In the past days the world has looked towards New York and the northeastern seaboard of the USA and watched with awe as mother nature flexed her muscles and reminded us there is no place on earth where she cannot cause devastation, loss of life and damage to property.
I know what it is to evacuate from a hurricane (three times in seven years), how it feels to track a huge storm across the Atlantic, watch it intensify, grow and worse, know your home and community is in the direct firing line. And get hit.
I watched Sandy’s progress, deeply aware of what was happening in ordinary homes in the northeast, emotions running high, adrenalin pumping, not knowing how bad things might get. The inevitable wondering if it’s all media hype, whether it would be as bad as they said – and if it was, whether there would be time to prepare.
Time flows differently in times of crisis, too fast then way too slow. Keeping pace with its variances exhausting and stressful. All that before the storm arrives. For those who can leave, what to take with them, for those who stay the rising fear of, ‘How bad…?’.
Then the hours and hours of noise – howling wind, thunder, lightening, flying debris, loss of power, explosions, rising water, all in the dark. The only way to find out what is happening by radio. For hours there is silence, nothing to report as everyone hunkers down till the storm passes through. And then it’s over.
Except it’s not. It’s only the beginning.
As the first pictures come out from the news stations and reports from intrepid reporters on an adrenalin high – eyes too bright, voices loud, body movements jerky like marionettes on amphetamines – the brutality and level of the destruction is there for all to see.
What you don’t get on your TV, computer or phone screen is the smell of destruction – the putrid sweetness of death and decay, the cloying stench of rotting faeces mixed with trash festering in the flood waters entering homes and businesses. Its scent thick, heavy, catching in your throat, sitting on your tongue while bile rises in your throat.
For days adrenalin will keep people focused as they face the worst and start the clean up. You’ll recognise them by their 1000-yard stare – a look of shock, disbelief, incomprehension – not knowing where to start, what to do next. They’ll pick through what they have left, and weep until there are no more tears.
The emergency services will do their best in overwhelming circumstances, supported by agencies from other states arriving to help because they know how easily the roles could be reversed.
There is no more wonderful sight than fleeing a hurricane and watching lines and lines of white Entergy trucks heading in the opposite direction, to be in place when a storm has passed through, to be there to start the rebuild in the worst hit areas.
Seeing other white vans with their distinctive red cross, driven and manned by people whose only concern is to help anyone in need. With their ready smiles, hot food and ability to look in the eyes of others with compassion and caring. Whose gentle touch on the arm, or comforting squeeze of a hand will give more hope to the lost and confused than any rhetoric by politicians.
The young men and women of the National Guard who will do what they can; distribute food and water where it’s needed with a military precision comforting in its structure when all around is chaos. As the days pass and a new normal emerges from the turmoil, the biggest challenge is still ahead.
Dealing with the insurance companies.
Even now, seven years after Katrina, the mention of them brings an immediate physical and emotional response, a mix of nausea and prickling heat spreading from chest to scalp, mixed with rage and an immediate need to destroy something.
This anger is not for me, but the people around me who were broken by the inhumanity, intimidation and bullying of insurance companies. Companies who took money for years, but when it came down to it, wriggled and writhed and did everything they could to get off the hook.
‘You have flood insurance? Well, your house may have flooded but it was caused by the storm, so you need to claim on your Home Owners Insurance.”
‘You have Home Owners insurance? Sorry, but the damage to your home was caused by rising water so you need to claim on your Flood Insurance.’
‘No flood insurance on your home because you aren’t in a designated flood zone? Oh, that’s a shame. Seems like you’re screwed.’
Getting through to them at all a nightmare, assuming you have access to a landline that works, or a working cell phone in areas where signal masts are down. It will be forever before an insurance adjuster will come, but until then do not remove anything, keep all damaged items in your back yard for the adjuster to see.
As a word of advice, if you haven’t seen an adjuster in several weeks, phone the insurance company and tell them you will be getting rid of damaged items. When they tell you you can’t without voiding your insurance cover, advise them they will be sued when the snakes, rats and other wildlife that have moved into the debris bite a child or the family pet. Amazing how they back down.
Take as many photos as you can before you throw anything away. It was four months before we saw an insurance adjuster (the seventh assigned to us, the previous six resigned before they reached our name on their list). We handed him a comprehensive file containing the before and after photos of our home, inside and out, photos of every damaged item laid out on our yard and their replacement value. It was another three months before we received anything from our insurance companies.
We were the lucky ones.
Day after day we encountered people shattered by the experience of dealing with the aftermath of the storm. The old, sick, confused and destroyed, dealing with an experience they had not been prepared for. Suicide, depression, self-medication with alcohol/ drugs, illness – all unexpected side effects of Katrina. Six months after the storm the local Times Picayune newspaper was filled with page after page of obituaries – cancers, heart attacks unexplained illnesses. All casualties of Katrina as surely as if they’d died the day of the storm.
I hope the lessons of Katrina have been learnt and put in place to help the people of the northeast USA. That politicians walk the walk, not only talk it. But most of all, that this time the insurance companies do what is right. That this has happened in New York will hopefully mean a faster resolution and better accountability by those in power than the situation in the southern States in 2005.
With the presidential election only days away and the eyes of the country watching the response of the candidates, I hope so.
The articles below are a personal account of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath –
After the Storm – Phoenix Rising 2005 Aftermath and Beyond