Isaac: Deja vu all over again


Seven years ago this week, I had strep throat. It was my first experience with it as an adult, and it seriously kicked my ass. 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. Nasty. 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 a kid.

ImageThat 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. (That’s her, on the right.)

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 ol’ 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 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.

About wordsmith1313

Now: Somewhat retired, although I don't do it very well. Formerly senior director of Communications and Marketing for the Dallas Zoo. Journalist. EMT. Writer. Breast cancer survivor. I love to travel, and will always return from a trip with a new friend or two. Those fortuitous meetings bring velvet to the rough edges of life.
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58 Responses to Isaac: Deja vu all over again

  1. Janet says:

    Oh Laurie. What can I say? Maybe I had a small part in the teeth cutting that made you such a good writer.

  2. whiteray says:

    Brilliant piece. I know all too well that bifurcation of feeling when covering a tragedy, with the more humane portion of us wanting to cry and give to those who are hurting, while the other portion of us goes in to journalist mode, jotting down the horror and the sorrow, all the while thinking, “Damn, what a great story.” You did and stil do far more than that, and I salute you for it.

  3. Taryn says:

    Heart-warming, soul-wrenching. A beautiful and brilliant expression.

  4. Nice work, Laurie. Captured the essence of things nicely.

  5. donna powell says:

    Great piece, Laurie! Well written and straight from the heart. It is so easy to watch a story unfold on the news and feel insulated. Although it didn’t receive much national attention, the flood in Nashville a couple of years ago, forever changed how I view “disasters”. I had friends who lost everything and still haven’t recovered. Thanks for reminding us to see beyond news bites. Thank you for living such a compassionate life.

    • Thanks, Donna. We were already in Dallas when Nashville got hit, but we immediately trekked up there, too. That was a difficult, difficult time — and like you, we still know people whose lives are off-track because of that. The resiliency of Nashvillians was incredible to see. My “We Are Nashville” T-shirt remains one of my favorites, too. 🙂

      Thank you for the compliment!

  6. Every time I hear your stories from this time in your life, it sends chills down my spine. I remember helping load up the SUV, wishing we could just up and leave with you. What an awesome (yet horrible) experience. Thanks for the blog. Reading it and remembering you during that time is a great reminder of how powerful we can be as human beings..

    • Thanks, my friend. I remember well you guys helping us cram stuff into the car… I think it was even you who decided it just wasn’t possible for me to put the gas tanks on the roof, because I’d never be able to get them down by myself!

  7. Of course I love your great talent for the written word but what I love so much more than that is how you allow your eyes to truly see and care for humanity. You are a wonderful human being that we could all learn so much from. I love your heart!!! hugs from Tennessee 🙂

  8. Beth says:

    Brilliant, and painful. I am honored to call you my friend, and grateful for the unknown force that brought you into my life. Thank you for being you.

  9. Beautifully written, Laurie. I have seen first hand the way you swoop in and do everything you can to make a bad situation more bearable, and I feel blessed to have you in my life. Now, let’s write a book!

  10. Nice post. You’re a very talented writer as I’m sure you’re aware. You’ve reminded me of the time I had strep throat, tonsillitis and bronchitis all at the same time back in ’03… I was a teenager and haven’t had any of the three since. Hopefully it stays that way. Thanks for the write up of your experiences during the storms.

  11. I read every word of this post, each one seemingly cutting deeper and deeper into my sheltered soul. I have never witnessed this kind of devastation — never been surrounded by this caliber of tragedy. I’m truly grateful for people like you in this world…the ones who can heed the call — and then remind us all through beautiful words what it means to be a compassionate human.

    Thank you.

    • Mikalee, while it was such a difficult time, it also made me very grateful for all that I have, and will forever be a reminder of what type of life I must live. Thank you for reading.

  12. I lived in Houston when Katrina came, and we received many from Louisiana into our city. We all wanted to just reach out and hand over and hand up and hand hold, but it could never, ever, be enough to heal the wounds of those who had lost everything. Nothing we do in these events, ever, is enough, but it is enough that we try to do. Watching Isaac inching along has me wanting nothing more than to get in the car and drive there to hand out food, help someone get somewhere, or just listen to somebody who needs an ear. It’s good to see you fresh pressed. Write on.

    • Linda, you folks in Houston were lifesavers, for sure. Your generosity and support were legendary… and will be next time it’s needed, I’m sure. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with me.

