Today is the 8th Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. It is a day that changed my life completely. At first, I didn’t want to leave my home. They had given us so many warnings before for hurricanes that really hadn’t come to anything I thought I might be able to ride it out; but something inside me knew this would be different. So I loaded up my two labs and my cat, a big pink futon, and a badly packed suitcase and headed for a Lake Charles hotel room with some other Ph.D students from my program. I spent Sunday until Wednesday hunkered in.
I couldn’t think straight about what to grab or pack. I tried to cover the Steinway up with a tarp and hoped for the best. I brought weird stuff. I packed all my jazz fest t-shirts and some boxer shorts. I packed a silk skirt and some really impractical black pumps. I forgot so much that it wasn’t even funny. I just remember looking at everything before I left and thinking that just a few things wouldn’t cut it so might as well leave it all. Now, I think I would have the presence to grab a few practical things and meaningful items. But, not then. The drive was also indescribable. It was hours and hours of bumper to bumper traffic heading west on the I-10. I had tried to grab a few neighbors that I knew didn’t have cars too. Some folks were still determined to ride it out.
I slept on the futon between two beds for two nights with my dogs and cat, trying to get as much information as possible from a live broadcast from the TV and the internet. I thought that I would be able to head back, until I heard the news that the levees had broken and water was filling up the city. It was at that point we made plans to head to Texas to drop one student at the Dallas Bus Stop and the other at the Dallas Airport. I was headed to Omaha to stay with a friend and to give my children huge hugs. I spent weeks on the couch just watching Anderson Cooper and wondering if my home was okay. When I finally met Anderson and hung with him several times over the next few years it was always like seeing an old friend. He was a constant fixture in my life for what seemed like an eternity.
I finally made it back the first week of October to a scene of indescribable, utter devastation, with no electricity nearly anywhere, massive clean up efforts, and a very empty city. My home was mostly okay. That meant I served as refuge for folks for nearly two years afterwards. The only place that was pretty unlivable for awhile was my bedroom because the roof had come off my neighbor’s house and taken out the window and my bed. It took me a few weeks to get all the electricity in the house. I lived with the sound of AM radio. For the first week, my only company was the Washington State National Guard.
There were no birds, no bugs, no sounds. Everything was pitch black at night.
Later in the month, I spent nights in bars with returning friends whose stories of staying or leaving were often unbelievable. You can hear some stories here at the Survivor’s Stories project by NPR. Many, many of my friends have left and never returned. More than a few are still here but have become quite changed. I have to say that many of them have had problems with drugs and booze since then so they’ve been lost in a completely different way.
It’s also been a year since our last big hurricane and the passing of Karma, who was the last of my two labs who made the great trek out of the city with me. It is just Miles and me now that took that huge journey.
You learn a lot about people when you find yourself in the position of possibly losing everything. I remember being offered money by folks in Dallas an in Lake Charles. Every one in Omaha wanted to do something big to for any one of us that popped up there. It was lucky because it good cold fast and I hand nothing to wear. I took my Red Cross Debit Card and bought clothes. Friends and family sent me boxes of things at my friend’s house too. I came home with care packages stuffed with cleaning things, food and clothes. I really needed all of them by the time I finally opened my front door. The hurricane had shaken all kinds of dust out of the old place.
I remember the Ford Dealer in Dallas looked at my car when I was wondering if it would make it all the way to Omaha and didn’t charge me a dime. A GI in the waiting room took care of my dogs while I held Miles in my arm. A woman asked if there was anything at all that I needed. I also remember a Sugerland Trooper that pulled me over because I hadn’t decreased my speed since we were trying to figure out how to get to the busstop who announce to me that “This is Texas and we do things differently here than in Louisiana”. All I could say was “Believe me, I am not messing with Texas. I am dropping her off at the bus stop, and her off at the airport and I am heading north to my family as soon as possible”. All I thought at the time was he could keep this god awful place. I just wanted to hug my kids and see my little house in New Orleans again.
This city is still in the throes of recovery. There are parts that are still empty. There are parts that probably will never be the same. My part of town is now hip and cool and gentrifying. The house prices have been increasing rapidly since the Hurricane and the population is changing. So, there is good and bad. Just like everything. However, you can still tell us “old timers” because all we still ask is “How you making out?” and that always implies “after Katrina” .