I watched Katrina unfold from the newsroom of the Daily Illini. I’d graduated journalism school, but was still filing stories for the university newspaper. While I waited for editors to review my drafts, I would watch CNN.
At first, I felt relieved to believe New Orleans had dodged the bullet, but when the levees broke, the horrors began to unfold. I recall watching people wading through waist-deep flood waters on Canal Street. There were news reports of looting. One Daily Illini reporter was outraged seeing Walgreens burglarized.
“Have you ever been without food and water for three days?” I asked, dumbfounded.
“No excuses!” she confidently exclaimed.
How could I explain to an Illinois resident what New Orleans can be like in the throes of summer – 90-degree-plus heat and humidity, no less without air conditioning or a dry spot to rest? Later, I received a snarky email detailing the experiences of a church group distributing sandwiches at the Superdome.
“The didn’t even say ‘thank you’,” my indignant friend said.
I started to say, “Have you ever been without food and water for three days?” but stopped myself.
Oh, the luxury of being judgmental from the safety of your cool, dry home. Who in the world could imagine the heat, the stench, the discomfort and the fear while being stranded at the Superdome?
Soon, my email in-box was filled with updates of various college friends — some in Houston, others in Lake Charles, LA. A few made it all the way to the Carolinas. I felt heart palpitations. Suddenly, people I knew were like victims of natural disasters you might hear of in Asia or Africa.
I had to see it for myself.
In December, I decided to drive down to my beloved New Orleans and see the damage with my own eyes. Exiting I-10, I found Carrollton Avenue completely dark, Five Happiness restaurant and Popeyes shuttered. Cables dangled from light poles; there were neither streetlights nor house lights. Nearing Riverbend, Fleur de Lys flags appeared — signs of survival. The concierge at my friend’s Warehouse District condominium recounted her personal story and began to cry.
“When they told me there was nothing left, I couldn’t believe them. I went back to the house three times before I realized they were right.”
I ate a grilled hamburger in a bar that night. In the morning, I went searching for coffee. The only functioning part of town was along Magazine Street. The line at CC’s was out the door.
A college friend had hooked me up with a Times-Picayune reporter who took me on a tour of the levee breaks. The Lower Ninth Ward — where I had never been before — was completely flattened. It looked like a tsunami had passed through.
My friend’s condo was near the Convention Center. Every time I needed anything, I had to drive Uptown. It seemed like everyone was at Rouses on Tchoupitoulas Street. There was no other supermarket to buy groceries. The traffic stoplights weren’t working.
I ate lunch with an old friend at a Cuban restaurant in the almost deserted CBD. He said half the town was taking antidepressants. The floodwater had stopped a block from his Queen Anne house.
I met another friend for dinner in Metairie. Returning to my car, I found it had a flat tire. The streets were filled with all sorts of debris. After spending the night at her house, I went looking for a new tire, but found none. Everyone in New Orleans needed new tires.
Finally satiated, I headed back up North. The car started making strange noises near McComb, Mississippi, and I considered it wise to stop overnight. But when I turned off the highway, I found every motel filled with Katrina evacuees, many sitting outside on the balconies. I got the last available room in town and went to bed. The following morning, I gingerly asked whether there might be a Volkswagon repairman nearby. The clerk sensed my distress. “If you know the 23rd Psalm, say it now,” she advised.
Incredibly, there was a foreign car specialist in McComb and a generous soul gave me and my car a lift to the Black side of town. The repair shop yard was full of expensive imports, and a man in brown overalls with a big smile greeted me. A couple of guys who had dropped off a yellow Beetle invited me for lunch. By the time we returned, the mechanic had fixed the Cabrio, charging me $65 – a touch of grace.
It had been less than a week, but I felt like I had not only seen the effects of Hurricane Katrina, in some sense, I’d felt them.
For the tenth anniversary of Katrina, NolaVie will be running five days of personal Katrina accounts from our contributors and community members. Check back each day for raw stories from the people who lived through, within and around the tragic hurricane.