My Memories of Katrina
This story was written a year ago, on the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
My Memories of Katrina
It was hot. Despite the central A/C being on, the little side office where we tried to sleep got very little cold air. I laid on the air mattress with two other people, my husband and one year old son. I should have taken my husband’s offer of letting him sleep on the couch. The bed was too crowded and all of these bodies lying so close together only made the room that much hotter.
I didn’t know if he was sleeping, my husband that is. My son had fallen asleep hours ago. I was starting to feel the guilt of a mother who should be asleep and knows since she won’t be allowed sleep in. I was tired of hearing my own mother’s words, “A mother has to sleep when she can, when her children are asleep, so that she can be there when they are awake.” I think more clearly when the children are asleep, and why should I waste that time sleeping as well.
We were staying with a family we met through a Medieval/Renaissance reenactment group. We knew them a little. They seemed like nice folk, but I hadn’t even known his wife’s name until we evacuated to their house.
There is a fact of life when living in the southern coastal area of the US: at least once a year you’ll load up your vehicle with those things most precious to you (we do take our family photos), leave a week’s worth of food and water for the pets (most hotels do not take pets), drive between 3 and 20 hours to find a place to stay, and come back home 3 days later to find a house filled with stale air and a few branches in your yard.
We did it every year, although normally we stayed in a hotel we could ill afford about 8 hours from our house. It ate up our vacation money and exhausted us, but we still did it. The worst time was the twelve hour bumpy ride a week after I had a c-section with our last baby.
This time we were invited to stay with J, S and their 4 year old daughter about 3 hours west of us. It was a much shorter drive, and since we didn’t have the money for a hotel, it seemed like the perfect answer. J and S were very generous people. Or perhaps they just wanted a grownup version of a slumber party, and a hurricane evacuation is a likely excuse. But to invite a family with four children is very generous.
So here we were. The girls – all three of them – sharing the spare bedroom, two of them on the full size bed, one on an air mattress on the floor. My husband, the baby and I in the hot, spare office. It was two days before Katrina hit.
Why did we leave so early? It’s a known fact in New Orleans, if you don’t evacuate early, you don’t evacuate. Even though we did not live in New Orleans proper, once the city starts to empty out, the interstates would be closed to us and we would be forced to use back roads and small highways. So we left early, thinking we would get a weekend away from home and a chance to become closer friends with some good people.
That weekend we were fairly carefree. We went to a child’s birthday party Saturday night at another friend’s house. His wife had recently discovered fan-fiction and spent the entire evening discussing two characters from the canceled tv show Star Trek Enterprise and what she wrote in her versions of the story. I actually liked talking to her about it, or at least listening.
We were joined Sunday morning by another evacuee, a writer (D), who works as a legal assistant. We put her in J’s and S’s little girl’s room. Our girls were offered the choice to stay in that room, but since we would only be there a couple of days, and we thought it would be funny to put the 50 year old woman in the pink room with all of the stuffed animals. Had we known we would have been there so much longer, we would have let the girls stay in there. At least then, E (J's and S’s daughter), would have been able to play with her toys with our girls.
Sunday afternoon everyone else went to rapier practice. I had offered to cook pizza for everyone, thinking that everyone would include us evacuees and the family we were with. In his enthusiasm for getting the chance to try my pizza, J invited another family (whose bread machine we had to borrow) and another family, who I think really just invited themselves. J is not really all that bad. The guilt for having 6 extra people caused him to helped me cook, which was nice. Most people just offer and never actually help.
We all spent the night chatting about nothing. I mostly listened to D (the writer) give advice to our friend’s wife about writing.
If this were a book and we were the main characters, I would write that we all chatted about nothing to avoid thinking about that the hurricane. But I believe that none of us thought it would be a big deal. It would give a little rain, a little wind, then we would all go back home, clear out the limb or two in our yards and life would go on as before. The damage, if any, would occur to a few houses and those places lying directly on the coast where it hit. No big deal.
The day Katrina hit and several days after are all still fuzzy. I don’t remember what we did. I don’t remember feeding the kids, taking a shower, going to bed or even eating. I‘m sure I did those things, but now my mind blended all of those days together with just random images where the presence or absence of children marked day from night.
What do I remember? My husband, D and I sitting in front of the large TV, not talking, which was odd for both my husband and D. The image of the large hurricane sitting on top of our home town for what seemed like hours. The relief when the hurricane finally moved. A flurry of helicopter images from TV stations checking their towers. Wracking our minds to place each film shot geographically, shouting out names of streets so that we all knew what we were seeing. The film shots changing nearly as soon as we placed one.
