Monday, August 29, 2016

Eleven

The little party was well underway that Saturday night. My now ex invited some of her dog show friends to a rare get-together at our house. I grilled burgers, chicken and veggies and opened several bottles of wine and attempted to keep up with the conversations, but my mind was twelve hundred miles away and my eyes were on the Weather Channel.

A dominant childhood memory growing up in New Orleans was a TV meteorologist named Nash Roberts. He was famous for accurate hurricane forecasts and for years he drew possible storm tracks and informed viewers of their potential impact. One particular track, he said, would flood the entire city. It had never happened.

At one point during the party I noticed that the updated Weather Channel storm track prediction for a rapidly intensifying Hurricane Katrina showed that exact path. The rest of the party is a blur because I immediately called my sister to learn where and when she was evacuating. There was no question that she had already followed our family's traditional hurricane planning; my question was about timing. She said she planned to go to her friend's house 50 miles north of the city on Sunday. I urged her to leave immediately, Saturday night, and to avoid getting caught up in the inevitable traffic jams. She wasn't sure how to find her friend's place after dark. Fortunately they hadn't left yet and my sister was able to follow them there that night.

Over the next twelve hours Katrina grew to a category five storm, the strongest rating, with winds of 175 miles per hour.  That eerie line on the forecast map hadn't changed in hours, which meant the weather people were confident with their predictions. The rest is history. The mayor issued a mandatory evacuation order Sunday morning. That is the only smart thing that man did; another story for another time. Sunday evening the National Hurricane Center described Katrina as a "potentially catastrophic" hurricane. The storm did veer a little and weakened a bit before making landfall just east of the eastern edge of New Orleans on Monday morning. But the storm surge and breaks in the poorly maintained levees resulted in flooding that eventually had 80% of the city under water. Nash Roberts was right and my sister was smart to follow her brother's advice.

Aerial view: before & after
It's hard for me to believe this all happened eleven years ago this week. The storm was gone in a day but that week was just the beginning of life-changing months and years for Louisiana and Mississippi residents and their far-flung family members in other states, including me. It took days to finally get in touch with my sister and another day to learn our Mother died after a poorly-managed nursing home evacuation. My sister moved in with me in Maryland for six weeks. We had no idea about the fate of her house for the first two of those weeks, except we knew that her neighborhood was flooded. A satellite photo verified the flooding but not how much and not the extant of the damage to the house or contents. I helped her return to the area six weeks later, helped her throw away the 80% of her belongings that were unsalvageable and helped her plan Mom's funeral.

Ruined belonging awaiting removal
It took two years of financial and emotional generosity, volunteer help, government programs and a lot of tenacity for her to rehab the house and move back in.

The city is recovering, the levees and drainage systems are better and disaster preparation planning is improved, but there are still vacant lots, minimized services, businesses that never reopened and a population more than 90,000 smaller than it was eleven years ago.

For some people Katrina is just an hour-long Weather Channel special during 'hurricane week'. For me and my family, it is a life-altering, never-to-be-forgotten event that we acknowledge this week every year.


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