Hurricane Katrina Through the Lens of Former CNN Correspondent John Zarrella

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By John Zarrella

As Hurricane Katrina sideswiped New Orleans, windows blew out in the buildings next to our hotel on Common Street. Sheets of glass fell and shattered on the street.  Reams of paper flew out from the now breached office windows. It was like watching one of those old New York City ticker-tape parades.

As a reporter it was always frustrating covering hurricanes in the moment. Your field of vision is narrow. You can only report on what is happening around you. It is after the storm has passed when you get a better sense of the larger picture.

Katrina was different. In the late morning when the wind subsided, we drove out to get a better perspective of the damage. You know how some things always stick with you?  For me, on that day it was the drive along Elysian Fields Avenue. As we headed towards Lake Pontchartrain I kept thinking, “Why is there so much water?  It hadn’t rained that much during the storm.” At least, I didn’t think it had.

As we drove closer to the lake, the water kept getting higher. We stopped. An elderly man was sitting on his porch. With the water above our knees, my camera crew and I waded over to him. I asked, “Have you ever seen the water this high before?” “Not since Hurricane Betsy,” he said. Perhaps we were standing, and didn’t know it, in the first of the flood waters. To this day I still wonder.

That night, people poured out of the hotels along Canal Street. Many were locals who rather than stay in their homes during the storm got rooms in the French Quarter. They were smiling, laughing, and raising glasses. It was festive. New Orleans had dodged the bullet again they thought.

The next morning, I woke up, looked out my hotel room window and saw water and cars parked along the sidewalk bobbing in it. We all know what happened after that.

Recently, I went back to the Gulf Coast to work on a “Ten Years Later” story. I don’t care to call it an anniversary. For me, anniversaries should be reserved for happy occasions.

But, there are a couple of stories from my trip that really highlighted the human strength to, as William Faulkner wrote, “endure and prevail.”

After Katrina, Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi was called part of the forgotten coast. So much of the media attention went to New Orleans that places like Bay Saint Louis, Biloxi and Gulfport fell out of the spotlight rather quickly even though they took Katrina’s direct hit.

That was just fine Mayor Les Fillingame told me. “We didn’t want to let anybody see us bleeding.  We didn’t want to let anybody see us wounded. We, by and large, are to the person very proud.”

More than twenty feet of water covered Bay Saint Louis. There were, the Mayor told me only fifty homes out of forty-five hundred that were not completely destroyed. Today, the city is back. While I was there, there was street festival along the rebuilt waterfront. A truck drove around delivering bags of ice to keep drinks cold. A decade ago, you need ice here just to survive.

The wounds Katrina left behind have healed. There are of course still scars, an overgrown slab of concrete where a house once stood. But driving through the city you would never know what happened here a decade ago. The mayor says, this rebirth would never have been possible without the Federal Government, FEMA, and private donations that allowed Bay Saint Louis to build back better, stronger, and more resilient.  If there is a next time, Fillingame says they are far better prepared.

Last year, the city’s new marina opened. It was, Mayor Fillingame says, the “final piece” to the resurrection of Bay St. Louis. “We had a big grand opening and basically right then we kind of declared an end to the war. We declared an end to the war of Katrina and it had been fought in literally thousands of battles. Every individual home had their own battles. It was a battleground of its own. The city was a battleground.”

And now, the mayor told me, Katrina is in their rear view mirror. “Most people in Bay Saint Louis want it there and most people don’t like telling the story of Katrina. It was a bad chapter.”

Jesse Shaffer lived through not one but two bad chapters. Shaffer and his family lived outside New Orleans. When Katrina hit, ten feet of water flooded their neighborhood.  He and his neighbors rebuilt. “You live here and you don’t want to move away. You lose all your friends,” Shaffer said.

And not far from them, almost in their shadow, a massive concrete and steel flood wall was constructed to keep the water out in case it happened again.

Problem was, the Shaffer’s neighborhood was just outside the wall. And seven years to the day after Katrina, it did happen again. Hurricane Isaac. The old clock on the mantle stopped at five minutes to three in the morning when the water rose above it. This time, it wasn’t ten feet of water. It was fourteen feet. But unlike Katrina, the people here didn’t evacuate for Isaac. “It wouldn’t be, couldn’t be as bad,” they thought.

That night and part of the next day, Jesse Shaffer and his son saved lives. “A friend of mine had a boat on the other side of the wall and we launched it and we just started trying to get as many people out as we could.” “So how many people did you rescue?” I asked. “Between me and my son one hundred and twenty people. Two guys were floating on a spare tire.”

