A Journal, Revisited
August 29, 2005, The Day Of. I had a sinking feeling Katrina
would toggle east and hit the Mississippi coast. Hurricanes always
seem to change course at the last minute. A Category 5 storm was
barreling toward the same coastline Camille ravaged in 1969.
morning, I watched CNN track Katrina as she made landfall at 6:10
near Grand Isle, east of New Orleans, with sustained winds of
140 mph, a Cat 4 hurricane. Then I went to work, assured the worst
was over and the storm would weaken as she moved north over land.
older son, his wife, and three dogs live in Flowood, Mississippi,
a suburb east of Jackson, about two hundred miles inland, and
I knew theyd get some wind and rain. My family land is east
and north of Jackson, near the Alabama line. I worried about my
tall pines and hardwoods. I had just contracted to cut timber
in a few months.
eleven, my son called from his Jeep Wrangler. He occasionally
calls me as he does his errands, making efficient use of idle
driving time. Im going to get Nicole. Most of the
businesses here are shutting down early and sending their employees
home. Its going to be worse than we thought. Were
supposed to get 100-mile-an-hour winds.
left Nicoles car parked in a safe place. She has a brand
new vanilla PT Cruiser with a black convertible top. He had recently
spiffed up his Jeep with new big tires and a lift, and afterward,
he and a few friends drove it through someones pond just
because, so a hurricane shouldn't be much of a challenge for
noon, I went homein the next state up from my sonchecked
my yard for loose items that might blow away and decided against
going to Publix to buy bottled water and candles. After all, I
still had a disaster box prepared after Nine Eleven.
son called again around one. My office is closed, too. Im
on my way home. Nicole just called and said our doorbell is ringing
nonstopfrom wind pushing against it. Listen. Can you hear
the wind through the phone? Its awful. Oh, shit! Oh, no.
Something hit my windshield. Damn, its cracked.
far are you from home?
of a mile.
sat glued to CNN, watching the radar track Katrina as she moved
up through Biloxi and Gulfport, Picayune, Laurel, then Jackson.
afternoon, after the worst of the winds, my son called again from
his Jeep. Hes always got to be out in the middle of things.
We lost power. Im out looking for ice. I just bought
groceries for the monthcant lose all that. Got to
have ice. I have driven from one side of this city to the other
and havent seen anyone with power. And every gas station
dont open the refrigerator door. Itll be okay.
dont understand. Its going to be down for a while,
he said, spitting emphasis on DOWN and WHILE, then his voice lowered.
I can't believe thisin Flowood there are two police
cars at every intersection. With their lights flashing. Theres
definitely a police presence here.
deploy the National Guard. Thats the first thing that happens
in a disaster. The Guard will patrol the streets and keep people
from looting. Theyll hand out water and ice. Youll
be fine. I remembered the problems my parents had during
the Great Ice Storm of 94. The entire Mississippi Delta
was without power for eleven days. Every store was closed, and
people ran out of water and food and flashlight batteries and
candles. The Guard was there johnny-on-the-spot and eventually
opened Kroger, allowing residents to go in, ten people at a time,
and buy things they needed.
dont understand. Much of the Mississippi Guard is in Iraq!
God. A homeland disaster and no homeland defense ready to roll.
one city block in Flowood that has power, and my office is on
it. So is the police station. I can take my groceries to the office.
We have a full kitchen there, so I can cook and eat there, too.
was trained in survival and always kept emergency supplies on
hand. I thought of all the times wed laughed and made fun
of him for doing so. I knew hed make it.
