Katrina 10: Our world changed and brought us closer together (among other stories)

Ten years ago, we came together.

~

I am a weather nerd. As a kid, I pretended I was covering severe weather from my bedroom (and sometimes the front yard in the middle of a monsoon). I learned about latitude and longitude tracking hurricanes, copying coordinates from The Weather Channel onto a photocopied map. In elementary school, I visited not one, but two of the local television meteorologists.

Storms frightened me and yet I was drawn to them. I swear I was destined to be a weatherman until I discovered how many calculus courses they have to take (College Algebra put a strain on this brain).

The 2005 Atlantic hurricane season remains the most active on record, with 28 tropical storms – so many that the list of names was exhausted, leading to six storms named for Greek letters, including one forming in December and another in January of 2006 – the latest on record. There were 15 hurricanes, 7 major hurricanes (Category Three or greater), and 4 Category Five hurricanes… all records. The strongest hurricane that season was also the strongest ever recorded in the Atlantic (and, no, it’s not the one you are thinking).

The first forecast models for Katrina predicted a weak hurricane brushing the Florida coast and turning off into the Atlantic. Instead, Katrina went through the peninsula and into the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. And when it finally did make its northern turn, it was toward the Gulf Coast.

~

I am a collegian. Yeah, yeah, I’ve always been the smart kid – and, yes, I stayed in school far too long. But my four years of undergrad were the best of my life. They provide a chance to discover who you are in a compact social environment intertwined in academia. You come away a changed person, usually for the better, and almost completely independent of your chosen degree.

The last week in August marked the first week of school. It was the beginning of my sophomore year at Mississippi College, a small university near Jackson. I was a Welcome Week leader, helping freshmen move into dorms, meet new people, and turn a town scavenger hunt into a reckless high-speed car chase (only the second-most-corrupting thing I did in that position, I’m told). Those first weeks were always my favorites.

Roughly 150 miles from the coast, we didn’t think we were going to be greatly affected by the storm. And so cookouts and socials and the occasional class continued.

~

I am a Christian. When I was young, my grandparents would pick up my sister and I and take us to Sunday School. I really only remember being greeted by an old man who impersonated Donald Duck, our attempts to get donuts from the senior room, and how much I disliked wearing starched dress shirts with ties. In middle school, I started playing basketball in a community league ran by a small church, which my family began attending. It quickly became home.

August 2005 marked one year at the church for our new pastor. He had a passion for local missions. While plenty of groups focus on witnessing to the remote corners of the globe, he was more interested in feeding the hungry downtown. It was a vision that had yet to turn into church action.

~

It was Friday when people along the immediate coast began to make preparations for a landfalling hurricane – perhaps even a strong one. As far as natural disasters go, hurricanes at least provide you with plenty of lead time. And yet, as slowly as hurricanes develop and move, Katrina surprised us. As the Gulf Coast went to sleep Saturday night, Katrina was a minimal Category Three storm. Bad. When we woke up Sunday morning, it was a 200-mile-wide Category Five. Catastrophic.

It became a day of chaos. Government agencies, hospitals, schools, businesses, and volunteer services intensified efforts to get people out of harm’s way and to someplace safe. Jackson was one of those safe places. Contraflow was implemented on major highways and interstates, sending all lanes of traffic northbound while officials pleaded with coastal residents to evacuate.

From the National Weather Service in New Orleans, Sunday morning:

“…DIRECT STRIKE OF POTENTIALLY CATASTROPHIC AND LIFE THREATENING HURRICANE EXPECTED…
…RUSH PROTECTIVE MEASURES TO COMPLETION AND LEAVE THE WARNING AREA NOW!…”

URGENT – WEATHER MESSAGE
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE NEW ORLEANS LA
1011 A.M. CDT SUN AUG 28 2005

…DEVASTATING DAMAGE EXPECTED…

.HURRICANE KATRINA…A MOST POWERFUL HURRICANE WITH UNPRECEDENTED STRENGTH…RIVALING THE INTENSITY OF HURRICANE CAMILLE OF 1969.