We were all frustrated. We never got enough information to know what happened, but the news fed us just enough to torture us into thinking all was lost. The shots were always one neighborhood away or two streets down from where we wanted to see. D’s friend, the writer Bob Aspirin, was supposed to evacuate with her, supposed to be there with us, but he chose to stay in his French Quarter home. So added to the torture of not knowing what happened to our homes and our cities was what happened to those left behind.
I remember the phone call to CNN from some Charity hospital employee telling them that the streets were filling with water because the levee at the 17th St. canal burst. The absurdity when the news caster mistook what she said for a flood at Seventeenth Street and Canal Blvd. We evacuees knew what she meant, and we all thought, “Oh my God, this will be bad.”
Shortly after, someone called in to say that his friend at Xavier University was trapped there, only able to text-message out and wondering when anyone was coming to get them. I remembered that school just started. Did they get out -- all of those freshman students who came from around the country, perhaps around the world, those who knew no one in the city? New Orleans does not have the public transportation system that other large cities have. A few buses go around the city itself, but getting out of the city is impossible unless you own an auto or know someone who does.
I don’t remember crying, but I remember my face being wet. We did not comfort each other. We sat apart. We were each in too much pain to have comfort left for anyone else.
Sometime during that first day our mobile phones stopped working, except for the text messaging. No one told us that our service was dependent upon hundreds of little antennas placed all over our home area and all of our calls are routed through them. Once those antennas go down, doesn’t matter where we are, our mobiles won’t work. We were scattered all over the country, and we had no way to find out who was dead, who was alive, who got out, who needed help or even just connect with someone who knew the pain we felt, who felt it too.
If my family and I thought about the pets we left, we did not say a thing about them. Even our seven year old did not ask if our pets were alive. I think we all knew the answer, but to give it voice would open grieving that none of us were prepared to deal with. Instead we all individually decided not to mention one word or even say their names. But I knew my children wept after the lights went out in their room. I know they cried, for we knew they were dead. Never again would James and Lily, our new kittens, curl up on our laps and prick us with their sharp little kitten claws.
On the news I saw people refuse to get into the rescue boats because their pets weren’t welcome. I knew there were people who stayed home because hotels don’t like pets. A friend’s brother was missing for several months after Katrina. They did three sweeps of his house before they found him under the pile of his four dogs – all dead. I know he stayed for them. I know he died for them.
So even as sad as I was at the thought of our pets, I knew that staying would have been a worse choice.
I think it was Thursday when I woke up and realized that what we were doing was not helping anybody. I turned the TV off for the first time since Sunday night. D kept turning it back on every few minutes only to be told by the other adults to leave it off. It was bothering the children and not helping anyone. She could watch it, we told her, after the kids went to bed or when we were gone. She still had not heard from Bob.
On Thursday I finally heard from my parents. My sister had stayed, and she was fine. Also, she had checked on our house and all of our pets were alive. She had been going by every day to feed them. Even the two chickens had made it despite their feathers being ruffled and broken. I told the girls, and we all held each other and wept. I didn’t think we would stop. Even our oldest, who had always before claimed to hate the animals, cried. I don’t think she loved them any more than she had before, but she could not bear the thought of them dying the way we thought they had.
“Never again,” I told the kids, “never again will we leave our pets when we evacuate.” Our shell of invulnerability was cracked. We could not live with the belief that it could not happen to us, that we would never be hit, that any time a hurricane headed our way, it would be nothing more than a mini-break from mundane life.
Did we make the right choice? Should we have stayed? I don’t think so.
When we got back, I ran into a friend who stayed with her children both for the storm and for the time afterwards. She said the storm itself was not so bad. Not as much rain as you would have thought, but a lot of wind. The tall pine trees in their back yard bent in half and touched the ground. Many snapped, but none landed on her house. It was scary, but not as scary as what happened after the storm.
When the eye of the hurricane got to her, she knew they were half-way there. The rest of the storm passed without anything terrible happening. They live about a block from a small highway that runs north-south. After the storm, they walked out to look at the damage along the main road. There were trees and electric poles all across the highway. They knew it would be a while before the electric crews would get to them and turn the power back on. They surveyed the damage feeling pretty good that they survived.