Katrina was headed up Interstate 55, toward me, fast on her way
to becoming Tennessees first tropical storm. I went to bed
and waited for her to come blowing through. At 2 a.m. the sound
awoke me. Winds pushing the trees in the backyardtall, old
trees that had been there for decades. I was afraid one might
fall on the house, so I moved downstairs to the couch in the front
living room, and the dog settled against my leg, sensing my anxiety
and nervous in her own right about the noise outside. We both
kept our eyes on the front windows.
swept in sheets across the yard and front island and the street
beyond. It shimmered white under the glow of the streetlamp. The
Japanese maple slammed and scratched against the window. The river
birch banged against the chimney on the side of the house. The
power flickered, the UPS on my computer screeched, and I dashed
upstairs and shut the system down. I flipped on the TV to get
a weather update and heard BREAKING NEWS that a levee had broken
on Lake Pontchartrain and water was pouring into the streets,
a death knell for the city of New Orleans. A doomsday scenario.
cheeks stung and my eyes burned wet as I played flashbacks in
my mind of trips to New Orleans, that hot, humid old city of character.
Strong coffee, beignets, eggs Benedict, old bricks, iron fences,
cemeteries above ground, artsy-craftsy people on Jackson Square,
music in dark dives. I thought of the picture we shot of my dad
on Bourbon Street in front of one of those dives, standing beside
a poster of a mostly naked woman, with a bottle in a brown bag
under his arm. We threatened to show it to the deacons at church.
I remembered my youth groups trip down there, riding slowly
through the French Quarter in our long green bus with First Baptist
Church written on the side, before disembarking and walking though
the streets of sin. I bought a little gold crucifix there and
was told that Baptists dont wear necklaces with Jesus hanging
on the cross; we wear empty crosses. All the memories, the laughs,
the fun, all the history, everything, now in water, under water.
worst of the storm passed, and I went back to sleep.
August 30, The Day After. Jacksons The Clarion-Ledger
said: The eye of Katrina, a Category 4 hurricane, hit the
Mississippi Gulf Coast about 9 a.m. Monday with 125-mph winds.
Around the state, the storm knocked out power to hundreds of thousands
of homes and businesses, flooded casinos, shut down major highways
and even wiped out an amusement park
Nearly half of those
living in Mississippi slept in the dark Monday night
major highways and evacuation routes throughout south Mississippi
still were impassable Monday night
winds werent as forceful as Camilles, the hurricane
caused waves to swell higher than Camilles, reaching 28
feet on the Gulf Coast. As a result, some boats crashed into buildings,
and others wound up on the Coasts busiest thoroughfare,
U.S. 90, which was seven feet under water.
got the eastern wall, the worst of the storm. I couldnt
bear to think about all the destruction. The sandy Gulf shores
where my family vacationed when I was a child. The beautiful coastal
highway with beaches on the water side and old historic homes
and quaint diners on the other. I played in the Gulf waters, collected
shells, ate seafood. As an adult, I took my babies there and let
them step out in the gentle waves. The waters were always so peaceful,
so beautiful, and the sand and palm trees and sea touching sky
were such a cool and calming contrast to my hot Delta home of
black dirt and white cotton, just a few hours away. I remembered
after Camille, we couldnt swim in those waters for a few
yearsbodies were still washing up. Silent sobs bubbled up
from my chest.
stopped in Walgreens shortly after noon to pick up a prescription
for my husband and to get some moisturizer for myself. My cell
phone rang. It was my son. He hemmed and hawed and blew out hard.
Mama, its bad. Its really bad here. Its
absolutely unreal. In central Mississippi, 85% of us are without
power...the entire cities of Brandon, Pearl, Raymond, Byram, Clinton,
Richland, Ridgeland, 95% of Flowood, 90% of Jackson, and 40% of
Madison. We're not expecting to have power restored until September
10, Entergy's official target date for Flowood/Brandon. We have
no communication with the outside world. No television news. Most
radio stations lost their towers. No telephones. All but three
cell phone towers in the area are gone.
lost connection with him three times during the conversation.
grocery stores. No hospitals. No gas stations. The one gas station
that was open on this side of town ran out of fuel and food and
ice this morning. No way to get food or water or Advil, and I
have a migraine today, of all days. We can't drink the water.
We're under a boil-water notice for the foreseeable future. Every
stoplight is now a 4-way stop, making driving a pain in the ass.
