It’s been 14 years and it still feels as if it happened a couple of years ago. Hurricane Katrina shook the entire South to its core. It single-handedly uprooted thousands of people, many of which never returned home, and affected the lives of everyone on the Gulf Coast in some way. The livelihoods of countless people were ripped away and tossed into the flooded streets glistening with oil sheen under the hot August sun. This is my Katrina experience: a refugee’s story
Hurricanes are a way of life down here, right? I mean, we deal with storms every year. So how in the hell could this happen? How could we let our guard down? Both are very good questions. It still makes me wonder because power outages, minor street flooding and evacuations are second nature to most New Orleanians. But Katrina was different. She was a monster.
The day before mandatory evacuations, I remember waking up after a long night of partying and seeing that my mom had tried calling me multiple times. I called her back and, through my hangover, I could tell that she was completely stricken with panic. “Come home now!” she screamed into the phone. “The storm has turned and it is heading right for New Orleans!” Through the night, the storm had shifted from a northwesterly path to due north–straight for New Orleans.
I had lived in New Orleans for about 4 years at that point. My family still lived in Oak Grove, a suburb of Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Like I said before, we deal with this sort of thing all the time during hurricane season. But unlike all the other times, this particular instance was like a series of unfortunate events that enabled this storm to be catastrophic. The water temperature in the Gulf and the jet stream were two of the main culprits. Usually, it seems like storms shift away from us, not toward us. And as the events unfolded, it was like the whole city of New Orleans held its breath. You could hear a pin drop. Then, once we all realized this was really happening, everyone scattered.
The silence gave way to the sounds of construction as homeowners and business owners nailed up plywood to protect their property. The people that stayed rushed to the grocery stores and the people that left sped to the gas stations. I will never forget how long the lines were. Waiting to fill my car up with gas is one mistake that I will never make again. Little did I know that waiting an hour for gasoline was a cakewalk compared to what would be in store 2 days later.
It was really tough leaving home. This was different than any other time I had evacuated. It may have been because of the ominous path the storm was on. Whatever reason it was, it was very emotional for me. I remember making sure that my house was nice and tidy as I picked up the living room, Weather Channel blaring in the background. My mom had always instilled in me that when I came home from evacuations, it would be nicer to walk into a clean house rather than having to clean when I got home. Little did I know, I wouldn’t be coming home for a long, long time. I packed my little car with a couple of duffel bags, secured my garden and lawn furniture, and off I went. It took about 4 hours to get to my mom’s house, a trip that usually took 2 hours. Given the amount of cars on the road, that seemed like a success to me.
As the next day approached, it was pretty evident that Katrina was going to hit New Orleans. However, we didn’t have any idea that there was a warm pocket of water in the Gulf she was about to churn over that would spike her windspeeds even higher. All of us were frozen. As the winds became stronger, she began to shift east. Wait, what? East? Now, she was predicted to make landfall in south Mississippi. So I left my entire life behind, and for what? To go to ground zero.
We all know how it played out. Katrina was a direct hit for south Mississippi. It literally annihilated the Gulf Coast. We were about an hour inland, but that didn’t stop the massive winds. Pine trees snapped and crashed down all around us blocking everyone in our neighborhood. I had never seen trees bend like that. It was horrifying. The rain blew sideways for days it seemed. The wind howled like rabid wolves in the night. Then, the lights went out. And they stayed out for 2 weeks.
Luckily, we had a generator to at least run the refrigerator and the a/c for a few hours. We had to really watch our generator because there were thieves that were stealing them and replacing them with lawn mowers because the motors sounded so similar. Days after the storm it seemed apocalyptic. No power, no gas to run generators, no water. There were reports of people killing their own family members over ice, food, and gas. It was 100 degrees outside and we had no electricity, no water. Seriously, what do you do?
