Before and After Katrina

18 08 2015

Before and after Katrina is how we mark time down here in south Louisiana. There’s been other storms since then, but 10 years later, if someone talks about THE storm, you know they’re talking about Katrina. It’s the event that changed our lives forever. What makes my story somewhat unique is that it was during this dark, stormy time that I experienced the best of humankind.

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As the storm approached the bigger event in my life was that my husband had moved out the week before. I would be weathering the storm without him with my then 15-year-old daughter. I don’t remember being worried; I’d been through hurricanes before and knew the drill. Baton Rouge is far enough inland that it’s where people evacuate. The next morning the storm had barely impacted us and I went back to work.

Early that morning, even New Orleans appeared to have dodged the bullet. The storm had not hit NOLA with full impact. Mississippi was a whole other story. By mid-morning, there was breaking news. The levees were breached and New Orleans was filling up with water like the geographic bowl it was. My work friend and I seemed to be the only ones in our office aware of the seismic shift that had just happened to our world. Our boss was more concerned about ad deadlines and couldn’t grasp that the nightmare everyone knew would someday happen, was upon us.

The hours, days and weeks that followed have now become a blur. It would be days or weeks before we could contact our friends or family in the drowned city 90 miles away. What we did know was that Baton Rouge instantly doubled in size. The streets were completely clogged with evacuees, the grocery shelves were empty and Baton Rouge welcomed friends, family and strangers into their homes for weeks and even months.

I work in marketing at Woman’s, a specialty hospital and the largest OB hospital in the region. When they evacuated the NOLA hospitals tiniest, most vulnerable babies and the moms who had just delivered, or were still in labor, they helicoptered them to Woman’s. This is when husbands were separated from their wives, mothers from their babies, and parents from their children.

Woman’s was where these families were eventually reunited. The world media descended on us because we were the happy ending story in a region filled with tragedy. Patients arrived in their hospital gowns; families arrived with only their flood-soaked clothes, desperately looking for their wives, moms and babies.

Those of us not involved in direct patient care did whatever job was needed. The staff went home and cleaned out closets to bring clothes to our patients and families in need. I was my daughter’s Girl Scout leader. I volunteered the troop, who was still out of school, and they gladly came to help. The Scouts sorted and organized the mountains of donated clothes that arrived crammed in plastic garbage bags. They collected the clothes orders from the nurses and delivered the needed clothes. These teen girls shopping skills proved invaluable as they set up this “Clothes Store” housed in the hospital’s medical library. We heard first-hand accounts the horrors of what had happened as the clothes were received with tears, hugs and gratitude. We all did a lot of growing up.

We heard about the nurse who had learned that one of her patient’s had finally located her young son who had been put on a bus and sent to Houston. This nurse drove all night to Houston (5-hours away) to bring this son back to his mom. This was the kind of story I was experiencing amidst the stories of death, gunfire, drowning, looting and fear that filled the news.

It would be months later before I drove down to see the devastation first hand. It was like entering a war zone. Mile upon mile of devastation, and empty buildings, and no people on street after street. The black cloud of depression hung over the area for years.

It’s now been a decade.

I was recently visiting with a dear friend whose beautiful home overlooks Lake Pontchartrain. It received storm damage, but remained livable. She said she has no memories of the 5 years post Katrina. She took an early retirement from working in the criminal justice system. Her stories are the opposite of mine. She did not see the best of human behavior. I’m sure this was an unspoken factor in her taking an early retirement.

New Orleans has a revived spirit. Young entrepreneurs flooded the city post-storm and brought their youthful energy to this old town. Many stayed and made it their home. That depressed cloud is now gone. It’s still a city that is rebuilding; there’s still too many impoverished, too much crime, and really, really bad roads. But it’s jazzy, gritty, spirit is once again alive and well.

Baton Rouge no longer feels like the country town it once was. It has a thriving downtown and sprawling suburbs. Like New Orleans it’s now a city that has too many impoverished, too much crime and really bad traffic. But there’s a creative spirit in the air that extends beyond LSU football season.

