As Louisiana begins the massive cleanup following Hurricane Laura, those of us living on the Gulf Coast remember the fear and concern that enveloped our region 15 years ago this week. A lady named Katrina changed many of our lives. In looking back, many Louisianans felt that maybe New Orleans really was a city that care forgot, and the whole Gulf Coast was thrown in for good measure. This human tragedy has haunted the Bayou State over the past decade as even today the rebuilding effort continues.
Two days before Katrina attacked, I was hosting a local radio program in Baton Rouge and was interviewing a key official with the National Hurricane Center in Miami. “Katrina has turned in a much more northerly direction, with a beeline for New Orleans. We are saying a possible Hurricane 4, and you folks are going to have some big problems up there.”
I was stunned. “What? We’ve had no warning of this. You’re telling me it’s going to come right towards New Orleans?” At dinner with friends that evening, no one was aware of the impending storm. Now major storms often head our way, but veer east towards the Florida coast, or west to Mexico. Our group was cautiously optimistic.
The next morning, with Katrina only a day away, I called my sister, living at the southern tip of Louisiana in Port Sulfur. I offered to come get her family, but she told me the single road north was completely congested and it was best for her to spend the hours evacuating. New Orleans has only four roads that lead out of the city, and they too were ensnarled in massive traffic jams as the locals fled for safety.
But as thousands who had transportation escaped, there was virtually no evacuation plan in place and no mandatory exodus. When asked repeatedly by the press, the Mayor of New Orleans issued a statement saying: “He’s having his legal staff look into whether he can order a mandatory evacuation of the city.” The storm was now only hours away, yet no public effort was undertaken on either the city or state level to supply public transportation for the thousands who had no way out.
That evening, a steady stream of New Orleans’ area evacuees called or knocked on our door in Baton Rouge looking for a place to ride out the storm. Twenty-five people slept on floor pallets and sleeping bags at my home that night. The number would grow in days ahead.
Miraculously, the storm passed on a Sunday night, and did little damage to the Crescent City. By the next morning our New Orleans family and guests were packing up to head back home. Then the chilling news came in a phone call from a friend who had ridden out the storm. The levees had broken and the city was flooding.
The real tragedies took place in the days that followed. Thousands were stranded on rooftops and in attics. When private boat owners headed into New Orleans and surrounding areas to help, they were often told by state and federal law enforcement officers that it was illegal to bring their personal boats into the disaster area. I was told that very thing when I tried to make it by boat to my in-law’s house on Bayou St. John. Hundreds of boat owners, labeled the Cajun Navy, ignored the ludicrous orders and charged in to save thousands of stranded homeowners.
For a week the Governor and the President squabbled over who had the authority to oversee the Louisiana National Guard. It was a ridiculous turf battle that delayed the rescue efforts by several more days. It took an Army general from New Roads, Louisiana (Russell Honore’) to take charge and bring some order to the devastated area.
There has been much second-guessing and lessons learned in a hard way. Many books have been written about the Katrina experience. The Gulf Coast has been rebuilt, with new development and upgraded construction. But levees can only be built so high, and water pumps can only be built so big. Other storms will come as we have seen this week. Louisiana was drastically unprepared for the coming of Katrina. Hopefully, lessons were learned as the state begins another disaster cleanup.
Peace and Justice
Jim Brown’s syndicated column appears each week in numerous newspapers throughout the nation and on websites worldwide. You can read all his past columns and see continuing updates at http://www.jimbrownusa.com.