August 29, 2005
The television in our hotel room never went off the day Katrina made landfall. I knew it was probably not good for my two girls, but it was the only news we could get. We watched the tracking on the national news channels and the weather channel, as Katrina stealthily approached. She wobbled every so often, but we were experienced enough with tracking storms that we recognized it for what it was, and knew by the next hourly update, she would be back on course. And she was.
The day before, my kids had been bored. We hadn’t brought toys, because we left sort of on the fly, not believing we would be gone for that long, but after only one day, the girls wanted to play. I took them to the hotel lobby, which had a small pond with two swans in it, and to the hotel restaurant, which had a creepy balloon man I still think was a pedophile. The girls sensed something was wrong with him and my youngest hid his substandard balloon animal in the closet until she decided to pop it. I warned them he might be the bad man we've talked about, and to stay away from him. I didn't have to tell them twice.
We also went to the Galleria. I felt blessed when the Disney store had 40 percent off of everything for Katrina evacuees with an I.D.. Not knowing how long we would be gone, I didn’t how far my bank account was going to stretch, something I hadn’t considered before we evacuated. The room wasn’t cheap, anywhere from $99 to $179 per night, depending upon what day of the week, and I was putting it all on my American Express card. I didn’t know then that a little thing on my insurance policy called “loss of use,” would reimburse me, although not in time to pay the bill.
My husband was a contractor, if he didn’t work, he didn’t make money. I have a contract through the state to do criminal appeals, but I had no idea if I would get paid if I wasn’t actually working, and I couldn’t work from Houston. I didn’t worry a whole lot yet, though. Something inside kept me believing it wasn’t going to be as bad as the newscasters were making it out to be.
My husband arrived from New Orleans early Monday morning, in the wee hours, before Katrina hit land. He brought my laptop, and it became my lifeline to the world back home. I connected with NOLA.com, our local newspaper’s website. They have excellent forums for people to communicate with each other and post news, and eventually to post requests for news about missing people, but at first there was nothing to report. My husband and family slept while I watched the news and surfed the internet looking for information.
Early in the morning, we saw the first images from the French Quarter. The worst we saw was a few bricks from the top of an older building had fallen on a car. There was not a lot of flooding, and the wind damage was not as bad as it could have been. New Orleans East had been hit the hardest in the metropolitan New Orleans area, as the storm had made landfall further east than tracked. Slidell, Louisiana, took a huge hit, as did Bay St. Louis and the coast of Mississippi. We felt somewhat relieved.
My husband called one of our neighbors, who was a police officer and had stayed in town. The neighbor, Mike, said we had a little flooding, he and a few other men who had stayed behind pulled debris from the drainage system and the flooding went down. Part of one of my trees had been destroyed, and all of our roofs had damage, but it didn’t sound too bad.
About an hour later, new reports began coming in. Water was rising in the French Quarter from an unknown source. People began arriving at the Superdome, the “shelter of last resort,” with stories of massive tidal wave type flooding, people trapped on roofs of houses, screaming for help, others drowning, swept up in the water.
The first levee that I heard had failed was at the 17th Street canal. My daughter’s school was two blocks away from this canal. Many of her new friends lived in this neighborhood. Through Nola.com, I learned the school was okay, but only because our sheriff’s department sandbagged right along the canal, keeping a lot of the water from going into Old Metairie. New Orleans, particularly Lakeview, and the less affluent areas of Metairie, were flooding.
The time line actually was something like this:
At 4:30 a.m., the Industrial Canal leaked through drainage gates into neighborhoods on both sides of the I-10, creating a minor flood compared to what was to come.
At 6:10, Katrina made landfall at Buras, Louisiana, and a wall of water 21 feet high crossed the Mississippi river levees, flooding Plaquemines Parish.
At 6:30 a.m., the tidal surge built in the Intercoastal waterway and the levees were overtopped, sending St. Bernard under water.
At 9:00 a.m., the surge in the London Avenue Canal rose, the levee panels began bending, and water began leaking into yards, creating a minor flood.
At 9:30 a.m., the east side of the same levee failed, putting parts of Gentilly under water.
