I found this today in a folder on my computer during some cleaning. I have no idea what prompted me to write it or who I sent it to but this is my Katrina story written on the 5th anniversary of the storm in 2010.
Today is August 26, 2010. It doesn’t mean much to somebody who was not residing in Southern Mississippi or Louisiana during this time five years ago. If you were living here, you know that in three days, August 29th, we will mark the five year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. All around me, on the radio, TV and internet, you find nothing but interviews and remembrances of what happened, how far we’ve came and how far we’ve still yet to go. I stopped listening and watching two days ago. I lived it and am still living it. A reporter’s view is not needed and could not encompass the depth of things seen, felt and heard. As of today, I still have not processed everything that happened and I doubt there will come a day when those events seem dulled with time. It is stamped in my memory with hard edges and searing images, a study in extremes. Need and plenty, heat and cold, generosity and greed. What follows is my Katrina Experience. It will be different than others for each person’s surroundings shaped original and distinctive facets for each person’s story. This is mine.
I started a new job on August 1, 2005 at a bank in a 70 year old building in Downtown Hattiesburg. This new job followed a lay off and a length of unemployment that lasted two months. That doesn’t sound like a long time of unemployment unless you have bills with no way to pay them. After working three full weeks at my new job, I came home that Friday evening with my eye to the Gulf. Katrina had reformed into a Category 1 hurricane after passing over Florida and being downgraded to a tropical storm earlier that day. She was gaining strength and that night, while she was still down in the deep, tropically warm waters of the southernmost Gulf, I pulled up a satellite photo of her on The Weather Channel’s website and printed the picture. She was perfect. Frighteningly beautiful. Huge. Her feeder bands stretched from Florida to Mexico. The eye wall was so well defined it looked to be cut with a knife. That printed satellite photo is now in my Katrina scrapbook. She had been moving west. She was turning north. When I saw her curve, even that far out, my very first thought was, “She’s coming straight for us.”
Image Credit: NOAA
I woke up Saturday to the watches, warnings and urgings from authorities to start making plans. She was now a monster Category 3 storm and was forecast to gain even more strength before making land fall. According to the forecasts, she was, indeed, coming straight for us. I passed Saturday glued to the internet and TV, trying to peel the truth from the hype and waiting for each two hour NOAA update on land fall location and strength. Mike Reader, Senior Meteorologist on the Mississippi Gulf Coast’s ABC affiliate, WLOX, was my guide through the swirl of madness on TV. Whatever he said was gospel and if he told me to do something, I did it. I took a bath, cleaned my tub and filled it up with water. I began making plans. My dad had been watching the updates almost a closely as I. My mom was unconcerned, as she had seen lots of hurricanes but no damage to us in Purvis. She filled up a few empty coke bottles with water and put them in the freezer Sunday night. She filled up her tub with water on Monday morning as the storm was coming in. We had canned goods and batteries on hand. Dad and I had already braved the heat and taken down both porch swings on Sunday morning, along with all of the hanging plants, hummingbird feeders, wind chimes, pushed all of the patio furniture together with the barbeque grill, flipped over tables that would topple and roped everything to the carport posts. Anything that would fly away in 70 mile an hour winds got put away and secured. Tiki torches, citronella candles, bird feeders, everything. We forgot about the rugs on the door steps. We’d find them later in the weeds close to the pond. Mom seemed to think we were over-reacting with the rope and removal of everything possible. She views storms differently now. We all do.
Monday morning arrived and found us waiting, window blinds open, watching the winds slowly get stronger in the trees. I had received no instructions on Friday evening from work as to how to handle reporting absences in case of an Act of God, knew almost no one’s last names or hometowns to look up home phone numbers and certainly didn’t know exactly where anyone lived. I correctly assumed that no one was braving the streets for work this day and our bosses knew we were battening down at home. We had taken the time to unplug and put garbage bags over our computers, monitors, keyboards, etc and put all paper things in drawers in case of leaking on Friday before leaving work. By doing that small thing, we saved our company hundreds of thousands of dollars in my one building alone.