To our amazement, it was like a guardian angel guided them to us. My parents’ friends owned a furniture store in town. They called us to see if we needed somewhere safe to stay. We were so excited! This place had electricity! It had running water! We walked in and got to pick out our sleeping spot in one of the 2 different show rooms. Each show room had about 10 different room displays. I can still remember how comfortable I was with the cool air blowing on me as I lay on a big sofa. I was able to charge my cellphone and turn it on. When I did, I was flooded with voicemails. Earlier that day, the levees broke in New Orleans. Water inundated the city. Parts of the city were on fire. People were drowning. It seemed like New Orleans had fallen.
After a few days of sweating it out with my family, I was elated to find out that some friends of mine came up from New Orleans heading towards Memphis. They stopped by my house to see if I wanted to follow along. As quickly as I could, I threw my bags in my car and away we went.
A close friend of mine lived in Memphis and I was able to stay with him and his family for a while. They took me in as their own and, to this day, I am eternally grateful. All of a sudden I went from being a guest in from out of town to a New Orleans refugee. Memphis picked me up and give me the tightest hug. Everywhere I went, people hugged me. I couldn’t help but to cry- all of the time. All of the stores had signs in their windows reading “refugee discounts.” Every time I took my license out to show them, they hugged me. Some cried. Some would put their hand on my face and tell me that it was going to be okay. Memphis will ALWAYS be my second home. The compassion, empathy, and love that radiated from everyone there still shines in my heart to this day, as it will forever.
One week led to a month, then to two months. Then there was talk of New Orleans allowing residents back home. They implemented the return for residents by zip code only. I waited anxiously for them to call my zip code. The city officials stressed that the city was still uninhabitable. This was just to allow residents to assess damages and grab their belongings until New Orleans was operational again. Finally, they announced my zip code and away I went.
There were many detours because of roads and bridges not existing anymore. Finally, I got to New Orleans. It was like it was Armageddon. I could not believe my eyes. Floodwaters, broken trees, debris, caskets. It was overwhelming. There were military check points every half mile. One happened to be right beside my house on Saint Charles Avenue. They walked around in their military garb wielding assault riffles. It was literally like a war scene from a movie. When I finally made it to my house I had to wind my way through broken branches and slate roofing tiles.
I was frantically trying to load my life up for the next few months. As twilight fell, everything was silent. The wind had stopped. No sounds of birds, insects, people. It was incredibly eerie. There was a sunset curfew and I had to be out of the city before the sun went down. Well, needless to say, I was running a little bit late. I jumped in my car and hauled ass toward the interstate. There was another military checkpoint before I could leave. He flagged me down and I stopped. He said I was past curfew and I had to turn around and go back to my house–my dark and scary house. At that moment I lost it. All I could do was cry. Actually, I balled. I was terrified. I couldn’t even talk without hyperventilating. Thankfully, he felt sorry for me and let me pass. I felt like I was transported to Iraq. It was so surreal and overwhelming.
I went back to Memphis as quickly as I could that evening. I had nightmares for years after that. Many, many other people do too. Some, much, much worse. So many people died. Entire families drowned in their attics with no way to escape. Katrina left holes in people’s lives that will never ever be filled. The images of the rushing water flooding my city will always be burned into my memory.
Every single year, as each new storm develops, we all have flashbacks of what our lives were like after the storm. If it is one thing I learned, it’s that one event can change everyone’s way of life- in one fail swoop. Don’t take anything for granted because it can all be gone tomorrow. Every single year, hurricane season is a daunting and sinking feeling that doesn’t go away until November. The longer we go with not having a major storm, the easier it is to to go on with our daily lives. But the events of what happened 14 years ago will never ever leave me. With every hurricane season that comes, and every storm that forms, Katrina will always be in the back of my mind.
That which doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger right? That couldn’t have been more true as we all began to rebuild our lives in New Orleans and all across the South.
You can’t really and truly understand the beauty of life until it’s ripped away from you. It’s when you have stared at what is heinously terrifying about life- and then overcame it. It’s in those very moments there. That is your silver lining.
It’s a single seed of hope that sprouts.
It’s watered by faith, and grown by love-
to become the blossoms of our lives.