A Katrina Victim’s Personal Ordeal

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Editors Note: Its been over two years since Hurricane Katrina devestated some Gulf Coast areas of New Orleans, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. Leaving thousands of poverty-stricken people and others without homes to return to. Aubrey was among those still waiting to return home, as of this report in December 2007. Here is his story, in his own words, about his experience before, during, and after the deadly storm.

Chapter One: Before Katrina

I have a story to tell about a storm that affected not only my life but everyones life forever; the storms name was Katrina.

But first let me tell you about life before the storm. I was born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana. I am 35 years old, and life was great. It was mid-August 2005 and the weather was in the upper 90s.

For the children of the city, school had just started. For everyone else it was just a normal Thursday, August 25. It was 5:00 p.m., and I was just getting home from school. While watching the news, it was reported a storm named Katrina had hit the state of Florida and it might come our way. As the week continued, people were doing one of two things: preparing for the storm or going about their daily routine, because as far as I can remember back, storms have a history of passing by us at the last minute. As the days went on, the storm grew in speed and strength. It went from a Category One storm to a Category Three in a few hours.

The weather control center reported the storm would reach Category Five by the end of the week. They also said it might be time to make a choice to stay or to leave the city.During the days before the storm, there was a huge rush to get out of the city. Those who could leave did so, using a system called contra flow to speed up traffic, but it was a mess. There was bumper to bumper traffic and slow moving cars, but in the end it all went well. Those people who had nowhere to go had to move to the Superdome.

The Saturday before the storm was a busy day. While some people boarded up their homes, others attended what we called hurricane parties at their homes or in bars. I was just coming back from a walk when the mayor said that the storm was coming and it would arrive by late Sunday or early Monday. We didn’t have transportation to get out of the city, nor a place to go if we got out.

So we just stayed in the house. My dad and I boarded up the windows and hauled our stuff to our yard. Then we went in and waited out the storm.

Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans on August 28, 2005, devastating the city with flooding and fires, and leaving thousands of low-income residents stranded. Photo from the United States Coast Guard

Chapter Two: Life during Katrina
On Sundays, normally I would be readying for church, but I knew that was not going to happen on Sunday, August 28. My mother was heading for work at the hospital. So it was just me and my father with nothing to do but to watch TV, play video games or take a nap. I did all three. When I woke up from my nap the wind was blowing, the clouds were getting dark and the rain was coming down hard.

During the night, things got worse. I don’t know what time it was but the lights went out and the transformer blew up in bright colors. Then it was pitch black. The whole city was in total darkness.

Monday, August 29, Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. The city was still without power, the water was rising and the wind was blowing so hard that the kitchen window had blown out. Water was all over the floor. There was nothing to do but to watch the wind and rain blow roofs off people’s houses. Garbage cans sailed by the window.

Then I remembered something my brother had left behind, a small portable TV. I turned to a station and saw something I could not believe: Katrina had peeled the roof of the Superdome off like an orange, and all the windows of a hotel were blown out. Then we heard reports of people looting all the stores downtown but not just in the city, in other areas’ grocery stores, clothing stores, electronic stores and other shops. Many were either looted or burned down.

The rain continued all morning long, and the water level rose to the edge of the first steps. Around one o’clock the rain stopped, but the worst was yet to come.

Chapter Three: The Aftermath of Katrina
During the afternoon hours, the weather improved. The sun was shining and the sky was clear. There wasn’t much to do but to watch the flooded streets and hope that the water would go down so we could begin the cleanup.

To my surprise, the water didn’t go down; instead, the water was slowly rising. What we didn’t know at that time was the levee, which was built to protect New Orleans from the water, had broken and the water was pouring into the city.

By late afternoon, the water had reached the top of the stairs. To protect our belongings we stacked things as high as we could, including the sofa, bed, important papers and most important of all to me, the comic books I had collected since 1984.

Then it happened, at 8 p.m. Monday: the water hit the house, it was coming in very fast. It was an ugly sight. I was so tired I decided to take a nap. I took off my shoes and went to sleep. Big mistake!

Later, as I turned around, I felt something wet across my back so I got up and found that while I was sleeping, the water had risen to my bed. I tried to find my shoes but because it was still dark and the water was so dirty I couldn’t find them. So I grabbed the first thing I saw which was a pair of sandals. That was the big mistake I told you about.

Tuesday was a new day, but man what a mess. The water was so dirty that you couldn’t see anything. You really had to watch your step.

Outside was a bigger mess. Garbage cans and ice coolers, oil-slicked insects and animals, like baby frogs, floated past me. Since the break of dawn, people were using towels or blankets to flag down helicopters.

