I haven’t written much about my time during Katrina, but I wanted to put some thoughts to paper as I don’t want to forget when I am older. I have waited 5 years to write this, I hope it was worth it.
The plan was always for my ex-wife to get out of the military and go to school to become a teacher. Since we had begun dating this was always the center of the life plan and being the man in her life, I wanted to make it happen. I received a call shortly before she left for Tour #2 in Iraq to work for DISA as a Senior Unix Test Engineer in Slidell. The pay was very good and it seemed like a good opportunity to take a first step in making it possible for her to exit the service. 2 or 3 months prior to her departure for the sandbox she came down to visit me on the water where the apartment was. It was a great place with a pool in the backyard and a view of the twin span bridges. We took walks around the bay and reviewed housing brochures for the area. Growing up on the Coast I had a great appreciation for New Orleans and the culture it provided. During that time I would frequently jump on the motorcycle and ride into the city exploring. The memories of that scenery and view stick in my mind.
It seems absurd now, but the Hurricane was not front-and-center on my mind. Work was moving along and the news of a big storm didn’t seem to phase any of us. Initial reports had the storm landing in Southern Texas with just a brush of rain our way. Growing up and living on the coast you learn not to get spun up too quickly about Hurricanes as you go through so many. This one was picking up in size, but it was no different than the hundred other times the Gulf fueled one. It wasn’t until Thursday if memory serves that we were all glued to our monitors at work watching the latest storm trackers. It was now becoming more of a possibility that this storm would hit New Orleans and even worse it was picking up in size and speed. Katrina as she had been dubbed, was turning into a super storm. My call to the ex-wife in Shreveport that night allowed me to open up that I was a little worried, but that I would just tough it out where I was at.
“Worst case scenario” I remember hearing the TV as the lead-ins from the local weather teams. As long as I can remember the scientists would flash up weather models showing what would happen to New Orleans if a large storm hit. There was still a lot of question wether or not the storm would in fact find its way to Louisiana, but by this time most of the city had evacuated. This was of course, without the DISA people being authorized. As a contractor my time was directly tied to money. I was on the fence about taking the financial hit to leave early, but decided to stay as the decision was supposed to come by Saturday afternoon. The roads Saturday afternoon and evening were turned into parking lots and I was left with a sinking feeling in my stomach and a list of missed calls from my parents. Now it was just a matter of hunkering down in NO or heading east to Biloxi with the parents. Being young and stupid…I waited till Sunday afternoon to decide this. Frantically I stuffed everything in the top of one closet that was worth anything. I rode the motorcycle over to Biloxi and as the sun began to set my Dad and I ran back for the Saturn car. It was impossible that day to run to Shreveport, but Biloxi seemed like it would out of harms way. We boarded up the windows at the house and tried to make a few more gas runs, but it was to the point of no return.
The Night before the Storm
I was blogging that night as the storm rolled in and talking to users via Skype. This was a big deal back then if you can imagine as we were talking and uploading videos of the storm in real-time. I’d like to think that the CNN iReport is due to the activities that night :) The storm was just rolling to shore and you could hear the wind and rain beat against the house. Lucky, the golden lab, was not all too happy with the commotion and was my sole provider of company that night as the family all went to sleep. There was no way I would be able to rest knowing what the world outside was going to look like. Around midnight the power finally cut and I was left with the droning noise of the UPS powering my computer for just a few more minutes. I signed off from the SkypeOut calls and powered down everything. The house was dark and filled only with the sound of plummeting nature.
The Morning of Truth
When I awoke to light wind and rain I though the storm had passed. Growing up on the coast it was not unheard of to have a storm pass over with no impact other than a few twigs on the road and loss of power. We had a light breakfast using the milk before it went bad and huddled around our storm radio to hear the news. It was after a few minutes that we began to realize the storm was not over. Within the hour winds had picked up and we were peaking from the holes in the boards covering our windows the destruction. Trees were swaying as if no amount of dirt would keep them put. Peoples belongings floated and jetted through the air as if hovering in space. We listened to the callers on the radio shows speaking to the destruction outside of their homes. I remember one caller pleading for help that the water was approaching their second floor stairs and they had no where to go. It was a tense time and we had nothing to pass it by, but the sound of that radio…My father caught a glimpse of the back yard fence about to give way through one of the knot holes and called us to action.
