It’s been 14 years and it still feels as if it happened a couple of years ago. Hurricane Katrina shook the entire South to its core. It single-handedly uprooted thousands of people, many of which never returned home, and affected the lives of everyone here in some way. The livelihoods of countless people were ripped away and tossed into the flooded streets glistening with oil sheen under the hot August sun.
This is my Katrina experience.
My account: a refugee’s story
Hurricanes are a way of life down here, right? I mean, we deal with storms every year. So how in the hell could this happen? How could we let our guard down? Both are very good questions. It still makes me wonder because power outages, minor street flooding and evacuations are second nature to most New Orleanians. But Katrina was different. She was a monster.
The day before mandatory evacuations, I remember waking up after a long night of partying and seeing that my mom had tried calling me multiple times. I called her back and, through my hangover, I could tell that she was completely stricken with panic. “Come home now!” she screamed into the phone. “The storm has turned and it is heading right for New Orleans!” Through the night, the storm had shifted from a northwesterly path to due north--straight for New Orleans.
I had lived in New Orleans for about 4 years at that point. My family still lived in Oak Grove, a suburb of Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Like I said before, we deal with this sort of thing all the time during hurricane season. But unlike all the other times, this particular instance was like a series of unfortunate events that enabled this storm to be catastrophic. The water temperature in the Gulf and the jet stream were two of the main culprits. Usually, it seems like storms shift away from us, not toward us. And as the events unfolded, it was like the whole city of New Orleans held its breath. You could hear a pin drop. Then, once we all realized this was really happening, everyone scattered.
The silence gave way to the sounds of construction as homeowners and business owners nailed up plywood to protect their property. The people that stayed rushed to the grocery stores and the people that left sped to the gas stations. I will never forget how long the lines were. Waiting to fill my car up with gas is one mistake that I will never make again. Little did I know that waiting an hour for gasoline was a cakewalk compared to what would be in store 2 days later.
It was really tough leaving home. This was different than any other time I had evacuated. It may have been because of the ominous path the storm was on. Whatever reason it was, it was very emotional for me. I remember making sure that my house was nice and tidy as I picked up the living room, Weather Channel blaring in the background. My mom had always instilled in me that when I came home from evacuations, it would be nicer to walk into a clean house rather than having to clean when I got home. Little did I know, I wouldn’t be coming home for a long, long time. I packed my little car with a couple of duffel bags, secured my garden and lawn furniture, and off I went. It took about 4 hours to get to my mom’s house, a trip that usually took 2 hours. Given the amount of cars on the road, that seemed like a success to me.
As the next day approached, it was pretty evident that Katrina was going to hit New Orleans. However, we didn’t have any idea that there was a warm pocket of water in the Gulf she was about to churn over that would spike her windspeeds even higher. All of us were frozen. As the winds became stronger, she began to shift east. Wait, what? East? Now, she was predicted to make landfall in south Mississippi. So I left my entire life behind, and for what? To go to ground zero.
We all know how it played out. Katrina was a direct hit for south Mississippi. It literally annihilated the Gulf Coast. We were about an hour inland, but that didn’t stop the massive winds. Pine trees snapped and crashed down all around us blocking everyone in our neighborhood. I had never seen trees bend like that. It was horrifying. The rain blew sideways for days it seemed. The wind howled like rabid wolves in the night. Then, the lights went out. And they stayed out for 2 weeks.
Luckily, we had a generator to at least run the refrigerator and the a/c for a few hours. We had to really watch our generator because there were thieves that were stealing them and replacing them with lawn mowers because the motors sounded so similar. Days after the storm it seemed apocalyptic. No power, no gas to run generators, no water. There were reports of people killing their own family members over ice, food, and gas. It was 100 degrees outside and we had no electricity, no water. Seriously, what do you do?
To our amazement, it was like a guardian angel guided them to us. My parents' friends owned a furniture store in town. They called us to see if we needed somewhere safe to stay. We were so excited! This place had electricity! It had running water! We walked in and got to pick out our sleeping spot in one of the 2 different show rooms. Each show room had about 10 different room displays. I can still remember how comfortable I was with the cool air blowing on me as I lay on a big sofa. I was able to charge my cellphone and turn it on. When I did, I was flooded with voicemails. Earlier that day, the levees broke in New Orleans. Water inundated the city. Parts of the city were on fire. People were drowning. It seemed like New Orleans had fallen.