Some people were on their roofs, but the helicopters just flew past us. It was about 11 a.m. when we got word that a boat was coming. I grabbed what I could, such as food, water, and a radio, and hoped I’d find a safe place to go.

These cars ravaged by Hurricane Katrina while parked in downtown New Orleans, remained untouched on October 12, 2005. FEMA photo by Andrea Booher

Chapter Four: Living like a Refugee
About 15 minutes later, the boat came. It was decided that I should go first while my dad stayed in the house. To this day I still don’t know why my dad couldn’t get on the boat with us. After we left my house, the boat sailed around the corner to pick up more people.

Early in the afternoon, we reached our destination, the South Jefferson Davis Parkway Overpass. It was hot.

I sought shelter under a truck. I still didn’t know where my dad was, but I soon found out from my next door neighbor that they took my dad to the Superdome.

All day it was hot. At night, it was cold and still dark.

The looting was getting worse. During the night, we saw heavy black smoke coming out of some buildings. When we looked closely, we saw that the fire was set by someone who had just finished robbing the store.

There was a lot of looting going on, not just in the city but in the suburbs as well – food, clothing, liquor and dollar stores were all looted. Shopping malls were an even bigger target. All I could do until help arrived was to survive.

Every day I walked up and down the Overpass, which was a busy intersection. Normally the Overpass offered a great view of the city. After the storm, all you could see was water, boats, and people.

At the South Jefferson Davis Parkway Overpass, I met people, not only from my neighborhood, Mid City – a very nice neighborhood quiet and centrally located – but from uptown, downtown and other locations as well.

Finding food was not a problem, with all the looting going on. Food, water, paper towels, and toilet paper were in great supply.

As far as using the bathroom, you were on your own. The worst part was that there was no help from the college just across the street. The name of the college escapes me but I know one thing, they were not very nice people. Besides me on that Overpass, there were elderly seniors, handicapped people and little children, mostly babies, baking in the heat.

In September, all that New Orleans residents wanted was a place for the elderly and others to escape the heat. But the college would not let them inside.

On top of that, there were guards outside with their guns drawn, and at night they were out shining flashlights in our faces.

Wednesday was another day of watching helicopters fly past us all day. No matter how much we yelled and waved they just passed by.

That night was one I will never forget. It was cold and dark. I was shaking in my sleep from the cold, wishing I had brought a blanket. Then I heard a loud spinning noise a helicopter was hovering over me, shining a huge spotlight right in my face. I should have put my sunglasses on, the light was so bright.

The helicopter hovered over me for five to ten minutes before flying off.

Thursday, while we sat eating and drinking and watching army trucks ride up and down the interstate. Other than that, there was nothing to do. By the looks of it, they were headed for the Superdome.

Later that afternoon, we saw what appeared to be a fleet of powerboats. First the boats picked up the college students, and then they came back for us. It seemed to me that people on the bridge should have been picked up first. Maybe they didnt because the boats were paid for by the state. But thats Louisiana politics for you.

The boat took us to the next bridge. The walk to the top of the bridge was not easy. My legs were so weak I could only take a few steps at a time. Sometimes I tripped and fell, but I finally made it up to the top. Then it started to rain. Not a downpour, but enough to get us wet.

It was a sad day. Two people passed out and had to be taken away. One even died.

Looking out from the top of the bridge I could see all the stores where I once shopped underwater.

Stories spread through the group about the damage and destruction. I heard stories about dead bodies floating around, riots at the Superdome and the Convention Center, people robbed, killed and even raped, along with tales about people having little-to-no water with no use of restrooms. Some people just took their chances outside.

Later that night, the trucks finally came. A squad of police and army men rushed out of the truck with their guns drawn telling everyone that was not with the college to get back.

We all stood back and watched them get all the college students in the truck and take off. After what seemed like hours, the truck returned for us. Getting on wasn’t easy since my legs were so weak. I couldn’t climb on the first trucks, so I got on another one. Then we rode downtown where I saw the damage first hand.

Trees were all over the roads, some were even pulled up from their roots. Windows were blown open, stores were either looted or set on fire.

Then the trucks stopped at the Convention Center where people were standing outside to get some fresh air because it was so hot and smelly inside from the lack of bathrooms.

After what seemed like a long time, the truck pulled away. Instead of dropping us off at the Convention Center, which was not a good idea, they drove us to a casino, which the police were using as a temporary headquarters.