  13. kleioleander says:

    At the time of this hurricane, I was a pretty sheltered kid from Britain and I’m ashamed to say I barely knew of it. When I did I was out-raged at the prolonged suffering. But I’m touched and infinitely glad that someone did up and leave to offer what they could. I commend your altruism and your writing. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

    • Thank you so much. It’s pretty exciting, being Freshly Pressed and all. One good thing out of Katrina was that we learned some valuable lessons. I doubt if we will ever take any storm for granted anymore. Thank you for writing!

  14. Anna says:

    This is so powerful. So beautiful Laurie. I’m many thousands of miles away, yet crying.

    • Thank you, Anna. That’s a very high compliment. Just don’t cry for long, because your face will get all red and blotchy, and you’re too awesome for that. 🙂 Hugs from the U.S.!

  15. ‘Wordsmith’ is well chosen. Thank you for doing what you did and for writing about it, reaching me so far across the water in England, just as the pictures and films reached me then, so helpless here and so sad for that beautiful deadly coast. I am uplifted by your hopefulness, and humbled by your love and effort to help.

    • So many others did far more than I did… there were many, many people reaching out their hands to the suffering. I just hope we won’t need to do it again after Isaac. Surely not to that scale. Thank you for reading as I shared my heart.

  16. I wanted to comment saying how powerful this is, but it seems insufficient. I have a lot of respect for you, having the ability to go there and do these selfless, amazing things and also to write about them.

  17. Beautifully written! At the time, I was teaching at an all-girls boarding school, and we took in students whose families had lost everything. In subsequent years, our students (many of whom were international students) spent their spring breaks rebuilding homes in St.Bernard Parish.

  18. Your piece touched me deeply. Just as with 9/11, Katrina was one of the saddest moments of my life. Being miles away watching, praying, glued to news reports with my stomach churning and tears non stop, hurting and yet unable to do much more than that. Those moments are truly milestone moments that will never be forgotten. I have a Veterinarian friend who was able to drive to NO and work for two weeks. She came home with an unclaimed dog and named her Cookie. Cookie lived the rest of her life in a warm, loving home until age took her and her ashes are buried along side the vet’s practice in the country. One life saved, cherished and loved. I have always wondered what Cookie’s life was before Katrina and who may have considered her ” family ” lost. I often wonder about the survivors, both human and pet.

    • It was a time of horror, but also of special moments like the one you describe. That’s wonderful that your friend gave of her time, and also of her heart to Cookie. We can only focus on those bright moments of life, even in times of despair. Thank you for reading, and for commenting.

  19. You were so good to go. How terrifyingly and beautifully written. Thank you for sharing.

  20. Powerful stuff. You took me where I didn’t really want to go, but no doubt needed to go. Thank you. Well done.

    • Thank you so much. Definitely still uncomfortable for me to go there, too, but I must, if only to honor those losses and remember why it must never happen again. Thank you for reading.

  21. Jean Culbreath says:

    Laurie , you touched my heart with this piece , not in the laughing way as most of your piece’s have done , but in that way that makes you cry,feel sad and feel the sorrow and anguish of the people in New Orleans . I cried so much, i barely got through reading the whole thing. I’m not a wordsmith and i don’t know all those fancy words to use, but i am your Aunt and i could feel your heartache when i read it. Love you very much…It was a great piece of work and don’t forget to remember us “little people” whan you get rich and famous !!

    • Thank you, Aunt Jean. It wasn’t my desire to make people cry, but I see why it did. Those days are just still a little too raw and painful. They may always be that way, in my lifetime, at least.

      And I’ll certainly remember you when I get rich and famous — which certainly won’t happen by my little blog, though. 🙂 But notes like yours are better than money.

  22. Ali says:

    Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed 🙂 I never would have stumbled across your blog and this post if not. Being across the other side of the world in Australia during Katrina and now, we only hear and see snippets, and unable to do anything more than watch it all unfold. I visited New Orleans and the Mississippi Coast last year, and it really touched me. We’re all hoping that there is no devastation like there was 7 years ago.

    • Thank you! It’s quite an honor, being Freshly Pressed. I’m glad it led you to the blog, and that you visited last year. You saw the hard-won recovery that’s happened down there. I hope the area makes it through better this time. Thank you for writing!

