Today is the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. It’s two years after what is now being called the greatest natural disaster to ever hit the U.S.
While Winnie and I were among the lucky ones, August 29, 2005 was still traumatic. In fact, I can honestly state it’s taken this long for me to personally sort things out and take stock of how our lives have changed these past two years.
First, to put that day into proper perspective; for Winnie and I things could have been much, much worse We were not physically hurt – just scared out of our wits. We had friends to help us get through the first terrible week afterwards. We didn’t lose any family or friends to the storm. We only experienced three feet of flooding in our house, the house was not structurally damaged, and we had adequate flood insurance. I never lost any income as the company I worked for was big enough to handle their losses. I also had family support to help us out afterwards. I’m not sure my sister Melinda, and Nephew Terry, appreciate just how much getting Winnie and I out of Mississippi for even two days really meant to us.
Yes, we were lucky. So many people died that day. So many other people knew someone who died, and so many people discovered bodies in what was left of buildings. There were so many people who lost their homes completely. Even worse than losing a home completely; having their home so badly damaged they had to tear down what was left. We never even had to deal with FEMA trailers – and FEMA is in fact a four-letter word to anyone who lived on the Coast after Katrina.
So, as bizarre as it may sound, Winnie and I have a lot to be grateful for. More than anything else, I’m grateful that our marriage has survived through everything that’s happened since she’s been here. It was already stressful waiting those long 20 months for Winnie’s visa. After she arrived, we didn’t even get a break before thrown into a bigger crisis. I saw the marriages of several friends come crashing down in the months following the storm. I hate clichés, but I do believe Winnie and I have become closer for everything we’ve been through.
However, this is not a recommendation for disaster survival as marriage enrichment.
The biggest loss I still feel is losing “home.” Not just losing our house, although I once truly loved the house I owned in Mississippi. The bigger loss is a sense of place. After thirteen years on the Coast, I felt like I belonged to a community in a way I had not felt since leaving Farmingdale, Long Island, back in 1972.
The Mississippi Gulf Coast had become home for me. I loved the small towns, the beaches, wooded areas and parks, the marshes, rivers, ocean, and all the wildlife. I had good friends there, and after the storm I felt I was accepted as a full-fledged Mississippian. I felt I had established myself within the community through my different jobs and the different community services I performed over the years.
The Coast community as it was vanished sometime after Katrina. During the storm and immediately afterwards, most people rose to the crisis and collectively we all pulled through. But after the immediate crisis, the sense of community died. People became inwardly focused while attempting to deal with the their losses and recovery, and their true inner natures were revealed. In more cases than not, it would have been better if people’s inner natures had remained hidden.
It’s not that I can rightfully judge other people’s behavior. I’m really not sure I always acted in a way I could be proud of during those long months after the storm. I remember my bouts of uncontrolled rage as I tried to clean up and rebuild. But I can honestly say I tried my best, and did what I could to help others.
I did try to help the community by organizing a small photo exhibition through my Camera Club just before Thanksgiving, 2005. Working with several members of my club, we threw together an impromptu exhibition of Katrina photographs and promoted it as a fund-raiser. Even with the limited ability and time available to organize, we presented over 60 photographs in a prominent location in the local mall. Our club voted to absorb all the exhibit expenses.
For the entire week-long duration of the show people were continually crowded around the photos looking, talking, sometimes catching back tears and suddenly walking away. While I took my turn as “show sitter” I heard heart-wrenching stories from people who viewed the photos. Our Camera Club also took in more than $400 dollars in donations that we immediately passed to a local charity kitchen just in time for their holiday meals program.
I like to think that this small exhibit and fundraiser helped balance out the bad karma that I later acquired during my flashes of rage.
I can say that for all the help the Coast communities received from church groups and other organizations all over the United States afterwards, there were way too many local people doing nothing to help out. It was hard enough seeing local merchants price-gouging their fellow townspeople. It was still harder seeing some of the few people who came through unscathed ignoring their many neighbors needing help. There were way too many local churches and organizations focused only on their own needs, not reaching out to the greater community with assistance.
In the end, I lost the feeling of being part of a community. In losing my sense of community, there was nothing else to hold me there.
Winnie and I have started to build a new life for ourselves here in Northern Virginia. In many ways, this move has been kind to us. We landed a comfortable home that we could actually afford in a nice neighborhood. My job is proving to be work that I’ve wanted to do ever since leaving the Navy, and work that I would never have had the opportunity to perform down in Mississippi. I’m living closer to some of my family, and no further away from the rest of my family than before we moved. I only have about one-third of the belongings I had owned pre-Katrina, but it’s a chance to start fresh with decorating and furnishing our new home.
Perhaps because I dumped so much water-damaged property in the trash, I don’t feel the need for acquiring things the way I once did. I feel satisfied with less. I also feel more grounded in the sense that I truly believe I can handle anything thrown at me, survive, and even prosper.
But deep inside I still feel the loss.
I also have an emotional bond with the people back on the Gulf Coast in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana still struggling to recover. I still feel deep, deep anger over the way our government abandoned us immediately after the storm. I feel deep-seated resentment over the way our government continues to refuse help to the people needing help the most.
As just one example; this week I learned that Northrop-Grumman, one of our country’s largest defense contractors, has now received three billion dollars ($3,000,000,000.00) in tax money to cover their storm damages. Their storm damages actually only totaled one billion dollars, was fully insured and the insurance claims have been already paid. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Katrina victims have still not received any federal assistance and are still fighting with their insurance companies to collect – something.
Tens of thousands of people in our country are still displaced from Katrina, still living in FEMA trailers, still attempting to rebuild and put their lives back into order. This is wrong. I’m angry about this, but I don’t know how to help.
Edited: August 31, 2014 for grammar and format.
The Year of Hurricane Katrina : My story of living through what was then the worst natural disaster to ever hit the United States, and the long year after in recovery.
Stay-At-Home Day Thirty and Counting : On life after thirty days of being safer-at-home during the worst pandemic in one hundred years.
A Lifetime Of War : My observations on the United States being in at a continual state of war for my entire lifetime.