When we arrived at the casino, we were told we could stay. However, since the casino was protected by the police, we were not allowed to walk around at night because they had orders to “shoot to kill.” We stayed at the police headquarters in the casino from that Thursday afternoon to the following Saturday morning.

Chapter Five: Gone to Texas
It was late Saturday evening when we were told the buses were coming to take everyone to the airport. I got my things together and boarded the bus. It was a long ride with nothing to do but drink water and eat food, of which there was plenty.

The food and water was given to us by the Army. Let me tell you something about those meal packs – you cannot cook those things no matter how hard you tried.

An hour or so later when we arrived at the airport, they gave us some real hot food, not the Army crap.

After eating, we waited an hour, then checked our bags and stood in line to board the plane. Since it was my first time flying, I didn’t know what to expect. But I have to admit, I wasn’t scared at all.

It was a smooth ride all the way to Texas, San Antonio to be precise. After we got off the plane, we went on another bus ride to an Army base to get cleared medically.

After walking in the dirty water, like I did, some people might have picked up a disease. They wanted to make sure everyone was OK. I was fine, so I went to pick up some basic supplies such as soap, towels, a toothbrush, toothpaste, blankets and other stuff.

Then we went on one last ride to the other side of the base where they had built a shelter for us.

I signed in, found a place to make my bed, and went to sleep.

The next day was Sunday and I got up to take a shower, something I hadn’t done in a while. On the way to the showers I ran into one of my fellow church members. We talked about what bridge he was on and about how many church members survived.

I spent the rest of my time at the base, just walking around the huge complex, eating breakfast, lunch and dinner, and volunteering in child care center.

The next day a group of volunteers from the Red Cross came to the base. Having been away from home for such a long time was starting to take its toll on me.

I just sat on my bed doing nothing when one of the volunteers came and sat right next to me.

Her name was Kalhryn Lampe and I told her my story, giving her as much information as I could so she could contact me if she found my family.

Later that week I called Kalhryn and she gave me some good news. She found my mother! Kalhyrn gave me the number to call my mom, and I did. She was still in Louisiana. My dad was in another state, Oklahoma, and my brother was coming to get me.

Later that day, my brother came and Kalhryn called her husband to give us some gas money. I said good bye to Kalhyrn and her husband, and we left.

Chapter Six: Life with Rita
When I left Texas I thought that I was going back to New Orleans. But that wasn’t the case.

Instead, we headed for Lake Charles, a city on the Southwest Side of Louisiana.

Lake Charles is a nice place to live, and I met some of my cousins and stayed in a hotel room for two and a half weeks there, until another storm system, Rita, started heading our way.

This information is all we needed to hear to know. That it was time to leave again. We grabbed what we could and got back into the truck.

I thought my brother and his family were headed back to Texas. I didn’t know where. Maybe back to San Antonio or Dallas. I took a little nap. But when I woke up, I was not in Texas. I was in Arkansas, and that is where we rode out Rita.

We stayed there for a few days then we left again. We stayed in Houston for about two weeks. Finally it was time to go home. But first we went back to Lake Charles to get someone that we had left behind.

For the first few hours, the trip was long and hard. But once we got past Baton Rouge, it was a smooth ride back.

When we got home, there was a lot of unpacking to do. I got a room at my brother’s house, which was nice. But one small problem was the bed had a plastic cover on the mattress, making it hard to sleep.

My brother’s house was on the West Bank of New Orleans, which didn’t suffer any water damage, just a lot of wind damage.

It was hard living on the other side of the city because I couldn’t do the things I was doing at home, like shopping, walking, or just having fun.

Later that month, my parents arrived and we went to check on the house. As we drove through the city it was still a mess.

The streets were empty, stores were trashed, trees fallen everywhere. It was a total wreck.

When we got home the house was a disaster; all the furniture, appliances and other stuff was gone. The only things we could recover were some clothes, shoes, toys, and most of my comic book collection.

We grabbed what we could, and headed back to my brother’s house to sort out what to wash and what to throw away.

Later I noticed an odor on my left heel. I showed it to my mother. It turned out that I must have injured it during the storm and it got infected. So the next day, I went to the hospital where they took the dead skin out.

While I was there, I found out that I had diabetes and high blood pressure, and I had to stay in the hospital for two weeks. While I was there, my mom told me that I was going to Chicago. I didn’t want to leave New Orleans but it seemed that I had no choice.

For two months, October and November, I stayed with my brother, meeting more of my cousins and packing for Chicago.

Time went by so fast. December came and it was time to go. I took one long look at my city and said to myself that I would return someday.

Maybe things would not be the same. But being home is all that matters to me.

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