  23. rizalID says:

    greatest post, sob … , like this

  24. Mel says:

    Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed! Your wonderfully-written post really touched me – we lived near New Orleans when I was little (in Mandeville) in the early 90s, and I remember the feeling of horror as we watched the news footage and reports about Katrina coming in. A little part of my heart will always belong to Louisiana and it was just so devastating to hear about, even more so because we lived in the Netherlands at the time and felt so helpless not being able to do anything and struggling to get in touch with our friends there to find out whether they’d made it through alright (thankfully they all did).

    • I appreciate your kind words. So glad your loved ones made it through Katrina. I hear Mandeville is getting blasted pretty good today, so I hope they get through it OK. Isaac is just so big and so SLOW. We lived for a while in Kentwood, in Tangipahoa Parish, which also is facing some nasty stuff. Thank you for sharing your memories.

  25. London Haize says:

    i was astonished to when i heard during the week that 7 years had passed since Katrina, I remember being glued to the TV as the story unfolded and the subsequent nightmare began. My heart hurt for all of the people lost and the people who lost everything. Your post has made me remember to be so very thankful to the many many people like you Laurie, courageous people who do whatever is needed in the most tragic of situations. I take my proverbial hat off to you lady!!! And bloody marvelously written too 🙂

    • Thanks, Hazel! I appreciate you taking the time to read my innermost soul. Hard to believe it’s been 7 years, for sure. It seems like just yesterday… The whole thing reminds me, too, to be thankful. Hugs to you, way over there in London.

  26. Leah says:

    As Isaac dies down, hopefully we’ll soon be saying laissez les bons temps rouler. Praying for Louisiana.

  27. Leslie Higdon says:

    I Left my hotel one night dressed up with an awesome friend headed to the ball. Upon our arrival we were so amused at the costumes and hype positive atmosphere we had now become apart of, as guest of the ball. Finding our way to out seats realizing many of those surrounding were of a much younger age than we were, we opted for a beer. Of course before heading out we ask the amazing 2 couples in front of us if they also wanted a beer, they did and one of the guys offered to go with my friend to help carry them. So I got to stay and get to know the remaining of the party of 4 seated in front of us. Who would think conversation of where are yall from? How did yall meet? what do you do?…….. and exchanging of names to find each other on facebook would lead to me sitting in my living room over a year later in chills. I knew that all 4 of the people who sat in front of me that night were not only fun, passionate about all things living, and had such great personalities! Today i realize how greatfull I am that i got the seats directly behind you and D. what an amazing talent you have to write first of all, but its so warming to know that in a world that sometimes feels cold there are GOOD people like you! You are such an inspiration in many ways and i will continue to follow your blogs for that very reason because now with a smile on my face and tears in my eyes im reminded “you are always where you are suppose be”! Thank you ~Leslie Higdon

  28. I’ve never been to New Orleans. None of my family or friends comes from there. But when I listened to the coverage of the aftermath of the Hurricane Katrina I almost lost my mind. I was listening to internet news coverage in my sophomore year dorm room. I was crying and when my roommates tried to comfort me I ran from the room, hid in bushes outside, and cried until I threw up. Just from news coverage. This did more to change my childish view of the world than even 9/11. I applaud your bravery for heading into that scary situation to help. Thank you for not letting us forget that we owe all the victims of Hurricane Katrina our continued support and remembrances.

    • I think it speaks worlds to your compassion that the situation of people with whom you had no connection struck you so hard. You could instantly imagine the horror after Katrina. That’s profound for someone of any age, much less a college student, where it’s so easy to focus on your own life. And also amazing that you used what you felt to change your world view. Kudos to you.

      Thank you for reading, and for commenting.

  29. I used to live on the gulf coast and sometimes I used to think “gosh we just cant seem to win!” with all these hurricanes, it can really dampen ones spirit. Thank you for this post, I hope you all are alright and have weathered (no pun intended) the storm safely 🙂 I actually did a post on Katrina, feel free to check it out!

    http://theinfinitejourneyblog.wordpress.com/2012/08/31/weekly-photo-challenge-free-spirit/

  30. Ramona Reid says:

    Wow. Hadn’t heard this story. You’re inspiring, my friend. Miss you.

  31. Elsie J. Sharkey says:

    Awesome story friend & you’re so right Katrina was pure hell, not limited to those in New Orleans & the Gulf Coast. Unfortunately it seemed as though those living in rural areas were totally forgotten.

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