Credit: National Geographic
After a few days of sweating it out with my family, I was elated to find out that some friends of mine came up from New Orleans heading towards Memphis. They stopped by my house to see if I wanted to follow along. As quickly as I could, I threw my bags in my car and away we went.
A close friend of mine lived in Memphis and I was able to stay with him and his family for a while. They took me in as their own and, to this day, I am eternally grateful. All of a sudden I went from being a guest in from out of town to a New Orleans refugee. Memphis picked me up and give me the tightest hug. Everywhere I went, people hugged me. I couldn’t help but to cry- all of the time. All of the stores had signs in their windows reading “refugee discounts.” Every time I took my license out to show them, they hugged me. Some cried. Some would put their hand on my face and tell me that it was going to be okay. Memphis will ALWAYS be my second home. The compassion, empathy, and love that radiated from everyone there still shines in my heart to this day, as it will forever.
One week led to a month, then to two months. Then there was talk of New Orleans allowing residents back home. They implemented the return for residents by zip code only. I waited anxiously for them to call my zip code. The city officials stressed that the city was still uninhabitable. This was just to allow residents to assess damages and grab their belongings until New Orleans was operational again. Finally, they announced my zip code and away I went.
There were many detours because of roads and bridges not existing anymore. Finally, I got to New Orleans. It was like it was Armageddon. I could not believe my eyes. Floodwaters, broken trees, debris, caskets. It was overwhelming. There were military check points every half mile. One happened to be right beside my house on Saint Charles Avenue. They walked around in their military garb wielding assault riffles. It was literally like a war scene from a movie. When I finally made it to my house I had to wind my way through broken branches and slate roofing tiles.
I was frantically trying to load my life up for the next few months. As twilight fell, everything was silent. The wind had stopped. No sounds of birds, insects, people. It was incredibly eerie. There was a sunset curfew and I had to be out of the city before the sun went down. Well, needless to say, I was running a little bit late. I jumped in my car and hauled ass toward the interstate. There was another military checkpoint before I could leave. He flagged me down and I stopped. He said I was past curfew and I had to turn around and go back to my house--my dark and scary house. At that moment I lost it. All I could do was cry. Actually, I balled. I was terrified. I couldn’t even talk without hyperventilating. Thankfully, he felt sorry for me and let me pass. I felt like I was transported to Iraq. It was so surreal and overwhelming.
I went back to Memphis as quickly as I could that evening. I had nightmares for years after that. Many, many other people do too. Some, much, much worse. So many people died. Entire families drowned in their attics with no way to escape. Katrina left holes in people’s lives that will never ever be filled. The images of the rushing water flooding my city will always be burned into my memory.
Every single year, as each new storm develops, we all have flashbacks of what our lives were like after the storm. If it is one thing I learned, it’s that one event can change everyone’s way of life- in one fail swoop. Don’t take anything for granted because it can all be gone tomorrow. Every single year, hurricane season is a daunting and sinking feeling that doesn’t go away until November. The longer we go with not having a major storm, the easier it is to to go on with our daily lives. But the events of what happened 14 years ago will never ever leave me. With every hurricane season that comes, and every storm that forms, Katrina will always be in the back of my mind.
That which doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger right? That couldn’t have been more true as we all began to rebuild our lives in New Orleans and all across the South.
You can’t really and truly understand the beauty of life until it’s ripped away from you. It’s when you have stared at what is heinously terrifying about life- and then overcame it. It’s in those very moments there. That is your silver lining.
It’s a single seed of hope that sprouts.
It’s watered by faith, and grown by love-
to become the blossoms of our lives.
Photo Credit: BSA Photography
Follow my family’s journey
Photo Credit: BSA Photography
"They grow up so fast!" I often heard that cliché when I was growing up. It was like a knee-jerk response to people’s comments about us, and my mom said it all the time. But, as it turns out, that cliché is soooo true. So savor every single second--good or bad--and enjoy this precious time together. Be happy and make them laugh. Guard them. Shelter them. Protect them from the difficult realities of the outside world while you can. And in this day and age, keep yourself together. Don’t let the stresses of everyday life get you down, especially in front of them. I say all of this so maybe I can do a better job of applying these things to my own life.
