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Hurricane Katrina, Slidell, LA

August 29, 2005

Paige's Story...

"There’s a joke among gulf coast residence, particularly Louisiana natives. It’s called a hurricane party. These are thrown when the government shuts down school, work, and everything else in lieu of a major storm system on its way to town. Everyone gathers together, drinks, and grills. If the lights go out you sit around with candles, flashlights, and hand-cranked radios to keep up with what’s really going on in the world and exactly which neighborhoods are flooding. The idea is mocking the seriousness that some storms bring. Maybe it’s a coping method because living in Louisiana you see a LOT of storms, and if you took every single one seriously you’d probably be pretty stressed and questioning your sanity. “Why do we still live here?” asked the flooded homeowner to his wife. I spent my childhood in Slidell, Louisiana, across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans, and always looked forward to hurricane days at school. My friends and I would throw our bathing suits on then journey around the flooded ditches and streets of our neighborhood, “swimming.” I remember floating on an inner tube down a street and watching a five-inch tall mountain made out of a desperate colony of ants float alongside of me. Without hesitation we same around on that road, the one in the back of our neighborhood with swamp on both sides. As in, disease, bacteria, Water Moccasins, spiders, and only God knows what else running across what was previously a road at a depth of about 4 feet. I waited for storms to pass over in eagerness to get out and jump off the Bayou Liberty Bridge that they raised in preparation. My point is, it was all chalked up to fun. I didn’t come across many people who took a hurricane seriously until it hit category 3, at which point they’d go “on vacation.”

            Well my name is Paige and this is my story about Hurricane Katrina. On August 26th, 2005 I was a freshman at Salmen High School, cheering on varsity at the Jamboree football game against our biggest rivals. I was on varsity softball and spent 7th period practicing or lifting weights, I can’t remember anymore. I was out until midnight hanging out with upper classmen who recently became my new friends. I was the happiest I remember being in Louisiana. And then when I woke up Saturday morning, my mom told me I couldn’t meet up with a friend because I’d be going to Mississippi with my close family friends Uncle Brett and Aunt Rachel. There was a hurricane coming. Fine. I packed my bag, about 3 days worth of clothes, and I grabbed my cell phone charger. I was always a light traveler. I spent the night in Mississippi, went swimming, had a blast and then after dinner sat down to see the news. “Mandatory evacuation.” “Category 4.” “Leave now.” “Hurricane Routes.” “Landfall on Monday.” Wait, what?
           I remember pacing outside begging my mom to come with us. She made some excuse about staying with my Aunt Tina on the other side of town where it “didn’t flood.” She wasn’t leaving. So while I trucked out to Dallas to stay with Aunt Rachel’s mom, my mom stayed in our 2-bedroom apartment preparing for a “hurricane party.” The interstates were PACKED on Sunday morning when we finally started to head out. The contra flow was mild help at this point. If you found a gas station that still had gas, your limit was 20 dollars. It was feeling serious. I was feeling nervous. I don’t remember when we got to the house in Texas, but I just remember being in shock. I hadn’t talked to my mom and there was no cellular service in no-mans land, I mean the entire gulf coast. We scoured new reports for any mention of our suburb and its status. Meanwhile coverage of the wind and rain were pouring in. I don’t know how but I remember hearing from people still in town about how neighbors were losing their homes. I think this was when the levees gave way.  “Ms. Such-and-such’s Neighborhood is gone in New Orleans.” Gone. Video of the rooftops of homes surrounded by water poured into the news feeds. People standing on top, writing messages, waving home made flags for help. Desperation and helplessness at its peak. People dying, drowning, loosing their material lives. And my mom stayed. I will never forget a comment someone close to me said when she started to see the panic washing over me. “Well, your mom is young, she should be able to climb.” We didn’t even know if Slidell was really destroyed or not. I can still remember sobbing quietly in the bathroom alone with no idea if my mom was alive.

            About a week had gone by, and by then we had picked out clothing from a “refugee” center. We went ice-skating. We looked at enrolling me into school. I still hadn’t heard from my mom. It’s all a blur as far as time goes. But on that following Tuesday, September 6th, I went back with my Uncle Brett to scavenge what we could of our lives, to try to find my mom.

            It was a haunting sight driving down empty lanes on the interstate at 40 MPH avoiding pine trees that had fallen like pick-up sticks. Past abandoned cars that probably ran out of gas. I remember the mud vividly. Dried up and cracked at about 2 inches deep. There was a speedboat propped up against a local business about 2 miles inland from the lake. It was desolate and terrifying. The memory of how I talked Uncle Brett into dropping me off at our apartment to briefly get stuff together is gone, but it’s surprising to think he left me there alone. I walked passed the ground level apartments and could see a water mark about 6 feet high. These were my friend’s homes. Everything destroyed. The metal roofing had bee ripped off and twisted up like a ribbon.  We lived on the second floor. I crept up the stairs to our apartment praying my mom was there. She wasn’t. The door was locked. Someone lingering around downstairs said they heard she was going to Baton Rouge today. That’s an hour and half drive away. Her car was in the parking lot.

