through and we knew what we would be dealing with, how bad things were.
Plans to put the dogs into kennel were made. Dave was, and is, an incredibly generous spirited man and his kindness to us at that time can never be repaid. He’d taken in seven people and three dogs; we felt the least we could do was relieve the pressure by putting ours into kennels. With hindsight the worst thing we could have done. The dogs were stressed and anxious; it was the beginning of old Max’s decline into dementia and illness.
As we got up to leave and asked for the bill we were told breakfast was on the house. Surprised, we asked why. ‘Because of Katrina,’ was the answer. ‘Because next time it might be us.’ We argued with the manager, telling him if he started doing this he’d be bankrupt, given most of New Orleans was in town. We agreed he could give us a 20% discount just to get out of the place.
The dogs in kennels, we headed ‘home’. Joe, now fed and finally relaxed enough to sleep, headed for the nearest bed to crash out. Kimberly, four years older than Harry, decided to take him in hand as only a big ‘sister’ could and dragged him off and kept him occupied while the adults could talk.
The Captain and Steve had set up the computers and printers we’d bought with us, all round Dave’s formal dining table. It really did look like a command centre. This way we had immediate access to local information back in Louisiana, news updates and hurricane information, sometimes before the television stations could get it on air. We sorted out paperwork, getting the numbers together for the insurance companies which we were in no doubt we would be using. Not today, maybe tomorrow.
Then the time came we could do nothing but wait. Elizabeth and I sat on the sofa in front of the television, alone in the room, the guys off somewhere, the kids occupied. It was like a drug – we didn’t want to watch but couldn’t tear ourselves away.
We watched the pounding waves, the walls of water, the relentless wind knowing our homes, all we owned, were being subjected to one of the most brutal assaults mother nature could create. We clung to each other, her hands gripping mine, trembling and cold, the bile rising in out throats, eyes aching and heads throbbing knowing life as we knew it and for everyone around us would never, ever be the same again.
The two of us would stand up occasionally and walk round the room, restless, making tea, stunned into silence by the horror and power unleashed by this storm.
During this time something happened to our mental perception of Katrina, a feeling we couldn’t have verbalised at the time. She was no longer a storm spawned from nature, she was becoming a living entity, wrecking lives, threatening our family – it was getting personal. There was anger – that bitch Katrina wasn’t going to roll into and through our lives and take it from us.
Time slowed and the afternoon drifted by. News would start coming out soon. Dave came home from work, Harry and Kimberley emerged from wherever they’d been. Joe woke up and came and sat quietly with the Captain and I.
‘Listen mom, I’ve been thinking. There’s no point in my staying here, it’s overcrowded as it is, there’s nothing for me to do. I can’t help. I feel useless. I’m thinking I’ll drive back to Baton Rouge, go stay with Missy, we can be together and I can look out for her.’
My heart stopped. It wasn’t going to happen, there was no way I wanted him on the road driving back into a storm zone. Not now he was here and safe. Baton Rouge had taken a battering, Missy was without power but was safe, had food and water and there was no danger of flooding, more importantly we had been in phone contact with her most of the time.
Yet I knew there would be problems in Baton Rouge, not from the storm but from the sheer numbers of evacuees stretching the local infrastructure to breaking point. Joe took himself off so the Captain and I could talk. I cried. Again. The Captain took my hands,
‘Listen, Joe’s right. He’s not a kid anymore. They’ll be no traffic, he’ll be back there in four hours,’ he took a deep breath and looked me straight in the eye. ‘And he’s right about Missy, we don’t want her on her own. Either she drives here or one of us goes there. We don’t want her there on her own.’ He didn’t have to spell out why.
‘And God forbid he breaks down again, but if he does I promise I’ll drive out and bring him back.’ I hadn’t even thought about that.
I didn’t agree, in my head Missy should come to us now the storm had passed through, but the idea of her driving alone wasn’t going to fly. Nor did she want to leave Baton Rouge, she was having a blast. A huge part of the real reason Joe wanted to join her. And why be stuck here with us in Houston when he could be there, with his sister and be closer to home?
Which was my fear. I knew Joe would want to get back home as soon as he could, as soon as it was safe. That afternoon life changed. Before then there would be no way I would have allowed him to go. No way, no how. But now, post-Katrina, it made sense for him to go, it was sound reasoning, it was what my adult son had chosen to do.
We waved him off, cell phone charger plugged in, gas tank full. He was cheerful and bright, happy to be heading to party central.
‘Mom, please stop stressing, I’ll be fine. Promise. I’ll phone as soon as I get there.’
‘Joe, I want you to promise you won’t try and get home. Please, I need you to promise. It’s going to be a mess, dangerous, and when we go back I want us all to go together. Deal?’ He pulled a face and grinned.
‘Mom, I’m not that stupid, I’m going to look after Missy, course I’m not going back.’ He grinned his cheeky grin, jumped into his Explorer and started the ignition, waving out of the window as he sped off down the street, blasting the horn as he went.
Heavy hearted we walked back into the house, the Captain hugging me in his, ‘c’mon, it’ll be fine,’ kind of way.
We all went out for dinner, cooking a meal the last thing on our minds.
Getting back, we sat anxiously waiting to see what news was coming out of New Orleans, more especially our town. The door bell rang, Dave put his head round the kitchen door to see his neighbours standing the other side of the glass front door.
‘Oh Lord, I’ll have to answer it, they know I’m in,’ he sighed resignedly, and walked out of the room into the foyer to answer the door. We muted the television thinking they might be here to complain about our vehicles blocking the cul-de-sac, their dusty and dirty bedraggled state reflecting our long journey.
The conversation was muffled, but we heard laughter and Dave thanking them. He walked back into the room looking taken aback and stunned, balancing three plates of cookies each piled high with delicious goodies which smelled divine. Far from worrying about us lowering the tone of the neighborhood they had come with offers of spare rooms, extra bedding and toys for Harry. They’d seen our license plates and figured it out.
Darkness was falling, that time of day when fears and anxieties get a hold of the imagination and reality takes a back seat. No news was coming out of Slidell; watching the track of the storm it looked as if the western wall of that 32-mile wide eye had been very, very close to us.
The impact looked as if it could have been catastrophic. A 24 foot wall of water had been heading for the place we lived, shopped, where the kids had gone to school. To get to our town, eight miles from the lake, that water had to pass by our house. Through our house. Maybe take our house with it. It was built on reclaimed land; would there even be land left by the time the water rushed in then washed back, dragging half the swamp and it’s wildlife with it?
Laying in bed, holding each other tight we were grateful to have a warm clean bed to rest in. Funny how much simple things matter when bad stuff happens. We’d heard from Joe, we’d called him in the end, he’d forgotten to call us the minute he arrived. He sounded fine, as did Missy, they both thought we were being way too over-protective.
We knew there would be phone calls to make in the morning. We would have an idea tomorrow of how bad the damage had been, word would be getting out, maybe photographs. However bad it was we’d face it together.
There was no alternative.