The heat index today is 107.
sat down Indian-chief style in the aisle in front of the Oil of
Olay and let it all sink in. Probably half the state south of
Jackson was in the same boat.
now, we have power here at my office, but it comes and goes,
he continued. All of our food is in the freezer here, too.
We have four big water bottles from the cooler that will last
us a while. After that, we will have to use boiled water from
the swimming pool. I also have purification tabletsremember
how everyone always made fun of me for keeping those in my hunting
gear? We have four propane bottles and a handful of candles, along
with four or five flashlights.
never heard notes of despair in his voice before. I took in a
few ragged, shallow breaths.
one was expecting the storm to be this bad. All of our Entergy
crews were pre-positioned in the south and only returned this
afternoon. It looks like a war zone here. And the National Guard
in Jackson is shorthanded. We do have an 8 p.m. 8 a.m.
curfew for the entire Metro area. The few radio stations that
are operating are using the emergency broadcast system to distribute
notices and alerts.
Babylon, I thought. This is the title of a book that tells
how people in a small town cope with nuclear war and its aftermath
and how, though numbed by catastrophe, they are driven to go on
living. I read it as a teenager, and much later, my children read
the cleaned-up version as required reading for school. The title
became our secret emergency code in a crisis. I got the message
that this disaster was one of unprecedented proportions.
gas is going to be a problem, my son continued. I
saw a tanker truck on Highway 80 this morning being escorted by
Army Humvees and a black SWAT team truck. They stopped all traffic
to let it pass. The radio stations are telling everyone to stop
driving around because the tri-county areaRankin, Hinds,
and Madisonis running out of fuel for emergency and utility
vehicles. It's becoming a real crisis fuel-wise.
and Nicole and their three dogs slept at his office that night,
along with a dozen co-workers and friends. They all cooked and
August 31, Day 3, A Day of Reality. Headlines of The Tennessean:
NEW ORLEANS LIES IN RUINS. I choked up when I picked the
paper up off the driveway. HUNDREDS, IF NOT THOUSANDS, ARE
bit of good news came early afternoon from my son: Our power
is back on. Trucks from Florida came, unannounced, lined up and
down Lakeland Drive starting at 9 a.m., and we were back up by
a bit of bad news. The Gulf Coast is destroyed. Pass Christian
heard on the news that several small Mississippi towns along the
coast were wiped out. Id heard that nothing was standing
between the railroad and the beach. Thats a good little
distance. I wondered about Gulfshore, the state Baptist camp at
Pass Christian. Camille wiped out the old camp a few weeks after
my boyfriend was there as a counselor with kids from his church,
and they built a new one that was supposed to be hurricane-proof.
My guess is that it wasnt built to withstand a Cat 4.
was full of the horror of devastationpeople whose lives
are literally gone. Not only do they not have homes and cars,
but they have no identity, no records, no proof of ownership of
anything. They are wiped out. Its incomprehensible. My compassion
for them took over my body. I couldnt stand any more, couldnt
watch the tragic unfolding news on CNN any longer.
9:15 my son called from his Jeep. Im out looking for
gasoline, he said. Ive been to three stations,
and they are all out of fuel. They have police tape around them.
are you going to do?
dont know. Try a few more places and then go home, I guess.
Oh my God, there goes a tanker. Hold on.
held the phone tighter, figuring he was making a U-Turn on Lakeland
dog! he said. Im going to follow him and see
where he goes. Hes got four police cars and two National
Guard Humvees escorting him. Damn, I got a red light.
the tanker stop?
they dont have to stop.
cell phone rang, and it was my other son. I sat in a wicker chair
in the bedroom with two phones on speakerphone on my lap.
he go, whered he go, the older one mumbled as I caught
the younger one up with what was going on. There he is!
heard a squeal of tires.
in, Im in, he said. I got lucky. Two cars pulled
in before me, then I pulled into the station, and then the police
blocked it off."
tanker was at the back of a BP on Lakeland, about a half mile
west of Airport Road, ready to supply the station. Within a few
minutes, cars were lined up about five miles down the road, two
in your car, the manager told him. It would take fifteen
minutes for the tanker to pump fuel. A policeman will tell
you when you can get out and fill up. How much is the gas,
my son asked. $2.71, the manager said.
