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This is my true story about our experience barely escaping hurricane Katrina. I used this website to help me remember the timeline and details of the storm progression to give as accurate an account as possible. This is my account as I recall it to the best of me, my husband, and my parent’s abilities. Flight times are approximate as it’s been 12 years.
On Friday August 26th of 2005, my husband and I jumped on a plane for a spur of the moment trip to visit some friends in New Orleans (Before we had kids). As we packed up the car, our ride mentioned that there was a tropical storm headed to the same place we were. After thinking about it for all of two seconds we figured it wasn’t that big of a deal. After all, the wind speeds of the approaching storm were only about 75 mph and this was the 11th storm and 5th hurricane of the year, all of which had been “way over dramatized by the media” according to locals. We were young and invincible right?… Having no experience with these situations (and no smart phone yet) I leaned on friends opinions. No one seemed concerned, so off we went. On our way to the airport, my soccer loving husband mentioned in passing that he had rescheduled the 5 pm Sunday flight home for 1 pm so that he could make it back in time to play in his game.
Little did we know, that the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico were rapidly fueling the intensity of this tropical storm, and as our plane was taking off, it had become a hurricane with 100 mph winds (by 11:30 am). We arrived in New Orleans, met up with our friends, and went out to dinner, enjoying all the sights, sounds and smells of this interesting city. The cicadas welcomed us with deafening synchronised chants. We have cicadas here in AZ, but I’ve never heard so many at once and in sync like this. To me it sounded like a siren, permeating every corner trying to warn of danger, even though I had no idea what was coming. As our friend drove us around, I admired some very beautiful historic looking homes. My admiration abruptly crumbled as she pointed to the shards of glass embedded into the top ledges of the surrounding walls. Placed there to deter slaves from escaping.
Stranger Than Fiction
Walking through downtown, I was curious as to why there were so many people going around cursing “Katrina” and saying that if Camille couldn’t take them down, nothing could. Who were these “Katrina” and “Camille” characters? Ok. got it. Storms. After walking around people watching for a few hours it was time to eat. I brushed any concerns aside (on the surface) and thoroughly appreciated the upbeat jazzy music, the friendly and fun waiter, and the odd ambiance of the musty wood plank floors of the dimly lit restaurant as we sat there eating our chicken, shrimp and sausage gumbo with corn on the cob (with plenty of melty butter).
Any danger I sensed was written off to the large presence of skeletons and not-so-subtle hints of black magic decorating the touristy shops. Or maybe it was the vampire bar where people actually go to…well let’s just say our friend was a paramedic and she had ran calls there for people accidentally swallowing razor blades. Looking back, It was as if my surroundings were growing more bizarre by the minute to mirror the surrealism of what was about to happen. Even if it was all just a dream, it was a doozy.
Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned the graveyards where bodies had floated out in previous floods…
Denial Ain’t Just A River…
As we settled in for the night we tuned in to learn that this “storm” had been upgraded to a hurricane and was expected to continue growing. Governors Kathleen Blanco of Louisiana and Haley Barbour of Mississippi declared states of emergency in their respective states. Still, everyone around me seemed pretty un-phased. They got annoyed with me for suggesting we leave now and sleep at the airport to avoid the gridlock that would occur once a mandatory evacuation was issued. They didn’t believe that would happen. I was so furious, that I actually considering grabbing my bag and footing it to the airport alone if I had to. I didn’t care if I had to walk all night. But this was before I owned a smart phone, and I had no knowledge of this city’s infrastructure. And being alone on the streets…
My sweet mother must have sensed I needed someone to talk me off the ledge. She called to tell me how worried she was for all those people in New Orleans because it looked to her as if they were in for serious disaster. uh. gulp. worst daughter ever. I had forgotten to even mention our spur of the moment trip! “Um Mom…” I struggled for a minute to get the words out. I had some ‘splainin’ to do…Me: “well Mom, are you sitting down? Please sit down. We’re… in …New Orleans right now.” Mom: Oh you’re watching it on the news too! Me: No, we’re actually in New Orleans as we speak.” Silence. I’m quite sure it was a moment of prayer.
All I could do was pace back and forth across the lopsided (from the unstable ground) floor of our friend’s apartment over and over as my mother and I went through all the different scenarios for our escape. No rental cars or taxis in our area. Flights out were being cut off as airports adjusted their estimations of the last possible safe take off time. We and everyone else tried bumping up or flights to no avail. I did my best to sound confident and to reassure my dear Mother that we would be home safe Sunday Afternoon. Worst case scenario we would just go to Baton Rouge to wait it out with all of the first responders. I omitted my concerns about a mandatory-evacuation-order caused gridlock. Nothing left to do but go to bed (as if) and pray that our flight out in two days was still a viable option.
The next day (Saturday) we were awakened by our friend’s military husband, who poked his head in to let us know he’d be leaving for a mandatory evacuation. While he didn’t seem too worried as this was just part of a protocol that he had followed many times before, he suggested that it would be wise to leave if we could. No argument from me! Unable to convince our group to leave, I surrendered and decided I’d try to enjoy what we can while it’s still above water. :/ With the approaching hurricane’s winds now reaching 115 mph, we ate at a restaurant in the French Quarter. I tried in vain to relax and appreciate the ferry ride around to see the last glimpse of the city from the water before it would be submersed. The crowds were thinning out and businesses were boarding up their windows. The downtown vibe was finally beginning to reveal some concern.
Before we went to bed, A meteorologist who was aboard a hurricane hunter aircraft said that the hurricane’s circulation covered the entire Gulf of Mexico.
