With the five year anniversary of Katrina being commemorated this week, and a major hurricane moving up the east coast, the focus of the national news media has been how government at all levels fails to respond. Levees collapsing, inadequate evacuation efforts and political bickering have been reviewed on the news nightly, and highlighted by the new Spike Lee film "If God Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise." If you live in my part of the country, particularly in Deep South Louisiana or the Mississippi gulf coast, everyone has his or her own personal Katrina story. These poignant personal odysseys of survival are a vital part of the Katrina legacy for those who endured this life changing experience directly, and hopefully, for those who did not.
Katrina hit in the early hours on a Monday morning, August 29, 2005. As early as the Friday afternoon before, the national weather service was predicting a direct hit on New Orleans with a minimum of Hurricane Four intensity. In other words, it was time to get out of Dodge. But no call to evacuate came at any governmental level until Sunday morning, only 12 hours before the raging winds hit the Gulf coast. With only four routes out of New Orleans, traffic was at a crawl.
I was working in New Orleans at the time but I was back at my home in Baton Rouge for the weekend. Heavy Sunday afternoon winds knocked out the neighborhood electricity, but some how, our house kept the power. With temperatures in the high 90s, our home became the hangout for both neighbors who wanted to cool off, and a continuous flow of New Orleans arrivals, both family and friends, looking for somewhere to ride out the storm. A freezer full of gumbo, crawfish etouffee and spaghetti sauce was thawed to feed the growing crowd of evacuees.
The late nighters stayed awake to watch the unfolding chain of events on television, and listen to the howling winds and falling limbs throughout the early morning until a little past dawn. Then it was over. New Orleans had apparently seen the worst with surprising little damage. Or so we thought.
A brother-in-law staying with us called home to have a caretaker tell him there was only minor roof damage, and to come on home. “Oh, by the way,” he said. “A water line must have burst. I see some water in the street. No big problem.” Thirty minutes later, the fellow called back. “Big problems here now. The levee has broken. There’s water everywhere and rising fast.” The same scenario was being played out all over the metropolitan area. The water was rising rapidly with no way to get out.
Old timers may remember that back in the 1930s, when a WPA loan was closed, the loan recipient was often given a two-bladed ax, to hack his way out of the house in case of emergency -- a quaint old custom that was abandoned a few years later. What a shame.
As the water continued to rise, home dwellers went up to the second floor or to the attic. The water kept coming, but there was no way out.
A police dispatcher told me of numerous calls begging for help. One woman screamed she was holding her baby on her shoulders, and the water was up to her chest. A few minutes later, the phone went dead.
Makeshift bedding was in every corner of my home as flood victims continued to arrive into the evening following the storm. On the third night, I went by boat to check on a family home in New Orleans. When I made it back to Baton Rouge around 2:00 am, I opened my clothes closet door and found two little girls asleep on the floor. They had made a pallet with several of my suits. I grabbed several more to cover them up for the night.
A few weeks before Katrina hit, I attended a local boxing match and happened to sit next to a young New Orleans police officer, who worked in public relations for the department. He was newly married and excited about making law enforcement his career. The night of the storm, he was on duty and worked taking calls throughout the night. He asked for permission to take a break and go home to check on his new wife, since the phone lines were down. He was needed at work, he was told, and had to stay at headquarters. He made several more similar requests. A day later, he was given permission to check on his new bride. When he got home, he discovered that she had drowned in the attic. Completely devastated, he made his way to the levee, took his service revolver, and committed suicide.
On day five, my brother in law, who is the high sheriff of Plaquemines Parish, called. His deputies had not had a change of clothes the whole week, and they had all lost all their belongings from the flooding. Could I help?
The Baton Rouge Wal-Mart had been re stocked. Socks, tennis shoes, underwear, shorts, T Shirts -- whatever I could find. I just cleaned off the racks and loaded up the shopping carts. The Sheriff had some twenty-five female deputies. I had a local female clerk help me “size up” bras, panties, shorts, and any other items I could find for the ladies.
“A load for the Sheriff! Let me pass!” It took me seven hours to make the normally two-hour trip from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, working my way through the destruction all along the roadway and the roadblocks. When I arrived at the Plaquemines sheriff’s office in Belle Chase, the Canadian Mounted Police had arrived. So get this. The Canadian Mounted Police got to this disaster area before any federal officials arrived. No FEMA, no National Guard, no Red Cross. Just some help from a foreign country.
There are thousands of similar remembrances from five years ago. And even after these many years have passed, the aftereffects of the cataclysmic storm still are troubling to so many who suffered in so many ways. Have lessons been learned? And are public agencies -- federal, state, and local, better prepared for another “big hit” that we know one day will come?
Protecting our home and loved ones was up to individual and family initiatives then, and no doubt will be again. Someone once wrote that the only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing. But Government rarely learns. It seems to make the same mistakes over and over again. There will be other Katrinas. Will you be ready?
Peace and Justice
Jim Brown’s syndicated column appears each week in numerous newspapers and websites throughout the South. You can read all is past columns and see continuing updates at www.jimbrownusa.com. You can also hear Jim’s nationally syndicated radio show each Sunday morning from 9 am till 11:00 am, central time, on the Genesis Radio Network, with a live stream at http://www.jimbrownusa.com. The show is televised at http://www.justin.tv/jimbrownusa.