At 9:45, the 17th Street canal levee wall panels failed, filling mid-city, Lakeview, and parts of Metairie with water.
At 10:30, the west side panels of the London Canal failed, adding 8 feet of water to the already flooded Gentilly.
Then we heard the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, or MRGO as we call it, a shipping channel, had levee failure, flooding more of New Orleans. The MRGO crosses the Industrial Canal or Intercoastal waterway, and goes through St. Bernard. The Industrial canal connects the Mississippi River to Lake Pontchartrain, separates New Orleans East from the rest of the city, and divides the lower 9th Ward from the Upper 9th Ward. The failure of the levees of MRGO and the Industrial Canal caused the bulk of the flooding portrayed on t.v. and movies, but the 17th Street Canal caused the Lakeview and mid-city flood, while the little known London Avenue Canal caused the decimation of Gentilly.
These canals lead from the river to the lake. Because of the levee failures, Lake Pontchartrain would continue filling the city until the amount of water outside the lake leveled off with the amount of water inside the lake. That's a whole lot of water.
The day Katrina hit, I spent the entire day back and forth between the computer and the front desk of the hotel. I had only booked the room until Monday, that day, and the hotel said they were overbooked and didn’t know if they were going to be able to let us stay. I had to continuously check with them, while frantically trying to book another room elsewhere in Houston. Unfortunately, Houston was pretty full up with New Orleans people right then.
My mother and I got in a tiff because she complained I spent too much time on the computer and not enough taking care of my children, which I guess she kind of failed to realize was part of the reason she was there. I wanted to yell at her to do something, anything, to help us out. Take the kids for lunch or find us another room or something, but I guess she was so used to having everything done for her she couldn’t even contemplate taking the lead. It was driving me crazy. We were all worried about the condition of our homes, our neighborhoods, wondering if our lives would ever go back to normal, but I was also worried about where we would be spending that night, and the only way I had of checking that out was on the computer. She snipped ALMOST under her breath that she was just going to leave and go rent a car (because of course she rode with me instead of taking her own car), and book her own room and stay somewhere else. I wanted to ask how she was getting to the rental car place, and how was she going to book a room, particularly since there were none available, but I dismissed her bitterness as her own nerves. (I was almost tempted to ask her for half of the money for the room she had already stayed in before she left, at least until I received my insurance check, but that was me being ugly and my frustrations coming to a head.)
The hotel would never commit to more than one day at a time the whole two weeks we were there. Before Katrina, during a category 1 hurricane called Cindy in July, I had decided to start looking for an evacuation house, something no more than 5 or 6 hours away from home, so we could travel to it when necessary, but far enough away to be safe from hurricanes. I had looked in parts of Louisiana after Cindy, but had kind of let it slip my mind until now. I vowed during that hotel stay that no matter what else I did that year, I was going to get an evacuation house, and would never go through that again. I did end up buying an evacuation house the following February, in the hills of rural Northern Alabama, and have never regretted it.
Eventually, we got the room worked out, and the day after Katrina, my husband, his father, and his brother decided they were going to be cavemen and go home and brave it, with no electricity or running water. No one was allowed back in town yet, but my husband is a deputy constable, and badged his way in to town. They all lasted a single night without a/c, but my husband did manage to clean out the two maggot-infested refrigerators at my house as well as my mother’s. Cell phones were still not working in the area, but text messaging was, so we were able to communicate while he was gone.
Our house had roof damage, in my daughters’ playroom and my office, but only a few toys, children’s books and small appliances were ruined. My husband and his entourage came back a day later, and we remained in Houston for nearly two weeks.
My husband went home a day before we did, but I was extremely apprehensive. We were still hearing stories of looting and gunshots, although a lot of that had stopped with the national guard in town, but that brought a series of other problems, such as a curfew at dark. It was particularly scary because police from all over Louisiana, as well as the rest of the country, were in town, in uniforms, trying to keep the peace. But that also meant any impostor could don a police uniform and pretend to be an officer.
My daughter’s Godfathers stayed for the storm, both with different experiences of what happened during Katrina, and will be highlighted in part three, as well as how our life changed after Katrina.