MOST OF THE AREA WILL BE UNINHABITABLE FOR WEEKS…PERHAPS LONGER. AT LEAST ONE HALF OF WELL CONSTRUCTED HOMES WILL HAVE ROOF AND WALL FAILURE. ALL GABLED ROOFS WILL FAIL…LEAVING THOSE HOMES SEVERELY DAMAGED OR DESTROYED.

THE MAJORITY OF INDUSTRIAL BUILDINGS WILL BECOME NON FUNCTIONAL. PARTIAL TO COMPLETE WALL AND ROOF FAILURE IS EXPECTED. ALL WOOD FRAMED LOW RISING APARTMENT BUILDINGS WILL BE DESTROYED. CONCRETE BLOCK LOW RISE APARTMENTS WILL SUSTAIN MAJOR DAMAGE…INCLUDING SOME WALL AND ROOF FAILURE.

HIGH RISE OFFICE AND APARTMENT BUILDINGS WILL SWAY DANGEROUSLY…A FEW TO THE POINT OF TOTAL COLLAPSE. ALL WINDOWS WILL BLOW OUT.

AIRBORNE DEBRIS WILL BE WIDESPREAD…AND MAY INCLUDE HEAVY ITEMS SUCH AS HOUSEHOLD APPLIANCES AND EVEN LIGHT VEHICLES. SPORT UTILITY VEHICLES AND LIGHT TRUCKS WILL BE MOVED. THE BLOWN DEBRIS WILL CREATE ADDITIONAL DESTRUCTION. PERSONS…PETS…AND LIVESTOCK EXPOSED TO THE WINDS WILL FACE CERTAIN DEATH IF STRUCK.

POWER OUTAGES WILL LAST FOR WEEKS…AS MOST POWER POLES WILL BE DOWN AND TRANSFORMERS DESTROYED. WATER SHORTAGES WILL MAKE HUMAN SUFFERING INCREDIBLE BY MODERN STANDARDS.

THE VAST MAJORITY OF NATIVE TREES WILL BE SNAPPED OR UPROOTED. ONLY THE HEARTIEST WILL REMAIN STANDING…BUT BE TOTALLY DEFOLIATED. FEW CROPS WILL REMAIN. LIVESTOCK LEFT EXPOSED TO THE WINDS WILL BE KILLED.

As of Saturday, a few shelters had been opened in Jackson. The Mississippi Coliseum was available, but poorly stocked and unprepared for the thousands that would arrive there. By Sunday, we realized it was not enough. But landfall was now less than 24 hours away, and establishing a shelter would be difficult.

~

“The church is opening up as a shelter.”

My mom called me Sunday afternoon. “How?” I wondered. We had never been a shelter before, had no supplies, no formal association with the Red Cross, Salvation Army, or any other aid group. But, it was in a prime location – just off the first exit entering the metro area for evacuees heading north on Interstate 55.

By the time I arrived at the church early Sunday evening, families were already filling the gym, where church members were unpacking leftover food and drink from vacation Bible school and the previous basketball season. Volunteers hit the phones, calling anyone and everyone to collect donations, and to get the word out that the shelter was operational… even though we weren’t sure how long it could be sustained.

Quiet crept in late Sunday night. Not calm, but dread. Underneath a basketball goal, families gathered around a small television. Every local broadcast station had begun uninterrupted coverage. WAPT-16, Jackson’s ABC affiliate, housed the evacuated news team from New Orleans’ WDSU, and the two newsrooms worked together to cover two cities over one broadcast feed.

[For video and a release from the WAPT/WDSU collaboration, see the supplementary post, Katrina 10: Two Stations, One Studio]

Nothing had changed – the storm we always knew was possible, the one that would push New Orleans’ defense system of levees to the brink, was hours away.

As I was preparing to leave for the night, an older couple arrived seeking a shelter that could take uncaged pets. Their two dogs hung their heads out of the only car window that didn’t have clothing and other belongings pinned against it. We couldn’t facilitate, and from what I knew after being in contact with media and other shelters all day, there wasn’t anywhere else to send them in the city. We got a tip that another shelter had opened and was accepting pets, and so I led the couple there along backroads, at times crossing over interstates that were at a standstill – four lanes heading away from a hurricane.

