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Six Years Ago….

Watching the scenes of what Hurricane Irene did from Virginia to Vermont, I was taken back to my own experiences with hurricanes and tropical storms.  When you live in the Gulf Coast, you’re going to live through a few – it’s like living out in Colorado and facing snowstorms or living in California and living through an earthquake. 

There was the night me and my family slept in the hallway of the old apartment through Hurricane Andrew.  Or the night my brothers and I tossed a football while Hurricane Ivan’s winds affected us – the football soared.  Or the various tropical storms that dumped water around us time and again and caused us to miss school because of flooded streets.

But of course, none of these experiences really compare to the one that I had six years ago with Hurricane Katrina.  I doubt most people’s experiences with Hurricane Katrina compared to any other hurricane.

2005 had been a big year for hurricanes.  There had been 7 or 8 prior to Katrina forming.  The storms had been in the background all summer long and, like many, I hadn’t paid much attention to them once their tracks had turned them away to the east or south.  The quick way Katrina formed in the Atlantic caught me by surprise – I think Wednesday or Thursday of the week prior to it hitting land. 

Then the evacuation warnings came.

I had to go to work on Saturday, August 27, and spent all day watching Interstate 10 fill up with bumper-to-bumper traffic.  Part of me thought, “That is a lot of nervous people.”  The last thing we did at work before leaving was cover up the computers with plastic tarps.  “Just in case there’s a leak in the roof” was the warning.  We would, after all, be coming back the following week – maybe not Monday or Tuesday, but soon afterwards.  That was the thinking we all shared.

So I went around I-10 and got to my folks’ home, where we had decided to spend the storm.  My family had gotten enough sandbags and plywood to protect the doors and windows.  We had plenty of water, batteries and other supplies.  My brother had even brought his girlfriend, who was going to Tulane at the time after they had decided to close the school. 

But as we saw the news, we realized that Katrina was a monster headed straight for our doorstep.  In the night, we discussed staying versus evacuating and decided to make the safe choice.  So, we packed three cars and stuffed old family members and luggage and joined the line of people leaving New Orleans to Houston – my brother’s girl was from there and we would be dropping her off.  I left my old, beat-up Ford Explorer behind. 

Normally, New Orleans to Houston is a 5 – 6 hour drive.  We left at around 9 AM and reached Houston nearly 13 hours later.  I rode shotgun in my brother’s old Isuzu Rodeo – the one that had no AC and whose passenger-side window wouldn’t roll down.  By the time we reached Houston, I was positively baked. 

The family of my brother’s girl were welcoming and opened their doors to us that night and for the week that followed. And really, it should never be forgotten that thousands of homes across America were opened to displaced New Orleanians and folks from the Gulf South.  The support and the giving that were on display for the weeks that followed Katrina’s wrath showed the best qualities that lie within all of us.

It was in their home that we heard Katrina had missed New Orleans and that things looked to be okay; only to hear the next day of the broken levees and the flooding that was occurring.  It was at their computer that I tried to stay abreast via NOLA.com’s message board – I and hundreds more begging for scraps of information on their homes, their neighborhoods, their friends and family. 

When we came back a week later, as folks in Jefferson Parish were allowed a “look-and-see” visit from sunrise to sunset, it was incredible to find my parents’ home standing and (mostly) undamaged.  So many other places around – like my sister-in-law’s home – were flooded due to failing pumps.  Others had uprooted trees through them.  And around us was the smell of dead wildlife and the complete silence of a place that wasn’t being lived in.  It was like being in a ghost town.

Of course, more than what I have described transpired and has transpired since.  The long lines looking for aid.  The people left behind to fend for themselves.  The violence.  The failures of government at all levels.   The aftermath and the aftermath to the aftermath.   The people of Mississippi and Alabama who lost as much but are often forgotten from this tale. 

But today, I just wanted to put my own memories of the day out here.  It’s weird, thinking back, because living through it, I had no inkling that “Hurricane Katrina” would become “KATRINA.” 

Six years ago, a storm knocked at our door.  It killed hundreds, displaced thousands and ruined millions.  It’s taken years to rebuild and many places are still wearing the scars to this day.  Things will never get back to what they were.  But if the warnings missed six years ago have taught others, like those who are suffering right now from Irene’s wrath, to be ready, be vigilant and care for one another, then some good can come of it. 

A small hope, but when so much bad happens, hope is often the only thing that remains.


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