I knew that storm was coming our way. The sky had begun to darken, a mix of gray and white, and the Gulf waters were encroaching further and further up the beachfront. I mentioned that to everyone, as we piled into the two vehicles and headed back west on I-10.
“It’s too far away,” one of my friends said dismissively.
“I don’t know,” I mumbled in response. “Those things are pretty powerful.”
We left Panama City, Florida that Saturday morning; the final weekend in September 1995. It had been a good, one-week vacation. It had been four years since I’d visited a beach. Panama City wasn’t Ixtapa, México, but it was still relatively small and quaint. I fell in love with the place the moment we pulled up to our condo rental. I was saddened when Hurricane Opal tore into the town the first week in October; just days after we left.
That year, 1995, was a busy hurricane season for the Atlantic / Caribbean region. With 19 tropical storms and hurricanes, it was second only to 1933, which produced 20. I’ve always been fascinated by the natural elements of our world. I keep track of various natural catastrophes, mainly to satisfy my desire to know more about them, but also as a display of my personal reverence. When nature goes on a rampage, it humbles the human spirit. People usually realize only then that we aren’t as significant as we like to think we are.
Today marks the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, one of the worst natural calamities ever to strike the United States. It wasn’t the deadliest; that dubious distinction is still held by a hurricane that struck Galveston Island, Texas in 1900. It certainly wasn’t the deadliest to strike the Western Hemisphere. The “Great Hurricane of 1780” took 22,000 lives in the Caribbean. It wasn’t the deadliest in the world. The Great Bhola Cyclone ravaged Bangladesh in November of 1970 and killed an estimated 1 million people. Katrina wasn’t the most powerful storm to hit the U.S. in terms of wind speed. Camille retains that legacy. But, Katrina holds a cruel and bitter place in the American psyche. Its attack on the Gulf Coast almost destroyed a major city, killed more than 1,800 people and cost over $105 billion. Katrina’s onslaught is a perfect example of human vulnerability and government ineptitude. But it also showed the power human benevolence and of the will to live.
Scientists had warned the city of New Orleans for years that it was prone to massive flooding from even a modest tropical storm system. Essentially surrounded by water on three sides, some 80% of the city lies at or below sea level. It is the only major metropolitan area in the U.S. with such unfavorable characteristics. Yet its residents had always felt relatively safe with the multitude of dikes and levees. That faith melted violently on August 29, 2005. But such misguided sentiments have their base in reality; born of another catastrophic event nearly eight decades earlier.
Beginning in the summer of 1926, the mid-section of the U.S. received some of the heaviest rainfall it had ever experienced. By the following spring, the Mississippi River repeatedly overflowed its banks, inundating roughly 27,000 square miles of land (as much as 30 feet deep) from Illinois to southern Louisiana. In one 18-hour period, beginning on the night of April 15, New Orleans alone received 15 inches of rain. Up to 630,000 people in Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi were directly impacted by the flooding. That so many of the displaced were poor African-Americans struggling to live in a staunchly segregated society didn’t go unnoticed.
The “Great Flood of 1927” sparked a massive migration northward towards cities such as Chicago and Detroit among disenfranchised Blacks. It also sparked the U.S. Congress to enact the Jadwin Plan, named for General Edwin Jadwin, then head of the U.S. Corps of Engineers, to set standards for levee construction and maintenance. The development of a stronger and more intricate levee system prompted New Orleans to expand northward towards Lake Pontchartrain, one of the largest lakes in the U.S., but one that is basically an extension of the Gulf of México. Engineers dredged out swampland to create open spaces for homes and other buildings; certain those levees would protect everyone from a repeat of the 1927 flood.
Much of that certainty was tested, when Hurricane Betsy rolled over southeastern Louisiana in 1965. Betsy cost $1.425 billion in damage – the first billion-dollar storm in the U.S. – but killed only 76 people.
When I started working for an engineering company in November of 2002, one of my constituents was a young woman from New Orleans. While she was too young to remember the storm, her parents and grandparents had vividly painful memories of it. They often spoke as if it was a person who had terrorized their lives. “Betsy took this and Betsy took that,” my colleague said, mimicking one of her grandmothers, explaining why they had so few family photos and other personal effects that people gather over the years.