We pulled up to a dark and empty basketball arena. Clearly, our tip was wrong. Exhausted from the day, the couple and their dogs loaded back into the car and made their way toward Vicksburg.

I went back to my dorm to get some sleep. Katrina would be making landfall by morning.

~

My family gathered at my grandparents’ home – it being the one that wasn’t surrounded by dying pine trees. By the time I drove across town, the outer bands had already moved in. The interstates were now empty. Maybe the closest I may have ever come to a premonition, I decided to stop at the gas station around the corner and fill up the tank. The wind had become so strong that I got back in the car with a soaking wet backside and completely dry front.

Part of Katrina’s legacy is that it was so large, and that its hurricane force winds extended so far from the center. In Jackson, we experienced tropical storm force winds all day, with hurricane force winds for a period of about three hours in the afternoon, with peak gusts in excess of 90 mph. By the time the storm had passed, 97% of the metro area was without power. At my grandparents’ house, we were among the 3%.

~

The campus was in the 97%. Two buildings operated on generators. Students who couldn’t get home either slept in a banquet hall above the cafeteria (stocked with a week’s worth of cold sandwiches) or in the common area of one of the residence halls.

Photos courtesy Mississippi College

Ah, but this was college. In the basement of one darkened dorm, candles provided light for endless poker and beer. In the residence hall with power, we waited in line to play ping pong with the first class of students to come to the university from China through a new international program. Eventually, we added even more cultural diversity to the campus as students transferred from schools like Tulane that had to suspend the entire semester. We also took final exams a few days before Christmas, which is the definition of a first-world problem.

~

It took weeks to restore power to much of the area. And people tend to forget, but it was still summer, and it was hot. Temperatures soared and the ultra-humid atmosphere in Katrina’s wake produced heat indices in the triple digits.

Trees littered less-traveled roads. Gas shortages led to daylong lines at pumps, if you were lucky enough to get your car out of the neighborhood. Price gouging was rampant. Nobody’s cell phone worked for a week. I remember mine (a state-of-the-art Motorola flip phone!) coming back to life. Suddenly, I had dozens of text messages and voicemails from friends and family trying to find out about us, and our loved ones on the coast.

Further south, it was months before many areas had electricity. We were able to make fairly quick contact – within a day or two – with our relatives who had only recently moved from Metairie to the north shore of Lake Ponchartrain. They sounded… festive.

“Everyone’s outside… the whole neighborhood,” I recall hearing. “We got no power, so everyone is unloading the meat out of their freezers and we’re having a big cookout!”

Hearing their voices meant everything to us.

~

“New Orleans dodged a bullet.”

By late afternoon, the television reports were coming in. New Orleans had been spared. At the shelter, families were relieved. They began trying to contact loved ones, but were having no luck. Something was wrong.

Major media outlets had all staged their reporters in the French Quarter, a great distance away from the failed levees that allowed flood waters to rush in. It wasn’t until nightfall that journalists began to venture out into the darkness, and to hear the cries of people clinging to the rooves of their homes.

This CNN report, replayed as part of a package for the 10-year anniversary, was one of the first to capture the gravity of the situation.

A common misremembrance of Katrina was that it hit the coast as a Category Five hurricane. It actually weakened to a Category Three late Sunday night into Monday morning. It wasn’t Katrina’s winds that killed between 1,200 and 1,900 people (even now, we really don’t know) and caused a record $108 billion in damage. It was the storm surge. It was the force of the ocean being driven over and through any structure that stood in its way, before claiming what once was land for itself.

The sun rose over the Gulf Coast Tuesday morning, and anyone who saw the images that day will remember them forever.

~

I was watching local NBC affiliate WLBT. They were one of the only broadcasters in the region with a helicopter, and while national media flew over New Orleans, WLBT gave us our first glimpses of the devastated Mississippi Gulf Coast.

