Ten years ago Hurricane Katrina made land fall and was on a collision course for The Big Easy, New Orleans. Millions of people were rushing to I-10 to find a way out of the area. Thousands were holding firm and about to get a rude awakening as Lake Pontchartrain would no longer be held back by its levees.
The date was August 29th and I found myself on I-10 as the only civilian vehicle participating in a caravan of Red Cross vans, Power Company repair trucks and tree trimming companies heading in to Louisiana as millions were trying to get out. Basically, anyone who could make a buck off of the impending disaster was heading east from Houston and everyone else was heading west. I had no idea what a life changing event I was driving towards. Experiencing the aftermath and the human stories of Katrina changed the way I looked at our society, our government, charity and those receiving it.
Reality sinks in:
About 2.5 hours in to the 4 hour drive from Houston to Baton Rouge, I realized that I was literally the only non-emergency service provider headed east. It was a very surreal moment. One that made me question what I actually did for a living at the time. I provided fully furnished corporate apartments for business travelers and families relocating, at least most of the time. However natural disasters, hurricanes in particular, create a unique area of opportunity for that segment of business. My goal was to get as close to New Orleans as possible, rent as many apartments as possible and somehow figure out who will be staying there (that is usually the easy part actually).
Once I got within 30 miles of Baton Rouge, things began to change dramatically. Trees were down everywhere. Nothing had power. The radio signal from the local stations was intermittent. Cars were on the side of the road where they decided to either wait the storm out or ran out of gas depending on the situation. Parking lots of gas stations were full with families who had no other place to “camp” for the night. I was heading into a refugee camp.
The first 48 hours:
Like everyone in Baton Rouge those first few hours, I think I was in shock, I was in “Get it Done” mode for the first 48 hours. It was a whirlwind of driving from apartment community to apartment community looking for available units. All phones were down during that time, no one had power and the internet was not nearly what it is today which meant that if you wanted to rent an apartment, you had better be at their office door…..with a check. I managed to do my job well and secured about 200 apartments across Baton Rouge. I never even made it close to NOLA as the highways were closed by LA State Troopers just south of the city. Troopers who did not take very kindly to me wanted to drive around their barriers via side streets to “go rent apartments”.
I was fortunate that I had gone in prepared for what I thought would be the ‘worst’. Those first few days I lived off of peanut butter sandwiches, granola bars, apples and bottled water that I had brought in with me. The back of the Explorer was packed like I was heading in for a camping trip…because I basically was. I “slept” in the back of my car as there was not a room to be had. Truth be told, the families displaced from Katrina needed the space more than I did anyways.
It was during this time that I learned what texting was and how to do it. You could not have any type of a phone conversation but if your phone got a signal for 30-seconds, text messages would arrive and send. They became my lifeline to the outside world.
“First responders” arrive:
I spent the first night that week in sleeping in the back of my Ford Explorer. The next few nights were on the floor of a vacant apartment that I had rented that fortunately for me, had power and air conditioning. By the time Friday (day 6) rolled around, I had finally secured a hotel room in Baton Rouge. It was here that my most frustrating local moment occurred. As I was checking in to the Sheraton, the first bus of FEMA “First Responders” was rolling up to check in as well. I was furious. It literally took everything in me not to tee off on these folks. I had managed to get here nearly a week earlier than these “first responders”, families were going hungry, McDonald’s had managed to restock their stores (at one point, they literally could only make hamburgers as they were out of everything else, including fries) but our government’s first response was just arriving after 5 full days?
Let’s start with the good I saw during this tragedy. On two different occasions I saw displaced families being adopted while shopping at a WalMart. Families who were literally trying to figure out how they were going to prepare the little food they could acquire being told by the family in front of them that they would not have to sleep in their car that night. That they would be the guests of the random family they had never met but now would call them host. It was by far the best thing I saw through this tragedy, the not so random acts of kindness between families who were sharing an experience of sheer devastation. It was His love in action and it was beautiful.
At the time of Katrina my boys were 5 & 3 and both playing baseball. I was the head coach for both teams and I knew I had to somehow make this a bit more real for these kids and their families. My employer at the time was offering to double any donation we made to the American Red Cross. For one Saturday, our boys and their families manned a lemonade stand at the ball fields to raise money for the ARC. For one Saturday of hard work and sweat, those your 3 & 5 year old boys raised over $2,000 for the hurricane relief. I hope they still remember that they can and do make a difference.
I saw looting of stores. I saw young children crying, just wanting to get out of the heat of the Louisiana summer. I heard neighbor screaming at neighbor over their position in line waiting for gasoline. I was called all the names you can imagine when some folks found out I was renting blocks of apartments for “companies” to use but the most disheartening was the same night I saw the first responders roll in. After 6 long days, I decided to blow off a bit of steam by heading down to the casino. As I walked in, I saw a woman who had just gotten her FEMA relief check cashing it at the casino cage and heading to gamble. I have no idea if she won or lost but I could not stick around after that.
Surprisingly, the hardest circumstance for me to deal with through this process was returning back to Dallas after a week of being immersed in the devastation of Katrina. I was literally angry at those who could just go about their day. I remember my church put together a food/water/clothing/cash drive to help the refugees who had displaced to DFW. As I served in the donation line I got more and more disheartened with every fresh faced soccer mom who did not have the time to even get off the cell phone as we unloaded the token case of water from the back of her suburban. I know now that this was a me thing and the folks who did give should be honored and treasured. They did not have to do anything (and several didn’t) but at the time it felt like so little. Much like what I can only imagine a war veteran experiences, I felt like I needed to go back and do more.
After that first week of chaos, I spent a great deal more time in Baton Rouge as we hosted over 100 families displaced from the ExxonMobil refinery in St. George’s parish as well as over 70 FEMA employees brought into the area to oversee the long term recovery efforts. It is from these folks that I saw the real heart of the people of Louisiana. Say what you want about the “evil oil companies” but I have personally witnessed the incredible way ExxonMobil took care of their folks and to this day still go out of my way to buy my gas from them. Housing their families that were displaced, bussing the employees to and from the plant since most had lost their vehicles as well as their homes, basically setting up an entire city so the families could handle the business of getting their lives back together – ExxonMobil went above and beyond what I witnessed from any other company.
My absolute favorite memory of the entire 2+ years I spent housing folks displaced from Katrina occurred about 2 weeks after the storm had moved through. Getting items in to Baton Rouge was a challenge so we were furnishing the apartments for ExxonMobil families as we could. As items were delivered to us, we would get them dispersed to the apartments. Every day we would get another item and every day, there were men and women who would join us in delivering night stands, lamps, kitchen ware, whatever to everyone’s apartment.
Understand, we were paid to deliver these items but the wanted to help and to stand on their own again.
I remember it was a Wednesday morning when a very special truck pulled in. Those of us who were organizing things knew what was on the truck but did not think twice about it. It pulled in like any other and we swung open the doors to the audience we normally had……all the kids who had been displaced. When they saw what was inside they erupted in joy, singing and dancing. The TV’s had arrived. In a weird way, that was when I knew they were going to be OK. Things would eventually get back to a new normal. The TV’s had arrived, and life was good.