Remembering Katrina

It all began mid-week in the early 20s of August. Radio stations reported about Katrina leaving some destruction in its path in Florida. It was supposed to weaken and be just a distant scare. But then the hurricane decided to return to the Gulf and suddenly it all was not such a distant scare. Words like voluntary evacuation and contraflow penetrated into the news breaks amid soft rock and country music in my portable radio-phones. The picture I vividly recall as a backdrop for this is below.

French Quarter, New Orleans, August 2005

This film photo scan cannot quite show you the sunny richness of the yellow on these walls, the warmth of someday mid-week that was humid but pleasantly so. I was bathing in the sunshine and the radio news was just some distantly menacing predictions.

27 August. Katrina

Dear friends,
Today I have gone out to buy the last bits and to see the downtown before leaving. It is one of the best days today: so sunny and cheerful. It is hot but not very humid (to my mind). I was just walking through the Quarter from Decatur to Basin and soft rock radio station Magic 101.9 played great music into my ears through the headphone radio. It was such a bright moment of the day, walking along the sunlit streets, listening to music, and almost singing along with the radio (if only I knew the words). It felt so good. <…>

Making the right turn from the feelings I come up to the major news here in New Orleans. Katrina, the hurricane that has stormed through Florida and is now in the Gulf of Mexico, is fast approaching and is expected to make its landfall in south-eastern Louisiana sometime on Monday. It is already a Category 3 hurricane with chances to become Category 4 or even 5. A voluntary evacuation is announced for the area because New Orleans appears to be in the center of the projected hurricane path. The weather is expected to worsen on Sunday night with strong winds and thunderstorms (while now it is sunny, dry, and hot). Already the contraflow plans are implemented on all the roads leading from the city, which means that the traffic can go only out of the city using all the lanes, and you cannot go back or get to New Orleans. The only road that still seems to be open for traffic going down here is Causeway (that longest bridge in the world crossing Lake Pontchartrain). By the way, tolls are lifted on both the Crescent City Connection bridge (leading to the West Bank) and the Causeway.

When I was out this morning I saw that some stores are already getting ready for the hurricane. Windows are covered with plywood sheets. People buy water and other supplies to let them last while the stores will be closed during the hurricane. And, what directly affects me, flights are most certainly will be canceled tomorrow and at the beginning of the next week. That means I won’t be able to leave New Orleans as planned on Monday and will have to stay for another day or two. Well, I cannot say that I am frustrated or disappointed. Two more days in the country I love is not a bad idea. My silly students will surely be all right if they have to wait for me a little longer.

With love and best wishes from the city that is embracing itself with a major natural disaster coming,

The night before the evacuation was good. Eating out, driving through the almost empty city startled by the closed gas stations and a bizarre krew parade rehearsal. I was going to stay. I was really curious having only a couple of tropical storms experience from 2002. I thought I’d be OK and at most slightly delayed.

On Sunday (28th) morning, I got up early. Some packing was done on the night before, and I was only packing whatever was left. Louis and Mike were both patiently expecting any news and packing too. They were going to Louis’s brother to Baton Rouge. Louis told me I was a big boy and could stay if I chose so. I was hesitating. Then all hell broke loose with an order of mandatory evacuation.

I had to go. There were millions of things still left unpacked. Louis needed my help downstairs and upstairs. I hectically brought plants from the balcony to my bathroom saying bye to the pre-departure shower. Then Louis rushed in, told me to hurry, and just use all the towels I could find to secure the balcony doors. I felt a bit lost and a nuisance, but I had to think less and help more. I don’t remember how much time passed. I only remember that Mike let me borrow his bag to pack more stuff.

We took only one car. I don’t know why they left the convertible. Each could have driven in a car and taken more things with us. I feel sorry that my bags took so much space. I rode with Gandalf in my feet and Lucy in a cage next to me. I think it was Tracy Chapman that Louis put into the CD player and Mike obviously didn’t like much. But everybody was deep in their own thoughts. And we were lucky to relatively easily and quickly get on the Interstate.

