It is easy to be critical of people who stayed for Hurricane Katrina. But at the time, we had experienced a number of false alarms.
Once, I packed everything in my trunk — computer, family photos, financial records, etc. — only to come home to minor yard damage.
I lived on Davis Bayou in Ocean Springs near Highway 90 in a neighborhood where only the old people (and not all of them) left for hurricanes. Younger families would have their yards cleaned up by the time I returned from evacuating.
By the time I realized Katrina was going to be serious, there was bumper-to-bumper evacuation traffic from New Orleans to Mobile on major arteries. I had less than a quarter tank of fuel. The neighbors under 60 were staying. Our homes had survived Hurricane Camille in 1969.
There is a saying, “Camille killed more people in 2005 than in 1969.” That is because people who lived in homes that survived Camille had a false sense of safety in 2005. Only 143 people on the Gulf Coast died in Camille, compared with 1,883 in Katrina.
My 16-year-old daughter, Bri, stayed with me. When she heard Gov. Haley Barbour warn on television that if we didn’t get out, we were going to die, I had a rebellion on my hands. But hey, no diesel fuel in the Jetta, no way to evacuate.
News about how bad the storm was going to be was coming in, and a neighbor who always stayed said: “I hope you aren’t staying because we are staying.”
As the storm rolled in, we watched the water come up the steep hill from the bayou in disbelief. It surely couldn’t get that high? No way is it going to get in the house. “The house is flooding!” I told my sister before hanging up and rushing to move previous photo albums and computers from low areas.
Bri and I tried to decide what to do if the level of the water continued to increase. Get in the attic? Go outside? Luckily, after the house flooded with two feet of water, the storm surge retreated quickly.
As it turned out, many Katrina victims were people who went into the attic and the water kept rising. A friend with young children spent terrified hours in the attic. She will never forget the sound of the refrigerator crashing against the ceiling. Buoyant refrigerators turned into monster wrecking balls in the storm surf.
In the eye of the storm, the neighbors came over to check on us and offer help. Like everyone else in our neighborhood, they flooded. But the first thing they did was check on us.
I had hurricane supplies like extra water out on the porch, but those had floated away. I was unprepared for Katrina with no way to cook, only a couple gallons of water, and about $50 in cash. But we never lost city water. It was incredibly welcome for cleaning up after the storm. After 12 hours a day ripping out carpets and hauling debris to the curbside, with no air conditioning in 90 degree heat, a clean shower was never more welcome.
We were without phone service for only a day. Lines on the ground still worked. Even so, initially it was hard to find out what had happened. We heard terrible rumors about Pass Christian and Bay St. Louis. It was months before I learned what had happened to all my friends. About 75 percent of my friends flooded, and maybe a third lost their homes. Those who didn’t flood often lost their offices, churches, schools, etc. No one was unscathed.
At first you couldn’t venture far because of downed trees and flood debris. When I first saw the gruesome, twisted tangle of electric lines on Highway 90, I thought it would months before we got power. Our electricity was restored in only a week. The amount of aid by workers with chainsaws and utility trucks was incredible. People flooded in from all over the U.S. to help.
Katrina remains the most amazing relief effort ever seen in the U.S. The help provided by the government and volunteer groups from throughout the country in rebuilding the Coast — help that continued for years — was nothing short of incredible. Like many homeowners who had insurance, but were not in known flood zone prior to Katrina, I received a homeowner’s grant that helped me rebuild my home. Coast governments received numerous grants to rebuild a shattered infrastructure.
I left the Gulf Coast a couple years after Katrina, and later went without power for a week after the worst natural disaster in Arkansas history, the ice storm of 2009 — when I had no electricity or heat for as long as I was without power after Katrina. I had to rely on the kindness of neighbors to survive. Now, I have a wood heater should that ever happen again.
By staying for Katrina, we were able save many of our most cherished family photos and heirlooms. But I would never stay again with a monster storm offshore. And even though I’m far from the ocean (something I miss a lot), I now always have 10 gallons of water on hand, some cash, and at least a half tank of gas. And, a camp stove to make coffee in the morning.
» Becky Gillette is a continuing writer for the Mississippi Business Journal.
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