I really had no idea that when I sat down the other day to record my Katrina story that it would end up being so obnoxiously long. I guess I have a lot more memories than I anticipated. They just keep on coming. Hope you don't mind, but I would like to keep recording because every day more and more of my mind goes to mush! HAHA
We were in Jackson for a total of three and half weeks. The first several days after Katrina, we were without power and worked very hard to get the trees off of the Bradshaws' house, clean out the refrigerator and freezers that were no longer keeping the food cold, and clearing debris from all around the property. We were flooded with phone calls from friends and family who just wanted us to know they were thinking of us, offering to help in whatever ways they could. It was so comforting. We were constantly reminded of how blessed we were.
My dad ended up finding a home to rent for my family in Baton Rouge. My aunt already lived in the area, so arrangements were made for my grandmother to stay with her. Jonathan spent much time on the phone trying to find out what was happening with LSU Dental school. It appeared that we, too, would be heading to Baton Rouge, but the details hadn't been fully arranged to relocate an ENTIRE dental school, clinic and all. The all girl Catholic school where I was a teacher had been completely flooded by the levee breaches. There was no way that the school would be resuming at the same location for months. I was unsure of my job status, but as time went on, arrangements were under way to open a "satellite school" in the Baton Rouge area. Although people evacuated all over the country to avoid Katrina, Baton Rouge was only sixty miles outside of the New Orleans metropolitan area, so many without homes to return to ended up relocating there. Lots of my school's students were there without a place to continue their education. The satellite school was going to help with that problem.
Once it became certain that Baton Rouge was going to be our new home, we had to figure out where we were going to reside. Like I mentioned earlier, apartments weren't easy to come by or to afford. The home my parents were renting was small, but we could have stayed there if necessary. Jonathan's parents graciously offered us their motor home to live in, if we could find a place to park it. We searched campsites as potential residences, but there weren't many in the area that had spaces available. In the end, some family friends owned a business in an industrial park in Baton Rouge. They offered to let us park the motor home in the parking lot next to their building. There was a sewage hook-up, and they allowed us to use their electricity to run the motor home free of charge. What a blessing! We ended up living in the motor home for seven months. Needless to say, we made LOTS of memories during those seven months and grew even closer as a married couple than ever before.
My parent's house was only about five minutes away from where we were "parked." Once Jonathan started back to school and I began teaching, we spent most of our time outside of work and school with them. We ate supper together nearly every night. My sisters and I would gather around the dining room table: the two of them doing homework, me making lesson plans and grading papers. I have always considered myself to be close to my family, but the months following Katrina drew us together. All of the trivial things that my sisters and I used to argue over weren't issues any longer. They were having to do some major maturing. Emily was a senior in high school and had been completely uprooted from her classmates. She was in a new school with complete strangers and was only a few months from graduation. Hillary was in 8th grade and struggling with her own woes as a young adolescent whose whole life had been turned upside down. They handled the situation with such grace. I was so proud of them! We all took care of each other. Jonathan and I were so blessed to have my family there during such a transitional season.
I see that I am getting a little ahead of myself, so let me backtrack to the day we moved from Jackson to Baton Rouge. We loaded all of our remaining possessions--everything we took with us when we evacuated plus some clothes we had purchased to get us through. We caravanned down with Jonathan's parents: the motor home, Jonathan's car, and Jonathan's grandmother's car (for me). We parked everything, and then headed down to New Orleans, an hour's drive, to see what we had been dying to see for nearly a month. Home. Due to the levee breaches, there was standing water in Orleans parish for nearly three full weeks. As the water slowly subsided, there was no way for homeowners to return to the area as the streets were flooded and only accessible by boat. Technically, we were all forbidden to enter the area because things were so hazardous. Flooded homes, shifted from their foundations, floating cars, furniture, trees, etc. There was debris, refuse, and God only knows what else in that water, so it truly wasn't safe to return until the water receded. This didn't stop people, however. We knew of lots of folks who journeyed in via boat or canoe to assess the damage to their properties. We hadn't had the heart to do that until this point.
As we approached the city limits of New Orleans, we began to see the effects of Katrina on the surrounding areas. Trees were down everywhere. Sides of buildings had been torn off. Roofs were missing, tarps futilely trying to serve as replacements. There was a noticeable absence of traffic and pedestrians. And this was just in Jefferson Parish--Kenner, Metairie, Jefferson. We hadn't hit Orleans Parish yet. We drove as close as we could before the roads were blocked to prevent people from driving in. We parked our cars in a nearby parking lot and walked to the 17th Street Canal bridge, where the levee had buckled less than a month before. It was Jonathan's parents, Jonathan, me, and my dad. I had worn flipflops, so upon recommendation I put on tennis shoes. We were going in, and there was no telling what we would be walking through.
The first thing I noticed was the smell. It was awful. And, I don't think I will ever forget it. The air radiated with the aroma of destruction and death. What was that, I wondered? We walked about a block until we reached the bridge. It was like crossing into another world. The difference between the side we stood on and the side we were about to walk into was like night and day. Everything was gray. It looked as though bombs had gone off and the soot and ash had settled across everything. The ground was covered with a sludge, thicker than mud, slick like ice, and inches deep. We were about two miles or so from our house, but we trudged through to make our way. There were several times when a few of us nearly took a spill from losing our footing in the muck. My shoes got stuck on several occasions, and I'll just say that I threw them away after this adventure because they were NOT fixable afterward.
We made it to Fleur De Lis Avenue, a beautiful street lined with hundreds of Live Oak trees, homes on both sides of the parkway. Every house in the area had been searched by the National Guard or other officials. They were looking for survivors, those who had refused to evacuate and as a result were left stranded in the rising waters. On every house in bright orange spray paint was the marking they left. The date they searched the property. The number of people found in the house. Their division's number. There was also the occasional hole cut out of a roof where people had been forced to break out of their homes to sit on the rooftop until help came for them. I had seen that on television, but here I saw the remnants of it with my eyes.
Some homes had been leveled as their foundations couldn't hold against the raging waters. There was a car in a swimming pool. Cars in trees. Boats in trees. Trees on houses. It was wild. As we continued walking, I wondered if we would be able to get to our house. In some places the sludge was so thick that we could barely cross the street. If we did make it, how would we get back? But, we did. I recall standing across the street from our property and looking at what seemed like a shadow of our former lives. My car sat in the driveway. It had shifted some, but the waters gently laid it down to rest not far from where it had been originally parked. The big orange X from the Guard was painted on our doorway. It didn't look much different, just dark, gray, and really dirty. I wasn't really prepared to see what was inside, but this was our chance to get in.
(Alas, to be continued)