Where were you when Katrina came, or like most of us around her call her…The Storm?
I evacuated, not an easy process with two dogs, a cat, a visiting daughter from out of state, and an old pickup with no air conditioning. I ended up in Northeastern Texas through some twists and turns of Fate, in a little resort motel on the edge of Land O Pines Lake and near Jefferson, Texas. I remember not being able to sleep the night before, and with our selection of three television stations, all I could watch was the object of my fear and fascination….The Storm.
I remember the first news I got of the aftermath–they announced that the Greater New Orleans area had weathered the storm just fine, and I was elated. I could be back home in a day or two, maybe three at the worst. I didn’t have the money for any longer than that anyhow, as a vacation had not been in my meager budget. Then, an hour or two later, the news changed.
They said that New Orleans was underwater. They said that Kenner was underwater. I lived and worked in Metairie, nestled between Kenner and New Orleans. Even though they didn’t mention Metairie by name…logic told me that if both New Orleans and Kenner were under water, so was Metairie. I sat…stunned. I couldn’t wrap my mind around the idea that everything would be gone as the water receded. I thought of my bosses, sitting in their business, as the water rose. They were nearing the seventieth year…how would they possibly survive?
The realization that I was going to have to start all over again began to sink in. I sighed and I cried. I’d done it before, but I was getting too old for starting over all over again. I had just begun to recover from the last episode of “starting over.” How could I face all of that again?
There were other evacuees staying there, and we all wandered, looking lost, looking shocked, unable to think and unable to really comprehend our losses yet. The news was sensationalized, we didn’t really know anything, we held onto the hopes that our neighborhoods were spared. We couldn’t talk to anyone in the city and our cell phones were acting strange, some of them useless.
Friends and family helped me cover that first week of motel, as I tried to figure out what I was going to do. Local restaurants fed us. Someone bought dog food for me, someone else brought us some clothing–it seems that everyone left with three days worth of clothes. The motel let us use the laundry in the afternoons to wash our clothes. We swam in the pool, we walked along the lake shore, we tried to fill our hours with something, anything. I had brought all of the meat from my freezer in the cooler, and it needed used–we had a barbecue and shared with our neighbors.
I remember a news team from one of the television stations coming and wanting to interview us. I shook my head with a smile, telling them that I was one of the lucky ones–I had no sad story about evacuating, I hadn’t even had to battle slow traffic and had been lucky with each mile I had covered as I sought to escape The Storm. I really was one of the lucky ones, I just didn’t know how lucky I was yet.
I remember painting a house for a guy near the resort to get the money for another week of the motel. It took me almost the entire week to do the job, but that was okay. It filled the days. I also was trying to find a way to get my daughter back home, and that wasn’t going well either. She couldn’t fly out of Dallas on her own, as the medication she was taking at the time would often leave her confused and unable to concentrate. I couldn’t go with her to get through the check in process because of the dogs–Dallas was far enough away that I couldn’t just leave them in the motel room all day, and it was so hot that I feared giving Red Dog a heat stroke. She had had one as a young dog, and has no tolerance for heat even today. The airport was not going to let the dog waltz through the airport either. A bus was out of the question too. That meant someone would have to drive from Arizona and pick her up, not exactly a Sunday jaunt. Her husband kept getting the run around at work about if and when he could have the time off to come get her, and finally, her grandma made the drive to pick her up, which was nice. We had a few days together to visit before they left.
By this time, I knew I could return home and my house had not flooded. No one had been inside, so what kind of damage had occurred indoors was a mystery, as the door was apparently stuck. I knew trees were down all around it, and some shingles were ripped off, but that was all I knew. I prepared to return home, and then, Rita appeared.
The owners of the motel where I was staying had left on vacation, leaving the motel in the care of a fellow evacuee who was relocating to the area, and I had agreed to help him as repayment to the owners for all of their kindnesses. When they left, there was only one reservation due to check in–it was the off season between summer and hunting season. With Rita on the way, the phone began ringing off the hook as people searched for a place to stay. We filled their motel again for them. Their maids returned to full time work. When the owners checked in, I told them it was not a problem if I stayed…I had been gone three weeks, and another week wasn’t going to hurt, and besides, I’d not gone through all of this only to swim when I got home, as no one knew where Rita was going to go at first.