I remember the images – interstate bridges completely gone, leaving nothing but pillars to mark where the road once stood. Lots with nothing remaining but slabs. Katrina didn’t just wreck up the place; it wiped away even the remnants of entire towns.

I remember the sounds – the raw reactions of the anchors to what they, like the audience, were seeing for the first time. They gasped. They choked on their words. They wept.

Photos courtesy WLBT

Five years later, I went to Long Beach, a town just west of Gulfport, to broadcast a high school baseball tournament. By this time, new buildings lined the coastal highway – a sign of recovery. But as I turned northward toward the high school, time reversed itself with each city block. Five years later, homes were decimated, roads were impassable. Tied up in disputes with insurance companies who refused to cover damages, these people had still not been able to rebuild their homes.

~

The church’s makeshift shelter suddenly became the only home many of the evacuees had left. And if we really hadn’t prepared to even have a shelter, we certainly didn’t plan on operating it for more than a few days. But these families had become our own, and sending them away was not an option. Church members worked around the clock – we’re fairly confident the pastor and his wife never left the church for the first week. Money and supplies poured in from individuals and other area churches. Volunteers from other congregations began arriving to take over for the weary.

God blessed that shelter, and God’s people answered the call. Relentlessly. I have never seen a better picture of the Church. This is how I described it in a blog post at the time:

The night before Katrina struck, the approximately 200-member Crossroads of Life Church was busy setting up a shelter. That night, evacuees entered a bare gym with a small television and some snacks left over from children’s activities. Fast-forward a week, and the gym is filled with food and supplies donated by people from all walks of life. There was the family down the street who got their electricity back and donated their spare bottled water. There were the local churches that brought meals to feed the evacuees three times over. As a displaced New Orleanian said, “This is better than a Holiday Inn.” All from the kindness of strangers’ hearts.

Inside the shelter, the good-spirits of those who may have lost everything never cease to amaze me. People like Mr. Tran, whose smile was contagious to anyone around him. Then there was the sheer, unyielding emotion of a mother and father embracing their son, whose whereabouts were unknown for days after the storm. There were sights that could bring a tear of joy to anyone’s eye, like a worship service where a plethora of races and religions put differences aside and praised God, even in a time of tragedy.

One of those glimpses deserves a lengthier story. A mother and father at the shelter had been desperately searching for their young adult son, who chose not to evacuate. I can only imagine what they must have felt, seeing the flood waters and the destruction and not knowing if his son was in its midst. They prayed continually, and those at the church prayed with them. Online, organizations and individuals were using message boards to share names of people who arrived at various shelters. One such board contained the name of their son, suggesting he had made it to Natchez in southwestern Mississippi. In the midst of the gas shortage, knowing nothing of road conditions, or even if the tip was accurate, one of the men volunteering at the shelter took the father, loaded into a pickup, and drove south.

Later that day, a moving truck arrived at the church. Two men got out and unloaded a big screen television. All of the local stations remained in 24-hour coverage – aiding in search and rescue as much as anything. But football season was also fast approaching, and our coastal transplants would need some way to watch their Saints after they had the chance to meet them.

Deuce McAllister and Fred McAfee, Saints running backs and native Mississippians, spent about an hour taking pictures, talking to families, and tossing the pigskin with the children. Sports may seem trivial, but it was a welcomed diversion.

The Saints are a huge part of southern Louisiana culture and identity. It’s why it hurt so much for them to play in San Antonio that season, and why their return was a Mardi Gras-style celebration. Through Katrina, the Saints became an even bigger part of Mississippi culture. Not only because of the recovery efforts from players, but because the chaos of the storm’s aftermath led to the Saints relocating their training camp to Jackson for the following two preseasons. They even played a 2006 preseason game against Peyton Manning’s Indianapolis Colts in crumbling Veterans Memorial Stadium. For those who couldn’t return home, the Saints had come to them.