28 August. Evacuation

Dear friends,
When I wrote my previous chapter yesterday I thought that we would stay in New Orleans and live through a lot of rain and winds well into the next week. In the evening we went to Nirvana Indian Cuisine Restaurant on Magazine Street. I took Louis and Mike there for dinner to thank them for the many great things they have done to me, the greatest of which is bringing me here and allowing me to stay at their house. We had a few Indian dishes, mostly based on rice, and Taj Mahal beer. Later we stopped at an ice-cream place where they had a hurricane sale: two scoops for the price of one. So ice-cream was a frozen sweet finish to the evening. While driving along the streets of New Orleans we noticed many houses with their windows covered with plywood. Quite a few gas stations were out of gas and it was unusually empty for a Saturday night.

Well, things turned out not as I predicted or planned on. When I got up this morning Mike entered the room and said they were leaving because Katrina had gained strength and was then a Category 5 hurricane on a sure path to hit right over New Orleans. A couple of hours later the Mayor of New Orleans declared a mandatory evacuation for the city of New Orleans. People were ordered to leave the city. Those who couldn’t for some reason or didn’t have means of transportation were directed to shelters, the major of which is the Louisiana Superdome.

I had to pack everything and I also helped Louis and Mike take plants into the house, put some sandbags against the doors in the basement, secure plywood over the front porch windows. It was so hectic and there was no time to think over things, just for doing things. I soon realized that my two bags were not enough to pack everything into them, so I had to borrow a bag. It will take additional re-packing to better accommodate all the stuff.

We left at 11 in the morning – Louis, Mike, Gandalf (the dog), Lucy (the poppy) and me. The contraflow plan had been imposed since Saturday which meant that traffic moved only out of the city and on some roads it moved in this one outbound direction using both lanes. At some point, we were stuck on the road leading to the Interstate and also at certain points on the Interstate 10 leading west to Baton Rouge. Cars were moving extremely slowly, bumper to bumper. It was the first mandatory evacuation of New Orleans because Katrina is only the fourth category 5 hurricane to make landfall in the US and it will directly hit New Orleans. Category 5 means that the winds are more than 155 miles per hour (260 kilometers per hour), and they have been in the 160-175 range all day today in the Gulf of Mexico.

This is predicted to be the major disaster for the city, with some areas flooded up to 10 meters and 50-80% of houses destroyed, which may leave more than a million people homeless. There said to still be about 100,000 people left in New Orleans and the Superdome will probably accommodate 20,000-30,000 people including those with special needs and homeless. Molly’s, a bar in the French Quarter that had never closed during previous storms and hurricanes, closed at 6 pm today. And a curfew was declared from 6 pm Sunday till 6 am Monday. Although it is hard to say what can happen at 6 am tomorrow, since Katrina will make its landfall sometime around sunrise tomorrow and will reach New Orleans by midday. If the worst-case scenarios come true we may never see most of the city as it is now. It is sad to say, but some predict nearly total destruction and/or flooding of the French Quarter, which by the way is not so low-lying as many other areas.

It took us four hours to cover 70-something miles to Baton Rouge. The sky ahead was so innocently blue and sunny. But when I looked back I saw a more dramatic picture with gray clouds quickly moved by the wind. A shower rushed down on us when we were approaching Baton Rouge, but it was short.

So here we are at Mike’s house (Mike is Louis’s brother). It is so far a good evening but the barometer shows stormy weather. There will be tropical storm winds sometime during the night and tomorrow here, while in New Orleans they will be hurricane strength.

I called Delta and rescheduled my flight to Wednesday with departure from Baton Rouge. Surprisingly to me, there will be no fees or penalties, even though I changed the departure airport. I just don’t think New Orleans airport will be open much on Wednesday; and if it is then there is no way I could get back there anyway. No one knows for sure what is going to happen tomorrow morning and how the city is to emerge from this natural disaster. Hurricane Katrina is the only news on TV here with recurring reports from New Orleans, Mississippi, Alabama, weather reports and updates. The general feeling is that the return to New Orleans is not going to happen earlier than mid-week at the best; and of course, no one knows what they will find there. It is terrible, and we are part of this horrifying history.

I am going to bed now with hopes that things work out somehow, that houses withstand the hurricane and that the French Quarter is still there when the water goes down and away. I am sending you my best and love from Baton Rouge,

Several breaches in various canals left New Orleans no chance after people thought that the worst is behind and even aside.

