A post about home, south Louisiana, and an ever present feature of life there: hurricanes.
Today Saturday August 29th is the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the southern coast of the USA in 2005. The anniversary had slipped my mind until reading an excellent BBC article about Katrina and a New Orleans radio station that kept broadcasting during and after the storm, becoming a beacon of information and hope for the thousands who were trapped in the city.
I had not heard of this radio station even though my family on my mother’s side is all from New Orleans and she grew up in the 9th Ward which was hit hard by Katrina. The week before Katrina, I had just left home and completed my first week as a freshmen at university in Jackson, Mississippi. Growing up in southeast Louisiana, I’d been through my fair share of hurricanes and tropical storms so we weren’t too worried. I don’t remember hearing much about the storm on the news beforehand or the severity of it but I was an oblivious 18 year old who’d just gone through a big life change. After crossing southern Florida and entering the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, Katrina strengthened to a category 5 (the highest level). It then weakened to category 3 before finally making landfall on the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts.
We rode out the storm that night in the ground floor hallway of our dorm on campus. We were in there because as everyone on the Gulf Coast knows, when a hurricane comes you evacuate to higher ground and then go to an internal room with no doors or windows to ride out the storm (the high winds of hurricanes can break the glass). The hallway was internal with dorm rooms along either side and had no windows, so that’s where we were told to go. After it passed, we then went back to our rooms and slept. The power was out and stayed out in Jackson for a week. We awoke to the chaos of downed trees everywhere, in the streets, on people’s roofs and cars. The university closed because there was no power or water, so my sister and I went back home.
Home was St. Francisville, Louisiana, 2.5 hours’ drive south, and in the relatively hilly and higher elevation of West Feliciana Parish (Louisiana has parishes instead of counties). We arrived only to find that many of our relatives were staying at our house. The peak number was 18 (not including pets) and by the time we got there, it was down to about 5. Three of whom ending up living with my parents for nine months because they had lost everything in the storm. Those days immediately afterward were spent collectively sitting in front of the TV watching the news. We saw New Orleans go into meltdown with troops deploying and dreadful scenes from the Superdome where thousands of people had evacuated to but which was without power or sanitation and little food and water.
Katrina tore up a lot stuff, but the storm surge (water building up from the hurricane winds and low pressure) did the most damage because it breached almost all of the levees which kept the greater New Orleans area, which sits in a natural bowl below sea level, dry. 80% of New Orleans was flooded. My grandmother had water up to the roof of her one-story house in Chalmette, south of New Orleans in St. Bernard Parish. Most of the parish was flooded by levee breaches and 81% of housing had some damage. The floodwater stayed there for a week. Many homes along the coast were completely swept away with the concrete foundation slab all that remained. Several major bridges were also destroyed with the hurricane forces lifting away entire concrete segments of bridges such as the US Route 90 bridge in Bay St. Louis and I-10 Twin Span in NOLA. In Mississippi, the storm surge was 27 feet/8.2 meters and traveled 6 miles inland. Thankfully none of my extended family members were hurt but over 1,800 people died across the South. Property damage has been estimated at $108 billion and one million people were displaced. The government response at all levels was severely criticised and it effectively ended the political career of the then Louisiana governor, Kathleen Babineaux Blanco. The Katrina Wikipedia article outlines the aftermath of blame games, lawsuits, fraud and reconstruction. Stats in this paragraph are taken from the sources in the same Wikipedia article.
I’m happy to report that ten years later New Orleans (and the rest of the Gulf Coast) is well on the path to recovery though some areas have not been rebuilt and the population has not returned to pre-storm levels. The Saints, Louisiana’s NFL team based in New Orleans, even won the Super Bowl in 2009! Many people including a lot of my family have not moved back or have relocated permanently to the ‘North Shore’ (north shore of Lake Ponchartrain) or the capital city, Baton Rouge. NOLA is a lot cleaner than the city I remember visiting as a kid and the French Quarter was busy with tourists last I was there in 2012. The Mississippi Gulf Coast is also doing well I’m told. In Louisiana we joke about living below sea level and say that in the catalog of natural disasters, hurricanes are the best ones to have, because you get three days notice, you can pack some stuff and evacuate out of harms’ way. Laissez le bon temps rouler.
Thanks for reading a long post. I wanted to remember and to share.
If you want to read more, here is a round-up of national news coverage about the anniversary compiled by The Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana).