This post will not involve politics or my thoughts on how things should be handled next time; city planning and crisis management are not my areas of expertise, I just like to talk and write about things. There will probably be inaccuracies and I apologize in advance for those. I'm writing what I remember, but a lot of things happened and it was ten years ago; specifics are blurry, but the experience will never leave me.
First things first: hurricanes are part of life on the Gulf Coast, and usually they're not terrifying, life-altering events. My freshman year alone classes were cancelled six different times because of hurricane warnings. But that year they all veered East and died down last minute which left us with gorgeous weather and no class. Most students took advantage of the opportunity and threw a hurricane party where people hung out and drank (wait for it) hurricanes. Surprise surprise, even college Rebecca was not excited about those parties because apparently I've been old forever.
Katrina was different. I'm sure plenty of people threw parties and were shocked when they turned on the news the next day, but most people knew it was going to be bad. As a timeline reference, it hit super early Monday morning. By Sunday evening we knew Baton Rouge wouldn't get hit directly with the storm so our worst-case-scenario was heavy rain, wind, and power outages. The other big concern was that New Orleans was being evacuated which would mean a LOT of people coming our way with no place to go.
Sunday afternoon LSU announced that classes were cancelled for Monday and that the Field House would serve as a shelter, and I made a mental note that I should try to volunteer tomorrow. Fast forward a few hours and my power went out; I was a scared, twenty-one year old living alone in a first-floor apartment with big windows, I was eight hours from my family, and the storm from hell was coming. "Maybe volunteer tomorrow" quickly turned into "definitely volunteer ASAP."
I pulled up to the shelter Sunday evening thinking it would be crazy, but it was almost empty. New Orleans announced a mandatory evacuation much earlier in the day, but those folks hadn't made it to us yet. I had to search around for someone to ask about volunteering. Her response: "Actually, you're our first volunteer, but I'm sure we can put you to work." The shelter was weirdly calm that night. I helped the social workers (who'd come in from around the state) fill out paperwork for occasional new arrivals, then we'd all gather around the TV and the watch the storm in silence. The weather channel has never been so popular.
It's a strange feeling, to be huddled in with a bunch of strangers in the middle of the night in a field house and watch a storm tear apart the city down the street. I felt so powerless and small, but at the same time I was deeply connected to a bunch of people I'd never met. It was a nice bit of comfort in a scary situation.
I met lots of new people in the shelter, but Crystal was my favorite. She was a social worker from out of town, and a few months she made a trip back to Baton Rouge for my senior recital, a kind gesture that meant more to me than she probably realized. After the storm hit and it seemed like Baton Rouge was in the clear weather-wise, I told Crystal I might go home to get some rest but I'd be back tomorrow. I don't know if she was worried that I wouldn't come back and they'd need extra help or if she just knew I didn't really want to be alone, but she told me I could sleep in the makeshift sleeping room the social workers were using. I gladly accepted the offer.
I went on to spend three consecutive days volunteering; I really only left to shower, take quick naps at home, and pick up things I knew people could use. The first full day (Monday) was kind of exciting; we were very busy, our intake process ran smoothly, and people were in good spirits despite what they'd been through. It helps that I love to feel productive, and because I'd been there from the start I was the Large and In Charge Volunteer. I was bossing around LSU football players, telling them where to carry all the heavy things, and I taught a bunch of gymnasts how to fill out the intake forms (students in the athletics department were strongly encouraged to volunteer). It's one of the first times in life that I felt like I had an important, grown-up job.
The intake form asked new arrivals for their name, date of birth, home address, information that would distinguish you from another John Smith. One guy said, "Well, I guess this place is my home address for now because my place is long gone." It was heartbreaking and you could tell he was sad, but like most people in the beginning, he just seemed thankful he got out in one piece.
As I took down another woman's information I realized it was her birthday, she was 84 years old. She made a joke about what an eventful birthday it was, and later a group of us got together to sing her happy birthday (I know we had MREs and food like that, but I think we sang to her over a plate of cookies).
By Monday evening things started to get harder. Two of the biggest problems were that people didn't know where to go, and they couldn't find their loved ones. Remember, technology has changed a LOT in ten years. People had to rely on the information they got from the radio, but shelters filled up so quickly it was almost always inaccurate. If you had a cell phone you could call until you got through to your loved ones (the population of Baton Rouge went from 400,000 to over a million in about 24 hours, the cell phone towers couldn't keep up), but most people didn't have cell phones which meant you just had to wait and hope everyone was okay.
The shelter I volunteered at was only for people with medical needs; it wasn't a hospital, it was just meant for people who needed daily check-ins with nurses or doctors (people on dialysis, disabled folks, seniors from assisted living nursing homes). It's great that were shelters like that, a church opening up its doors wouldn't be able to provide the services we could, but it did mean we had to turn away people who didn't need medical attention.
Monday night a woman arrived in a van with her five kids; her husband had been at work when the evacuation was announced and she couldn't get ahold of him. She and her kids left New Orleans Sunday afternoon and finally made it to a shelter in Baton Rouge Monday morning (by the way, it should take one hour to drive from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, but during the evacuation it took most people 13-18 hours), but when they arrived, the shelter was full. That shelter must have had misinformation because they told her to come to us even though nobody in her family had medical needs. It took her five hours to drive a few miles across town to us. I can't put into words the look on her face when she heard her family wouldn't be able to stay there, but we told her not to worry, we'd help her figure something out.