The Rita evacuees were able to return home far quicker than the Katrina ones, and most of them were gone as I loaded up the pick up truck with everything I needed for a month in Metairie. I already knew that few stores were open, the curfew was still in effect, and the water wasn’t potable. I had cleaning supplies, food, water, and dog food, along with all of the stuff I had brought with me when I’d fled. Like the initial trip, this one was to be done in the dark of night to avoid the heat and the stress on Red Dog.
I remember her mood as we drove…and drove. She was in an obvious snit, sitting by the passenger door and sulking. Sissy rode in the middle, and for a change, wasn’t bouncing around. Cali the cat had been stuck in a cat carrier inside of Red’s dog crate in the back, under the tarp. There was no room for a cat carrier in the cab, and nobody to hold onto her leash with the windows down either. I crossed my fingers that she wouldn’t be too traumatized by the ride.
I didn’t stop except for gas, not even for a cup of coffee. It was a long drive, and I wanted to be home before the sun got hot. Even so, it was well after daylight after we got through Baton Rouge, and it wasn’t until we reached the Bonne Carre spillway that Red’s mood changed.
It stunk. I mean really rank, but she popped up like a prairie dog, her nose literally jammed in the cracked window as she breathed in the smell. She literally seemed to be smiling as she realized that we were not going to some other motel, but rather we were going home. She would sit down, look at me with her happy dog grin, then pop back up to sniff deeply again. I know she could smell the brackish waters that meant home, as well as the stench of the many things that the flood waters had thrown onto what was again becoming dry land.
At home, I was lucky too. As I drove down the streets heading to my own home, I saw trees jammed into houses like a candle on a cupcake, I saw where tree trunks were just sawed off at the curb, still covering the lawn but clearing the roadway. Debris was piled everywhere. Refrigerators, their doors duct taped shut, stood in front of nearly every house, often with a freezer beside it. The stench of rotting meat had me nearly gagging. My refrigerator though, was unscathed. There was a tiny patch of mold on the bottom, about the size of a fifty cent piece. There was a lone forgotten sausage patty on a plate and condiments left in the door. In the freezer, the things that I hadn’t been able to load into the cooler all went into a trash bag and were hauled out. I wasn’t risking food poisoning for it.
The air conditioner soon had the house cool, the bathroom was the only room with damages, really, although some water had come in the north and east windows, ruining my television. The bathroom was a moldering mess–all soft goods were trashed, from towels to dirty laundry and toilet paper. The bathtub still held the water I’d filled it with before I left, but it was now rather scummy and gross.
With that taken care of, I had to unload. The house was soon in total chaos, with the living room filled with plastic tubs. I was home though, and soon would be back to work, repairing things, painting, and getting ready to reopen. Jobs were plentiful in those days–I typically would get several job offers any time I was working outside. I knew that while I could make more money on clean up jobs, those jobs would end. My old job, while it paid less and offered less hours, was still a steady job.
Would I have gone back if I knew now what I didn’t know then?
I’m not sure. I almost didn’t go back then–I had job offers in Texas, I had an offer of a place to live too. I could have simply gone back and gotten my things and called it good. I almost did exactly that…but my boss had sent me a paycheck in Texas that I hadn’t earned by working, partly to help me and I think it was partly to encourage my return too. I felt a sense of loyalty towards them. I genuinely liked them too. I had a sense of unfinished business in New Orleans, as well as some guilt about how easy things were being for me. Many other evacuees were searching for jobs too, and had not had any offers. I’d been offered jobs I’d never even applied for. I didn’t feel that where I could go home and would have a job there that I should opt to relocate, as thousands were doing it without a choice. My family and friends thought I’d lost my mind, but I stuck with my decision.
Now, six years later, I still live within the “Katrina zone” on the Mississippi coast. We’re planning our wedding, and it will be on the beach of the hardest hit zone–Hancock County. (They are the sole county that allows dogs on the beach in Mississippi, so I love Hancock county!) We still see evidence everywhere of Katrina, as well as our depressed economy. Without jobs, there is no money to rebuild or even a reason for many things to be rebuilt. I’ve adopted the area wholeheartedly, maybe even more than I did New Orleans, despite having only been here a year.
Yeah, I hate the heat, the humidity, and the bugs. I hate watching for another storm. I hate the lack of jobs, and the hoodlums that too much time and no money produces. But I love the bayous, the fishing, and the people. I may not live here forever, but I can love it while I do, right?