Him and I (with Dan video-tapping of course) ran outside to the back fence and propped it up with more boards and line. The wind came in spurts, not the constant rush you see on movies. For split seconds you would not need to lean into the brunt of it and then be pushed back a moment later. We rushed to make the repairs as the storm was picking up. It was amazing to see the storm pickup speed and strength around you and with what little squint your eyes would allow you to see it was devastation. Our neighbors in their vinyl siding houses had not fared as well as our brick home. For a moment I just stood there squinting and spinning my head like a periscope from below the ocean.
“Nicholas!!!! GET YOUR ASS IN HERE!!!!” my Mother screamed from the porch door where she was holding it shut. Just as I turned around to see her a piece of storm drain broke loose from the house and sped towards me like a missile. I ducked and then began to chase after it as if to save a sinking child. In hindsight this wasn’t the brightest idea and my mother re-enforced that by using my middle name as she yelled at me to return. We nestled back into the house and locked down waiting for the storm to pass.
The Afternoon/Evening of Boredom
You would think that being apart of one of the worst natural disasters to hit America would be exciting. This would be a very bad assumption. We sat now bored by the reports of levies breaking and buses rushing to pickup folks. Our mid-morning excitement only sustained us for a few hours before naps and cards took over the drone. The reports of levies breaking became a point of debate…did they or didn’t they…listening to Ray Nagin speak you would think the world hated us all and that he was on an episode of Survivor. He called from his hotel room high above the NO destruction below, though not missing out from the sound effects behind him. In what turned into his frank and open style post-Katrina, he laid it all out there. Spears were being tossed at anyone in hopes they’d come help. Later we would learn that the govt. as a whole had no business in preparing for Katrina or even running a lemonade stand, but at the time we sat around feeling for the guy.
With no power or light sources we called it an early night. We had a meat party trying to use up the food that would spoil in the fridge. The storm had let down enough to light the grill in our small protected outdoor area. We still couldn’t see more than a few hundred feet in any direction, but it was plenty to tell our lives were about to change. I remember thinking that this was by far the longest I had been without computer and internet access. I realized that the world beyond these 4 walls was watching us and we were wondering about them.
Mom made pancakes on the grill that morning and we sucked dry our last glasses of milk. We toasted them as if to commemorate the feast we had. This would be our last decent meal for a few days. Dad turned into military man and began to ration everything including our generator time. A quick blow-dryer visit for Mom and enough to juice the cell phones is all we got. I begged for computer access with no luck. I called my ex-wife and she filled us in on what the outside world was saying. I spoke to her walking up the road seeing our neighbors. She must have been able to tell that I was progressively becoming more amazed as my words broke into smaller sentences. It was breathtaking to see what mother nature had done to this small neighborhood. I quickly realized it was incredibly dangerous to be walking around and head back for the house. On the back porch we could see the entire neighborhood and it looked like a war zone. Our mid-afternoon rescue of the backyard fence proved to be a blessing. The storm went through and used the fences as spears and battering rams as it took out pools and sheds. Ours, due to not falling over and becoming a projectile, sheltered the contents of our yard.
We sat around deciding what to do next. Our immediate neighbors were alive, but needed assistance and after a few hours of work we had nothing further to do with what supplies we had. I talked to my ex again and decided I’d try and leave the coast a few days later. I wanted to stick around and help the neighbors out. The three men walked the neighborhood helping whoever we could. Dan and I jumped in the lifted Ford Ranger and headed out to explore. It was one of the few times I can remember where the lifted truck wasn’t an option, but a necessity. We figured out that we could only go 2 miles in either direction before the water and damage was too much for the truck to handle. The military realized this to as we watched overhead the helicopters airlifting supplies and tanks into our wooded areas.
