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Monday, Aug. 29: Still remembering Katrina

Eleven years ago today — a Monday back in 2005, too — I sat in a hotel in Baton Rouge with my husband, youngest daughter and smuggled-in sheltie and watched New Orleans dodge a bullet. Or so we thought that morning. How wrong we turned out to be.

On the Friday before — as they did again this year — the Saints had played a pre-season game in the Superdome (same dismal showing that year, too). I arrived home afterward and logged onto my computer to check the status of Hurricane Katrina. That day’s models had shown it taking aim at the west coast of Florida. But my Internet perusal turned up warnings that the track was changing, veering northwest. I logged onto a booking site and snagged the last room at a Baton Rouge hotel for Sunday night, cancellable within 24 hours of arrival. We probably won’t need it, I told Stewart. But just in case.

And there we were indeed on Monday morning, having left the city in its first ever mandatory evacuation. We watched on TV as the eye of the storm  — downgraded from a Category 5 to a 3 — made landfall along the Mississippi/Louisiana border. New Orleans, I told my mother in a phone call that afternoon, had gotten rain and wind but had missed the brunt of the storm, which had landed to the east.

Alas, we awoke Tuesday morning to news that was making headlines around the world. Surges from the storm had pushed waters from Lake Pontchartrain into the city’s manmade canals, where levees had failed, pouring millions of gallons of brackish water into streets and homes. On Tuesday evening, we sat in a hotel conference room with a crowd of fellow evacuees, watching a portable TV someone had rigged with a rabbit-ear antenna made of tinfoil. We gazed at aerial views of helicopters fruitlessly dropping bags of sand into the breaches, and I started crying when I saw the Southern Yacht Club so near my house burning to the ground.

The storm would teach me how to find my house in a satellite photo on the web (yep, it had flooded), how much moisture is too much for 4×4 pine studs (anything above 19%) and what the letters in LEEDS stand for (Google it). And, oh yes, how to text, since cell phones couldn’t make calls for weeks.

We had a lot of company. According to a report this week from The Data Center, we were among more than a million people who had been displaced from the Gulf Coast region. As many as 600,000 households — including my own — were still unable to return a month later.

Eleven years later, here are other Katrina figures worth remembering from The Data Center:

  • Flooding. When the levees failed, approximately 80 percent of the city was flooded. The business district and main tourist centers were relatively undamaged, but vast expanses of many New Orleans neighborhoods were inundated, making Katrina the largest residential disaster in U.S. history. The extent of damage varied greatly from one part of town to another. Some areas received one foot of flooding while others were submerged by more than 10 feet of water.
  • Deaths. Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures resulted in the deaths of at least 986 Louisiana residents. The major causes of death include: drowning (40%), injury and trauma (25%), and heart conditions (11%). Nearly half of all victims were over the age of 74.
  • Displaced residents. At their peak, hurricane evacuee shelters housed 273,000 people and, later, FEMA trailers housed at least 114,000 households.
  • Population decrease. The population of New Orleans fell from 484,674 before Katrina (April 2000) to an estimated 230,172 after Katrina (July 2006) — a decrease of 254,502 people and a loss of over half of the city’s population.(1) By July of 2015, the population was back up to 386,617 — 80% of what it was in 2000.
  • Housing damage. Katrina damaged more than a million housing units in the Gulf Coast region. About half of these damaged units were located in Louisiana. In New Orleans alone, 134,000 housing units — 70% of all occupied units — suffered damage from Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent flooding.
  • Total damages. The total damages from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were $150 billion — $135 billion from Katrina and $15 billion from Rita.
  • Recovery funding. Of the $120.5 billion in federal spending, the majority — approximately $75 billion — went to emergency relief, not rebuilding. Philanthropic giving, while more than double the giving for either the 2004 South Asian Tsunami or 9/11, was only $6.5 billion. Meanwhile, private insurance claims covered less than $30 billion of the losses.

We were among the first to rebuild our flooded home in Lakeview. That fall of 2005 and spring of 2006 were among the hardest of our lives. Stewart likes to say that it aged us in dog years. Contractors came and went, sheetrock was scarce, lumber expensive and carpenters worth their weight in gold. Plumbers, I told my own, were the new rock stars. Yet there were bright spots, too. I remember my whoop of joy the day after Thanksgiving 2005 when I tripped the main breaker switch on the side of my house for the umpteenth time … and the electricity came on. People at home and abroad showed a compassion that still makes me believe today in the innate goodness of the human spirit.

I chronicled much of my own rebuild — in all of its universal craziness — in a Times-Picayune column called “This Mold House.” Last year I reposted a few of my favorites, reprised below, on the anniversary of the storm. I also wrote a story about my recollections for The Times-Picayune.

Today, Monday, Aug. 29, 2016, seems far removed from those events. Many of the young people I work with at NolaVie have arrived here post-K (bless them). All of us have pretty much moved on, from rebuilding to just plain building. So, hopefully, stories like these are aging gracefully, like, say, generational laments of walking home in the snow.

Perhaps today, Monday, Aug. 29, 11 years later, these tales will make people laugh, and lament, and remember, but without the heartache. Enjoy.

Ghoulish chills: Same old mold. That first Halloween in a soggy city saw fungi invading at a bone-chilling pace. New Orleanians were not amused. Oct. 29, 2005.

Spore losers:  As my mold IQ grew, I discovered that rot really does go to the brain. Jan. 14, 2006.

One word: Plastics: After gutting to the studs, we filled the walls with spray-foam insulation. Spongy to the touch, which Stewart found way cool. Jan. 21, 2006.

Going paperless:  Many Orleanians rebuilt with a “never again” attitude. For us, that meant drywall without cellulose. Bugs and mold hate it. Jan. 28, 2006.

Hue and cry: Hiring a color consultant was not just about pleasing wall shades. It was marital mediation at its most vibrant. Feb 25, 2006.

The Percy story: In a bizarre early-morning visitation, I discovered I had a squatter. And he had been using my bed and my washing machine. May 20, 2006.

Renovating the soul: The storm spawned a new lingo; think e-schools and e-vacs. And katrinkets for things you bought just to make you feel better. May 27, 2006.

Learning a new language: Everyone was speaking R values and base flood elevations. Personally, I learned that a “housewrap” was not something you wear downstairs in the morning to make coffee, and that a “slab cap” doesn’t go on your head. And that being framed, flashed or strapped was suddenly a good thing. July 8, 2006.

Rocky road: The 5 percenters just couldn’t get that last bit done. A friend called it the Death Zone. Aug. 19, 2006.

You say flokati …: Katrina induced a high learning curve in décor styles. My own eclectic tastes clashed with my husband’s equally idiosyncratic cravings. I like dhurrie rugs and sushi; he’s a wing chair and ribeye kind of guy. All of us were learning lessons in trendiness. Jan. 12, 2008.

Long live the queen: In early 2009 I hung up my crown. My goodbye column recapped much of the Katrina experience shared with my readers. Feb. 28, 2009.


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