The Big One

On the morning of Monday August 29, 2005, I glanced at the front page of “The Town Talk,” the daily newspaper published in Alexandria, Louisiana. We had been lucky to find a room at a bed and breakfast in the Avoyelles Parish town of Mansura to which we had fled the night before. Referring to New Orleans, the headline justified our hurried escape:

THIS IS THE BIG ONE

Experts expect storm to turn New Orleans into Atlantis

For years there had been predictions from scientists that if a future hurricane would hit the city from an exact direction, roughly heading up the path of the river, at a certain intensity, Category 5, the consequences would be deadly for the city as levees broke and flood waters poured onto the land. New Orleans, a town developed below sea level, would, in effect, drown.

Storms had targeted the city before, but there has always been the prayed-for last minute turn or weakened wind that lessened the ravage. But one day, we were warned there will be “The Big One.”

According to the accompanying Associate Press story, “when Katrina hits New Orleans today, it could turn one of America’s most charming cities into a vast cesspool tainted with toxic chemicals, human waste and even coffins released by floodwaters from the city’s legendary cemeteries.”

And then, as the AP quoted various experts, the news got even worse:

  • “By Tuesday vast swaths of New Orleans would be under water up to 30 feet deep.”
  • In the French Quarter, the water could reach 20 feet easily submerging the district’s iconic cast-iron balconies and bars.”
  • Sixty to 80 percent of the city’s houses will be destroyed by wind. Most of the people who live in and around New Orleans could be homeless.”

Ivor van Heeded, deputy director of LSU’s Hurricane Center added, “We’re talking in essence of having a refugee camp of a million people.”

That Sunday morning before we left New Orleans, a friend, living alone, called and lamented that she wished someone could tell her what to do. She eventually decided to head to Chicago where she had friends.

By late afternoon that Monday television coverage fed statewide from New Orleans stations was providing a dash of hope. There were winds and many knocked down tress, but not as bad as expected. The worst singular incident was the century old Southern Yacht Club, which was blistering in a ravaging fire. Overall, though, it looked like we could be returning home by Wednesday.

And then came the news that would change our lives and the hopes for the city. The levees had broken. The city was being overcome by rushing water. No one was going home anytime soon.

A couple of days later we were watching coverage of the devastation from the B&B’s kitchen. Two sisters from the River Parishes, each around 40, looked forlornly at the depressing scene. They had a verbal exchange which will always be stamped into my Katrina memories, “Every time I look at those scenes” one said of the coverage, “I want to cry.” “Me too,” the sibling replied, “but I am afraid if I start, I will never stop.”

I could have added my own “me too” to that conversation.

In the end Katrina, because of the broken levees was plenty bad, though not as devastating, as speculated. It was the “Almost Big One” but not THE Big One which could be in our future, though we will face it with better flood protection and better built housing.

We were not back in our home until April, and there was lots of fixing that needed to be done. One sign of the neighborhood returning to life was restaurants re-opening. No offices for attorneys, doctors, or accountants caused more buzz than an illuminated OPEN sign outside a cafe.

Oh, and the friend who called wishing someone could tell her what to do: While in Chicago she met a guy, fell in love, got married and had a child. I wish I had been the one to have given her that advice.

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