Healing: Cristina’s Hurricane Katrina Story

On Friday, August 26, 2005, I was working out at the gym with my best friend Beth. We made plans to see The 40 Year Old Virgin at the movies the next day and I went back to the apartment that I was planning to move out of during Labor Day. I was living on Lake Ave in Metairie in Jefferson Parish, along the 17th Street Canal. I had already checked out the new apartment and was just waiting for the apartment to be ready. I went to bed in the guest bedroom, hopeful for the future, the word hurricane not even on my mind. When I awoke the next morning, I got dressed and washed some clothes. A few minutes later, Beth called and asked what I planned on doing. She was getting gas, the lines were long, and they were running out. That hurricane I was not thinking about, Hurricane Katrina, that was supposed to be landing somewhere in Florida, had turned, and was now headed straight to New Orleans. I immediately drove to the gas station and as I was filling up my tank, my cousin Lori called me. Her, her son, and my Nannie were leaving to go to Panama City Beach where my immediate family lives. I needed to be at my Nannie’s house by 2pm to go with them. It wasn’t really a question as much as an order. It was then that it dawned on me…this wasn’t just some normal hurricane. This one was going to be different. Even though my life was going through some major changes as it was – brand new teacher, bad break-up, finding out my dad had a terminal illness – I, along with the rest of the people in and around New Orleans, were in for one more big one.

Hurricane Katrina

The waves caused the day before Hurricane Katrina in Panama City Beach. Check out how high those waves are reaching up the pier.

As I was desperately trying to throw clothes, photos, and mementos into my car, I wondered just how bad could the hurricane be. I had lived around New Orleans almost my whole life and had been through all sorts of different strength hurricanes. Surely this would be nothing more than a lot of wind, rain, and some power outages for a few days. When I got to Mandeville, we decided to put my car under my Nannie’s carport and put her van behind me in the driveway and take my cousin’s car. I brought a suitcase full of essentials and off we went. The new school year had already started, but luckily, my school’s parish (county) had issued a mandatory evacuation, so I knew that school would be cancelled and I wouldn’t miss any work. The drive there was surprisingly easy. There really weren’t too many extra cars on the road on Saturday. When we arrived in PCB, we had a nice little reunion with my mom, dad, sisters, grandparents, uncle, aunt, and cousins.

Hurricane Katrina

Playing cards with the family to alleviate worry during Hurricane Katrina. I’m sitting next to my dad. These next two weeks would be the some of the last days I would see him alive.

The next day, Sunday, we were glued to the television. Predictions, spaghetti models, video clips – you name it, we were fascinated by it. We all tried to act pretty normal, playing cards and just hanging out. We celebrated my uncle’s birthday on Monday, the same day the hurricane actually hit. We went to the beach where the waves were HUGE, which is very uncommon for PCB.  The wind flung the sand so hard against our legs, they felt like hundreds of little bee stings. And by Monday, the shoreline was gone. The waves had reached the base of most of the buildings. My uncle’s friend had been trying to get out of the city for around 10 hours and was only in Mississippi. People were stranded, running out of gas, or not able to move in the cluster of cars. Both sides of the interstate were open and people still couldn’t move out quick enough. Not to mention to ones that couldn’t leave or wouldn’t leave. My cousin’s fiancé was stuck there for work reasons, as were thousands of poor people that simply didn’t have the means to leave. The Superdome was being opened as a refuge of last resort. The last we saw, it was a Category 5 and the eye would hit New Orleans early Monday morning.

Hurricane Katrina

Standing in front of the crazy waves the day before Hurricane Katrina.

Hurricane Katrina

My aunt’s sister, my mom, and my aunt awed by the waves from Hurricane Katrina.

Luckily, if you can call it luck, the storm downgraded to a Category 3 by the time it made landfall. Not only that, but the storm slightly turned right, causing the eye to make landfall over Bay St. Louis, MS. As we watched the news with increasing horror on Monday, we saw places that we knew and loved completely decimated. We watched as the Grand Casino in Gulfport was blown apart. We saw the Esplanade Mall in Kenner look like a tornado ripped through it. And we cried as we watched the levees breach and break and flood various parts of the city. Around midday, my heart stopped as the news reported that the 17th Street Canal breached and broke and water was flooding into the neighborhood. I remember screaming at the television, “Which side? Jefferson or Orleans? Is my apartment flooded?” I could barely think straight and felt sick to my stomach. Eventually, we realized it was the Orleans Parish side, not the Jefferson Parish side, meaning that Lakeview was completely underwater. As I cried for those people that I knew had just lost everything, I couldn’t help but wonder if my side of the levee held up or if I too was now homeless.

We spent around two weeks in PCB. Eventually, we just became numb to the news about Katrina. With so many things you knew and loved gone, with so much death and destruction, it was hard to do anything but try and shut it out for a while, otherwise you’d go crazy. Everyone that we encountered in PCB was incredibly nice and helpful. There were cookouts, immense sales, donations, and so much more for the “evacuees,” as we were now apparently called. When Mandeville settled down enough, we fearfully said goodbye to my family and drove home. Or, what was left of it.

Hurricane Katrina

My cousin at a BBQ on the beach put on for us “evacuees.”

Hurricane Katrina

We painted the car with messages as we traveled back to Louisiana. We saw road signs along the way with words completely ripped off.