CNN satellite truck just got sent to the back of the line,
my son laughed. People will be here long after midnight.
I'm really lucky.
went to bed thinking things were going to be better tomorrow.
September 1, Day 4, A Day of Sobering Reality. New Orleans
is in a state of lawlessness. Looting is widespread. Some of the
search and rescue efforts have been abandoned due to the violence
in the streets. Shots were fired at an army helicopter attempting
to evacuate refugees. Refugees
Ive never heard that
word used about people in the United States. Dead bodies are in
the streets and on the sidewalks and in the floodwaters. The pictures
Im seeing on TV tell me that this is some Third World country,
far, far away.
White House says help is on the way.
by now, Id lost hope. As I watched CNNs coverage,
reality sank in. Those thousands of people left behind in New
Orleans were not going to be saved. Come hell and high water and
nobody was coming to help. One old woman died in her wheelchair,
and they just pushed her up against the building and threw a blue-and-red-plaid
blanket over her. Another was dead on the ground beside her, mummied
in a white sheet. One woman with reddish-colored hair and skin
like my own mothers kept blotting her face with a red bandana,
holding up two fingers, saying two days, no food, no water,
it got to be too much, I pushed one red button with POWER on it,
and all those people were gone, and I was left in stinging silence.
I took the dog for a walk and felt a wave of guilt because my
skies were blue and my life was in order.
grieved for the Mississippi Gulf Coast townsBiloxi, Gulfport,
Long Beach, Pass Christian. My sonss friends brother
lives in Pass Christian, four blocks from the sandy beach. Now,
he has beachfront property. That much land has been lost. The
coastline is forever changed.
each passing day, I was getting a little more nervous about cousins
in Meridian and Philadelphia. Over two hundred miles inland, they
were hit with the eastern wall of the storm, a Category 1, and
I hadnt heard anything from them.
e-mail came from a cousin in Florida, who has been through a few
hurricanes himself. His grandfather was a brother to my grandfather,
and they lived on adjoining land in Kemper County. My cousin still
has immediate family inland, and his brother lost his home. No
one from the coast to Macon [about 250 miles] has any power, phone
or water service
Many of the doctors and hospitals in Orlando
wanted to give me money and supplies to take with me to our relatives,
but officials in Mississippi said that I could not travel there
due to the conditions and unavailability of gas.
at my BP station on the corner of Moores Lane and Mallory
Lane in Brentwood went from $2.55 at the beginning of the week
to $3.29 by Friday.
son called with a bit of news that made my stomach flip flop.
Haley Barbour [governor] is calling a press conference this
afternoon or tomorrow. Hes going to announce that emergency
vehicles only will be able to get gas. In other words, after today,
gas will no longer be available to non-emergency vehicles. No
word on how long that will last.
will you do?
dont know. I guess ride a bike.
you have a bike?
sense that our lives have changed. The impact of this event is
just now beginning to come to light. Theres no way to know
the full implications of Katrina. It is a national tragedy that
will be with us forever.
getting worse here each day, my son lamented. Its
not getting better, its getting worse. People are getting
desperate. Only a few banks are open, and the lines are blocks
long. People are pushing their cars to gas stationseven
professionalslandscaping companies, trucks with company
logos on them.
are service companies going to do when there is no gasoline?
dont know. I just dont know.
didn't want to know. I couldnt stand to think about how
much worse it could get. I had a sinking feeling in my stomach.
My husband is in the service business; his company could not exist
without gasoline. What would we do?