It is so easy to get sucked down the rabbit hole of the world’s social and political drama. We want to protect our babies from everything. So does that mean we have to be glued to Rachel Maddow & Anderson Cooper every night? The thing is, our news media is not what it used to be. Back in the day, our news was held to much higher standards. There were more facts and less spin. Another striking difference is that news outlets weren't constantly seeking to sensationalize the stories they were covering.
Cable news networks rely on ratings to rake in revenue. Stories like “Boy scout helps fallen senior citizen” don't make headlines, largely because that doesn’t bring in ratings. As such, that story is bumped all the way to the end of the broadcast. In fact, most national news programs now feature a single, token positive story at the end of the show. The body of news programs has become saturated with stories that play on our fears, weaknesses, and emotions. They want our anger, outrage, and disgust. But don't get me wrong, we need to be outraged at times. And at this particular time I am outraged.
I didn’t like the direction our country was going in 2016 because I was afraid, quite frankly at where we would be today. Sure, because of his poor tact and judgment the President seems to divide our country more than bringing us all together. Race, religion, sexual orientation--all these things affect us and are being used to divide us. The media takes hold of these tweets and tirades and run them nonstop on their networks. What do you think the President would do if all of a sudden no news network reported about his tweets anymore. Would he stop? Probably not, but it makes you wonder.
Here in New Orleans, we recently experienced our first “hurricane” of the season, Hurricane Barry (or “Hurricane Barely” as we locals called it). All the national news outlets flooded into our city. Even The Weather Channel’s Jim Cantore came to report. The utter misrepresentation of facts that were spun into news headlines not only freaked locals out, but people around the world thought New Orleans was decimated again. When it was all said and done, HARDLY ANYTHING HAPPENED. Yet it seemed like every hour some news outlet would report a bogus headline purporting disaster and ruin. And for what? To march in here, look around, cause chaos and then leave? Are ratings that important? Of course they are!
If a hurricane is coming then of course we need for the news to report on it and keep us informed. But what we don't need is the media trying to scare the hell out of everyone with bullshit stories like "levees weeping, may crumble."
For those that didn't know, the Mississippi River in New Orleans was at flood stage for many months.
In fact, this was the first time in history that a Hurricane formed during flood stage. The levees held back the river water for a long time- so long that water began to seep (weep) in different spots along the levee system. Though, not designed to seep, many levees do when holding back water of that magnitude for so long.
We were all on edge. The last thing we needed was to read headlines like, "New Orleans' residents flee as it braces for hurricane force winds" and "New Orleans could see Possible heavier rains than Katrina."
All of these national media outlets were playing on our fears to bump up their ratings.
Shame on them for doing so!
So, yes- as you can probably tell, I am still somewhat pissed about how the media handled it. They reported on what would bring ratings, played into our fears and profited from it.
Mass shootings are an epidemic that our country needs to come to grips with. It is sickening. The truth is that they didn’t start with Trump. They've been happening all too often since I was in middle school. And what have our leaders done? I am not talking about the different presidents, rather, the ones that have worked in D.C. for decades. There is no accountability.
And speaking of accountability, you do not have to saturate your mind with the 24 hour cable news cycle. I understand that newsworthy things happen and we should be kept up to date, but only to a point.
Most major news networks now have an agenda. They present themselves as doing us a service while in reality it's just the opposite. Well, I've got news for them--as a parent I have an agenda of my own, and it starts with turning off the TV. Call your senators, your councilperson, and your state and national representatives and hold them accountable. Don't just sink into a couch or recliner and yell at the TV.
I am not suggesting people boycott the news. All I am saying is take an inventory of how much you allow into your mind and home. By all means, stay informed. Stay “woke.” But curling up into a helpless ball with cynical news programs blaring in the background isn’t going to help anything.
But you know what will?
Here is a link to the Directory of United States Representatives in Washington D.C.:
Here is the national phone number to contact your senator:
You can mail your senator at the following address:
For Correspondence to U.S. Senators:
Office of Senator (Name)
United States Senate
Washington, D.C. 20510
For Correspondence to Senate Committees:
(Name of Committee)
United States Senate
Washington, D.C. 20510
We’ve got a long road to go. But we are all getting there together. After the election in 2016, I wrote about leading by example. Today, I am writing about taking action.
I know this should go without saying, but I can't say it enough.
We have been given the privilege. Use it. VOTE.
It's now more important than ever.
I just called my congressman and senators. Will you?
Photo Credit: BSA Photography
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