The Shaffer’s don’t live here anymore. Virtually no one else does either. Of the seventy-five or so homes in the neighborhood Shaffer says only one is being lived in.

What you see now along the Gulf Coast is a testament to the human spirit, a testament to our ability to endure and prevail. Communities were rebuilt. Lives were saved. A decade after the Katrina nightmare, the page has turned. But, make no mistake, the book is not yet closed. Everyone will tell you there is still much work to be done. Some of the hardest hit areas of New Orleans are far from healed, but there is progress. And for the people of Mississippi and Louisiana, they are starting to believe the storm has finally passed.

Ten Post-Flood Tips from the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes

The Federal Alliance for Safe Homes, Inc. (FLASH)® offers the following cleanup, insurance, and safety tips for families preparing to return to flooded homes.

  1. Stay tuned to local news organizations for important announcements, bulletins, and instructions.
  2. You may not have immediate access to your home. Roads could be blocked, power lines could be down, and people may be trapped or in need of assistance.
  3. Make sure you have current identification. You may have to pass through identification checkpoints before being allowed access to your home/neighborhood.
  4. Do not attempt to drive through floodwaters. Remember the slogan, Turn Around, Don’t Drown® as there could be unseen dangers such as downed power lines, debris, or washed out roadways.
  5. Outside
    • Check for building stability before entry – sticking doors at the top may indicate a ceiling at risk of collapse.
    • Check foundation for any loose or missing blocks, bricks, stones or mortar.
  1. Inside
    • Assess stability of plaster and drywall – any bulging or swelling ceilings indicate damage that should be removed. Press upward on drywall ceilings. If nail heads appear, drywall will need to be re-nailed but can be saved.
    • To prevent warping of wooden doors, remove and disinfect all knobs and hardware, and lay flat and allow to air dry completely.
    • Remove wet drywall and insulation well above the high water mark.
  1. Take extensive photos and video for insurance claims. Only flood insurance typically covers damage from floods.
  2. Remove damaged items from the home. If you need evidence of damage, save swatches (carpet, curtains, etc.) for your insurance adjuster, and learn more about insurance from the newly-updated insurance guide, If Disaster Strikes Will You Be Covered?
  3. Consider having licensed, bonded professionals inspect your home for damage and help in repairs.
  4. Clean-Up
    • Wash and disinfect all surfaces, including cupboard interiors with a solution of 1/2 cup bleach to 2 gallons of water. Remove sliding doors and windows before cleaning and disinfect the sliders and the tracks.
    • Clean and disinfect air conditioning, heating, and ventilation ducts before use to avoid spread of airborne germs and mold spores.
    • Use fans and allow in sunlight to dry out interior spaces.
    • To avoid growth of microorganisms, household items should be dried completely before they are brought back in the house.
    • Remove wallpaper and coverings that came into contact with floodwaters. Don’t repaint or repair until drying is complete and humidity levels in the home have dropped.
    • The National Archives Websitehas information on how to clean up your family treasures. Although it may be difficult to throw certain items away, especially those with sentimental value, experts recommend that if you can’t clean it, you should dispose of it, especially if it has come into contact with water that may contain sewage.

For more information on protecting your home from flooding, visit www.flash.org, or FEMA at www.ready.gov.

Top Heat Wave Safety Tips from FLASH

With temperatures rising, the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes (FLASH)® provides the following tips for before and during extreme heat, and how to identify heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

Extreme heat is a fatal weather risk in the United States, and everyone is at risk, especially the elderly, very young, and those who work outdoors.

Before the Heat Wave:

  1. Install window air conditioners snugly; insulate if necessary.
  2. Check air-conditioning ducts for proper insulation.
  3. Install temporary window reflectors (for use between windows and drapes), such as aluminum foil-covered cardboard, to reflect heat back outside.
  4. Weather-strip doors and sills to keep cool air in.
  5. Cover windows that receive morning or afternoon sun with drapes, shades, awnings, or louvers. Outdoor awnings or louvers can reduce the heat that enters a home by up to 80 percent.
  6. Listen to local weather forecasts and stay aware of upcoming temperature changes, keep your NOAA weather radio or FLASH Weather Alerts App handy.