September 2, Day 5. Help finally got to the hell and high
water, and evacuations began in New Orleans. It was reportedly
the largest displacement of people since the Civil War. Back then,
during the last shots of a battle before the fall of Atlanta,
the Confederacys most important center of war supplies,
the city was evacuated141 years ago, to this very day.
showed footage of people boarding buses to be evacuated from New
Orleans. One scene ripped my heart out. Officials wouldnt
let a seven-year-old boy take his little white Maltese-looking
dog with him. The child threw up.
was a punch in the gut to watch. Snowball, such a tiny thing,
stood up on his hind legs with his front left paw on the glass
door of the bus, looking in for his boy, his family. His right
leg was in a submissive bent, and he was panting hard. Dogs pant
when they are hot, which surely he was, and dogs pant when they
are nervous and scared out of their minds, which surely he was.
A policeman picked him up and moved him to the side of the road.
Snowball was being left behind. Used to the security and stability
of family and home, he was left to fend for himself in the post-apocalyptic
remains of a city.
is a symbol of this whole tragedy. People and pets torn apart,
snatched away from their lives, stripped bare of all they had
and were, like when my son was a child and would absentmindedly
put his thumb and pointer finger at the top of a frond of my potted
fern and pull downward like a zipper, ripping leaves, sending
them floating helplessly in the air, dropping at random.
is Snowball? Thats all I wanted to know.
crying for a little Maltese let me deal with the tragedy without
experiencing paralyzing grief over the human suffering side of
the disaster. People, herded like animals, and animals abandoned.
Parched, starving, dying. Snowball represented the normalcy that
had existed in someones life. I drew my cocker spaniel close
and rubbed my face against her newly bathed and perfumed hair
and told her I loved her. I felt guilty for being able to do that.
I thought if we could get Snowball back to his owner, wed
all start to get better.
September 3, Day 6. My son volunteered at the Mississippi
State Fairgrounds, a shelter for displaced people and lost dogs.
The Fairgrounds had two big barns, 40,000 square feet each, set
up for pets. One barn housed pets from flooded New Orleans, and
the other housed animals from a humane shelter on the Mississippi
coast, next to a pumping station that failed, and all the dogs
had been covered with sewage.
wonder if Snowball is there, he said.
about him, get him if he is.
of the shelters here are filling up, he continued. The
population of Jackson has doubled. There are people everywhere,
and half the city is still without power. Practically every church
in Jackson is full of refugees. You see them in the grocery stores,
in Target, in line for gaspushing their out-of-state vehicles
down the line.
chest burned with compassion. We are all one tornado away from
the same fate.
is all so gut-wrenching, he said. I've watched tragedies
on television my whole life. It's so incredibly different when
it's in your backyard. As desperate as people are here in Jackson,
all of the suffering in New Orleans and the Mississippi coast
is just two hours away. It's right down the road. These are people
I know. We have three clients in Biloxi. Many of our clients have
family down there. The elected officials we see plastered all
over the news are ones I voted for and support. Haley Barbour
helped us get in the door on a big project last year. Lt. Gov.
Amy Tuck's husband is a client of ours. The director of MEMA helped
me find a HazMat suit for a commercial we did. The Mississippi
National Guardsmen flying helicopters over New Orleans all live
right here in Jackson and are under the command of Nicoles
uncle. One of them lives right next door to us.
choked up, sniffled, went on. The grief in his words gripped me
like cold fingers.
stayed at the Beau Rivage. Friends of ours have a huge, old home
overlooking the Gulf in Biloxi. It's gone. We've visited New Orleans
countless times in the past two years. We've stayed at the W Hotel,
where there are now gun battles. I've walked along the riverfront
and up and down Bourbon and Canal and Poydras. We went to a nightclub
in the warehouse district that was a few doors down from the building
that burned. I've been to a football game at the Superdome. We
parked in that rear lot that you see on television with all of
the National Guard trucks driving through the water. The C-130's
and C-17's that are flying supplies into New Orleans are taking
off less than a mile from my office. I hear them take off and
land all day long. I hear the Black Hawks staging, grouping up,
and flying away south. I'm telling you, it's so very different
when it's personal.