17th Street canal floodwall, New Orleans

29 August. A Real Deal

Dear friends,
As I am writing this on Monday evening (with the power being restored in this house just an hour ago), Katrina is downgraded to a tropical storm and is somewhere up in Mississippi and Alabama. It made its landfall at 6 am today in south-eastern Louisiana, but just before that Katrina weakened to a category 4 hurricane (the second strongest) and shifted a bit to the east, sparing the city of New Orleans at least somewhat from what was predicted last night.

We lost power here at about 11-12 am this morning, but as soon as we got it back at about 7 pm we switched on the TV and saw what happened to New Orleans (the footage made from a helicopter). As the Mayor said yesterday, “This is a real deal”. This is a really horrible scenario happening. The city of New Orleans is cut off from the outer world with all the suburbs flooded for up to several feet, or up to the roofs of the one-story houses, and in some areas up to the second and even third floors. The CBD and the French Quarter are not flooded, at least not much, as far as we could see. But the northern edge of the Quarter and Tulane Avenue which goes off the CBD are flooded up to the car-floor level, or knee-deep at least. Neighboring Kenner and Metairie are flooded as well as East New Orleans, which was closer to the hurricane’s center. The picture is unbelievable, even though it has long been predicted that New Orleans would one day be totally flooded. It was inborn in its geography since the city was laid out in the marshy area below sea level. The levees surround the city on all sides, including the lakefront, but they can be toppled by huge waves from either the lake or the river if the winds are strong enough to breed high surges.

Windows of some high-rises in the CBD overlooking the southern riverside are blown out with curtains being torn and blown away by the wind. Roofs of some buildings are torn away. The Superdome which was the major shelter was also damaged. When we still had power in the morning there was news about some leaking through its roof and possibly some cracks in the roof. Now when we can see the picture, it is clear that most of the roof exterior cover is blown away (not the concrete roof itself though). It looks as if the city had been partially blown away by the major explosion. And in some areas, there are fires in residential districts and in the yacht club. Fumes of smoke and blazes of fire are rising high among the flooded areas.

This is history in the making, a grim and sad history. But at least we can be thankful that on the one hand, we are safe, and on the other Mike’s and Louis’s house is not destroyed. Mike called Tara (who stayed there with her husband and their friend) and she said that there is some water in the basement (which is at the ground level actually) and some windows in the attic are shattered. Still, it may take days and even weeks before it will be possible to return there. They say that it would take up to a month to restore power to the whole of New Orleans. I imagine the energy company workers will first have to make sure that all the torn power lines are taken out of the water before energizing the lines again. And it will be extremely hard to do when the whole neighborhoods are flooded so heavily. Bear in mind that it will take maybe weeks for the water to be drained. New Orleans is mostly a big soup bowl, and once the water is in there is very little to take it out.

Here in Baton Rouge we spent a more or less peaceful night. The heavy rain and stormy winds (mostly in gusts) began in the morning. A few tree branches and lots of leaves were torn down. A couple of blocks away a huge tree branch fell on a house and broke the roof. Although the walls were there I would imagine the house will have to be completely rebuilt. But otherwise, it was a cool day, with breeze cooling the air inside the house when there was no power. It was a day of reading, listening to radio (since there was no TV) and pondering about the future.

With love and best from Baton Rouge,

The Charity Hospital never reopened. Its Art Nouveau tower still stands closed and a monument to people who exercised too much liberty with time and resources.

Charity Hospital, New Orleans, August 2009

My other good friend Jullette Saussy was the head of New Orleans EMS at the time. She stayed in the city through all of this and it seemed she didn’t sleep, eat or take a break in all of that chaos. Her recollections are here among those of other people:

My new friends from the LSU Hospital also stayed and cared for the patients. They sent me a short video of the storm ravaging behind the hospital’s doors but I cannot find this video now.

And I remember I read some diary in the online version of a local newspaper. A man stayed in his office in the CBD and described everything in such detail you could feel like you were there. Later his diary was taken down from the website or hidden somewhere.

Charity Hospital, New Orleans, August 2011

Katrina marks were clearly visible on many houses especially in the poor areas beyond the touristy or wealthy parts of the city even several years after 2005.

30 August. Refugees in Exile

Dear friends,
I am doing fine here. It is a hot dry sunny day in Baton Rouge. Apart from the leaves and some small branches lying on the streets in the neighborhood not much indicates that it was stormy weather here just a day ago. Unfortunately the same cannot be said about New Orleans.

