A Look Back at Katrina

Eight years ago today, Katrina made her unwelcome appearance in New Orleans and along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, leaving unimaginable destruction in her wake. In some ways, it seems like a lifetime ago, but my memories of the days leading up to the storm and the weeks after are as clear as if it happened yesterday.

Katrina was a bizarre storm from the start. When she made landfall in Florida on Friday, August 26, we thought we were in the clear. It wasn’t until later that night at a church function with the kids that I began to hear the buzz about the storm regrouping and changing direction. In the seven years we had lived in South Louisiana, I had evacuated for a few hurricanes and tropical storms, but none had ever amounted to much. I assumed this one would be no different. Brett was in Vegas for his fantasy football draft, and I didn’t relish the idea of evacuating alone with an eight-year-old, a four-year-old, and two eighty-plus pound dogs, so I dismissed the idea of leaving pretty quickly. It wasn’t until the next morning that a little fear began to set in. Kyndall was competing in a triathlon at UNO (which took a fairly substantial hit just two days later) and everyone at the race was talking about getting out of town. I was still in denial, but I decided that filling my gas tank couldn’t hurt. My concern grew when I saw the lines of cars at the gas pumps, and later at the ATM. It appeared that the Northshore was getting out of Dodge, as well. I called Brett (who was not even aware that there was a storm!) and told him I was considering leaving. I did not want to evacuate. Not at all. I really tried to convince myself that tens of thousands of people were overreacting, but I knew that a responsible parent would ensure that her kids were safe, and I do try to play that role from time to time. My decision was made, and with the help of a good friend, I brought in the patio furniture, took down the basketball goal, and made sure there weren’t any objects outside the house that could become projectiles. (I did, unfortunately, forget to turn the trampoline upside down, which led to its demise.)

I packed a bag with three or four changes of clothes for each of us, threw in a few photo albums, and we set off for Beaumont, Texas, on Sunday morning. Thinking I was outsmarting the rest of Mandeville, I avoided my normal route and headed out of town by way of Madisonville. We “drove” for two hours before we got to the Tchefuncte River, less than five miles from our house! A woman walking down the street carrying a parrot got there before we did. To say that it was a frustrating and stressful drive would be like calling Katrina a little rain event. With bumper-to-bumper traffic and numerous pit stops, we made it to Beaumont in eight hours…twice the usual time for that drive. But we were there, and we were safe. I truly felt that I might have seen my house and my things for the last time. And I realized that of the three tops I packed for myself, two were black tank tops that looked exactly the same. Surely I could have done better than that!

In the midst of my travels with the kids, Brett discovered that he would not be able to fly back to New Orleans, and the seriousness of the situation became more apparent. He flew into Beaumont Sunday night, and we waited out the storm together. I remember staying up all night watching it approach and then make landfall around 6 a.m. It was spooky and surreal watching our little town being beaten up on national TV. We saw buildings ripped apart by hurricane force winds and Lake Pontchartrain surging into the city and over the seawall in Mandeville. Of course, it wasn’t until hours later when the levees broke that the worst of the devastation in New Orleans occurred. We did not see many of those images until much later, since we had no way of watching TV during that time and were relying on radio for our information.

Brett and I started back toward Mandeville just twenty-four hours after the storm moved out. Armed with a chainsaw and bottled water, we headed east, stopping at every open gas station along the way in case gas became unavailable at some point. When we arrived in Mandeville, it looked more like a war zone than our sleepy little town. Many roads were impassable because of downed trees and power lines. Tornados had torn through our neighborhood, and we were only able to get to our house because neighbors who had stayed behind had cleared a path the width of a single car. Our house was surrounded by 100-foot pine trees, and I could not stop shaking as we worked our way to our house in the back of the neighborhood. We had seen some very severe damage, and I was imagining the worst. What we found were a dozen giant uprooted pine trees, none of which had landed on our house. Out of sheer relief, I cried. And then, completely overwhelmed by the whole situation, I cried some more.

The next few days were a complete blur. While our damage was minimal compared to those who lost so much, we did have some roof damage, which had allowed water to leak in and stain some areas of our ceiling. Our fence was down, our trampoline was wrapped around a tree, and pine trees and debris littered the front and back yard. We spent the first two days working alone…Brett cutting the trees up into manageable pieces, while I hauled every single piece to the curb. It was miserably hot and humid. We heard nothing for two days but the constant buzz of chainsaws and the steady whir of helicopters flying overhead. While we were making progress with our cleanup, rescues were (and were not) being made in the city. With no electricity and the Causeway bridge closed, we had no way of knowing the horrors that were taking place just twenty-five miles away.

Mandeville was basically a ghost town during those first few days. Only a handful of businesses were open, and options were few. We made a trip to a local hardware store for nails to repair the fence. Employees led us around the store using flashlights to find what we needed. Burger King was the only food we could find (I loathe Burger King), and they had a sign posted stating that they had hamburgers and water. That was it. Most of the other signs in town were of the “Looters Will Be Shot” variety. Like I said before…surreal. On our third and final day of yard cleanup, friends showed up with extra chainsaws and refreshments. This was my first experience with Delaware Punch, and eight years later, I think I’m still feeling the sugar buzz. 🙂

While we wrapped things up as much as we could in Mandeville, the kids remained in Texas. We enrolled them in school since we really had no idea how long it would be before power returned and our schools reopened. They were treated like royalty (or maybe refugees) at their temporary school, and everyone tried to make them feel at home. A woman we didn’t know made them blankets. Children would bring them little gifts. One little boy even tried to give Griffen a dollar. People just wanted to do whatever they could to help, and we appreciated it, even if we didn’t really lose anything at home. I spent three weeks in Texas, distracting myself with Janet Evanovich books and wondering when we could go home and whether or not life would ever be normal again. It was a strange and unsettling time. New Orleans remained paralyzed, and many people we knew who worked there were opting to take jobs in other cities. One thing we knew for certain was that it would take New Orleans a long time to return to “normal”. The Northshore, on the other hand, was up and running within about a month. Things may not have been completely normal, but we were all making an effort, and we realized how lucky we were.

Mandeville today basically looks like it did eight years and one day ago. Some houses on the lakefront were destroyed and rebuilt. Some are just gone. But an outsider would see very little evidence of Katrina’s visit. We gained lots of Southshore folks in those months after the storm, most of whom stayed around even after New Orleans began to rebuild.

New Orleans still has many Katrina-shaped scars. Tourists may not see much evidence of her wrath, but one doesn’t have to get far off the beaten path to find abandoned homes or those with that haunting x-code painted on them, indicating when and by whom the house was searched, and if any contamination or bodies were found inside. I still see those houses from time to time, and I shiver a little thinking about what really took place during those late-August/early-September days.

As I reflect on Katrina eight years later, I realize how fortunate we were. We know many people who lost everything they owned. Outsiders will tell you that it’s just stuff, but when it’s your stuff and your sentimental treasures, it’s tough. Every now and then when I hear about activity in the Gulf, I think about what I would pack if it happened again. With most of my pictures stored digitally now (heck, most of them are on Facebook!), the photo albums would not be as crucial. Still, there are definitely things that would break my heart if they were lost. Things that belonged to my mom. Some special items from when my kids were babies. A box of letters Brett wrote to me in college. Those are the real treasures. I wonder where all those things are? Looks like I just found today’s project.

*Most of my Katrina pics are missing, but I came across a few last year.

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