Last week I was able to travel to Mississippi and Louisiana and witness firsthand the damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina.
Though I grew up on the Alabama Gulf Coast, and visited Mississippi numerous times after Hurricane Camille struck there in 1969, I still wasn’t prepared for how widespread and intense Katrina’s destruction would be.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’ll repeat what so many others have said: it’s difficult to appreciate how complete the devastation was until you see it in person. Pictures in magazines and newspapers and reports on the television news just don’t prepare you for mile after mile of houses rendered uninhabitable by the August 29th storm and the subsequent levee breaks which sent storm waters rushing throughout the New Orleans suburbs.
I spent several days with a group from Bowdoin College in Brunswick that traveled down to work as volunteers in a free soup kitchen located in St. Bernard Parish. While there I was able to drive around and photograph some of the worst devastation in the Lower Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish.
When we entered into an area of heavy devastation (adjacent to one of the levee breaks) the first thing that caught our eyes were four houses slammed into one another. Overhead dangled traffic signals that were still inoperable nine months after the storm.
Unfortunately, things didn’t get that much better as we proceeded. Driving a few blocks to the left we saw empty lots littered with vehicles, broken wood, and mostly-unidentifible dirty-brown debris.
There was a giant tree trunk sitting on top of a car, a car on top of another car, and a sofa dangling precariously off a pick-up truck turned on its side.
A truck was rammed up against a set of concrete house steps, the only sign of the residence that one stood there. Another house had been shoved off its foundation and stuck out into the street.
As we progressed to streets where homes were still standing, I imagined this must be what a war zone looks like: gutted ruins of houses with no sign of life. A vandal with a can of spray paint apparently agreed.
Homes that were still standing were most likely stripped of all their contents, either by vandals or by their former residents eager to salvage any relics they could find of their pre-Katrina lives.
And, it was not only homes that stood vacant. At least ninety-five percent of the structures we saw appeared to still be in ruins: fast-food restaurants,entire shopping centers,churches,doctor’s offices, banks, the library, fire stations, schools, the post office, government offices. Katrina got them all.
Wherever we drove (for miles and miles) in St. Bernard Parish it was desolate, damaged and depressing.
The handful of businesses that had re-opened stood out. The Home Depot had a full parking lot. We stopped at a Walgreens drug store with a “NOW OPEN” sign, and patrons were lined up at the two cash registers. At the Murphy Oil filling station on the main drag, one of the few filling stations we noticed open, there was a car at every pump.
It’s difficult to even imagine being a resident of St. Bernard Parish today. I know that I would have given up and fled to a new home had I lived in St. Bernard Parish pre-Katrina. I would not have the heart to go back and face the struggles that are there now.
The new norm is FEMA trailer parks everywhere. On the parking lot of the Dominoe Sugar refinery, in grassy fields adjacent the main drag, flanking the pond in the public park behind the parish government center, there are rows and rows of identical white trailers.
And the FEMA trailers are not house “single-wide” trailers, but instead tiny travel trailers. Many of the trailers we saw had only one window per side. Surely, it must be like living in a tin can.
As the new hurricane season opens today, we can’t allow ourselves to forget the victims of Katrina. These people, in New Orleans and along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, have years, maybe even decades of uphill struggle ahead of them trying to rebuild some semblance of a life. They need our continued prayers and support.