Every day, I pass her signature, stubborn and indelible—an autograph deeply imprinted from the added force of incompetence and malfeasance. Katrina the hurricane, not The Flood, seemed to be saving her brute force for others and would have made her debut in New Orleans somewhat unremarkable, if only the levees had done their job. But they didn’t, and I am reminded of this when I walk next to the three-foot-plus water line that remains on the glass door and its curtain that has hung, stained, since that August day.
Every year, the anniversary of Katrina and the levee failures is met with diametrically opposing emotions and attitudes. There are those who choose not to dwell on it and those (like me) who have trouble letting it go. Some lives were damaged beyond repair and others were lifted up. “Survivor guilt” is felt, to varying degrees, by those who lived on “the sliver by the river” and escaped the waters. But no one, absolutely no one, was spared the pain. And there is the collateral damage to families and friends who sat helplessly watching it unfold on televisions across the world. Sometimes I think my sister, high and dry in Birmingham, was more frightened than we were here in the midst of it all.
You learn quickly who simply can’t talk about it and respectfully change conversational course; but, most folks seem inclined to swap “war stories.” Yes, it can be equated to having gone through combat and surviving in a war zone. As with war veterans, there is often that bonding, the camaraderie of commiseration that comes from shared danger and the experience of living through something historical. And historical it was.Katrina most certainly is something for the history books, and I say “is” as it cannot be placed in the past tense of “was.” Much of this saga belongs to yesterday; however, we live in a landscape—organic, political, economic, and societal—that is forever changed and/or evolving as a result of Katrina and the levee malfunctions.
There were 53 breaches to our various canals and levees. To date, this is the largest residential disaster in U.S. history. A major American city had its population reduced by half. This natural and man-made catastrophe stands as this country’s most expensive hurricane, costing $135 billion just for NOLA. And to this day, these stats differ with a multitude of other sources, yet all are shocking and admit to being record-breaking. The death toll will never be certain.
Much has been reported, rumored, and recounted about what took place during those days after the flood waters filled our city. A great deal has been discredited, such as alligators and sharks swimming about. Why the media wanted to dismiss this as urban myth is beyond me. Certainly, there were alligators—did they think that the gator was going to stay in Bayou St. John as its waters mingled with lake waters, and not crawl or swim beyond some invisible boundary? Heck, a gentleman I knew was hospitalized at Lindy Boggs Hospital at the edge of Bayou St. John and told of a rather large alligator in the building’s flooded lobby. As for sharks—well, I know a very credible source in Gentilly who watched a fin gliding past his flooded home (just a bull shark, perhaps). When simple overlapping of nature in otherwise urban environments becomes a “tall tale,” you can see how easy it was for people to discount the truly shocking—things that folks simply could not wrap their heads around.
It truly was the wild, wild, West. Anything could have and did happen. Heinous crimes and heroic deeds. There was no precedent for the days and weeks that followed, and certainly nothing was even remotely normal for the next year. And even as a rhythm reminiscent of life before Katrina slowly began to take root, it would be years before significant reparations and restorations would surpass the look and feel of a war zone.
Lessons were taught and lessons were learned. We know now to assume the worst from a storm and from our man-made protections. But, and this is serious, we can never become complacent. Have a plan, whether it is to stay or to go. If evacuation is not possible, then have every possible safety plan in place along with provisions. Stock non-perishable foods, a can opener, first aid items, pet supplies, solar or battery lighting (never candles—we nearly torched our house during Katrina); have prescriptions filled and zip-locked, and know that those cell phones will not be reliable for extended power outages. Consider keeping or getting a landline, touch-tone phone. If totally dependent upon a cell phone, then have an external back-up battery, a car adapter to plug in and charge from your car’s cigarette lighter. Before a possible power loss, charge phones, reduce to the cell phone’s lowest power mode, and then back away from that device until truly needed for life-saving communications.
Also, stock up on lots of water, Pedialyte for hydration (my nerves and tainted foods wrought serious diarrhea), moist towelettes, bleach, and heavy-gage garbage bags. And remember, that toilet ain’t gonna flush after several days (this is when those garbage bags in addition to cleaning out your refrigerator will be needed). If you stay for the next flood, you must remember what it was like 12 years ago. And for the many new residents too young to have the Katrina debacle in their memory’s reference, read about it now. I suggest Chris Rose’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated One Dead in Attic and Douglas Brinkley’s The Great Deluge, or Google “17 of the Best Things Ever Written About Katrina” (Huffington Post) for additional informative reads.
I often wonder how many folks I crossed paths with during those couple of days leading up to Katrina’s landfall that are no longer with us. We were the lucky ones, the fools who rode it out. And, for no good reason other than sheer luck, I am able to sit and write about it today—12 years later. Consider this a cautionary tale.