Then she saw about a mile up the road a wall of water several feet high riding down the highway, rolling over trees and cars and debris of all types. What could she do to stop it? They raced back to their home, piled up the sand bags and prayed. I never knew she was religious.
She told me about the relief she felt when the water tapered out and lapped at the foundation to her house, but went no further. Then it receded as fast as it had come. The storm was not so bad, she later told me, but she would not stay again just because of the sight of that water wall.
No, I think we made the right decision to leave. But I still wonder if going back was the right choice.
It was also on Thursday that reality hit us that F (my husband) may not have a job. With all of the tragedy going on, with the entire nation, perhaps the world, watching in sick fascination what happened to our city, I felt such guilt at wondering if we would get a paycheck next month. To me it was a dirty thoughts They were still using boats to rescue people from roofs, and I was thinking about our own gravy train.
We drove down to the school that was the sister school of the one for whom F worked. I don’t think we expected anything, but halfway down the hallway crowded with high school students, he saw his boss. He called her name, and she looked confused to see him there. But she ran up and hugged him, feeling a little more connected to reality to see a face she would normally see on a regular Thursday. We knew that financially things would work out, at least for a little while.
We finally put a little A/C unit in the office where we stayed. Since F still had his job, we kept thinking that we would eventually pay J and S for the electricity we used. We knew that having us there must have spiked their bill or even doubled it. We helped out in what ways we could. I cooked often, almost every night. We even used the “disaster related” food stamps card to buy food for everyone who was staying in the house. Were we too proud to get food stamps?
Everyone from the Greater New Orleans area was on food stamps, no matter how rich or poor you had been before the storm. From those who could barely afford food before Katrina to those who lived in mansions along the historic St. Charles Avenue, no one was too proud to get free government food. Life was too uncertain. Who knew what the future had in store. Lean times may be ahead, so get what you can get for now. The freebies the world was offering with open hands to Katrina victims would eventually stop.
On Thursday D also heard from Bob Aspirin. She took a chance and called his land line, and he answered. She explained that the power and phone lines for the French Quarter run underground and rarely get damaged by a storm. Bob was fine. He had been barbecuing the meat in his freezer before it rotted, hanging out with the other French Quarter people and drinking cold beer that was still delivered daily to a Quarter bar. Why the French Quarter got daily beer delivered when people where still trying to evacuate a flooding city, D. explained as just another quirk of the Quarter. The Quarter people, she said, had no idea what was happening in the rest of the city. They were all sitting around waiting for the power to come back on. It took her two or three more days before she could get him to realize the seriousness of the situation and try to get out of there. By then when they walked down to the Convention Center, passing the two covered bodies (one of the old woman in the wheel chair) the news showed over and over, no one was there, and he and a friend had to hunt down a ride out of the city.
We stayed almost a month with J and S. F.’s job was coincidentally transferred temporarily to a nearby town. But there was no housing for us. Every rental, even every home for sale, had been snatched by New Orleans businesses to house their employees. There was nothing left. We had to decide between staying at our friends’ home, leaving F. there and the kids and I going back or all of us going back and F. quitting his job.
It took 3 and a half weeks for the electricity to get back on at our home. J and S told us that we could stay however long we needed for F’s work or until things get back to normal at home. I don’t know if I could have been as generous to others as they were to us. But our presence was a strain on their family, even if they were too wonderful to admit it.
And the girls asked several times a day when we would go back. Even though all of the pets pulled through just fine, and F and J had gone back once to bring them to our place of refuge, the girls never really believed that the house was still standing and their toys, clothes and books had not been washed out to sea. I think they felt that if we went back home, things would be the same as before. We would go to the park once a week to visit friends, their dad would go to work in the city every day, the things they did before the storm and their home town was would miraculously return to normal.
How were we to know our hometown would never return back to “normal” in more than a thousand ways? It was 4 months until the coroner got around to moving back into the small family cemetery the coffins that the storm surge had lifted out of their graves and into the ditches. When we finally moved away, 9 months after Katrina, they still had not reburied them, just stacked them within the fenced grounds. And that was not even one of the more noticeable things that was different. As morbid as it sounds, we got used to seeing the “boxes” on the side of the road every time we drove to the grocery.
