I am going to start this retrospective on Hurricane Katrina by saying two words.
Thank you to the first responders, the local police and firemen, who stayed behind and performed to the fully to the oath they took when they put on their uniforms for the first time.
Thank you to a Canadian search and rescue team that left America’s neighbor to he north before Katrina approached Louisiana’s fragile shoreline and arrived in Saint Bernard Parish before federal officials did.
Thank you to the thousands of volunteers, from college students from the Maritime Provinces and to evangelical high schoolers from Oklahoma who gave up their vacation time to “muck”, gut and rebuild communities struggling to get back on their feet.
Thank you to President George W. Bush and the members of Congress from both parties who committed eleven figures of federal dollars to rebuild infrastructure and schools.
Though the federal officials initially in charge of responding to the disaster failed to adequately appreciate, prepare and execute immediate relief efforts and President Bush was rightfully criticized for a failure to demonstrate the kind of leadership that he displayed after the 9-11 terrorist attacks, there can be no denying that the president followed through on providing federal support for rebuilding the New Orleans area and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, even if FEMA officials continued to needlessly make the process excruciating.
The new administration might be around for the ribbon cuttings but it was the previous White House that secured the financing to start the reconstruction work.
A special thank you to those congressmen who stood up to the powerful shipping industry and finally closed the dreaded Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, the man-made channel that destroyed Saint Bernard and New Orleans East’s natural buffer from storm surges and acted as a freeway for storm surge that was deposited in people’s bedrooms many miles away from open water.
And finally thank you to the American taxpayers. It was your money that helped rebuild an important piece of our nation.
August 29, 2005 is a day that is etched in the hearts and minds of southeast Louisianans and coastal Mississippians.
However the date that is most relevant to me is August 27, 2005 and the 24 hours period that would follow waking up that morning.
And now a look back on the 24 hour period that would divide my life into two periods.
More often than I should, I replay in my mind things I could and should have done differently in advance of Katrina. Time was short for me as I had to return home from a political committee meeting in Baton Rouge whose leaders stubbornly refused to cancel the Saturday before the storm hit. (One individual who now holds a high position in the Louisiana GOP mocked how beautiful the weather was and how he wished he would have brought his golf clubs). Not walking out that meeting was one of those mistakes.
Upon getting home and helping my family move my bed-ridden grandfather from his house in Chalmette for the final time, I went to the townhouse I was about to move out of in two weeks and tried to figure out what I should do next.
How bad would the storm be?
The last hurricane to wallop Saint Bernard Parish was Betsy in the 1960s. As a child I would often hear my maternal grandparents talk about it and pictures of the floodwater it brought to the eastern part of the parish decorated the Parish Council’s committee room. Betsy was such a part of the local psyche that a local playwright produced a popular production centered around the storm and how locals coped with the aftermath (including with the bureaucrats that followed).
Long before those affected by Katrina would claim that FEMA stood for “Fix Everything My Ass”, Betsy veterans had declared that the SBA stood for “Sons of Bitches of America”.
For me, hearing tales of Betsy were the closest things that came to war stories.
However, Betsy had spared large parts of Saint Bernard, including the house I had grown up in. My paternal grandfather used to boast how the “celebrated” cyclone hadn’t even flooded his street. And the partially paralyzed octogenarian who was my father figure kept repeating as much as we carried him against his will to my uncle’s Lincoln Town Car.
Katrina would spare only five houses in Saint Bernard Parish, which had a pre-Katrina housing stock of over 25,000.
And Pop’s house would not be one of the five.
I’d also spend some time on Saturday evening trying to talk another equally stubborn grandfather into leaving his home, though fortunately the constant barrage of pleas and protests from his entire family meant he would not have to be carried out.
Though I am grateful to have gotten out of New Orleans before the storm hit, I guess it’s human nature to dwell on personal losses that seem small in the big picture.
In terms of possessions, I was somewhat fortunate…in that I only lost 75% of my worldly possessions. Everything else was plucked from the goop and quasi-salvageable, had escaped the rising water by inches or had been crammed inside my worn out Ford Escort, which I had shrewdly parked next to the Superdome. A lot of people in Saint Bernard weren’t that lucky.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing saved from the storm was a binder of baseball cards. Though I lost virtually my entire collection, I had taken one binder out the week before the storm, perused them and then lazily tossed them on the bed I slept in when I stayed by my grandfather’s house. The bed floated with the baseball cards though they’ll retain forever a slight but noticeable mold-musty smell to them, a permanent pungent reminder of my own private experience with the most devastating storm in terms of property damage in American history.