It took a while for New Orleans to recover. Many of the levees had failed, and some residents – no longer assured of their safety – moved out. The city’s population continued dropping and stood at just under 800,000 when Katrina struck. More importantly, the bulk of New Orleans’ citizens lived on some type of government assistance. That fact alone put so many people in jeopardy. With so few financial resources, they couldn’t afford to own vehicles, much less rent one or buy a plane ticket to flee the city ahead of Katrina. Struggling to make it from one day to another occupies a person’s time and energy. They don’t often make room in their minds for levees.
In 2003, the State of Louisiana launched a year-long endeavor to review the stability of those levees. Called the “Hurricane Pam” Southeast Louisiana Catastrophic Hurricane Planning Project, its goal was “to develop a functional, scenario-based exercise that would drive the writing of Incident Action Plans for catastrophic hurricane response.” The engineers convinced themselves, and subsequently New Orleans city officials, that the levee system would hold up from a Category 3 storm, “Pam.” But incident action plans were about the only solid results of the exercise. Things always look so good on paper anyway.
Then Katrina arrived. And everything changed.
Two of my acquaintances lived in New Orleans a decade ago and ended up in Dallas because of Katrina. One, James*, fled the city before the storm hit; the other, Max*, barely survived it. James took heed of the storm warnings. He got a sick feeling about it. On the evening of Sunday, August 28, he made the gut-wrenching decision to gather his two small dogs, pack what he could into his car and get the hell out of there. No one wants to leave their home, even in the face of a pending disaster. Home is where we’re supposed to feel safe. But James told me that nauseating sensation, deep in his gut, ordered him to leave. He felt somewhat vulnerable, in part because he was alone and had his dogs with him, but also because he suffers from night blindness. Heading west on I-10, he arrived in Calcasieu Parish later that evening and stopped for the night. He was physically tired, he told me, but also emotionally tired. He worried about family and friends and wondered if he’d be able to return to his house. The next morning, as Katrina made landfall, James took off for Houston, where friends said he could stay until the worst had passed. The worst took much longer to pass away than anyone expected. He later traveled to Dallas where he stayed with other friends. By the time he got back to New Orleans, he found a city in ruins and his house unlivable. It took a while to get things together, but James eventually made Dallas his home.
Max knew he should probably leave, as well. Like so many New Orleans residents, he waffled about his decision. He’d lived through storms of various magnitudes before. Yes, there was flooding and, yes, there was wind damage. But they always recovered. Some friends in Dallas had called and offered their place as a refuge. Late on August 28 he decided to take off. With only a half a tank of gas in his compact car, though, he didn’t know how far he could get; certainly all the way to Dallas. He drove around, looking for a gas station, but every one of them was closed. He returned to his one-bedroom, ground-level apartment and opted to wait it out. Early on Monday morning, though, he worried that he wasn’t safe there. So, with some important belongs and a few bottles of water stuffed into a duffel bag, he drove through torrential rains and bruising winds to the New Orleans Superdome; the place where Mayor Ray Nagin and others said people would be safe and secure. Built atop a series of old railroad tracks, the dome was also on stable ground. But, by the time Max got to the Superdome, police were turning people away; the dome had reached its capacity. Late arrivals were redirected to the city’s convention center. Max got as close as he could to the latter building and parked his car on a street that was already flooding. With his duffel bag in tow, he sloshed through the water and made it inside the convention center. He shoved himself into a corner and, along with thousands of others, waited as Katrina raged overhead.
“New Orleans is one of those cities you really have to love in order to live there,” Max told me. And, he really loved it. This quirky jewel of the Deep South is unlike any other place. It calls out to equally colorful characters like Max. Thus, lumbering around the convention center that Monday afternoon and in the following days, Max wondered how his cherished city would recuperate from this mess. Like everyone else trapped there, he didn’t realize just how bad Katrina had torn into the city, until days later.
Max managed to make it out of the building, determined to leave the area any way he could. He was certain his car was gone and his apartment was flooded. He also looked across the vast see of desperate people and realized that, if no one was going to save the children and the elderly from that mess, they certainly weren’t going to save him. Young and middle-aged men are expected to sacrifice their time and their lives for everyone else. But, should they need help, they are viewed instead as worthless moochers. So, Max turned westward and started walking. He visually took in the devastation with each step and, at one point, came across the body of a dead man. Recounting the story to me and several others at a Dallas bar one night several years ago generated the usual response of horror.
Then, one little gal asked, “Didn’t you do anything?!”
Max looked at her, surely wanting to smack her upside the head, and quietly replied, “Yea.”
