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.