Another volunteer entertained her kids, we told her to take a breather, and I started cold-calling churches in the area to see if they could take her in. I was able to find one, but I didn't hang up until I clarified: "Can you promise me that even if it takes her six hours to drive to you that you will make sure there is room for her and her kids?" The guy on the other end laughed and said, "Yes, I promise, we won't give her spot away." We gave her directions and some cookies for the kids and sent her on her way trusting (hoping) that everything would work out.
As the days progressed it got harder. LSU cancelled classes for the whole week and opened up the basketball facility as an additional shelter (a general one, not specifically for people with medical needs). I moved to that facility and joined some other volunteers in setting up a play area for kids. There was a small TV, so I brought up my VCR (that was the last VCR I ever owned and who knows where it is now), some Disney movies, and a couple board games.
One little girl started telling me how her family got there. They didn't have a car and couldn't evacuate and ended up being rescued by a police boat from their roof because the water got so high. After that they were put on a school bus (I found out later most people on those buses didn't even know what city they were heading toward), and they ended up at LSU. The bottom of her pants were still dirty from the water, but because kids are amazing, she just thought it was one big awesome adventure that ended with a bunch of new friends camping out in a basketball arena. I realized then that I'd seen her in the bathroom earlier with her mom, but I barely noticed her because of how clearly distraught her mother was (this was part of why we started a kids play area, so parents could take some time to deal with their stuff).
Wednesday evening I reached my limit. Evacuations are a really challenging thing for nursing homes; think about how much effort it takes a 95-year-old to move from a bed to a wheelchair. Now imagine that you have to move that 95-year-old from a bed, to a wheelchair, then into a van that s/he will have to sit in for 18 hours without moving around, so that at the end of it all s/he can sleep in a gymnasium. What I'm saying is, nursing homes evacuated, and a lot of their residents didn't make the journey. To accommodate those new bodies, the lower level of the gymnasium (the one with the kids play area) was being used as a makeshift morgue.
Almost immediately after learning there was a morgue under my feet, another volunteer told me that a couple kids had just arrived who'd been separated from their parents; nobody knew where they were or if they were even alive. It was the one-two punch that did me in. I don't remember saying goodbye to anyone or signing out, I just left. I spent the next couple days watching movies and trying to avoid the news.
That ended my time volunteering, but Katrina had a direct impact on me the rest of the year. There are the crazy things that come with a city more than doubling in size overnight, like terrible traffic all the time, no cell service anywhere ever, and the 24/7 WalMart closing for four hours a night so they could restock the shelves because everything sold out every day.
But there was good stuff too, or at least good with the right perspective. One of my best friends got to live with me for a while! She was in med school in New Orleans; classes were on hold but she knew they wouldn't get much notice before they started up so she needed to be nearby, and she couldn't stay at her apartment yet because of water damage. So it was great news for me because my friend was waiting for me when I got home from school! But it was bad news for her and her brand new husband who had to live on an air mattress in my dining room for a week or so. I win!
Another unexpected "great for me, bad for someone else" thing that came out of it was that I wound up playing with several orchestras that I wouldn't have otherwise. After Katrina, a lot of members of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra in New Orleans (a really, really good orchestra) moved to different parts of the country and decided not to come back. The whole ensemble took about a seven month hiatus and resumed concerts from March to May. The people who should have gotten that gig (like my professor and a couple other professional oboists in the area) already had more gigs on their plate than they could handle, and the LPO was not going to have any luck getting someone from out of town to live in New Orleans for only a three month long season. I did just a good enough job on the first concert to be asked to come back the rest of the season, and it was an incredible opportunity.
I got another gig playing with the Gulf Coast Symphony in Biloxi, Mississippi. New Orleans was hit hard by flooding and crazy water damage, Biloxi was actually hit directly with the hurricane. It's hard to properly describe what the city looked like, and the pictures I took are long gone (they were on a disposable camera...). Banksy just debuted a display he calls, Dismayland, it's his take on a post-apocalyptic Disneyland, and I can't tell you how much it reminds me of my time in Biloxi.
The main road leading to our hotel ran along the beach, and the buildings were completely wiped out. It was just foundation after foundation with maybe a pipe or two sticking up in each. I remember recognizing a Waffle House sign not because it said Waffle House, but because it was like a "name this logo" quiz- the six black boxes on top and five black boxes on bottom were there, but the letters were completely blown out.
The hotel we stayed at was filled almost to capacity with contractors, plumbers, and electricians who'd come in from across the country and would be living in the hotel long-term while they helped rebuild the city. There was a miniature golf course that looked like it had been picked up and turned upside down, and a cemetery full of tombs that had their lids knocked off (I got out of there really fast).
The symphony hall was far enough from the storm's path to be spared. I'm pretty sure every resident who stayed in Biloxi went to that concert, and it was really emotional. The conductor thanked the audience before we started and made a really nice speech about the heart of the city and how their strength as a community would help them rebuild. If that wasn't enough to make me cry, we played Mahler.
Those are my Katrina highlights. I'm not really sure how to sum this up because it's not something you can put a little bow on and call it done. Tragedies are horrible, but they help you figure out what really matters. I guess my hope is that things like this will continue to bring us together. If you need help with something, ask, and if you can help someone, don't wait for them to ask. Soak it up when things are good, but remember that others might not be in such a great place and it doesn't take much to have a positive impact on someone else's life.