My Sunday column: A little bit late.

Katrina still fresh on my mind

I was two hours west of New Orleans two years ago this week on the night Hurricane Katrina changed Louisiana — and our nation — forever.
An assistant editor for a newspaper about this size, our paper realized about a day before Katrina hit that it wasn’t going to hit us — that instead, New Orleans would take the whipping. Our focus at the paper changed from “what if it hit us?” to “what are we going to do with all of these evacuees?”
That day, we had wind gusts in Opelousas, La., that reached about 60 mph … strong, yes, but our damage was limited to a little flooding and some downed limbs (in actuality, Hurricane Rita, which came a month later, did more damage to our part of the state than Katrina).
Initial reports after Katrina swept through were that the storm wasn’t as bad as people expected. In other words, the Crescent City was still standing.
In fact, our headline that day read “City avoids doomsday scenario.”
That next day, the levees broke.
In Opelousas, we were dealing with overcrowding from evacuees. Imagine if all of the resdients of Raleigh and Durham branched out throughout the state after a mass evacuation — Sanford would be a prime resting spot for many … as were we.
We had an old Wal-Mart building that instantly became an evacuee center. We had hundreds of people volunteering their time, their money and their homes for strangers they’d just met.
Many of these strangers had just discovered they were homeless now. Many had just learned a friend or relative had died in the storm. Even more had no way of reaching their relatives, as the phone system in Louisiana was practically useless for two weeks.
My memories will always be of talking to people who just lost everything. We were doing our jobs at the newspaper … knowing these stories would help our careers. But I took no joy in doing these interviews.
My wife and I, and her family, were lucky that none of us lost a friend or loved one or our homes because of Katrina or Rita. But that’s not to say we didn’t have our breaking points.
Mine came about a week after Katrina, when they were finally able to start busing people from New Orleans to areas north, such as Dallas, Shreveport and Arkansas.
One of those greyhound buses crashed on Interstate 49 just two blocks from our newspaper office. Of course, we were the first on the scene … as we heard it happen.
I rode along with two other reporters and a photographer, and when we arrived, we saw the bus overturned, dozens of men and women writhing in pain … some with broken bones, others with blood-smeared faces.
It was there I saw my first dead body. We would later found out the fatality was a Katrina survivor who “lost it” on the busride and attacked the bus driver, causing him to lose control and flip the bus.
We talked to people at the scene who, still in shock, told us they’d lost everything in the storm, and despite that and the cuts and bruises from the bus crash … they were thankful to be alive.
I’m not an emotional guy, but I’m not a robot. It was emotional stuff, and it was at that moment the stress from that week just kind of hit me. I cried with the people as I sat next to them as they waited their turn for medical attention.
I would later get access to New Orleans, two weeks after Katrina. I saw the same downtown convention center where just days earlier, men and women begged for help from the government. I saw the glass on the streets from the shattered windows, and I saw the hole in the roof at the Superdome, a giant building if you’ve ever seen it in person … a building you’d never have guessed almost couldn’t withstand a Category 4 hurricane.
I’m not a Louisiana native, so everything I was seeing didn’t have the impact on me that it had on my wife, a born and bred South Louisiana girl who loves everything about the state and will take offense if you mock it.
She couldn’t stand to see what Louisiana had become — a state whose politicians had become the laughing stock of the nation, and a state that seemed to seek pity more than it sought to rebuild.
But, there’s a happy ending.
Flash forward to about a week before we first came to Sanford, North Carolina for a job interview. My wife and I were back in New Orleans — a city we both love — enjoying the atmosphere of Bourbon Street once again on a night when the New Orleans Saints won its first playoff game in years over the Philadelphia Eagles.
Sports may not be what life’s all about, but on that night, we saw a city and a state come alive once again.
We felt good leaving Louisiana after that night … we didn’t feel like we were betraying it by leaving. It’s a proud state, full of amazing people. I
’m proud to have lived there … and I have no doubt it will continue to rebuild and become even better.

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