My Aunt Elaine and her boyfriend had left for Missouri to visit my cousin Belinda and her children a few days before we started worrying about Katrina. We were “bird-sitting” her white umbrella cockatoo, Solomon, until her planned return on Saturday, September 3rd. As the eye of Katrina moved closer to us and eventually passed directly over us, the winds and rains picked up and we watched as small trees the size of our arms were uprooted in our yard. Branches and limbs broke from the pressure and flew through the air. The hand-planted 20 year old pines in the field were leaning at a 45 degree angle from the constant wrap around northeast winds. Pieces of cream colored siding from the house whipped through the yard. Tin on my mom’s duck pen roof rolled up and played havoc with the duck’s nerves by banging together for hours. Some of the ducks got out but they stayed right beside the pen. Our house roof popped and creaked like we were on a wooden ship in high seas and Solomon, the cockatoo, would roll his head to the side and look at the ceiling with one bird eye about the same time we would look at it too. There were a couple of times I thought it was going to finally succumb to the winds and leave us entirely, the creaking was so loud. It resembled the sound of a nail being pulled from a piece of lumber with a claw hammer but magnified by about 100.
The electricity flickered off and on for a while but finally cut out for good around noon and we opened the protected windows on the front porch so the rain would not come in. There were plenty of breezes, believe me. We did not own a generator. We quickly wrapped the 30 year old deep freeze in layers of quilts to insulate it in hopes of preserving the 32 cubic feet of frozen meat, bread and homegrown summer vegetables. Sometime that day, we found that we had also lost the phone connection. Fortunately, we only lost water for a few hours. The water department had a generator and had it up and going before the hurricane was even over. God bless ‘em. We had a day bed set up in the living room beside the windows and that’s where I stayed for the majority of the day, waiting for more trees to fall. Hoping they didn’t fall on the house. That’s where I slept Monday night, listening to crickets and frogs through the open windows. It was the last time I would sleep inside for a week.
It was nightfall before the winds and rain finally died down on Monday so we didn’t bother seeing about damage outside until Tuesday. Tuesday brought the hell that was Katrina down with a vengeance. Siding, flashing and facing from the roof had been ripped off of the house and you could see the studs that held the roof together while standing on the lawn outside. Shingles were everywhere in the yard, along with branches, limbs, leaves, debris. Everything under the carport was covered, COVERED, in what looked to be ground up pieces of pine needles and leaves from the trees behind the house. You could not place a finger in a spot with no debris. The lawn was 5 inches deep in it. Our cars were plastered in it. The ducks would not walk through it. The roof had leaked in the living room, master bathroom and dining room but only bad enough to leave a stain on the ceiling. A hurricane, especially one as large as Katrina, tends to clear out the atmosphere and brings high pressure behind it so we were not too concerned with rain in the near future on our leaking roof. There was not a speck of cloud in the sky. Nothing to stop the scorching sun bearing down. Our biggest obstacles at that time were no power and no phone.
The isolation was utter and complete. We lived 7 ½ miles from the nearest town. No TV reports. The only radio station that still had a standing and broadcasting radio tower was a country station on the coast called Kicker 108. The only thing they were able to tell us was that the devastation down there was mind blowing and as the days rolled by, they became the only link for family members who could not find each other. “I’m still alive and my apartment on the beach washed away so I’m living with some people in Diamondhead. Please tell my mother and family if they get in touch with you. My name is …” became the things we heard each time we turned on the radio. “We don’t know if my child is dead or alive. Please, if you’re listening and you know them…” was another statement heard often from terrified parents. My AT&T cell phone was useless. Mom and Dad’s Cellular South phones could not dial out 95% of the time due to such high traffic on the very few remaining lines. Everybody in the country was calling South Mississippi and Louisiana to find out if everybody was still alive. We were alive but no one knew it. We received no local news at all and the news that was passed from mouth to mouth after the roads were cleared enough for Dad to get to work in Purvis, had been recycled quite a few times before reaching our ears.
We were afraid to travel to town because we didn’t know if gasoline was even available or if there was even a station standing in a 30 mile radius. If it was standing and had power, how much was gas? Over four dollars a gallon, we found out a week later. We didn’t dare go anywhere except to see about family in order to save precious gas. My Uncle Lavon’s roof had managed to withstand 5 huge pine trees landing on it and Tuesday was when Dad heard the chainsaws tune up around the community. He gassed his up and went to help, clearing the road to drive on as he went. Power lines were down all over the road…were they live? Who knew? We had no information from anywhere. We tried to go around them as best we could but there were always trees and fences in the way so we had to drive over some of them. Had to take the chance. Everybody was missing tin and shingles from their roofs and most houses had trees on them or in their yards. Roof damage was everywhere. Quite a few trailers were totally destroyed. Mom and I stayed home on Wednesday when Dad ventured out to work. He had to take quite a few back roads as the county had not cleared anything, the trees folded over the road like decks of cards. He came back home on Wednesday with tales of gun fights over gasoline, looting, theft and most importantly, no ice. No ice anywhere. The ice we had in the freezer had melted days before. Where were the trucks with ice and meals and water? The helicopters were constantly flying over, slicing the absolute quiet of a land with no traffic or electricity with their low-flying blades. Electricity makes a lot of noise when you think about all of the motors running on it in your neighborhood. Why weren’t the helicopters dropping food and water if they couldn’t get down the interstates yet? They flew over all the time now. Twenty, twenty-five helicopters a day…it became a normal sound. Oh, another helicopter. No information. No ice. Hot water from the tap that we boiled, just in case. Canned food. Heat. Sweat.