A levee was damaged under the water pressure yesterday when the remaining people (including those who stayed in New Orleans to ride out the hurricane, as the expression goes) thought the worst is over. Water from Lake Pontchartrain (which is to the north of the city) began quickly rushing to Mid-City, Lakefront, Carrollton, and other areas, with the water level said to be rising a brick height every 20 minutes. People had nothing to do but go up to the roofs and wait for either the rescue boats or helicopters to come and save them. There were reports this morning that the CBD is being flooded waist-deep, including areas around the Superdome. They started evacuating the hospitals located nearby in the Medical District. There is no power, running water, or other utilities in New Orleans and its suburbs. And to restore the utility infrastructure will be a hard and long task. Jefferson Parish residents (to the west of the city) will be allowed back to their homes not earlier than next Monday to pick up essentials and clothing (if they find anything) but then will be asked to leave for a month before they could come back.

On the brighter side, Mike and Louis’s house is standing and there is just some water in the basement (ground level), maybe a few inches. The streets around are passable with water only ankle-deep. And everybody is safe here in Baton Rouge. We went shopping this morning since Louis and Mike realized more and more that it will be a few weeks’ exile. So, a new birdcage was bought and some stuff for the dog, more food, and some clothes. With the news of the house doing all right the smile came back to Louis’s face and Mike’s voice sounded more cheerful.<…>

With love and best,

USA Today front page, August 31, 2005

There are only two things that I regret.

I once said to Louis and Mike that it would be interesting to see a real hurricane. When my friends drove me to the airport Louis said that I had actually seen a real hurricane and my plans must have been fulfilled. At that moment I felt like I was taken as the cause of all that had happened.

And I also regret… One day in Baton Rouge Louis was sitting at the table with an expression of devastation. He heard that there was water in the basement and that return to the city is indefinitely delayed. I quietly sat on the sofa. So many times after that I blamed myself for not coming up to him, not saying some soothing words, not patting him on the shoulder, and showing my sympathy. I was deeply sympathetic but I just sat quietly on the sofa. That has followed me ever since.

2 September. Back Home

Dear friends,
I have come back home safely after almost two months in the US and nearly escaping the horror of today’s New Orleans. I flew on the 31st of August from Baton Rouge Airport where I was taken by Louis and Mike. While waiting for the flight I saw several helicopters with red crosses. They took off later heading to the devastated areas. The flight to Atlanta, lunch in Popeyes in Atlanta Airport, and a 10-hour flight to Moscow went smoothly. <…>

News from New Orleans meanwhile is worse than they were two days ago. 20,000 body bags are ordered for Orleans and St. Tammany Parishes. Large chunks of Louisiana wetlands are gone forever and maps will have to be redrawn. 90% of the Gulf coast infrastructure is destroyed. The oil and gas industry will leave some parts. In many areas, there’s nothing left after the hurricane. There are reports of looting and crime on a huge scale in New Orleans. Thousands are still waiting for the rescue and evacuation. Some reporters already called this 9/11 of the weather situation. Epithets used are devastation and destruction on a “biblical” and “epical” scale. But epithets cannot fully describe what has happened and what is going on there.

New Orleans is being evacuated for at least a month. But it will take several months to rebuild the breached levees and water walls, to pump water from the city, to clean the debris and reconstruct water lines, as well as to rebuild the power lines. This not even includes time allowance for rebuilding the houses. Unfortunately, there are some people in DC, who doubt the need to spend billions of dollars on rebuilding the city that lies beneath the sea level. I, in my turn, doubt that they will be taken seriously. I am sure that New Orleans will be rebuilt and will be the same big partying place. It will only take a huge amount of time and effort.

With best wishes to all of my friends who followed my American adventures and with strong hope in New Orleans rebirth I remain yours,

The city healed. It has taken 15 years and it will take more. In some areas, it became a better place. In some, there are still huge holes and gaps. The bad came back just like more of the good. I believe in New Orleans. This is my city – I spent enough time there to call it mine and I went through enough. Not all the wounds can heal, not all people can rise and go. But others keep on living and being proud. We lived through this. The city lived despite whatever they feared back then, fifteen years ago.