The storm forced Woman’s Hospital to move up their expansion plans. When Baton Rouge instantly grew, so did the needs of the community. Our brand spanking new hospital is now 3 years old. Whenever I hear a helicopter, I flash back to those Katrina days. There was the constant sound of helicopters overhead. Helicopters still land at our new helipad bringing moms and frail babies, but these patients aren’t desperate and lost from their families.

That Scout troop stayed together through High School and took a trip to Italy together their Senior year. I’ve now been divorced for a decade. I’ve built a new life with my wonderful sweetie, Steve. My daughter’s dad and I sat by each other and watched with pride when our baby girl graduated from LSU a few years ago. We’ll all have dinner together when she flies in from Chicago for a visit.

Katrina…an epic milestone to remember. It’s important to celebrate progress and to mourn what is gone forever. It’s important to look back and see how far we’ve all come. God bless us all.

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When the Levees Broke

22 09 2013

 

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Before and after Katrina is how we mark time down here in Louisiana. We just passed the 8-year anniversary of that milestone hurricane. The lives we knew were washed away when the levees broke. For my high school friend, Karen and I, it marked the washing away of our long-term marriages. My husband moved out the week before the hurricane and Karen moved out of her home, the week after. We found our friendship in the storm’s aftermath and often clung to each other for support.

94992665We both realize the women we were back then wouldn’t recognize the women we are today. Eight years ago newly single with a teenage daughter; I was scared and expecting to be laid off from my job. While that did not happen, it made me question what did I want to do. I tried out a home-based business giving wine tasting parties (a lot of fun, but I drank all my profits). That led me to get over my fear of pubic speaking, which led me to becoming president of my professional club, which led me to giving workshops on creativity, which led me to starting a design business with my sweetie, which led me to discover new talents and strengths. Most importantly I learned to let go of fear and to embrace things outside my comfort zone.

140381196Karen left her affluent life and empty marriage to find meaning in her life after her kids had grown. She moved back to her hometown to family and friends who were critical of her decision. She went from moving in with her mother, to crummy first apartment, to nicer apartment, to buying a house, to renovating that house and making it her oasis. Her small job with an old family friend grew as his company was bought and sold and bought and sold. It is now part of the largest engineering company of its kind in North America. With each evolution of the company, Karen’s job has grown and she’s moved up the corporate ladder. She’s now moving to the center of business for the Eastern region. All of her strengths have come out and are shining brightly.

Karen’s moving up North…to Nashville. Her moving is bittersweet. We recognize that we are closing a chapter in our lives. Her renovated house has a For Sale sign in front and boxes are waiting for the movers. The days of dropping by each other’s home or creating a spontaneous adventure are over as we know it. We know our friendship will shift and change.

I was just in New Orleans for a fun romantic weekend with the man I’ve been in a loving relationship with for 4 years. After the levees broke, I believed that city would never be the same. I was right, but not how I imagined it. I would never have imagined that young people would flood the city post Katrina with their new innovative entrepreneurial spirit. These newcomers wanted to be a part of reinventing their lives while reinventing this old drowned city. They’ve embraced the unique, creative, funky culture and infused it with a new vibe. The dark depressive cloud that hung over the city has blown over. Arts, music, food, business, housing, education are now filled with this new spirit as new ideas and new ways of doing things are happening. And the wonderful, live-and-let-live-with-a-go-cup-in-hand New Orleans spirit is still embraced, it didn’t wash away.

Me and Karen shopping at the Farmer’s Market and cooking up an adventure.

Me and Karen shopping at the Farmer’s Market and cooking up an adventure.

Like the crescent city, Karen and I have reinvented our separate lives. We haven’t ignored our own past, but we’ve grown and built on it. We’ve moved past our after-Katrina chapter. We’ve rebuilt the levees, hopefully strong enough to withstand future storms.

I’ve learned to flow with the current that my life leads me to. It sometimes takes a storm to push us in a new direction. It’s good to occasionally take time to look back at how far we’ve come. I’m grateful for where my journey has taken me. I’m going to miss my friend, but I’m also looking forward to where new travels will take us.

