The week went by in a blur. It seemed that every day we worked all day without stopping, and still it seemed like we had not accomplished anything. We had no electricity and tap water was unsafe for drinking although we did have enough pressure to get wash and flushing water. We didn’t bother to lock our house when we left for the evenings – most anything we could salvage was already outside drying out, so locking the door was pointless. I didn’t even carry my wallet this first week. All I was wearing each day was a pair of shorts or swim trunks, T-shirt, and sneakers without socks. The week was hot, with temperatures in the high 90’s, and I remember coming close to getting dehydrated several times.
Some specific events I do remember:
My neighbors on the other side of me, with whom I had shaky relations with for the two years they lived there, came through in a big way and we became very close. Among other assistance they provided, they helped me get the refrigerator out of my house and my boat “Sea Dreams” moved back where she belonged.
During the flood my refrigerator had flipped on its back in the cabinet niche where it was located. Some sheet rock had been damaged when it fell over, now the ‘fridge was wedged between the wall and other cabinets. I could not figure out how to get it out without first pulling out the cabinets. My neighbor came over, looked at it, discussed it, and he asked, “Does it matter which end we flip it over on?” I said, “No, it’s already ruined.” So we flipped the ‘fridge over on it’s top end, slide it out, lowered it and flipped back right-side up, and out of the house.
My boat “Sea Dreams” had floated down to the bottom of the yard and wedged against a tree, still on the trailer, from where she had been parked next to the garage. I didn’t have a truck with hitch to pull it out, and the ground was too soft to be driving a truck down the yard anyway, anyway, so I needed to think awhile how to move it. With my neighbor’s help, I used my two boat anchors, some long chain, and a come-along. We drove the two anchors into the ground near where the boat needed to be, tied off one end of the come-along cable to chain hooked to the trailer hitch, with the other end hooked across to both anchors, and winched the boat back up the hill pulling on the anchors.
Wednesday morning, as we were trying to navigate out of the neighborhood where we were spending the nights, we saw a large section of metal roof complete with framing and long nails sticking out half blocking the road. The nails were nasty; any car driving over them would have punctured tires and further block the road. I asked my neighbor to stop, got out and attempted to pull the piece of roof off the street.
I heard someone call out “hey, that’s our roof!” I looked around and saw a middle age couple (more middle aged than me) running towards me. They explained the roof was from their house. They felt responsible for moving it, but had not been able to move it off the road themselves. I asked where their house was, they pointed “way down” the street, maybe a quarter-mile away.
Between this couple, my wife and neighbor, we were able to move the roof section far enough off the road to not be a risk.
Thursday morning, while traveling to our house in our neighbor’s Suburban, we found one stretch of road blocked by cars. It seemed a small gas station had opened selling gas, and the line of cars waiting stretched for several hundred feet. It was on a narrow two-lane road with trees close to the shoulders, and the line of cars completely blocked the northbound lane. Other cars had started going around this line using the southbound lane, with the predictable results that very quickly no one could move anywhere.
So I hopped out of the Suburban and walked down to the point where all cars met together. Using the authority vested in my by my uniform of sneakers, blue shorts, and a Homer Simpson T-shirt I started directing traffic. Most people followed my directions, although one driver started cursing at me and almost ran over me as their way was cleared. Just as I had traffic moving freely, National Guardsman in a Hummer pulled up; the first time I had seen any Guardsman since the storm. I called out “Just trying to help” as the Guardsman semi-smiled at me. My neighbor in her Suburban pulled up, I jumped in and we drove off. My wife and neighbor were truly impressed.
Thursday was also the first time relief supplies began arriving in our area. The other family we were with managed to get bottled water and military “Meals Ready to Eat (MREs)” during the day and distributed them that evening. For several weeks afterwards MRE’s and relief-issued water became a regular part of our diet. This was the first time I had ever eaten MRE’s, ever been dependent on hand-outs, and for the first time in my life ever understood just how it felt to be refugees.
Thursday afternoon, my venerable old pickup served one last useful service.
The dad of the homeowner’s wife (with whom we had spent Monday night with) was a professional mechanic. After he brought us back Tuesday morning he and his sons attempted to get our flood-damaged vehicles running. Regrettably, they were all beyond help, but he did tow my truck back to our house, setting it in the driveway. By Thursday our evening hosts were running low on gasoline and wanted to go north a bit to buy more gas and a larger generator, one that could power up the house air conditioning.
So, the neighbor’s son and I drained the gas from my old pickup (which I had filled the day prior to the storm). There was enough gas for our hosts to go 50 miles north where they could get a 55 gallon drum of gas and a whole house generator.
That night we experienced the pure pleasure of air conditioning.
