When we arrived in Jackson, things didn't seem very different than they were in New Orleans. There was talk on the news there of the pending storm, and preparations for bad weather in the Jackson area were under way. Even though a hurricane like Katrina can hit hundreds of miles away, the storm takes hours to weaken and eventually dissipate. Jackson is a good bit out of the way, but it was by no means out of danger. We kept our eyes on the news, made a trip or two to the grocery store to have plenty of food on hand, made sure all of the cars were filled with gas, and were on and off the phone with friends and family making sure everyone was doing okay. It felt wonderful to be there with Jonathan's family. We were safe. We could relax and visit some college friends while there. Our minds were easily distracted at that point. Like I mentioned earlier, we weren't really concerned of a serious threat. Anything can happen with a hurricane. They change courses so quickly. They weaken, then strengthen, then weaken again. Unpredictable.
My parents, two sisters, and grandmother eventually made it to the Bradshaws' house. It took them a great deal longer to make their way up to Jackson than it did us as they left town several hours after we did. The evacuation had been executed but wasn't mandatory just yet. However, traffic was busy as people were anxiously getting out of town. Jonathan's grandmother had passed away just a few months earlier and her home sat fully furnished, yet empty just a few miles away from where we were staying. My family got settled in over there, which was particularly comforting for my grandmother who was quite upset over the whole forced evacuation. She doesn't handle change well.
Saturday night turned to Sunday morning. I honestly don't remember much of anything about that day. I do recall that sometime late Sunday afternoon the weather got really rough and we eventually lost power. We opened the windows in the front and back of the house to have some air blowing through. It was late August, after all. Very hot. The winds were really rough and as the night went on, things got very dark and quite scary. The pine trees surrounding the house were dropping like flies. We heard them pop like firecrackers before falling to the ground, or worse, on houses. The Bradshaws' house actually took three hits from falling trees. The deck had some major damage, and even though there were two on the house, the damage was considerably minor.
We were in Jackson and were suffering from tree damage and power outages. It was a very major storm there. Can you imagine what things were like over three hundred miles further south? Because we had no electricity, we had no idea what the news was saying about things down in New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast. We had terrible cell phone reception but were miraculously able to receive text messages on our phones. We learned through this method of communication with family and friends scattered around the Southern states that Katrina had hit as a Category 3 hurricane. It did make landfall along the Louisiana coastline, but we were under the impression that although the hurricane had caused great damage to the area with the rain and strong winds, New Orleans was still standing. Whew, we had made it! Now, we just had to get through the next few days, then we could head home and clean up what was surely a great big mess.
I'll never forget how I heard about the levee breaches. I got a text message from Jonathan's sister, Amy, who was living in Knoxville at the time. She obviously had power and access to the news, so she was a major information source for us. She texted me around 2:30 a.m. on Monday, August 29th, that the levees had been breached and that major flooding was taking place in Orleans parish. I knew that didn't sound good. Our home was in Orleans parish. In fact, we were less than a mile from the 17th Street Canal levee and just a few miles from Lake Pontchartrain. We didn't really know much else and didn't really know what it meant. We were just going to have to wait and find out. A few hours later, we got confirmation that the 17th Street Canal levees had indeed been breached.
"Levees breached in over 50 different places submerging 80 percent of the city. Most levees failed due to water overtopping them but some failed when water passed underneath the levee foundations causing the levee wall to shift and resulting in catastrophic sudden breaching. The sudden breaching released highly pressured water that moved houses off their foundations and tossed cars into trees." (Via Wikipedia)
I heard about this with my ears. I tried to imagine what our home looked like. I tried to envision flooded streets and flooded homes. But, I couldn't. I was just praying that our townhouse, raised five feet off of the ground, was dry and safe. We were anxiously awaiting power so we could get news of what the situation was really like. Sometime early Monday afternoon, Jonathan's dad got an idea. They had a motor home which they kept at their farm, about 30 miles away, that had a satellite and television which would allow us to access the news. Because the motor home ran on a generator, we weren't reliant on electricity to run it. Mr. Paul (Jonathan's dad), Jonathan, and I headed to the farm to see what we could find out.