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Bread, Batteries and Booze

2 09 2012

Hurricane season in south Louisiana is the best and the worst of times. Those of us who live here are all too aware of the real human tragedy that happens in every storm. We know what can happen to us and that it can be the worst. Each storm leaves its mark and memories. I have friends who’ve suffered life-changing loss and I know I’ve been very, very lucky, something I do not take for granted.

I also know that nothing unites a family, friends and a community than the threat and the reality of a hurricane. It can bring out the best of human nature.  Maybe it’s this living on the edge that brings out the laid back, laissez le bon temps rouler, love of life, in this part of the country. Most of us look at this as a time to party. It’s time to clean out the freezer and make that huge pot of whatever while your home is full of people with nothing to do but eat.  Oh yea, it’s time to clean out the liquor cabinet too.  Grocery stores run out of bread, batteries and booze. It’s a time when diets don’t exist and it’s normal to have beer and Fritos for breakfast. Vegetables aren’t even sold in grocery stores when people are doing their prep—unless you need a head of iceberg lettuce for the burger you’re going to grill when the hamburger meat thaws out.

Hurricane Prep

We do things that seem strange to outsiders; like buy everything at the store’s hurricane section just because it’s already gathered for you. We may buy charcoal for a grill we don’t have. We buy vienna sausage even though we won’t eat it, because you always buy canned meat. You fill up your bathtub with water, even if you’ve been in every storm for 50 years and have never needed to use that water. You still bag ice even if you have a generator.  You turn your AC down to freezing and wear your robe and socks over your shorts and t-shirt because you want to keep the house as cold as you can when the power goes out. You watch way too much TV because you never know  when you may lose your connection and you have to keep constantly keep flipping back to the weather reporting.

Betsy

I was a little girl during Betsy.  It’s my first hurricane memory. What I remember is that the neighbors let their cat, Crybaby, out during the storm’s eye. (I now realize that if you’ve named your cat named Crybaby, he might get annoying cooped up with the whole family in the house over an extended period of time.) This cat must have thought he was in cat heaven, because after the storm the family realized he had gone and found every dead bird he could carry and brought them back to his family’s front porch.

Katrina

I know hurricanes can bring out the worst in people, but during Katrina I saw it bring out the best. I worked at Woman’s Hospital (and still do), which is where the babies were flown to from the New Orleans hospitals, and it’s where families were desperately reunited. The world media literally camped at Woman’s for weeks because that’s where the happy ending story was. I had my Girl Scout troop there helping. They organized the donated clothes that magically appeared from the staff and community, to bring to the patients and their families who actually did arrive  with only the clothes on their backs. The new Woman’s campus is a direct result of the impact of this storm. Katrina changed a lot of things down here permanently.

Gustav

This is the storm the media ignored at least in covering Baton Rouge. I had a friend who bought a generator for the elderly couple who lived next door. They wouldn’t leave their suffocating hot house because they didn’t want to be a burden to anyone.  I do remember the heat, the long lines at the gas pumps, the downed trees and the damaged homes. But mostly I remember friends taking care of each other. Helping the neighbor you didn’t know clean up their yard after the storm passed.

Isaac

Isaac will always be the first storm that my sweetie Steve and I weathered together. At the beginning when it began to dawn on us that it really was coming our way we had different visions based on our own hurricane history. Steve came with a generator (one of many reasons I love him). He had visions of being shut in, snug in our bedroom with the generator and window AC humming and staying there because it would be the only cool spot in the house. The rest of the house would be full of candlelight. He imagined we’d only leave the room to open another bottle of red wine or to get that bag of cookies. I sadly dashed that fantasy and let him know that it would be me, my mom, my daughter and her cat in the bed and he’d be on the air mattress on the floor with the dog! I say this now very quietly—because I don’t want to anger the hurricane gods—we never lost power.

We discovered that we both delight in watching the weather reporters, all of them needlessly standing in the wind and rain. To us, it’s like watching a comedy show.

TV news is told in 30-second sound bites and these reporters have hours and hours to spend reporting mostly rain. They run down the street to look at a bit of debris. They whip out a ruler to measure 2” of water in a driveway. They get giddy when the wind moves a street sign to point in the opposite direction.  They drive around looking for some story, any story, and the only story is the rain and they film the wiper blades as they shoot out the car window.

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