Seven years ago this week, I had strep throat. It was my first experience with it as an adult, and it seriously kicked my butt. I remember this because I was at home sick, with nothing to do but watch feverishly for two days as Katrina barreled toward New Orleans and the Gulf Coast and many people I love.
This storm just felt bad. Très mal, as we’d say in the bayou. When that thing crystalized into this beautiful-but-awful storm, with a perfectly deadly eye, it shook me to my core. On Sunday, Aug. 28, when it hit Cat 5 status, it was terrifying. I still remember Hurricane Camille, a Cat 5 monster that hit when I was young.
That week was a difficult time, even before the storm. It was also a fresh anniversary of the day we lost one of my nieces, an amazing light, in a car accident. My job was slowly stealing my soul. Then the strep, which kind of feels like someone’s carefully grinding crushed glass into your throat. But I was on the upswing, physically at least, as Katrina approached.
I went in to work on Aug. 29 and told my boss that I needed to go to Louisiana. Even back then, he was already running the newsroom on a shoestring, and editors taking off during a big story isn’t the best thing. Still, he told me I could go — as long as I took vacation time. OK.
I went back home and watched as TV folks talked about New Orleans being “spared.” They sounded disappointed. I get that. As a journalist, you get stoked up for a disaster, then it eases off and it’s kind of a letdown. I mean, you’re happy for the people in the disaster area, but you don’t have anything to cover.
But I also saw where Katrina went ashore. And even though no media talked about the Mississippi Gulf Coast, I knew what had to have happened there. There’s just not much “give” in that area during a direct hurricane hit.
Then came the reports of the levee breaches in New Orleans. It was what we had all feared, forever. Soon, the footage began to roll. People stranded. Bodies floating in the streets. I still remember the Homeland Security guy saying that for some people who didn’t get out of New Orleans, “it was their last night on this earth.”
When D got home from work, I met her at the door. “I have to go,” I said. Being the gift that she is, she simply looked at me for a moment. I’m sure she wanted to say, “Are you crazy?!” But she just nodded, and said, “Let’s get you ready.”
We spent a few hours buying out local stores. Having grown up in Louisiana, I knew what to take. Bug spray. Water. Juice. First aid supplies. Diapers. Non-perishable food. Batteries. Pet food. Big gas cans. We had a huge Sequoia SUV, and we crammed every inch of it. As we loaded up at store after store, people stopped and asked, “Are you going to New Orleans?” When we said yes, they handed us stuff. $100, a handful of crumpled $1 bills, a case of peanut butter crackers they’d just bought.
The next morning, I went to work to pick up a laptop to take with me. Word had gotten out that I was going, and in my office I found a small mound of supplies and cash, dropped off by my coworkers, crusty journalists who emptied their hearts and wallets. We made more room in the Sequoia.
All the way down, I drove alongside power trucks and rescue vehicles. Listening to the radio, it quickly became clear that anarchy was ruling and chaos was king. I arrived in Southern Mississippi well before the official response had kicked in. (That was nothing special, of course, given how slow that happened.) I stopped at the newspaper in Hattiesburg, where I’d cut my teeth as a journalist many years before. I ran into an old friend and former colleague whom I hadn’t seen or talked to in 20 years. He took one look at my face and my SUV, and offered up his spare room. His street was littered with downed trees, but he opened his home and his heart immediately.
I caught some shuteye. The next morning, I drank a warm Dr. Pepper and ate a cold Pop-Tart. Then I headed south. Into the abyss, into devastation. Trees snapped like toothpicks. God, it was hot. No power, no A/C, no ice. Families sitting on the ground in parking lots of stores, shell-shocked and hungry. Once I stopped to clear debris off of a road, and my shoes got stuck to the asphalt. The pine trees were so torn apart, sap had run into the streets like glue. It was so horrible, but it smelled so good, like fresh pine always does.