Going to sleep that night was not an issue. Our bodies ache from repairs and our hearts were empty at the emotional drain of realization. We were able to pickup the local TV station WLOX when Dad was kind enough to ration some gas for the effort. When your world exists as a snow globe you don’t get the feel for how vast something is. Even with Valarie told me how bad it was the feeling never sunk in enough for me to realize. Seeing the grainy pictures on the TV made my jaw drop. Places I had grown-up in, played by, eaten dinners with friends…gone…People always say it “washed away” some object or thing. In this case it was as if it never existed.
My Father and I being the adventurous types decided to head West to my condo. The roads were cleared enough for us to make it out and when necessary we made our own. This was a mere 72 hours after Katrina had been through and the feeling (and smell) of hell still lingered in the air. Our cameras flashed consecutively as we tried to capture the pictures of boats hanging from trees, casinos lifted 4 stories high and plopped on apartment buildings, or the explosion of animal carcasses across the highways. We chuckled lightly as we topped the last sight with the next, but the drive into the bay where my condo was brought silence to the truck. “X” were marked on houses where dead were found and Army tanks were still pulling things out of the mud. When I saw the condo I thanked God I didn’t stay. There was no way I would have lived through the ordeal much like the neighbors who attempted it.
We used our military ID cards to get through blockades and escape out of being detained. On the way back we were just about to pass the exit where DISA was situated and I pulled into the exit. My Father could detect the solemn feel in my heart and didn’t say a word. The gates of DISA now housed a forward military command station. Armed troops locked down the parameter and patted us down as we drove in. There wasn’t law, let alone sanity, in these areas anymore. My boss happened to be there and she asked us for gas. We left her our ration and made our way back to Mississippi. It was the most silent my Father and I had even been driving. It was tough to internalize what I just saw and tougher to talk about how I felt. To this day it brings a mood to me I can’t describe.
Honestly I don’t remember much from this day. It was as if I had seen the place I would have died, walked among the dead, and drove away never to come back.
The Trip to Shreveport
The neat thing about driving a pickup is you are always ready to seat 5. The first guy I picked up was ragged, walking away from the SUV I saw 10 miles prior. He didn’t speak a lick of English, but smiled and nodded as I spoke. We shared nothing other than the tragedy and a strong desire to get the hell out. Next I picked up a family of 4 that were trying to find water. Together we all drove in the little silver truck northward watching the world around us continue to look like a bombing. As far North as Jackson we continued to find houses sitting in the middle of the highway.
In Jackson the truck finally gave way to physics and chemistry. I coasted into a gas station where the line stretched at least 2 miles. People were screaming and the owner was out attempting to referee. He must have been an old Marine or something because he stormed at me with a ferociousness I had not seen since Basic Training. I had cut the line and he was there to let me know it. A few steps from the truck he saw the family and passenger, the crucifix on the rearview mirror, and the military emblems on the dash. His persona did a strong 180 and he scooted me to the front of the line. I thanked him with small tears in my eyes and filled up the tank to the background noise of angry shouts. People were there hoarding gas “just in case” and were simply locals. They acted as if they had been through something with their light rain and gusts of wind. Looking around the parking lot you could tell which of us were from the coast. Battle weary and blank stares gave you indicators of which ones were leaving the battlefield.
The 7 hour trip took 15 that day and late that night I rolled into Shreveport. I remember not turning on the TV or computer and just going to bed. I didn’t talk or open up. I just felt the AC on my skin and the warm water from the shower. I was gone, but not without the memory.
Eventually Valarie went off for Iraq and Dan went home to Biloxi. I felt alone and scarred and decided to look for new work. Oddly enough it was in Biloxi that work was found. A month after fleeing I went back to Biloxi to work at Keesler AFB.
The year that followed was filled with a divorce, rebuilding, and a new life. God was teaching me something for sure. He took everything away from me and built a new foundation. The storm for many was a hellacious event that forever hurt their lives. For me it was rebirth and a new start. The man I am today is in no small way shaped by the atrocities that storm levied on us. Thanks to all of you that made this storm into a blessing and not a curse. Love and prayers to those that didn’t make it or are still dealing with the aftermath of those waters.
More pics if you are interested: