When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts - Acts I & II
Spike Lee's documentary of the effects of Hurricane Katrina was released three years ago and I wasn't ready to watch it then. I recorded it August 28th and finally finished it today. It took several sittings to complete. (Not sure I'll ever get to Acts III & IV.)
My friends all know that I am barely aware of hurricane paths or ever prepared for "big weather". In 1997, while living in New Orleans, I had a garage sale the very day everyone evacuated from Hurricane Danny. The shoppers kept asking why I didn't cancel the sale and when was I leaving? Huh? In anticipation of moving in a couple days, my cable service was transferred to a new address and I hadn't a clue that an evacuation order had been called. And no idea that they meant leaving town! My friend Chrysanthemum and I were the last to leave; she to her parents in Mississippi, me to my folks in southwest Louisiana.
Fast forward, in 2000 I left New Orleans to return to my hometown and bought a house. So, while floating in my pool on Saturday August 27th, 2005, I answered my phone to John asking if my offer of lodging was still good. Huh? (again). There's a hurricane coming through, don't you know this? Nope. But, of course, he and his mother and two grandmothers were more than welcome to evacuate to my house. The year before, they stayed in a nearby Texas town while "evaporating" from a hurricane. I insisted that they stay with me "next time" because hotel rooms can be a bit cramped for four adults.
They packed up in one vehicle with limited items and an ice chest of snacks and drove hours over the usual three hour drive time. We all thought they would be away from home for 2-3 days maximum.
Their most important need was constant television updates. I rarely watch live television so we quickly learned the channel numbers of The Weather Channel, CNN, Fox News and every news outlet. For the first time in my life, I felt guilty that I only owned one TV.
The telephone was the next important tool. Thankfully, I had just opted for the unlimited long distance plan. They took and made phone calls from every relative, every friend from every state.
We heard reports of folks offering lodging to perfect strangers and there is just no way this single girl would do that, but I was happy to accommodate my friends and comfortable they wouldn't kill me in my sleep.
We watched the poor and wretched line up to enter the "Shelter of Last Resort" AKA the Louisiana Superdome. We cringed when we saw two cute little white college girls in line and wondered why the hell they didn't have another plan.
This official warning from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scared the shit out of us:
URGENT – WEATHER MESSAGE
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE NEW ORLEANS LA 413 PM CDT SUN AUG 28 2005
…EXTREMELY DANGEROUS HURRICANE KATRINA CONTINUES TO APPROACH THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER DELTA…
…DEVASTATING DAMAGE EXPECTED…
MOST OF THE AREA WILL BE UNINHABITABLE FOR WEEKS…PERHAPS LONGER. AT LEAST ONE HALF OF WELL CONSTRUCTED HOMES WILL HAVE ROOF AND WALL FAILURE. ALL GABLED ROOFS WILL FAIL…LEAVING THOSE HOMES SEVERELY DAMAGED OR DESTROYED.
THE MAJORITY OF INDUSTRIAL BUILDINGS WILL BECOME NON FUNCTIONAL. PARTIAL TO COMPLETE WALL AND ROOF FAILURE IS EXPECTED. ALL WOOD FRAMED LOW RISING APARTMENT BUILDINGS WILL BE DESTROYED. CONCRETE BLOCK LOW RISE APARTMENTS WILL SUSTAIN MAJOR DAMAGE…INCLUDING SOME
WALL AND ROOF FAILURE.
HIGH RISE OFFICE AND APARTMENT BUILDINGS WILL SWAY DANGEROUSLY…A FEW TO THE POINT OF TOTAL COLLAPSE. ALL WINDOWS WILL BLOW OUT.
AIRBORNE DEBRIS WILL BE WIDESPREAD…AND MAY INCLUDE HEAVY ITEMS SUCH AS HOUSEHOLD APPLIANCES AND EVEN LIGHT VEHICLES. SPORT UTILITY VEHICLES AND LIGHT TRUCKS WILL BE MOVED. THE BLOWN DEBRIS WILL CREATE ADDITIONAL DESTRUCTION. PERSONS…PETS…AND LIVESTOCK EXPOSED TO THE WINDS WILL FACE CERTAIN DEATH IF STRUCK.
POWER OUTAGES WILL LAST FOR WEEKS…AS MOST POWER POLES WILL BE DOWN AND TRANSFORMERS DESTROYED. WATER SHORTAGES WILL MAKE HUMAN SUFFERING INCREDIBLE BY MODERN STANDARDS.