The stuff I miss the most were the photographs. With the exception of one book in particular (Machine Politics in New Orleans), I replaced the books I had lost to water and mold. The electronics that I lost didn’t matter that much to me since I owned tube-television, a VCR and a primitive DVD player, which were destined for the ash-heap of technology.
In what was probably the most humorous moment in my post-evacuation activities I spent some time meticulously re-arranging things on my book shelves, figuring the water in my area would be an unprecedented three feet. As eleven feet of water hit my abode, the scene was the equivalent of re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
“If only I had invested in some 16 gallon plastic bins”, is something I think whenever I dwell on something irreplaceable that I had lost. Right next to that is wishing I would have had more confidence in the strength of my second floor windows, as I “shrewdly” placed most of my valuables, photographs and other items on the ground away from windows that I thought for certain would be blown out. It turned out that the second floor glass held, though the foot of water deposited on my second floor made my efforts self-defeating.
My kingdom for some more time and plastic bins.
But for all the “d’oh’ moves I made, I was not devoid of luck.
First, I had the presence of mind to partake in one luxury before the deluge. Rocky & Carlos, my favorite restaurant and a landmark eatery in Chalmette, was still operating on Saturday night and there I would sup for the last time in Louisiana for ten days. A death row meal could not equal what that meant to me.
Second, that decision to park my loaded up Ford Escort by the Superdome? Brilliant move. Experience from Hurricane Andrew’s visit to LSU’s campus in 1992 taught me to avoid parking somewhere that would leave your car windows exposed to flying gravel from building roofs. Despite having a “W” sticker on the rear bumper and a hatchback that betrayed its bounty, the Escort was unmolested from nature, looter and Democrat. It even started and made the trip to Baton Rouge.
Third, there was one thing in particular I was determined to protect though I knew I couldn’t bring it with me, so I tucked a framed picture of me shaking hands with Ronald Reagan in a clothes closet on the top shelf. I got back to my place before the looters did.
Finally, there was my escape from New Orleans. Though the old Ford Escort made it out of post-Katrina New Orleans, its temperamental radiator would have never survived a pre-Katrina contraflow run to parts unknown. I just so happened to have a flight voucher on me that the good folks at Southwest Airlines were happy to honor on a late Sunday afternoon flight to Phoenix, where a fraternity brother and his wife lived. While playing Mille Bornes with friends and watching the hurricane the size of the Gulf of Mexico creep towards the Louisiana coast on the Weather Channel, I suspected that the flight I booked was going to get cancelled.
Fortunately Southwest JUST had a seat open up on the early morning flight to Arizona. Paranoia and persistence paid big dividends. Despite strong winds, the plane left New Orleans and I arrived at Phoenix’s Sky Harbor on the morning of August 28, 2005 a genuine refugee with bulging luggage containing the only possessions I knew for certain that I would still own in the next 48 hours.
Though I still held out for a shift in the storm’s trajectory that would somehow spare the New Orleans area the worst, life as I knew it would be forever changed and my memories would be divided between pre-Katrina and post-Katrina.
In a period of about 24 hours I went from standing inside the Lod Cook Alumni Center on LSU’s campus arguing with party hacks to standing the baggage claim of the Phoenix Airport.
Ironically enough I would end up sleeping through Hurricane Katrina’s worst. I hadn’t slept at all the night before and I was emotionally worn out from all that had transpired prior to arriving in Arizona though that night’s slumber would be the only uninterrupted rest I’d have for the next ten days.
My days would be filled with exchanging hundreds of text messages, arguing with my cell phone company about overages, fighting through jammed phone lines to get information out from those trapped in Saint Bernard Parish, quashing rampant rumors on the internet about the fate of those stayed behind, coordinating medicine drops and most significantly personally informing next of kin about the status of patients in Saint Rita’s Nursing Home, whose operators unwisely decided to ride out the storm.