Jackson State's "Sonic Boom of the South" performs at halftime of a Saints vs. Colts NFL preseason game played in Jackson in 2006. The Saints training camp moved to Jackson for two seasons following Katrina. (Photo: Dylan McLemore)
Jackson State’s “Sonic Boom of the South” performs at halftime of a Saints vs. Colts NFL preseason game played in Jackson in 2006. (Photo: Dylan McLemore)

But back to the story – while McAllister and McAfee visited, the pickup truck returned from its treacherous journey. They had found the son. Everyone gathered to share in the embrace. It felt like a miracle.

A news crew arrived shortly thereafter, presumably on a tip that the Saints players were visiting. Yet football had become the furthest thing from our minds. The pastor welcomed the crew.

“You’re here for the big news?” he asked, excitedly. “They’re reunited! This father and his son. You’ve got to hear this story…”

It never made the news. That wasn’t the point, really. When joy rises out of tragedy, you just want to tell somebody.

~

The shelter remained open through November. But the generosity of so many people continues to help people today. Leftover donations were used to provide groceries and help pay rents for shelter families who stayed in Jackson. Even after that, the church still had a bounty of food donations. Out of that began a food pantry for needy families that still operates today.

In dire times, the church responded, serving others no matter the effort or cost. As I read the New Testament, it seemed like the way Jesus meant for the Church to operate. This community of church members, volunteers, and those who temporarily called the church home sang praises together and immediately, tangibly, turned worship into action. This was real.

In October, I was baptized in that church. Though I don’t recall with certainty, it is likely that some of the people staying in the shelter witnessed it. I had recognized Jesus as my Savior years earlier, but being “dunked” to make that decision known just seemed like spectacle. As my long internal struggle ended, I couldn’t have been happier to make such a public declaration of faith among people who were living it.

~

Much of the information in this account comes from various things I wrote 10 years ago. The weather/media nerd in me blogged about public information, while I kept personal details in a journal. Newsrooms were stretched so thin after days of uninterrupted coverage that I thought for sure I could just show up and be put on air to live out my dream. The next time a storm threatened, things would be different.

A month after Katrina, I was in the midst of my first season of broadcasting college football games when Hurricane Rita spawned tornadoes across the state and around the stadium. I spent half the game describing the action, and half the game giving out warnings. It was my first chance to do so through traditional media.

I was working as an on-air personality in a music format by 2008, when Hurricane Gustav presented the first threat to New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast since Katrina. As we prepared for the worst, I thought about the people I had met through the shelter, and the types of information people would need as they evacuated once again. I was on-air for all my waking hours as the storm made landfall and approached the listening area. I learned to pronounce Louisiana cities and parishes (“Lafourche,” anyone?). I don’t think I was paid a dime.

~

Ten years ago, we came together.

Katrina showed me what it means to come together. I saw a campus come together to help clean up debris or simply find a place of rest. To become friends with people we might not have otherwise taken the time to really know, or even have the opportunity to meet. I saw a state come together and pull itself up by its bootstraps before federal aid arrived. I saw a church and the community around it come together and exemplify the Church. And when we come together in the face of impending threat or resulting tragedy, I found a calling to give the people affected the information they need.

mccleanup5
Courtesy Mississippi College

Five months after Katrina, I was there to watch New Orleans come together. Mardi Gras has been an annual event for my family as long as I’ve been alive. Anyone wondering whether the carnival season would be taken by Katrina didn’t know New Orleans. Parade routes were altered and krewes were generally smaller than in typical years, but the social significance of Mardi Gras was never greater.

The parades were a reflection of the city’s suffering and resiliency. Floats that were damaged in the storm wore flood lines like battle scars. Others used satire to lambaste government agencies.

Like the region around it, Mardi Gras felt beaten down, ragged and a bit angry. But it also felt determined and communal. Proud in its small triumph.

Ten years ago, we came together. Today, I look back and marvel at the immense transformation of cities, cultures, and people that resulted. And I wonder if we’re still as connected as we were when the eye of the storm was upon us.

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3 thoughts on “Katrina 10: Our world changed and brought us closer together (among other stories)”

  1. I love this. I have very vivid memories of watching the news from my top bunk in Latt-Webb as Katrina made landfall and the power flickered. Such a surreal time.

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