That’s a hell of a think-on-your-feet question. Quick! You see a dead body on the street in a post-apocalyptic world. What do you do?
- Keep walking and pretend you didn’t see anything.
- Stop to say a prayer.
- Rifle through the person’s pockets.
- Look around for embalming fluid and some flowers.
- All of the above.
Max chose option a. He just walked. And walked. And walked. And walked…until he ended up outside the city and at a truck stop. He dragged his tired, sweat-soaked body into the diner; still dragging that duffel bag behind him. Sitting at the counter, he struck up a conversation with a truck driver who was headed to Houston. The trucker offered to take Max there where he could then rent a car and head to his friends’ place in Dallas. Max accepted and wondered for a moment, if he’d just entered the lair of a psycho-sexual serial killer. But the driver turned out to be friendly and, as promised, dropped Max off in Houston. By the time he was able to return to New Orleans, he knew his car was gone and his apartment was wrecked. He just had that duffel bag. Like James, he decided to make Dallas his new home.
The effects of Katrina aren’t short-lived. Asking people why they don’t just leave in the face of such pending disaster is easy. Look around your own home at the myriad items you’ve collected over the years. What would you take, if you had to leave? Imagine if you were elderly or infirm. How would you get away?
Social and political conservatives chided their liberal counterparts for denouncing the lackluster response of President George W. Bush; saying, for example, during the 2008 presidential race, that hopefully the next president would be able to stop a hurricane the way Bush couldn’t. Stopping Katrina was never a thought. I don’t know anyone who said that. Responding to the storm was the key issue. Liberals, however, seemed to think everything lay on the shoulders of the federal government.
FEMA was supposed to have all sorts of action plans in place ahead of such calamities. Created in 1979, by President Jimmy Carter specifically to respond to various types of emergencies, FEMA ended up under the Department of Homeland Security in 2003; a government agency created solely in response to the 09/11 terrorist attacks. Under the direction of Michael Brown – whose disaster management experience included heading an Arabian horse club in California – FEMA’s definition took on a new meaning: Fix Everything My Ass!
Katrina couldn’t have hit a city more vulnerable than New Orleans or occur under a presidential administration more incompetent than Bush. Plenty of folks condemned Bush’s response. He watched the storm’s aftermath from his ranch in Crawford, Texas, before heading to Las Vegas for a speech before the local Republican Party. He later claimed he wanted desperately to visit New Orleans immediately after the storm hit, but the Secret Service didn’t feel it was safe. Besides, there was no place to land Air Force One. Louis Armstrong Airport was flooded.
In reality, just about everyone in charge screwed up. Nagin, for one, didn’t issue a mandatory evacuation until Sunday, August 28. Louisiana Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco – who apparently was genuinely more concerned about Katrina than Nagin – still didn’t order National Guard troops into New Orleans until September 1. The only people who reacted timely and positively to the storm were the U.S. Coast Guard. They were in New Orleans, almost as soon as the storm passed, on tattered rooftops and in the filthy floodwaters; literally rescuing thousands of people. They just couldn’t reach them all.
Just as things started to develop some semblance of normalcy, another Category 5 hurricane, Rita, entered the Gulf and struck Louisiana; this time on the western edge, along the border with Texas. Often called the “Forgotten Storm,” Rita was actually the fourth most intense tropical storm in the recorded history of the Atlantic / Caribbean region. It made official landfall shortly before midnight on September 23 as a Category 3 storm. It triggered one of the largest coastal evacuations in U.S. history. It had set its sights on Texas, particularly the Galveston – Houston area. But, at the last minute, a massive air system swept down across Texas and shoved it back out into open water. Rita generated significant storm surges along the Gulf Coast, from Texas to Alabama. For the first time in anyone’s memory, one state was ravaged by two monster storms in the same season.
That year, 2005, turned out to be the single busiest hurricane season for the Atlantic / Caribbean basin, with a total of 27 hurricanes and tropical storm systems, plus one unnamed sub-tropical system. The list of names was exhausted for the first time since meteorologists began naming them in 1953 and had to continue with the Greek-letter system. The last official name on the list, Wilma, turned out to be another Category 5 hurricane and was actually the most powerful in terms of millibars, 882, ever recorded in the region. No one had ever seen anything like it before…or since.
