It was going to be a nice, relaxing weekend. In fact, I had even scheduled a (much-needed) massage for myself on Saturday morning. But when I drove to keep my appointment at 10 a.m. at Touro’s Alternative Center, the garage was closed due to the storm. “What storm?” I thought. So (upset that I couldn’t get my damned massage), I headed home. The last storm I was aware of was the one that had hit Florida. Just then, my daughter called me to ask if Joseph and I were leaving town for the hurricane. “I don’t think so,” I said. “Why should we leave?”
“Mom, it’s a big storm that’s heading straight for us!”
I guess my reaction was the same of many New Orleanians when they had realized that we were in the bulls-eye of Katrina, a low-level hurricane in the gulf. When you’ve been through as many hurricanes as I (we) have—well, you do get kind of jaded. Yeah, yeah, yeah. There’s a hurricane. There’s always one or two this time of year. We’ll get all hot and bothered about it, and it will turn at the last minute and we’ll get a little wind and rain, and the electricity will go out for a couple of days. Yawn.
Little did we know.
Joseph never wants to leave for a storm. After checking the news and the dire warnings coming from the Mayor’s office, I wanted to scoot out of town too, but we agreed to see what would happen overnight; if the storm would turn, or strengthen. And we also wanted to see what the city officials advised.
The evacuation mandate next morning made up our minds, so we packed a suitcase and decided we’d go due north. Joseph put a couple of T-shirts in, but I packed enough clothes for a week. We battened down the hatches at home as best we could and hit the road about 10:30 a.m. on Sunday morning, August 28th, figuring we could find a room somewhere in Mississippi. My sister Jill, in Baton Rouge, told us we could stay at her house, but we didn’t want to impose on her hospitality, so we headed up Hwy. 90—the back roads—figuring that we’d avoid the traffic on the Interstate across the lake.
I can remember as we drove down Hwy. 90, seeing the little houses and fishing camps, and realizing that if the storm was as bad as they were projecting that everything there might be gone in a couple of days.
Little did we know.
My mother’s home in Slidell, where she’d lived for almost 40 years, was situated right on the bayou. She was very sick, in the hospital in Slidell. But they had closed the hospital in Slidell, and she was staying at my sister’s home in Lacombe, on the north side of Hwy. 190. We were worried about her house because it had gotten about 20 inches of water about four years before when a tropical storm passed through and pushed water from the lake into the bayou and flooded her house, so I was glad she wasn’t there. I thought about the many years and good times we’d had in her house with our family and friends; the dinners, barbecues, weddings and parties we’d had there; the good times and the bad; the family memories. I thought about my daddy’s antique clock that hung over the fireplace. He used to wind it every Sunday, in his own little ritual. The house was where my brothers and sisters had lived the better part of their lives.
Little did we know.
But we were on our way to “wherever” north we could go; anywhere we could go to get away from Katrina.
It wasn’t long before we discovered that there were no hotel rooms to be found. Anywhere.
Our car got mired in the massive traffic jam headed out of New Orleans. We ended up parked on a highway about 20 miles from Natchez. We weren’t moving. By this time, it was about 5:30 p.m., and starting to look stormy. We had visions of weathering the hurricane in our car, so I called my sister in Baton Rouge, and she told us to turn around and head back to Baton Rouge to stay with them. It was sort of unnerving to be headed south back into the storm’s range (there certainly wasn’t any traffic!), but we managed to pull into Baton Rouge—my sister’s home was our refuge–about 7 p.m.
Little did we know.
We were there for over two months.
But we were lucky.
We watched from afar as photos from New Orleans started coming in early the next morning on television, showing the hurricane damage. The flooding of the city hadn’t yet begun in earnest. That reality was much more terrible and the damage (both physical and human) more unimaginable than a few broken windows and wind damage.
I can remember feeling numb. Then horrified when I saw what was happening in my neighborhood, and downtown. We couldn’t get in touch with my mother and my sister and her family in Lacombe. We had no idea if they had even survived. Luckily, my daughter and granddaughter had found a room outside Jackson, and we knew they were safe and sound. My mother and sister didn’t get out of Lacombe until late Tuesday night. There were so many trees knocked down that my brother-in-law had to literally cut a path out for them with a chainsaw. My mother was so sick, she was near death, and she ended up in a Baton Rouge hospital for six weeks. But we all survived.
So many didn’t. So many people lost family, friends, relatives. Their homes, their cars, their possessions, their memories. Their livelihoods. It’s always really hard for me to think about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It’s almost too much to bear.
You are numb, angry, discombobulated, despairing, tired, hopeless, wretched, destroyed. What do you do next? How do you do it? Where are the people you love? How do you reach them? How do you get help? How do you survive this? How will you live?
Like I said: I was so lucky. We were in good physical shape. We didn’t lose our house; it didn’t flood but we had a lot of water and wind damage (and now our insurance premium is about 10 times what it used to be, with a five-figure deductible. God forbid we ever have another hurricane). We were lucky once. Who knows what will happen next time ‘round.
Oh yeah: my mother survived, but she lost everything: her house, her possessions, the family photos, her beloved garden, her memories. At least we still have her with us.
This story can get a lot longer, but let’s just suffice it to say that the date of August 29 is etched into my brain forever. When I think about that time, and the months afterward, I have a feeling of dread. How did we go through what we did? How did we survive it? How are we still able to continue to cope with the aftermath?
OffBeat’s editor at the time, Bunny Matthews, told Joseph that he “wished everyone would stop talking about Katrina.” The problem is: you can’t. While the psychic wounds have healed over, the scars are still there, and they’ll always be there. Surviving Katrina is a badge that we all wear in our hearts. It’s not something you get over. Ever.