As we pulled out of their neighborhood, we were met with our first doses of reality. Trees were down everywhere. We had to navigate the streets trying to make our way to the Interstate. Power lines were down. Trees were blocking major intersections and had fallen on homes and buildings. One of the most shocking things to me was the gasoline shortages. We saw the effects of this for several weeks following Katrina, but I suddenly become aware of how serious of an emergency I was in when the lines at gasoline stations were miles long. Cars lined up for hours waiting to fill up or just top off the tank. There were gas stations already out of gas standing empty with plastic bags covering the pumps, communicating to drivers that it's pointless to stop there. I saw these things as we headed to the motor home.
After a few hours of trying to make our way, we finally arrived at the farm. We pulled the motor home out of the garage and cranked it up, praying that the satellite would cooperate. Thankfully, it did. We sat in the air conditioner for the first time in over 24 hours and watched with broken hearts. This was not what I was expecting. I finally got to see with my eyes what my mind had tried to imagine. My home was destroyed. New Orleans was completely under water. When I imagined flooding, I was thinking a bad rainstorm, flooded streets, homes with standing water. But this surpassed my wildest imaginings. You saw the footage. You remember. It was devastating. As we watched the images that helicopters captured from flying overhead, I knew our rooftop was somewhere on the television screen. It didn't matter in the least that our house was raised five feet off the ground. My car was somewhere buried under that water. The school where I taught, my classroom, was covered. It was surreal. However, as we watched, I don't recall being devastated. I know I didn't cry. I believe that part of it was because I was in shock and didn't fully understand the reality that was before me. But, looking back, even after the reality set in, we were being carried. The Lord was there with us, carrying us, caring FOR us, and giving us an indescribable peace. We knew now that this weekend trip to Jackson was going to be lasting a lot longer than we had anticipated. We wouldn't be going home for quite some time.
There were so many questions to ask. What about my job? Did we have insurance to cover the damage to the house? to the car? What about the Dental School? We knew that it had suffered major damage. Would Jonathan be able to continue? He was a junior; he had less than two years to go. Was his future career in jeopardy? Where would we live? New Orleans wasn't an option. What about my parents' home? My grandmother's home? We knew it was destroyed because she lived only a few miles from our house. Where would she go? How would she handle the news, the changes? Would she survive this? My two younger sisters were in school. Would their schools resume? Had they been permanently damaged? Where would my folks live? My dad's business? Was his building destroyed? Would there be any work for him to do? Our church? It, too, was less than a mile from our house. Surely it had catastrophic damage. Where would the body of Christ that we called our family resume worshipping together? Would we ever? What about New Orleans as a whole? Would it survive!?
The questions were endless. But, all we could do was wait. This was REALLY difficult. We felt really helpless and really unsure about our future. However, we were so blessed to be surrounded by our families. Jonathan's folks were right there with us dealing with difficulties of their own. There house had damage, so we had to get to work right away to get the trees off of the house so no flooding would occur. My mom, sisters, and grandmother were just a few miles away.
Almost as soon as my dad heard of the extent of the damage to our area, he headed back down to try to get some things in order. My dad is a no nonsense type of guy, and he acts very quickly when necessary. My dad knew that their home would not be livable so he would have to find a place for them. He also knew that every other family was in the same situation, so he would have to act fast to find available housing before it was all gone. It was kind of scary actually because he left town early morning on August 29th, and we didn't hear from him for about 24 hours. When we finally did get word, he was in Baton Rouge and was scrounging to find something: a house, an apartment, anything. He said he drove in to one apartment complex to see about renting a unit. The line was incredibly long, and he overheard a gentleman in front of him ask how many units were still available for rent. "Eleven," said the apartment manager. "I'll take them all," said the man. So much for that complex! It became very obvious very quickly that Baton Rouge was going to be the new home for many of the "Katrina refugees." We had already been named. Refugees. Sounds like something out of a documentary on Africa or something.
So, there we were. Tuesday, August 30th. Only time would tell us what the future held.
(To be continued)