When Temperatures Soar:

  1. The coolest part of the day is normally sunrise, so plan any necessary strenuous activity for the morning.
  2. Stay indoors as much as possible. If air conditioning is not available, stay on the lowest floor, out of the sunshine.
  3. Drink plenty of water even if you don’t feel thirsty as water is most hydrating liquid to drink during a heat wave.
  4. Avoid alcohol and caffeine as they can intensify the negative effect on your body.
  5. Wear lightweight, light-colored clothing to reflect some of the sun’s energy.
  6. Never leave children, elderly, or pets in the car even with the windows down. Although the outside air temperatures may seem comfortable, temperatures inside a vehicle can rise 40 to 50 degrees and swiftly create deadly, oven-like conditions.

Signs of Heat Exhaustion:

  1. Cool, flushed, moist, or pale skin
  2. Heavy sweating and high body temperature
  3. Headache
  4. Nausea
  5. Vomiting
  6. Dizziness

Signs of Heat Stroke:

  1. Hot, red skin
  2. Changes in consciousness
  3. A rapid, weak pulse
  4. Rapid, shallow breathing
  5. A very high body temperature – even as high as 105 degrees F.
  6. If the person was sweating from heavy work or exercise, skin may be wet; otherwise, it will feel dry

For more information on heat safety, visit www.flash.org or view extreme heat safety information from FEMA at ready.gov.

About FLASH

Federal Alliance for Safe Homes (FLASH), a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, is the country’s leading consumer advocate for strengthening homes and safeguarding families from natural and man-made disasters. FLASH collaborates with more than 120 innovative and diverse partners that share its vision of making America a more disasterresilient nation including: BASF, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Florida Division of Emergency Management, The Home Depot®, International Code Council, Kohler® Generators, National Weather Service, Portland Cement Association, Simpson Strong-Tie®, State Farm™, and USAA®. In 2008, FLASH® and Disney opened the interactive weather experience StormStruck: A Tale of Two Homes® in Lake Buena Vista, FL. Learn more about FLASH and gain access to its free consumer resources by visiting www.flash.org or calling (877) 221- SAFE (7233). Also, get timely safety tips to ensure that you and your family are protected from natural and manmade disasters by subscribing to the FLASH blog – Protect Your Home in a FLASH, and following the FLASH Twitter and Facebook accounts.

Wildfire Safety and Home Protection Reminders

As the threat of wildfire continues, The Federal Alliance for Safe Homes (FLASH)® is providing families with critical actions to take before, during, and after wildfires.

Before

  • Create your disaster safety kit to prepare for possible evacuation
  • Know your family’s fire disaster plan
  • Know what is covered in your insurance policy, and what additional coverage you may need
  • Check landscape for fuels that could lead flames to your home or that can become ignited, and take time to create a fire-resistant landscape
  • Clean your gutters, eaves, and roof regularly
  • Install spark arrestors in all chimneys
  • Install metal screening that blocks embers from entering your buildings
  • Identify an emergency water supply within 1,000 feet of your home

During

If under a wildfire threat,

  • Heed the warnings of local officials regarding when to evacuate
  • Only remove dead leaves or vegetation when local garbage collection services will have time to pick up the debris
  • Burn vegetation only while following local requirements to do so

After

When returning to your home after a wildfire, keep the following in mind:

  • Only return when local officials permit you to do so, the area may still be under the threat of wildfire
  • Contact your insurance company regarding any possible damage, and take pictures of any and all damage

Last House Standing™ … Edu-tainment, App-style

Jay Hamburg, FLASH Consumer Writer

Many of us know that where and how we build is a critical factor to surviving disasters, and now the new, fun, and free app from FLASH is spreading that message to players of all ages.

FLASH designed the engaging and informative Last House Standing (LHS) game with inspiration from research such as FEMA’s Preparedness in America report on public preparedness and perceptions. The report showed that 58% of 18 to 34-year-olds surveyed failed to recognize disaster safety as a priority. Survey respondents said they needed information, but did not know “where to begin” to become protected and resilient in the face of natural disasters.

Last House Standing solves that problem with a fun, fast-paced game. Each player starts with a budget of $100,000 and has three minutes to choose from many building parts and design pieces to create the best blend of great style and disaster resistance. After building your home, the game tests your design against hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires and more.

“Our goal is to introduce players to the idea that their choices help determine their level of disaster resilience,” said FLASH President and CEO, Leslie Chapman-Henderson. “The app does this by wrapping serious options about whether to build using a code or other strengthening features like metal connectors inside dozens of fantasy options from space domes to yurts. With only three minutes and a $100,000, players have to think fast to survive the disasters, but they learn that it can be done.”

Players also choose the locale of their home, which means they need to be aware of which natural disasters are most likely to affect the area. FLASH worked with many partners and volunteers to create a game that’s inviting, exciting, and provides easy-to-understand lessons about the importance of design and location in creating a safe, resilient home.

