This is the fifth 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.
Generally, living through a stressful life event, whether it is death, divorce, illness, job loss, bankruptcy or something similar there will be support. The event will be happening to you, or those in your immediate circle, then will ripple out to family, friends, acquaintances, neighbours and social groups.
In times of need these people will step up, offer support in any way they can until the crisis is over and you can stand steady on your feet again. You would do the same if the roles were reversed. It’s what we all do when we know a fellow human being is suffering, we hold out a hand and walk a while beside them.
Imagine an event so catastrophic it doesn’t only impact those close to you, it impacts everyone you know; family, friends, neighbors, social groups, your church, every single person in your town, your city, your Parish, your state and neighbouring states, who are all struggling to come to terms with the same event as you. Without power, water, or food in conditions so basic they are unprecedented in first or even second world countries. Over an area from Baton Rouge, Louisiana to Alabama and beyond.
What happened in New Orleans post Katrina was a man-made disaster; after the storm had passed through the damage in the city was manageable, what you would expect. The evening of Monday 29 August people were partying in the streets, some people had returned to their homes. What happened over the next few days was a disaster that was always going to happen.
Those events are well documented elsewhere and I have little to add here to what has already been written. I do have an awful lot to say, but here is not the time or place. For the same reason I will make no comment on FEMA or the federal government. However, my praises go to the Red Cross and the ordinary people of the USA and the rest of the world world who did what they could, whose help and caring did reach the people who needed it.
One sadness I have for the people of New Orleans is that the storm and aftermath affected everyone, but it was spun into a race issue and politics got involved. The black population of New Orleans was twice that of the white, still is today. I have a friend who, on a particularly bad day, announced that if he ever wrote a book on Katrina he would call it, White People Lived in New Orleans Too. Those inciting the race issue, mostly people with other agendas outside of the city, did little to help anyone, black or white.
Beyond the city, beyond the failed levees, the damage was caused by the unleashed power of a perfect storm. Unprecedented. Decimating. Apocalyptic. Damage on a mind blowing scale that would take months to scratch below the surface. Debris collected and built into gargantuan, organised bonfires that burned and burned for months, fed by hundreds of truck loads of trash bought there 24 hours a day, their smoke seen on the horizon to the north of us. Barges filled with debris shipped to Nicaragua.
Swathes of houses gone, nothing left, ground scoured clear of every living blade of grass like the photos of Hiroshima. It was that bad.
For two days after the storm we believed our house, even the ground it was built on, had gone, absorbed back into Lake Pontchartrain. We had messages from people on the ground in Slidell that our subdivision was gone, that only water remained. We had seen helicopter footage on the news of the homes the other side of the Twinspan bridge from us, where even the concrete bases of the homes were gone.
The Twinspan bridge itself, where the water had flowed under the supports with such ferocity that entire sections were lifted out and carried away by the broiling mass.
We accepted everything had gone, clung to each other in the night, grieved the loss of our home and our life before the storm, unsure of the future. Terrified.
Late on Wednesday night of that week we discovered on a routine phone call to the older children in Baton Rouge, that Joe and a friend had left Baton Rouge to try and drive home, see the damage himself.
A young man in his early twenties heading into a locked-down zone under military control in an area where guns were the only law, where looters would be shot on sight, questions asked later. We couldn’t contact him – cell phones didn’t work from Baton Rouge to hundreds of miles to the east into Alabama and Florida. They were long hours of fear, panic, stress until 02.00am Thursday morning when a call finally came from Baton Rouge to say he was back.
The house was still there.
He’d got into Slidell on the back roads, avoiding the military check points, been held at gunpoint by neighbours guarding the entrance to our subdivision – he had to show them ID to get in. He’d stood on the driveway to our house. The truck was still there.
The water had surged through from the lake, up to the roof line of the house, and back. The boards on the house had all held, except for the garage and one torn from the back of the house but the glass held. He’d not been inside, we had no idea of what was there.
The Byron’s house was there too, more damaged, but there. We woke them to share the news. There was no doubt in any of our minds we would go back as soon as possible to assess the damage. We’d already phoned the insurance companies the day after Katrina – at six in the morning our call was the first logged with Allstate Insurance.
We travelled back to New Orleans on Friday, the Captain, Steve, Elizabeth and I, in the Surburban loaded with extra cans of gas to make sure we could get back, and firearms from Dave’s arsenal. It took us ten hours to get there.
That route from Houston to Slidell was one we got to know well over the next few weeks, stopping halfway on each trip at Jennings, Louisiana to refuel and pick up food from the SuperWalmart.
The journey to Baton Rouge was light-hearted, upbeat to hide the anxiety. We passed through Baton Rouge and joined the Interstate 12, the direct route east cutting off the I10 loop as it dips south down and through New Orleans.