Trying to fall asleep while my heart was pounding? Contradicting. But somehow sheer exhaustion tipped the scales and I managed to sleep for a couple hours. Katrina’s winds sped up to 145 mph making it a category 4 storm. I awoke Sunday morning with my heart still pounding and some kind of rhythmic, gradually intensifying drumbeat in my head. It was as if the storm was communicating to me. I went out on the patio, surprised by the clear blue sunny sky until I noticed a few little clouds that were beginning to move ever so swiftly. Something big was missing. Those cicadas. Where was that chorus? The silence was much scarier than the pulsating alarming sound they made when we first arrived. Every last bug was gone except one lonely cricket who I imagined was left scratching his head wondering where all his friends had gone. The term calm before the storm was now a visceral experience for us.
By 9:30 am Mayor Ray Nagin issued a mandatory evacuation order of New Orleans. That’s it. Just what I was afraid of. Now thousands upon thousands of people would all begin pouring out of the city all at once and my pleas to leave for the airport early still fell on deaf ears. Even with this knowledge we weren’t even leaving for the airport for a couple of hours! I kept hearing the word “unprecedented” as news went on and on about the severity of the situation. By 11 am Katrina had become one of the most powerful hurricanes ever to form in the Atlantic Ocean. 175 mph. Category 5.
As we packed up our friend’s most precious belongings she contemplated leaving her cat in an upstairs bedroom with plenty of food and water, assuming her apartment would still be in tact. Someone suggested she take the cat with her and I could see that she was beginning to realize this could be for real. I felt so sad for her and all that she may lose. As we made our last trip to the car, we saw a very frail looking elderly woman. She was nervously waiting for her son, who had told her he was on his way to come pick her up. I hope and pray that he showed up. To this day I still wonder if we should have scooped her up and brought her to safety or if that would have made things worse if her son was running around trying to find her and losing precious time. She was having a hard time trying to reach him by phone.
After a very tense drive filled with constant calls to the airport, near miss accidents, and traffic jams that I was sure were never going to break free, we arrived at the airport. Tears streaming down my face and heart pounding, we walked by several people scrambling to find somewhere to wait it out because their flights had just been canceled. That could have so easily been us. I thought of our friends and all the other first responders with families now headed to Baton Rouge, wondering how safe they would actually be riding out the hurricane if they could even get past the gridlock. And that cat. And their apartment. I thought of all the airport personnel that were working diligently to help as many people as possible escape. Were they all going to be able to get out? What about their families? I thought about how grateful I was that while all the other airlines cancelled their flights, Southwest airlines was dedicated to seeing their passengers through to safety as much as possible. I thought about the pilots. I actually felt a surge of simultaneous guilt and relief that our pilot and airline was willing to take the risks required to get the last few flights out. Last flight out was 3 pm… if you recall my husband had changed our flight from 5 pm to 1 pm. I have never complained about soccer since.
As we lifted off the runway, the entire plane full of passengers let out a premature united sigh and a gleeful cheer. We still had to change planes in Houston. As we sat in the Houston airport a flight attendant pulled me aside and showed me her computer monitor. Katrina was now headed straight for Houston! My puffy eyes must have given me away as a great co-commiserater… At this point I was just relieved to be above sea level and out of the “fish bowl”. I don’t remember much between then and arriving home, but thankfully we did land in the Phoenix airport safe and sound enough.
- Thousands of people that didn’t make it out if the city in time or had nowhere else to go, were stranded at the Superdome. Food didn’t arrive for 5 days.
- Floods- People facing sanitation and safe food and water issues.
- Homes destroyed.
- Looters, thieves and…
- Our friends did indeed survive the Hurricane along with their cat, but their apartment and everything in it did not.
- The room we had slept in the night before, and the whole upstairs for that matter, had been ripped right off. The downstairs flooded. Everything destroyed.
- Our paramedic friend saw unspeakable atrocities as she worked without rest for days or even weeks.
- Many people in the community came together to help each other out. That was beautiful.
What it taught me
- Most importantly: Make sure your loved ones know when you leave town. You may need their prayers.
- Have an escape plan and don’t hesitate to use it.
- Having a noisy generator in your yard was just asking for people to come try to take what you had. People that had preserved food they could eat out of a can, jar or pouch had a better chance at not getting robbed or worse, than those who sent out aroma signals of cooking food. Sure I still have meat in the freezer, and I certainly don’t can ALL the beans I store. I will however, always make sure that food storage is well-rounded with plenty of ready-to-eat items that can sustain my family if the situation requires it.
- Speak up and stand your ground if others are in denial!
- Don’t rely on public transportation, rental cars or airplanes. Have a plan B, C, D…
- Always study the infrastructure of any city you visit before you get there. carry a physical map in case phone goes dead or service is disrupted.
- Learn to identify edible wild foods every where you go. I’ve seen pictures of people standing around crying out for food as they stood in front of a field of edible and nutritious dandelions.
- Have a way to purify water that doesn’t require water pressure. I love my Royal Berkey Water Filter System“
- You may have to leave everything behind, including your food storage and animals. LEARN SKILLS: how to forage safely, hunt, discern a healthy animal, butcher, cook with fire or preserve with salt etc. On the news, I saw a man use lemon juice to “cook” (no actual heat) salmon to survive. Good to know.
- If at all possible, be prepared so you don’t have to rely on someone to save you. It may be a while.
- Don’t wait to prepare until the warnings get severe! Shelves empty fast and so do gas stations. Do it now while it’s easy.
If you feel like this could be helpful to people or maybe even save a life, or you just enjoyed the read, please share this! Thank you for letting me share this experience with you. – Liz