Sixteen Years Ago…

It shall be as a sign to you on your hand and as a memorial between your eyes, that the Lord’s law may be in your mouth; for with a strong hand the Lord has brought you out of Egypt.

— Exodus 13:9

The verse above is one of the many memorials in the Bible. This one marks Passover when the Angel of Death struck Egypt but spared the Hebrews. We have a lot of memorials in our lives. Today is one of those days I will never forget. Sixteen years ago, I was living in southern Mississippi. On this day in 2005, tragedy struck the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and the area in and around New Orleans, Louisiana. It was the day a devastating hurricane named Katrina hit. Nearly 2000 people died, and the numbers are still questionable because 135 people remain categorized as missing in Louisiana.

It is a day that lives vividly in my mind. At the time, I was living with a friend of mine. I had moved in with her about a year before because her husband was moving to Florida and did not want her living there alone as she finished graduate school. The rent was much more affordable than the apartment I was living in before, so I moved. What I did not know at the time was that just as I was moving my stuff, her husband decided he wanted a divorce along with moving away. After that, several other tragedies struck my friend, and she began to spiral into alcoholism. I was sort of caught up in all of it, trying to keep her from self-destructing. I was unsuccessful, and the events of this day sixteen years ago tipped her over the edge.

When I woke up on August 29, 2005, my friend decided we were going to brunch. At the time, we did not realize just how bad the hurricane brewing in the Gulf of Mexico would be. In the years I lived in the South, I lived through numerous hurricanes, and never once had I been forced to evacuate. So, we went to brunch, where she proceeded to drink way too much. I drove her home, where she subsequently passed out in her bedroom, and I began to watch the Weather Channel with greater apprehension as it became more apparent just how devastating this hurricane was expected to be. I tried to wake her but to no avail.

Finally, she woke from her drunken stupor, realized just how much jeopardy we were in, and we made the decision to evacuate. Not many people in our town were evacuating because we were about an hour from the Gulf Coast. However, it was a good thing we did. I wanted to go east into Alabama to stay with my parents, where I believed we would be safest (and I would have been correct), but she wanted to drive west to try to get out of the way of the storm. Most hurricanes do turn to the east as a matter of course once they make landfall. So, we got in my car and drove west. The first hotel we found was in Tyler, Texas, which was roughly six hours and 400 miles away. We checked into the hotel and watched the news. 

Sadly, it was Fox News because it was the only news channel on the cable system in Tyler. We watched as the levees broke in New Orleans. The major news channels mostly covered New Orleans and did not tell us much about what was going on in Mississippi. While fewer people died in Mississippi than in New Orleans, two entire towns in Mississippi, Bay St. Louis and Waveland, were destroyed. All of the other Mississippi Gulf Coast towns suffered significant damage as well. We stayed in Tyler for nearly a week before it was deemed safe to return to Mississippi.

When we reached Vicksburg, Mississippi, we ran into someone from Oak Grove, the town we lived in, and asked how things were there. We found out that it was pretty devastated. While some areas were spared significant damage, others faced major damage, and electricity, cell service, and water had still not yet been restored to major parts of Mississippi south of Interstate-20. The woman we talked to did have news of the street where we lived. She said that the house at the 90-degree curve in the street was covered in trees. We lived in that house. We prayed she was wrong, but when we arrived back at the house, we found that nearly every tree in our yard and the neighbor’s yard had fallen on our house. More than a dozen pine trees lay on top of the house, and a few the wind had picked up, and they looked like Katrina threw them into the house like a javelin. Water soaked the house, and everything was damp. 

The house was essentially unlivable. My parents drove from Alabama the next day with some of my dad’s friends, a few trailers, chainsaws, and gallons of gasoline to get my stuff out of the house. We had to cut away our way through the trees to be able to move things out. Luckily, I did not have a lot of stuff in the house. What I did have was my furniture and a lot of books and clothing. The books and clothing were largely destroyed by damp and mildew by then. The heat was unbearable. We got back home in Alabama and rented a storage room to store all my possessions. The storage facility owners refused to charge us because they knew I was a refugee from Katrina. In the next week or so, I was able to get a room in the dorms at my college, so I had a place to stay. A lot of people fled to our town. The population where I lived tripled in size overnight. At twenty-seven years old, I had little choice but to move into the dorms. I had not lived in a dorm since I’d been a sophomore in undergrad.

I largely recovered and found a new apartment for the next semester. My friend, however, continued to spiral out of control. Her drinking got worse, and she became self-destructive. She was able to repair the house and sell it, but her mental health continued to suffer greatly. She ended up moving back to Florida with her parents. I lost contact with her because she became somewhat abusive to her friends as she began drinking more and more. It was an unfortunate situation, and she could not understand that she needed help. While Katrina turned my world upside down for a few months, I was able to turn things back around and get on with my life. She was unable to do so. A few years ago, I think I saw her in the Atlanta airport as I was traveling back to Alabama from Vermont. She did not see me, and I was in a hurry to catch my plane. I was unable to ask how she was doing, but she did not look good.

I can’t help but think about the turmoil caused by Katrina for me and the thousands of others because of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina sixteen years ago. I realize this is not my usual Sunday post, but I wrote this to say that we can make it through, even though things can sometimes look bleak and insurmountable. I have had some great sadness in my life, but I have survived. I have had chronic pain, but I am surviving. No matter what we are going through, we need to remember that God is with us. God will take care of us if we just let Him.

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

One response to “Sixteen Years Ago…

  • Steve Davis

    I was serving as a pastor in north Texas when Katrina hit. Our church was an evacuation center for those on the road. At first, there were only a handful of travelers. The need grew over the next few days, as like you, we experienced the heartache of those deviated by the storm. We organized resources from around the community and region when we were notified that FEMA was sending 3 overflowing busses full of the last persons to be evacuated from the Super Dome in NO,LA. For 28.5 days, my church was the home for 213 people from New Orleans 5th Ward primarily. We housed, fed, tended to medical care, shared spiritual care and connected people with their families over time. It was the high point of my ministry. A month like none other. So much misery, and yet, so much opportunity for hope.

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