I made it to the coast. No checkpoints, no cops, no military. Nothing but desolation, piles of debris, and the worst smell you can imagine. I parked near the coast, put on my gloves and started moving debris, looking for survivors. I didn’t find any. I found parts of people who didn’t make it, and item after item from Life Before: baby dolls, photos, a karate trophy, half of a mounted marlin. I’ve never been so hot, so dirty. The air was oily and thick, the stench something from the inner circle of hell. Decomposing body parts and animals, rotting food, the rainbow sheen of oil and gas on standing water, all baking together in a hot soup. I saw a small dog, a bone poking out of the back leg he was dragging. He was mad with pain and fear and thirst. I tried to catch him, but he disappeared into a pile of debris that would only be moved by cranes.
Occasionally people would come up, asking if I’d seen so-and-so. Some would help for a minute, then shamble off, going back to looking for their loved ones. After a few hours, a crew of cops came up and took over. I went back to my car. I looked in the mirror, and saw that my tears had cut lines of clean down my filthy face.
I drove about three blocks away from the Gulf, right next to a huge boat that had been tossed inland and left stranded. I saw a couple of pickups there, handing out clothes to small groups of survivors. As far as you could see, homes were just piles of rubble and ruin and splinters. What items survived were covered in mud and filth. It seemed like the right place to stop and begin emptying the truck. It only took about an hour. There was no pushing or grabbing or shoving, just stunned people lining up quietly and taking whatever you handed them. When my supplies were gone, those who went without just slowly turned away and went in search of help somewhere else.
I have only felt so helpless two other times in my life, when facing the unexpected deaths of two young family members. But I was angry, too, along with the rest of the world. How did this happen, here, to us?
I found a nearby Red Cross shelter and went to work on the medical crew cleaning and dressing wounds, taking medical histories, anything and everything. People making their way to the shelter had fled with nothing, not even their medicine — diabetics, the mentally ill, even cancer patients. They were covered in cuts and scrapes, almost all infected, and terrible bruises and oozing bug bites. One man had a broken arm, which he’d lived with for three days. They had lost everything and had nowhere to go.
The shelter was in a horse arena, too, and there were fleas. Miserable. Cots lined the walkways, and it was bloody hot — no A/C there, either. One afternoon another volunteer and I were walking through the cots, and we looked over to see a 50-something man molesting a young pre-teen relative. Right there in the open.
The shelter, while providing a valuable service, was a heartbreaking, soul-wrenching place. We did what we could, but it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t nearly enough.
On my trip home, I stopped to eat at a Piccadilly cafeteria in Jackson, Miss. It was clean, brightly lit, full of people laughing as they ate their comfort food. I sat down to my plate, and lasted less than a minute before I had a big-faced-cry PTSD meltdown in the middle of the dining room. The juxtaposition between that dining room, and what was happening just two hours away, consumed me. I fled, black-eyed peas untouched.
Katrina changed me, along with hundreds of thousands of others. I didn’t lose my home, or my life. But I lost a little part of my soul. I gained something, too: a desire for a different life. I had spent more than 20 years being a journalist, remaining distanced from my community in the pursuit of objectivity. I loved it… but after Katrina, I could no longer do that. It is an important role that journalists play, and I applaud them. It was no longer a role I could play, however. I turned instead to the world of non-profit health care, which feels so right to me and where I know I have made a difference in some people’s lives.
As Isaac approaches, I believe we hold close the lessons learned from Katrina. We are better prepared today; this societal breakdown will not happen again. I have healed from those days of horror. I knew another hurricane would come, of course, marching inexorably toward Mississippi’s Gulf Coast and New Orleans.
Now that it has, I realize that I have healed… but I have not forgotten. The smells, the sadness, the pain, the anger, the helplessness — while 7 years old now, those feelings are as sharp and fresh as fine cheese. They are a sick, gnawing ache in my gut, burning brighter with every minute spent watching The Weather Channel.
We are ready for Isaac, and we will outlast its fury, no matter how strong he is. (Personally, I hope he fizzles out like a wet sparkler, and then we can dance and toast his demise.) But we must not forget what brought us to this day, just seven short years ago, and how it changed us.