From Baton Rouge our mood changed and we didn’t say a word for the three hours it took to drive from there in bumper to bumper traffic. Three hours of driving through destruction that got worse and more violent the deeper we moved towards the centre of the storm.
The scale and nature of the destruction was beyond anything we could imagine. Worse than any disaster scenario Hollywood could try and recreate.
We were all unprepared for the physical and emotional reaction to what we witnessed. The trembling and shaking, the sensation of iced water trickling over us, the chills, the stomach churning nausea, fighting for every breath, remembering to breathe.
The nearer we got to home the more incomprehensible the devastation. To get through Slidell and down to the lake involved three military checkpoints, having to show ID with proof of residence at each. The military were tired and weary having just been deployed back from Afghanistan. They were war hardened, efficient and terrifying. No smiles, no empathy, just business. I make no judgement. We found out later these guys had been living in a war zone, here in our town, chasing down looters, protecting our belongings.
That first time seeing military in control of our small town where nothing ever happened was beyond shocking. As we neared the lake we wound our windows down for the second checkpoint and the blasting heat coiled into the vehicle bringing with it the sweet nauseating stench of death and decay, the real horror of what our lives had become.
The third check point and into our subdivision. Homes standing, all damaged, most where twenty-four feet of water had smashed its way through the homes and out the other side.
Our driveway, dreamlike surreal. Hard to think only five days before we’d driven away from it. The Captain got out and walked to his truck, standing as we’d left it, climbed in and the engine sparked first time. What were the odds. The Byron’s took the truck, went to check out their house and we were left.
We’d bought a tool box. The Captain unscrewed the plywood off the double front doors doors, unlocked them and we walked in.
Both of us broke down. I remember sobbing, hardly able to stand with jelly legs repeating, ‘I can’t do this, I can’t do this’ again and again like a mantra, the sobs changing to a quiet keening. We had come to terms with losing everything, now we had a mountain ahead of us we didn’t know how to climb. We clung to each other with the Captain having so much strength, soothing me and saying, ‘we can, we will’.
It was dark and gloomy except for the light from the door. The smell was unbelievable. Water had been in the house, had seeped in round the boards, come through the venting pipe on the tumble dryer, under the door from the garage to the utility room when water had poured through the smashed windows.
It was eerie and silent. Everything was where we had left it except for a doormat which had floated through from the family room and washed up the foyer. Everything was exactly the same except for the inches of dark slimy swamp mud deposited on every surface, left as the water slowly receded, slimy because in the heat and humidity it wasn’t going to dry out.
Already the dark green and black mould had reached our sixteen foot ceilings, tendrils reaching to cover anything they could. Water had wicked up the fabric on furniture and drapes. It was the same everywhere.
Walking up the back staircase to the guest room we opened the door to the attic. I think that was the biggest shock. Expecting darkness we were blinded by the sunlight and brightness of the sky. The roof, built with hurricane clips, had held but the chimney had been ripped out, leaving everything open to the elements. Perched on a storage box, upright where they’d been left, a two foot high Christmas decoration of a family group, standing sentinel over our home. I still have it, can’t let it go, a symbol of a family together despite the odds.
And rebuild we did. The house was gutted, drywall ripped out. We lived there while all the work was done, with roofers, builders, carpenters, painters and floormen, in the guest suite upstairs.
We were assigned seven different insurance adjusters over the months, most of whom quit their jobs before they got to us. In December 2005 we finally had a visit from an Allstate representative.
The first insurance money we received was February 2006. We were lucky, we were able to arrange finance for the rebuild, without it we would not have been able to start any repairs until after February.
It has been a long journey I wouldn’t have chosen but feel privileged to have been on. It taught me much about humanity, inner strength and belief in yourself. It also took me to some of the lowest points in my life. For a time this humanist/ agnostic carried an Anglican rosary with her wherever she went, feeling it as a touchstone through the day, gliding it through her fingers at night asking any higher being out there to help those who couldn’t help themselves.
I prayed for joe who worked for the Army Corps of Engineers from dawn till dusk and beyond, seven days a week for months in some of the most devastated areas of New Orleans and the Mississippi coast, for the Captain who left in October 2005 to start building a new life for us in europe*, for Missy trying to continue a normal college life in Baton Rouge and Harry who was too young to see the things he’d seen, for our yardman Stephen who took his own life, for the lost, the lonely and the displaced.
We were the lucky ones, something we were, and are, thankful for every day.
*On 21 July 2006, Joe, Harry and I drove away from our home, flying to join the Captain in the Netherlands, Missy remained at LSU. Today Joe lives in Leyland England with his fiance, Missy lives in Houston, USA, Harry is a freshman at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada. The Captain and I remain in the Netherlands – for now.