We had wanted to stay, to help rebuild the area we have always called home and to see the wonderful place it may become. We looked for work. “Hundreds of Jobs Available in the Gulf Coast Region due to Citizens who have not Returned.” That’s what the national headlines said. So why can’t we find work? That’s what our relatives asked. The papers didn’t say that all of the shops realized they could make just as much money, if not more, by hiring only part timers, staying open only half as many hours, and not paying benefits. Nor did the out-of-town papers talk about the thousands of illegals who moved in to snatch up the thousands of construction jobs. We probably could have made a meager living, but not a life. When you get to the point when you’re calculating food stamps into the yearly income you need to survive, you really need to reevaluate your life.
We stayed until May 2006. By then our money was almost used up. First the FEMA money, then the Red Cross, the 401k, and finally the tax refund. About mid-April we had realized that there was enough to leave, but not for long. We started looking for work in New England. We had never even seen New England. I had family who lived there. It was promising.
“Is it as bad as they say?” I’m always asked within ten minutes of meeting someone new. I always reply, “No, it’s not as bad as they say. It’s worse.” But how can you explain to them what you’ve seen when they have no frame of reference?
It’s like a war zone without the war. No enemy to hate. How can you tell them that most of the city looks like you’ve stumbled onto the set of Night of the Living Dead? That the water marks are still on the houses and mold and mildew cloud the windows better than any tinting would. That from the interstate the city was dark for months. You saw nothing but black, but you knew there were thousands of houses out there. Even after the electricity came back to the city, there were only islands of light in a sea of darkness.
To pull in extra money until F found a job, we thought about selling my handmade soap via the once lively French Market. So we drove down to the French Quarter to look and see if it would be worth our time. My idea: a bad day selling in the Quarter would be better than a good day at a small farmer’s market.
After what we saw on the drive to get there, we shouldn’t have been surprised to find the Market nearly empty. Stall owners were packing up to leave. It was only 1:00. Yeah, there was room for new stalls; the newspaper article I had read was right about that. But there were no people. Of the couple hundred stalls that were there before Katrina, it looked like maybe ten were still there. I saw only 4 customers.
Thinking back, the visit to the French Market should have woken me up to my mind’s evolution to morbidity. I had a great idea. In the French Quarter, they used to sell posters of the “Famous Doors of New Orleans”. I’m sure every big city has posters like this one -- historic doors, brightly colored, designed by dead famous architects.
After Katrina, most of the doors, even the ones in the historic district, still had a large X on them. The spray painted X’s gave spaces to tell the date the house was searched, the number of the rescue team who searched the house and how many dead were found inside. All of the city’s houses were marked like plague houses. Looking at all of these X’s as we drove through New Orleans, I wondered what an updated version of the Famous Doors poster would look like.
It was almost like playing the license plate game with the doors. “I see one with 3 dead. Do you see one with two?”
We should have left then. I should have recognized how much the death and decay all around was making me immune to feeling anything. Or maybe as a mortician makes jokes to dull the seriousness of his business, I was coping with depths of feelings I had but could not deal with.
“Will you go back once they start rebuilding?” Inevitably, that’s one of the next question they ask. How can I go back? It’s not the same. The cities we called home, where my husband was born, where our children were born, is gone. How can you go back home when home is no longer there? Where do you call home when home does not exist?
Addendum: We did go back. About 6 months after we moved to New England, both F and I realized that our children were more depressed than before we had left. They had not finished mourning or grieving for all they had seen, for all that they lost. And they missed their friend.
The economical situation had stabilized a little. F had no problem finding a job.
Slidell, where we live, is different, but many changes we’ve gotten used to and accepted. Unlike New Orleans, where the houses still sit in a state of rot, the houses here have all been repaired. Every house, every business in the city has a new roof. Many of the N.O. residents moved across the lake to our town, so businesses are booming again.
Not everything is good again. There is an entire section of town that still sits empty and destroyed. It had taken the most damaged from the wave of water that washed over the town. Whether it will be rebuilt or not, only time will determine. Most people here are still very depressed. Too much has happened for it to be let go so soon.
Was moving back a good decision? I don’t know. Maybe if we had left New Orleans by choice rather than a last resort, one more phase in our evacuation from Katrina, we would have been happy in New England. It was not such a bad place. But we felt as if we were fleeing the storm in one more way.
The kids are starting to heal. We are back to a normal routine, albeit a different one than before Katrina. I’m going back to school to finish my education degree, since I do not want to be stuck in a situation where only my husband can be the breadwinner. We had another child, unplanned, but much loved. And that alone has taught us that life moves on.