September 4, Day 7. Its my birthday. My birthday has
a way of wiggling in between disastersone week before Nine
Eleven and one week after Katrina.
in a Yahoo writers group who lives near Meridian, where
my favorite childhood cousin lives, posted an e-mail. I
am just now getting back to work since the storm hit. As far inland
as we are [200 miles], we were dealt winds 75-95 mph for a solid
Our entire community looks like a war zone.
turns out that my favorite childhood cousin from Meridian is okay,
but her husband lost all his work equipment when a tree fell on
got a long e-mail from my son, with no mention of my birthday.
We spent all day yesterday at the animal shelter and will
probably go back today as well. The American Humane Society, working
under the authority of FEMA, is in charge now. PetSmart has about
fifteen mobile clinics on site. There are also humane societies
from Tennessee, Missouri, North and South Dakota, Maryland, Florida,
and Virginia with trucks and personnel here. We spent the morning
offloading medical/vet supplies. I was in charge of moving supplies
from the rear warehouse to the front mobile clinics. In the afternoon,
my crew built 48 pens to house the new shipment of dogs expected
today. One of the directors of the humane society asked if I had
ever done this before. I told her no, I just come from a
naturally bossy family.
are twelve rows of pens to a barn, and after today, two barns
will be full of evacuated dogs, he continued. About
one-third of them have owners sheltered here in Jackson. The rest
are ownerless, some evacuated from coastal shelters, and the rest
picked up by rescue personnel. There are hundreds of dogs. In
addition, we have three pigs (pets, not bacon), a goat, several
horses, a room full of birds, hamsters, and guinea pigs, and then
about a hundred cats. The cats get to stay in refrigerated trucks.
smiled, knowing my cat-loving friends would appreciate that.
have to line each pen with wireso many of these dogs are
toy breeds and wiggle out between the bars. We also have to line
the top with wire so the larger ones can't jump out. Then we fill
the bottom with cedar chips. FEMA ran out of cedar chips yesterday,
so we had to use regular wood chips. Each dog gets his own water
and food bowl, his own toys, and his own leashall of these
items are being donated from across the country. Each dog is checked
out by the vets and has a medical history chart on his pen. When
the volunteers aren't busy with something else, they walk or play
with the dogs. Each dog gets walked at least three to four times
daily. Each walk is about a quarter of a mile.
takes a village.
September 5, Day 8. Finally, I heard from my cousin in Philadelphia,
northwest of Meridian. We were without power from Monday
around 12 p.m. until Saturday evening around 4. We have a lot
of trees down, some of the power substations were wiped out, it
was a Category 1 when it hit us. My window screens are bent from
the force of the wind. I actually had stuff flying around the
house after we lost power and I opened my windows. We were terrified
as tree after tree just cracked like toothpicks against the wind!
after tree just cracked like toothpicks
Tree after tree just
cracked like toothpicks
Tree after tree just cracked like
her words reverberated in my head. I thought
of my timberland near where she lives. My trees. My tall pines,
my hardwoods, my old family land.
am still in shock, my cousin said. I have never seen
anything like this beforethe gas situation, our coast gone,
I am just reeling from it all. All those places we used to go
on the coast, they are just gone.
son told me, based on what he saw on the local news, that Biloxi
now sits on a small island about three miles out in the gulf.
The news showed before and after maps of the coastline.
has a friend who lives in Biloxi and e-mailed, I finally
made my way back to home roots on The Point in Biloxi and found
everything gone. Not just a little messed up or filled with water,
but leveled. The sight of seeing my childhood home and neighborhood
totally destroyed brought me to my knees
we found two more bodies in the subdivision next to mine, and
we have a half dozen or so houses still to check.
heard on TV that the body recovery team arrived in New Orleans
with 25,000 body bags.
just want to know where Snowball is.
just want some reassurance.