Canned food. Heat. Sweat.
By Thursday, we had our new temporary way of life perfected. We would lie still on our make-shift front porch beds as long as the heat would let us, then reluctantly rise to face more heat, cleaning and surviving all day. Mom has an affinity for thrift store shopping and had picked up two white nettings to drape around her bed at some point. They were brought out of the closet and put to good use on the front porch to keep the mosquitoes off of us while sleeping. We whip stitched closed all of the openings except one and that one we clothes pinned and chip clipped shut. We swept, wiped, disassembled the roped together patio furniture, rehung everything and backed the vehicles out of the carport. The carport and patio was now our living area. The heat inside was too much to bear. Outside was not much better but there was a breeze now and then. The sun now ruled our days. When it rose, we rose. When it set, we went to bed. Batteries were precious, reserved for few and far between news reports on the radio and lanterns only generated even more unwanted heat. The sun was our light.
No electricity makes every move you make all day long three times harder than it usually is. Putting aside the fact that you’re swimming through 100 degree days with almost 100 percent humidity, everything you touch must be cleaned and disinfected because you’re living outside. Then there’s the bugs. The bugs and flies. God. Every drop of water had to be boiled on the propane gas grill. The towels you washed by hand in a bucket will sour if you don’t immediately walk into the suffocating sunshine and hang them on the clothes line. The paper cups and plates and napkins must be kept sealed airtight to keep every living thing out. When those run out, you must use the glass ones and that only requires more cleaning and washing and inventive ways of keeping the bugs off of them when clean. We lived in our swim suits. Regular clothes were entirely too thick, hot and restrictive. Bleach was our new go-to cleaning agent. It was easier to bleach it and get it over with than to have to spend valuable elbow grease recleaning things numerous times. We strung more clothes lines because the one we had was not even enough for one day’s laundry.
After a long day of surviving, about sundown, we would take a cold shower in our swim suits on a stepping stone under the water hose spray of a thrift store bought out-door shower head, throw on our pajamas and walk very slowly to our front porch beds. Walking slowly as not to start sweating. It was the only moment all day that we were not sticky with dried sweat and dirt. With wet heads, we lay there and listened to the mosquitoes desperately trying to find a way to us through the netting. I laid there and wondered if I had a building to work in anymore. I wondered if anybody knew we were still alive. I wondered how long it would be before I saw a light bulb burn again. I wondered how many people died from the storm surge on the Coast. I wondered if we even had a Coast anymore.
On Friday night, we were lying on our netted out-door beds when headlights cut through the darkness and across our night gowned bodies. We scrambled to find clothes while saying, “Who in the world??” Nobody was traveling unless they were going to work. Who was visiting us in the middle of this mess? It was a high school friend’s sister and brother…they came bearing ICE… they brought us ICE. We thanked them profusely and burst into tears. ICE!! WHERE DID THEY GET IT!?!?! The trucks with the ice had finally arrived. Four days after the storm. Finally! Drag out the ice chests and put in the ice. The next day, Saturday, mom and I ventured into Purvis for the first time. The only words that I can find to explain the sites we saw is that it looked like a war had taken place. It looked like a bomb had gone off. We found the ice at the end of a line we sat in for 2 hours in the heat and we found the grocery store in our small town had gotten enough generators to open. We ventured further on and passed a man on a hill towards Oak Grove in his truck with his cell phone pressed to the side of his head. HE HAD A SIGNAL AND HE WAS TALKING TO SOMEBODY!!! I immediately pulled over and started dialing my cell phone. Mom did the same. We called family and friends who were far away and told them WE WERE ALIVE!! WE SURVIVED!! We got cold things and ice and MRE’s from the National Guard and we feasted that evening. We had eggs and fried baloney and grits all on the gas grill and it was ambrosia. It was hot food. It wasn’t canned. We had ice. The roads were mostly clear. We could get gas. There was hours of waiting in long lines for it but we could get it. We were going to be okay.