Friday noon-time, we were almost finished ripping out soggy carpeting, now working our way to the large living room. We had gotten down to a routine: move furniture away, use a knife to make a cut in the carpet then start ripping. Rip it all the way across, roll it up put it on our appliance dolly and roll it out to the ever-growing pile of trash by the curb. Then repeat as above.
Only this time, as I was tearing the carpet, my right arm cramped. Bad. In fact, it cramped so bad the pain brought tears to my eyes, and all I could do was pull my arm against my side and rest. It was the worst cramp I had ever had until then. The cramp subsided; I attempted to tear more carpeting, and my arm cramped again even worse than the first time. This time, Winnie noticed and became very agitated. We sat on the wet floor while she massaged my arm and managed to relax my arm muscles. Then she fired me from cutting any more carpet. Winnie finished cutting out all the carpet herself, only allowing me to use the dolly to move the wet carpet out to the curb.
The only other time Winnie became upset during this was when I started chopping out the lower section of sheet rock, trying to get some of the saturated insulation out. I think the real impact of how badly damaged the house was only hit her as I started hacking out the sheet rock. Otherwise, she was my rock of support as I found and threw away one priceless memento after another, all ruined by water.
My overall physical condition was in pretty sorry shape by the end of the week. Wednesday morning at our host’s home, I was pouring some coffee when the lid of the carafe fell off. I dumped boiling hot coffee across the knuckles of my left hand causing second degree burns (blisters). I was also developing blisters on my feet.
Everything was wet and so my sneakers stayed wet all day long, keeping my feet wet. I had two pairs of sneakers that I alternated wearing; wear one pair a couple of days then let them dry out while I wore the second. (My sandals had been left on the back porch during the storm, and floated away.)
I stopped wearing socks as they just kept my feet more wet, but then the sneakers tore up my feet worse. Add to all the blisters my aches from sleeping on a floor, the exertion from moving heavy objects all day long, and combating heat stress; I was hurting bad.
After a long day of cleaning out and tearing out our house, we traveled back to the one house in our group not flooded to have dinner, relax, and sleep. After a day of dealing with such total destruction and chaos, walking into a “normal” house with electricity felt completely disorientating.
As bizarre as it may sound, by the end of the week I felt like we were all living in a “Survivor” style reality TV series. Only without people getting voted out.
Overall, we were more comfortable than most people on the coast that first week. None of us were even thinking about going back to our jobs. We knew nothing would be reopening until at least power was restored.
My biggest single concern during this week was contacting my family and my wife’s family back in China. I had managed to get a brief call to my mom Monday evening after the storm passed, enough to tell her we were okay and our home was flooded. But cell phone and landlines went down later that Monday evening, and after that we had no way to contact anyone.
My wife, who had only arrived in the US from southeastern China six weeks prior to the storm, had no opportunity to contact her family. I knew they’d be seeing news of this disaster on Chinese TV, recognize it as the area she had just gone to live, and would be worried about her.
I was also concerned about getting transportation again. Besides the loss of my venerable Isuzu pickup, I had put my late model Isuzu SUV into a dealer repair shop in Gulfport (about 30 miles west of Gautier) just prior to the storm. Now I had no way of determining whether it (the repair shop and my SUV) had survived. I had to assume my SUV was also gone. I knew I needed transportation once power was restored and life began to return to normal.
By Saturday morning following the storm we regained limited cell phone and landline telephone service. I contacted my family and asked to borrow a car from my nephew in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, part of the group of family physically closest to me. When my nephew received my message he “mobilized,” and by early Monday morning (Labor Day) the week after the storm my sister and her husband arrived to bring us up to Tennessee. That night, at my nephew’s house, my wife and I had our first hot shower since before Katrina swept through.
The next day we made a LOT of phone calls from my nephew’s house, including one to my wife’s family in China. Judging from the sound of their voices, my wife’s family was indeed very aware of what was happening here on the coast and had been very worried about her.
I was also able to contact my supervisor for the first time and let him know I was okay. I learned that the building we had worked out of had been ruined by 6 to 9 feet of flood water and sewage. I learned I could look forward to another week off before returning to work in a temporary office building.
This was also the first opportunity I had had to get news about the general extent of storm damages. We had seen the news coverage of New Orleans from our friend’s satellite TV, but knew almost nothing about what had happened in Mississippi. Seeing the footage of damages was another shock upon all the other shocks and emotionally scarring events of the previous week.
We got my loaner truck prepped, did some shopping, and headed back to Gautier late that evening, arriving early Wednesday morning. By the time we returned, power had been restored and our “Survivor” group broke up. So I’m going to end my personal narration of Hurricane Katrina here.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article was originally posted on the DailyKos website at Katrina Aftermath from the Front Lines, Part II about three weeks after the storm. It also made the “Recommended List.” I have expanded this article with anecdotes and impressions of what occurred the first week after the storm, looking back for a greater distance now. Due to the extra content I have broken the story up into two parts. This is part II