As part of my job with the engineering firm and the contract with the government agency, I volunteered to work in New Orleans. Two of my colleagues had been in the area almost as soon as the storm passed, along with scores of other contractors and government employees. In fact, my constituents were desperately trying to make it back to Texas on the night of September 23, as Rita lurked offshore. Together Katrina and Rita created one of the worst ecological and environmental catastrophes the U.S. has ever endured. Aside from inundating a large city with toxic floodwaters, Katrina alone devastated the Mississippi River Delta, already made fragile by rapid development and oil and gas exploration. Much of the boggy coastal areas had been depleted; material that acts as a natural impediment to powerful storm surges, which is actually the deadliest feature of any tropical storm system. Katrina uprooted millions of trees and other forms of vegetation.
Because of the heavy flooding in New Orleans, sewage and water treatment plants stopped functioning; thus millions of gallons of lethal waste were released. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency quickly warned people in the city not to touch the floodwaters. The EPA had some of its people in the area the day after the storm hit, wrapped up in hazmat suits, gathering soil and water samples. They reported that, even with face masks, they could smell the toxins. Once the floodwaters receded, those elements didn’t just dissipate; they settled into the soil where even mild winds could hurtle them into people’s noses.
I arrived at Armstrong Airport on the Sunday night after Thanksgiving 2005. I had taken the place of one of my colleagues, David*, a native of north-central Louisiana. He and the onsite supervisor, Sarah*, had been holed up in a seedy motel in a small town on the northwestern rim of Lake Pontchartrain for a while. Sarah was able to move into a much nicer hotel in Metairie, where the airport is located. David had paid ahead for several days at the seedy joint, so that’s where I ended up initially. There were only 3 good things about the place: a waffle house, a steak restaurant and a drive-through daiquiri shack. After a couple of weeks, I was able to move into the same hotel as Sarah.
The environmental impact of Katrina – and, to a lesser extent, Rita – wasn’t lost on anyone. In advance of my trip, I underwent a series of shots, including for hepatitis B. At our work location in Metairie, an on-site health clinic was always busy. People complained constantly about sore throats and itchy eyes. Later, in cataloguing various health reports, I spotted some alarming conditions. At one point, even I developed something unexpected: gonorrhea-like symptoms. I wondered if I’d had another alcoholic blackout shortly before my trip, but that wasn’t the case. After arriving home for Christmas, I managed to make an appointment with a clinic that found…nothing. It may have been just a brief urinary tract infection; something I found out in the following months affected several people living and working in the area.
Our company’s liaison to the government agency, Doyle*, was New Orleans native. A hulkish figure of a man with a far-right political bent, he had willingly returned to the city of his birth to oversee the contractors. He took some time out to visit a local cemetery where some of his relatives were interred. Several years ago the city of New Orleans outlawed subterranean burials because of the swampy ground. All of Doyle’s deceased relatives, however, were buried in above-ground crypts. Arriving at the cemetery in hip-wader boots, he recounted one afternoon, he had to step over the remains of disinterred residents. It was only then, he said, the full horror of the storm became real to him. “Even the dead were trying to get the hell out of there!” he said.
I looked around at the various people I saw and encountered and wondered how they managed to survive Katrina. What stories did they have to tell? Doyle had his. So did James and Max. Millions of people were directly affected by Katrina, as any natural disaster tends to do. And there are millions of tales of heartbreak and survival to go along with every one of those individuals.
Someone told me a while back that we shouldn’t reflect too much on what went wrong with Katrina.
“But we need to remember those things,” I replied. “Otherwise, we’ll make the same mistakes again.”
New Orleans and much of the rest of the Gulf Coast has recovered from Katrina; recovered as best as possible. How are you supposed to move on from something like that? What incident action plan is there for such dramatic events in one’s life? There are no written guidelines. But there’s something called “a will to live.” Max demonstrated that by setting out on foot; determined to save himself – or die trying. People up and down the Gulf Coast have embodied that same spirit, as they rebuilt homes and jump-started their lives. That’s just what people do. It’s how we’re wired.
It’s how humanity has survived for millennia. Plenty of people just gave up, but thousands more did everything within their power to survive and move forward. It’s just in most of us. Another monster storm will hit New Orleans in the future and do the same thing, if not worst. Tropical storm systems have been ravaging the coastlines of the world, long before humans thought of building summer beach homes and towering condominiums. They’re not going to stop because we want to windsurf or take pictures. We all just have to live with that, as we have to live with all of Earth’s natural forces. Somehow, somewhere, people will survive.