I still had no idea about my job and tried to call the only numbers I had. They were not in service. Traffic in Hattiesburg was unbelievable. The influx of people running from the Coast and New Orleans had swelled the town to the point that a normally 15 minute drive took 45 minutes. We drove to Downtown and weaved through the piles of broken glass from the windows of the buildings, tree limbs and maneuvered with no red lights. The building was standing. It had leaked, windows had blown out and had no electricity and all of my co-worker’s personal items were gone. It had been stripped bare in each cubicle, except mine. What in the world? I’d only worked three weeks and I didn’t have a job anymore? I saw someone as I was coming out of the building and he told me everybody had been bused to Memphis to work until things were repaired down here. Everybody but me and another co-worker, come to find out. We had been the hardest to get a hold of and they were still trying to find us. Human Resources had actually tracked my dad’s work number down and called him there on Saturday. Asking him if we needed anything, if everything was alright. They gave me my boss’ cell number so that I could check in when I could get a signal. I was told I would still be paid normally during all of this. What a surprise! They gave a crap about us! We didn’t return to work until September 19th in the Downtown Hattiesburg building. My money was in the bank anyway.
On Sunday after the hurricane, my aunt arrived from Missouri to get the bird we were bird-sitting and to bring us a generator. A generator!! Electricity!! When you could not get one for love nor money in the tri-state area!! We cried again. We’d heard that our pharmacist had driven all the way to Houston the day before in search of a generator. We broke down and finally cleaned out the quilt covered deep freeze. We had cleaned out the refrigerator and small freezer previously but the deep freeze…we were hoping to somehow salvage something from it if they were to get the electricity grid working. We started unloading it and the things in the middle were still frozen. We were surprised. Oh well, clean it out so we can get some cold things to add to it and now we have a generator to keep it frozen. The generator was another worry in itself because there were reports of them being stolen in every community. Generators are loud. You know when someone has one and they were being stolen in the middle of the night since there were no porch lights or lights at all to find them out. We chained and locked ours to a carport post. Cans of gasoline had to be hidden or locked up, as well.
The generator could not have come at a more perfect time. The beginning of September brought love bugs. The worse case of love bugs I have seen before or since. Hundreds of thousands of their little black bodies littered anything standing still and we retreated inside with generator powered fans to circulate the humid air. We duct taped the back door through which the generator cords had to run and dared anybody to untape it. Any opening and the love bugs would find it. They piled up on the floor in the pantry and we swept it numerous times daily. They start to stink when they die. We watched a little generator powered TV and found that WLOX was the only channel we could pick up. No other channels were broadcasting yet and the aerial shots of the coast line were sobering. We learned that NOLA had flooded and people were still dying, trapped in their homes in the heat and putrid water. We saw shots of bloated corpses floating in the flood waters. We learned that people were still without water, ice, food on the coast. That people survived in tree tops all day in the storm surge, holding their family members for dear life. We counted ourselves lucky because we still had a battered place to call home and had not lost loved ones to this storm.
Wednesday, a week after the storm, I went with a friend down to her family’s house on the Coast. I wanted to see for myself what was happening down there. I took photos in Bay St. Louis through her love-bug splattered wind shield and said, “Oh my God” more times than I could count. The roads had been bull dozed to get the houses and debris off the road. Sewage still bubbled from manhole covers and water sprayed from PVC pipes jutting from the ground. Everything was covered in a 2 inch thick layer of disgustingly soured brown mud and spray paint indicated the buildings where rescue workers found bodies. It was a war zone. I was stunned numb and speechless. Too numb to comprehend or even cry over it. I was glad when we came home to our own brand of war zone.
We received electricity again on September 12th, fourteen days exactly from the day Hurricane Katrina changed our minds about storms. The first time a thunderstorm blew up afterwards, I watched the trees bending back and forth and had to concentrate on breathing. Too soon to deal with the storms again. Our phone was finally repaired a month and a half after the storm. The insurance company came through with reroofing money a month after the Army Corps of Engineers blue tarped our roof and removed all of the uprooted, sagging or broken trees from our yard. We even got some trimmed up trees out of the deal.
We count ourselves lucky. We are alive with jobs to return to, homes to sleep in, friends and family to count on and the means to survive. We came through it changed but alive. We survived with some dignity and ingenuity. I have no need to watch the five year anniversary specials. I’m still here watching it happen.