The things we saw on the drive back were surreal. It’s one thing to see the mass chaos the storm left behind on television, but it’s quite another to see it in person. Litter and debris were scattered everywhere. Boats were in trees. Signs were torn in two. As we got closer to Bay St. Louis, it got worse. You could see the water line on the trees along the interstate halfway up the tree. And some places were simply gone. Vanished. Nothing but a slab of concrete where three weeks ago a building had stood. As we carefully pulled onto my Nannie’s street, I realized that I wouldn’t be making it to work the next day. A tree had fallen across my Nannie’s van in the driveway and since she was parked behind me, I was stuck until crews could come and cut the tree away.

Hurricane Katrina

The trees on top of my Nannie’s car. My car is in front of it, under the carport.

Hurricane Katrina

Trees were everywhere. On houses, on cars, on the road…

Hurricane Katrina

It was unbelievable how strong the wind must’ve been to uproot trees like this.

I made it back a few days later, staying with a friend, since Jefferson Parish was still under restriction. Finally, a week later, I got into the ghost town that was Metairie. Nearly a month had gone by since I had seen my apartment and I was terrified. What would I find? Miraculously, my apartment was relatively unscathed. Some apartments on Lake Ave were not so lucky, but mine was built on slightly higher ground. Practically the only people I ran into were national guardsmen in trucks and tanks and volunteers. Nothing was open. It was beyond eerie, like being in a war torn country. And in a way, we were the victims of a war. A war unleashed by Mother Nature that destroyed so many livelihoods and lives. I had no idea where my ex was, and I kept trying to call the apartment place I had set up to rent over Labor Day (which, of course, had come and gone). No answer. I tried other places. Either no answer or no one was now renting. Too many displaced people. I had stayed in the apartment for a few nights when my ex called to say that his parents’ house had water in it and that they wanted to live in our apartment, so since my name wasn’t on the lease, could I please leave. I was shocked. I asked where was I supposed to go? I had no family on this side of Lake Ponchartrain, and my cousin and Nannie lived an hour away from my work. He told me that wasn’t his concern anymore, but that I could leave my things in the apartment until I found somewhere. So just like that, I was homeless.

Hurricane Katrina

Some houses we saw were completely gone. All that was left was the steps and the foundation.

Hurricane Katrina

Some houses simply had a tree crash through it, crushing them.

It took me two months from that time to find an apartment. I lived out of my car for two months. Clothes, toiletries, photographs, and other mementos filled my car to the brim. I woke up in the morning not knowing where I would put my head down to rest that night. Some nights I stayed with my best friend and her mom, some nights I stayed with random co-workers, and some nights I made the hour drive to Mandeville to stay with my cousin or Nannie. I was the assistant director of our school’s dance team, and had practice four days a week and late games on Friday night. It made me feel so pathetic to have to ask my co-director to sleep on her or her sister’s floor. I was at the complete mercy of other people’s generosity and felt like at any moment, my fragile hold that I had on the world would crumble and I’d be blown away like so many other things were. I remember one time my parents called me, chastising me that I hadn’t called them in a few days. I simply broke down. How do you explain to people what it was like living in a place where there was almost no food places were open, or gas stations, or even convenience stores, where you had no home to go to, where you were surrounded by tanks and guardsmen with guns and destruction everywhere you turned?

Finally, in November, I managed to find an apartment in New Orleans, on Prytania. It was so incredibly tiny, but I was able to get all of my stuff out of the Lake Ave apartment and finally close that chapter of my life completely. My bed was a futon that a friend of a friend was throwing away. I had no stove or oven that worked and the only air was a window unit over my bed. The cable worked, but there was no internet. Sometimes, I could catch someone else’s wifi signal if stood on top of my futon and balanced my laptop on the window unit. One night, I came home really late and the door was crawling with “bugs,” and I stayed in my car for 45 minutes until I mustered the courage to run, screaming, at 2am to the door to unlock it and run up the stairs. But man oh man, was the location nice. Mardi Gras 2006 was amazing. I could walk to Magazine and shop and eat. I discovered that Superior Grill is one of the most amazing places to eat in the world and one margarita on the rocks with salt knocked me on my feet. Sometimes I had two.

Hurricane Katrina

Mardi Gras at my small apartment on Prytania.

Out of destruction can come beauty. And my beauty was meeting Kurt. Kurt’s school in New Orleans shut down from the storm and since so many displaced students entered our school, Kurt was hired as a new Social Studies teacher. And if you know me, you know I’m shy and don’t just go and introduce myself to new people. I tend to be introverted. But, for whatever reason, I immediately ingratiated myself with Kurt. It wasn’t even that I had a crush on him, I just wanted to be his friend. I really don’t know why I went out of my way to befriend him, but I think my subconscious does. We were meant to be together…it just took us a little while to figure out exactly what that meant.

August 29, 2005 changed my life forever. I cried more in late 2005 and early 2006 then I ever have in my life (which was compounded by the fact that my dad died on December 15, 2005). The images and stories of Hurricane Katrina are things that I will take to my grave with me. Unless you lived through something like this, you cannot possibly imagine the range of emotions and the hopelessness you feel. And to those people that lost every possession they owned or that lost a loved one or that were forced to cut their way unto their roof and pray for a miracle rescue, I will never know your pain and suffering. I can only hope that, ten years later, you have found some peace. Luckily, I found mine with my wonderful partner and soul mate, Kurt.

Kurt and I

Soul mates. ❤

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