I picked up a folding chair and used it to bust the kitchen window open, unlocked it, and climbed through. Usually she left it unlocked for me because I always forgot my key. Our apartment looked like a bunker. Canned food everywhere, boxes and boxes of snacks, cartons of cigarettes. It didn’t look like home. I went to my room to grab clothes and it was clear that a few people had occupied it in my absence. I pulled pictures off the wall, and grabbed baby books and scrap books. Our Playstation 2 was the most valuable thing we owned so I packed that too. What do you take when you don’t know where your life is going next?

And then I heard a familiar voice say my name. “Paige?” My best friend and neighbor Alicia popped in. I have no idea how she knew I was there but she found me and we hugged and we cried. Her mom asked me to come with them north in LA to ride four wheelers and horses and hang out for a while. But I couldn’t, I didn’t. I still had no idea where my mom was. They told me that she brought about 9 people into our apartment including our neighbor with a heart condition, and a quadriplegic. He was set up in my bed. They looted the local dollar stores and gas station for food and cigarettes. It was so surreal. Eventually my ride came back to pick me up. My mom never showed up. I told Alicia I would be in Lacombe helping get together the rest of my Uncle Brett’s family belongings before I went back to Dallas.

I couldn’t believe I was about to go back to Texas and had no idea where my mom was or how to get in touch with her. And then a car pulled up. And my mom got out. Shaking, crying, shock, relief, hugs, more crying. I don’t remember how she explained her experience. I sort of blacked out. I went from, my mom could be dead or how will she ever find me to, in my arms.

Slowly we put together a plan for our post-Katrina life. We moved to Tucson, AZ. Talk about culture shock. I fell into a spiraling depression, gained 30 pounds, failed classes, and never even considered joining extracurriculars. Clearly Arizona was not home, and I was homesick.

Mid-way through the year I can remember crying without end and hyper ventilating, pleading with my mom to go back home. She was convinced nothing was there for us anymore. My heart was still there. My life. My memories. Everyone who had decided to return was rebuilding. Salmen High School was gone, so classes resumed at night in North Shore High School in October. Everyone was scattered across the country but we just wanted to be home.

There’s something about Louisiana that keeps you rooted there. I spent a year in Tucson, AZ, then two years in Daytona Beach, FL, and my senior year in Hawaii. Miraculously I was accepted to college and as soon as I could I went back to Louisiana and attended LSU.

Pride makes us believe that we can handle anything. Throw it our way, we will take care of it. If God brings us to it, He will bring us through it.  That’s what you’re dealing with trying to get people to abandon their homes because there is a storm. Personal safety is not a consideration in most cases. It’s protecting your belongings and standing your ground, banking that it will all die down, or take a turn elsewhere. And the times you do leave, and everything is taken from you, you rebuild it right in the same spot, because you can’t live anywhere else. In school you watch videos about drugs, about molestation, about abuse. You do drills for fires and tornados; in hind-sight it’s very strange that you aren’t taught about natural disasters on a more in depth level, that self-preservation isn’t stressed more and storms like hurricanes aren’t made a pressing matter. This is a place where culture is more than art, food, and character. It’s like a living part of your soul, and to uproot and implant that somewhere new is daunting, you won’t find anywhere like south Louisiana. This is why educating people and kids while they’re in school should be more important. In the case of Hurricane Katrina, watching documentaries now about exactly what unfolded, and why it was so poorly organized sickens me.

The leadership in charge of preparing residents failed us. There was not enough time or focus or attention given to the seriousness of this storm system. And the preparedness for the city of New Orleans was laughable to say the least. The lack of administrative organization for an event like this was disgusting. There are many parts that made this tragedy worse, different things to point the finger at and blame but it is extremely clear that there was a serious lacking in government action to prepare the people on the gulf and to help save them. Here is a nugget I just pulled off of Wikipedia. “President Bush returned early to Washington from vacationing at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. Though he does not stop in Louisiana, Air Force One flies low over the Gulf Coast so that he can view the devastation in Air Force One. He later declared a Public Health Emergency for the Gulf Coast.” This was the Wednesday after landfall. It’s hard to focus on continuing to write after sitting on that thought. There was always help “coming.” This is the difference between natural disaster preparedness and straightforward disastrousness. In the case help is required, there should be no waiting for it to arrive. That negates the point of help.

I hope this story will give you a glimpse of what the tip of the iceberg may have looked like. This is nothing compared to the true horrors I’ve heard about for people who stayed to take care of people in hospitals, or to keep the peace. Many people say the New Orleans is not the same since the hurricane. I was too young to know what it was like before. But I know this now, the food is amazing, the music is intoxicating, and we know how to come back and make the most out of anything. The best lesson I took from my experience was that within the worst situations, you always find the greatest opportunities.

I don’t take hurricanes as lightly as I once did. I live in Norfolk now, and I encourage any one I know looking to get out of town for a storm to take a trip east and visit. I haven’t been met with anything like Katrina since then, but when I do I will pack, I will prepare, and I will leave. I encourage others to do the same.  For people who think they can’t afford to take care of themselves, I ask you, would you pay with your life? Remember there is always someone you know that is leaving town. There is always an evacuation center to stay at for a night or two. There are loved ones who miss you and would love a visit. Don’t forget about how many different ways you can help or volunteer in stressful situations. Just don’t kid yourself, your safety is worth the extra work to leave, and when you have a plan in place it’s much easier to protect the things, pets, and people you love the most. Know what you’re packing, know where you’re going, and know you can stay if you need to. It’s much better than starting over with nothing. I promise."


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