THE VAST MAJORITY OF NATIVE TREES WILL BE SNAPPED OR UPROOTED. ONLY THE HEARTIEST WILL REMAIN STANDING…BUT BE TOTALLY DEFOLIATED. FEW CROPS WILL REMAIN. LIVESTOCK LEFT EXPOSED TO THE WINDS WILL BE KILLED.
Our local churches offered space for New Orleans evacuees when all area hotels were filled. My church housed diabetic patients, feed them and attended to their every need.
AN INLAND HURRICANE WIND WATCH IS ISSUED WHEN SUSTAINED WINDS NEAR HURRICANE FORCE…OR FREQUENT GUSTS AT OR ABOVE HURRICANE FORCE…ARE POSSIBLE WITHIN THE NEXT 24 TO 36 HOURS.
Rumors abounded in Baton Rouge, Lafayette and Lake Charles that the thugs of New Orleans were taking over their cities. We heard astounding things here and everyone was advised to "start locking their doors".
Hurricane Katrina hit coastal Louisiana then headed to Mississippi and Alabama, bringing severe damage mostly due to storm surge. New Orleans and their displaced breathed a sigh of relief they dodged the bullet.
Then the levees broke.
I was at work when I saw the news on my computer. The 17th Street Canal levee break was blocks away from John's house and his mother's and another levee break close to his maternal grandmother's house. Whether it is 2 feet of water or eight, it was gonna be bad. For John and his mom, it was 9 feet. Mary's house "took water" in the ground level. All was lost. Three houses, two cars, two and a half house's entire contents - gone.
Their anticipated 2-3 "hurrication" turned into a life changing tragedy. All the while, they were perfect house guests.
We watched the looting, the riots and snipers. It chilled and amazed me that only 202 miles from my front door, New Orleans became a third world country overnight. How tenuous our hold on a lawful society! Yet, one hour to the west of New Orleans, Baton Rouge had power, water and order.
My guests stayed for three weeks and my entire community welcomed them. Strangers would walk up to them and say "I couldn't help but to notice that your car is from New Orleans and we are praying for you and your neighbors." The ladies were ready for their now overdue weekly hair styling so I recommended my high school friend's salon. They made the appointment and when she learned their plight, she refused payment. Another need, another recommendation: a friend fixed their windshield at no cost. An emergency dental incident resulted in pennies on the dollar bill. The neighborhood Catholic church had fellowship each night with meals from every restaurant in town. Other churches distributed clothing and household items. My reporter friend did a feature story on my friends. Two of their New Orleans evacuee friends relocated in our area saw it and called. My family and friends asked me every day what they needed. UPS boxes arrived with clothing, Ernest's gigantic hook-up box of brand new designer duds for John. Eileen sent a huge supply of fragrance and beauty goods from her luxury store employer. Out-of-town friends sent every imaginable thing.
I cried every day at work and held up a positive face at home. The second weekend they attended Catholic church on Sunday and I went to my church. We both appreciated the break from reality. During the church service, we offered prayers for all those affected. We had communion and I completely lost it. I leaned on the communion rail and couldn't get up because I was heaving with sobs. I backed into a hallway and tried to compose myself before walking back to my pew. Several congregants patted me on the back or hugged me on their way past. What a comforting place and time.
Eventually, a North Shore house was procured and they left. They were ready to "go home" and reclaim some degree of normalcy. Their agony was just beginning with the insurance companies, paperwork, phone bills, ongoing cable service charges, utilities, bureaucracy, etc. My house was quiet but I actually missed them.
They embarrassed me with their gratitude.
This year, on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, John's mom sent me an e-mail:
On this Katrina anniversary, we send you thanks for taking us in during a very difficult time in our lives. We'll always be grateful to you, Leezra.
Hello, I still cannot see images of Katrina destruction without tears. And I still feel guilty that I told your mom that she should have had more faith that New Orleans would do well when the hurricane seemed to go through the area without massive destruction. We didn't know the worst was yet to happen, AFTER the hurricane with the levee breaks. It taught me that it ain't over until it's over.
It was a blessing to have "you people" in my home. I was proud of my community's outpouring of support to our New Orleans neighbors. I was proud of my friends and family that inquired about you and yours. It is EASY to care for good people like you.
And then, a month later, WE were running from a hurricane and taking refuge in someone else's home and relying on their kindness and I like to think that we had already experienced the perfect dress rehearsal of how to act. Always pleasant, always gracious and keeping a sense of humor - like you did. We now know how to better hosts and better guests.
And it is my forever hope that we won't ever need to use those skills. Please know that you gave me more than I gave you.