“With more than one hundred feature choices and millions of potential outcomes, the game will keep every audience engaged,” said former Walt Disney Imagineer and FLASH Board Member, Joe Tankersley. “In today’s crowded app world, serious games have to be informative and fun. FLASH has accomplished this with Last House Standing.”

Last House Standing is available for free on both iPhone and iPad here, and in Google Play here. LHS requires iOS 7.0 or later, and is compatible with iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch. While the app is optimized for iPad 4 and later, iPhone 5, iPhone 6, and iPhone 6 Plus, it will operate on older models.

The Only Thing Worse Than No Tornado Safe Room is an Improperly Installed Tornado Safe Room

Jay Hamburg, FLASH Consumer Writer

The deadly outbreak of tornadoes in Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, and across the central United States serves as a stark reminder of the lifesaving value that safe rooms can provide. At the same time, some tragic cases remind us that safe rooms can only protect you and your loved ones if they are properly installed.

Reports that heavy rainfalls caused some underground tornado safe rooms to pop up out of the ground serve as warnings that even a heavy, sturdy, underground tornado safe room can be dislodged by unexpected water flow during a tornado when installed the wrong way.

And, regardless of installation quality, you should never enter an underground tornado safe room if flooding is expected as water flow could cover air vents, or drowning could occur.

“If you have an underground tornado safe room, proper stabilizing and anchoring is very straightforward,” said FLASH SVP Tim Smail. “We recommend using a National Storm Shelter Association Installer Member or ensure your installer follows the ICC/NSSA-500 standard or FEMA P-361 guidelines.”

There are also many affordable options for prefabricated and site-built tornado safe rooms. Prefabricated safe rooms are those that are assembled off-site and transported to the site where they will be installed. A site-built safe room is assembled and installed on-site. Regardless of which type of safe room you choose, be sure to discuss the following with your safe room installation contractor:

  1. Is your home located in a floodplain? If so, keep in mind FEMA P-361 does not allow safe rooms to be installed in high-risk flood hazard areas.
  2. Does your property have the proper access for equipment needed for installation? Installation could involve a large crane or flatbed truck.
  3. Are there easements on your property that would limit where a safe room could be installed?
  4. Have you checked with your neighborhood association to see what design or structural guidelines must be followed? Many associations have rules regarding outdoor structures and their placement.

Most types of tornado safe rooms can be installed and completed in a day, with the average cost for an 8-by-8 foot room ranging from $8,000 to $9,500. Each offers different advantages, but when built and installed properly, all provide the best available life safety and property protection against tornadoes. And it is essential that we point out the need to use a tested door.

The myth that there is nothing you can do to protect against a tornado is false. We want consumers to know that they can survive if they choose smart. Our new video series, Which Tornado Safe Room is Right for You, will help them get started.

FLASH and Partners Answer Questions About Natural Disaster Insurance and Home Preparation with Updated Publication

Nonprofit Federal Alliance for Safe Homes (FLASH)® today released an updated version of their most popular publication, If Disaster Strikes Will You Be Covered? A Homeowner’s Insurance Guide to Natural Disasters.

Updated in time for the June 1 start of hurricane season, FLASH and The Actuarial Foundation are offering the free, comprehensive consumer guide online as well as, on a limited basis, in print in English and Spanish with topics covering earthquake, flood, hail, hurricane, lightning, power outage, tornado, wildfire, and winter freeze. The Guide addresses how to stay safe, save money, and protect homes with answers to top consumer questions, including:

  1. What disasters are covered in my insurance policy?
  2. How can I lower premiums?
  3. What steps should I take to prevent damage to my home?

With single year views of up to 500,000, the Guide is in demand by homeowners and renters alike. “For more than 16 years, we have provided information to consumers before, during, and after natural catastrophes,” said FLASH President and CEO, Leslie Chapman-Henderson. “We are honored to collaborate with The Actuarial Foundation to make a new version of this information-rich publication possible once again.”

“The Actuarial Foundation is proud to partner with FLASH in updating the well-known If Disaster Strikes Will You Be Covered? A Homeowners’ Insurance Guide to Natural Disasters,” said Actuarial Foundation Executive Director, Eileen Streu. “The Guide is a reliable resource and remains one of the most popular publications for FLASH partners and consumers visiting the Foundation’s website.”

Visit Homeowner’s Insurance Guide to download and share the Guide or email info@flash.org for more information.