Friday, August 29, 2008

Katrina Reflections (Part 2)

As I write, Tropical Storm Gustav seems to have the Louisiana coast in his sights, with landfall predicted for Tuesday. Sitting here in Iowa, I feel detached, but that was not the case three years ago when Hurricane Katrina roared ashore on August 29, 2005. You can read all about the missteps that were made with the evacuations and see pictures of the destruction on the ‘Net. This is my story, what I experienced, why I still cry when I see reports of the storm and why my next trip to New Orleans wasn’t until September 2007.

The days before Katrina hit were surreal. On August 25 the storm hit the tip of Florida, traveling from east to west. Once she tasted the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, Katrina began her circuitous route, gaining strength all the way. One of the reasons I moved to my apartment in Baton Rouge was because it was soundproof with 18 inch concrete walls. Because Baton Rouge is so far inland, I felt relatively safe riding out the storm. My colleagues warned me that there could be power outages of up to 10 days, but somehow that sounded adventurous. I got water and food and batteries for the radio (see checklist at right), and moved the plants on the verandah so that they would not become projectiles during periods of high winds. Apartment management threw all of the patio furniture into the swimming pool for the same reason.
Tracking a hurricane is something that most people on the coast do, to some degree or another. Restaurants like McDonalds have placemat tracking charts for the kiddies, and they are supposed to plot the course of the storm by listening to weather reports on the local news. Technology has made it possible to track the progress through websites and high-speed internet connections. For most of the weekend before Katrina, I sat in front of my computer clicking "refresh" to see the updated satellite loop, or watched reports on television.

There’s a nervousness that comes with tracking a storm as it churns across the Gulf of Mexico. You can’t really do anything, you feel helpless, you know that people from the coast are on the move and that even if you wanted to evacuate, the interstates are jammed. You just hope you have enough food and water, and that the city services aren’t disrupted too much.

We provided a place for one of my New Orleans friends to ride out the storm, but Sunday afternoon she decided she didn’t really want to see a hurricane that up close and personal. So she evacuated further to Shreveport, a trip that took something like 11 hours because of the traffic.

Having never experienced a hurricane the size of Katrina, I didn’t really know what to expect come Monday morning. When I woke up there were wind gusts and some rain, but nothing dramatic. These came and went all day as the rain bands passed over Baton Rouge. I watched the reports on TV until we lost power. And then there was this eerie feeling that you were totally out of touch – no TV, no internet, no cell phone reception, nothing to speak of on the radio. So while the rest of the country watched reporters get buffeted by winds in New Orleans, I sat in blissful ignorance, reading by the dim light that filtered in through the windows all day. Power to my place was restored by mid-evening, leaving me with the impression "Well, that wasn’t so bad!"
It was only the next morning when the winds had died down that we learned how bad it was. In Baton Rouge, we walked around the neighborhood and found all sorts of destruction. This was just three blocks from the apartment:
Katrina had made landfall in Mississippi, and the storm surge had moved huge buildings off foundations and deposited mammoth ships inland. Even though the hurricane had blown out windows in some New Orleans hotels and toppled trees and caused some damage, it wasn’t as bad as it could have been... until the 17th Street Canal levee broke and flooded the Lower Ninth Ward.

What most people don’t realize about Katrina is that, while the devastation was covered for a couple of minutes on the nightly news in the rest of the U.S., in Louisiana we saw rescue coverage 24 hours a day for two to three weeks. Snippets of footage you’ve seen from the Superdome or the overpass or looters in New Orleans were collected from these days of coverage. We saw people hacking their way out of attics and flagging down rescue crews, then heard the helicopters flying overhead as they brought survivors to the Pete Maravich Assembly Center on the LSU campus, the closest staging area for triage. I finally turned off the television as I saw a new helicopter chucking bottles of water at stranded survivors. The bottles of water landed and sank in eight feet of water, tainted with sewage, gasoline, and chemicals and the desperate dove into this poisonous stew to retrieve them.

We returned to school a week or so later. Some of my colleagues in Baton Rouge still were without power. We had colleagues who had escaped the destruction of New Orleans only with what would fit into their SUV. One of our classics students said he didn’t know where his mother was ten days after the storm. In the days after Katrina, the population of Baton Rouge doubled with refugees making traffic a nightmare. There were reports of civil unrest. There was price gouging by the electric company to make up the losses from New Orleans. There was death and destruction. And yet, there were miraculous glimmers of hope. TO BE CONTINUED...

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