Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Katrina Story, Chapter 5: Witness to the Storm

Maryland may have been a border state in the Civil War (or rather, as some here call it, the "War Between the States"). Nevertheless, it wasn't close enough to Mississippi, which was where we needed to be. My wife called a friend in Atlanta to see if she had any contacts or ideas. Incredibly, she in turn had just been on the phone with a friend of hers in Birmingham who wanted to do something, anything to help after Katrina. This friend-of-a-friend, our soon-to-be-rescuer, wanted to host our whole family for as long as we needed. We were taken aback; they already were a family of 6, and they were willing to host a family of 5, complete with 2-month old baby, asking nothing in return?

Were they for real? After Katrina, across this great country, they and others just like them answered, again and again, a resounding YES.

We made preparations to leave on the weekend, not even 1 week after the storm had changed our lives. Our family and friends in Maryland surprised us with a bag of Target gift cards. At first I refused the accept the gift; others needed this more than we did. We had savings, we had insurance, we would be okay. My wife persuaded me to reluctantly take the bag, which was a smart move: the cards were spent within two weeks, just on basics, and toys for the kids. And the insurance would soon fail us, while the savings would dwindle down all too quickly. Even those who thought themselves well-off had to swallow pride and accept, if not even ask for help. A pediatrician I know has said that at first after a disaster, people will give and give even when it's not needed or appropriate; only later, when you start realizing what you need, the donations will dry up.

Before leaving Maryland, we finally heard the good news for which we had been praying: the family that had stayed in our house was alive and safe.

Days later, they told us their story. Through Sunday night, the wind howled and the rain came down. At times they heard a rattling and a whistling, sounding like a nearby freight train (the tracks ran a block from our house); this was no train, but rather the wind rushing through the attic. Sometime in the morning, the wind started to ease. Then one of their sons looked out the front window and saw the water coming in. Our front yard had flooded before, during severe rains, but now the water was surging in and steadily rising. The floor of the house was about 3 feet off the ground, and soon the water was coming up through the floorboards. They tried to keep Oscar the dog in his cage on a table in the living room, but he was having none of that, so they let him out, whereupon he made straight for the couch. But the water--thick, brackish, brown, carrying debris and who knows what from the sewer pipes--continued to rise, and now the couch was floating around the room, with Oscar riding it. The family climbed up onto the kitchen counters, not knowing how high the water would reach, and Oscar followed.

Finally, the surge peaked at 3 feet inside the house (or about 6 feet off the ground), before receding. A brown muck covered every surface below the water line. The teenage daughter insisted on keeping part of the front hall clean, and was meticulous--even militant--about removing dirt as it was tracked in. This sounded ridiculous at first--with all of this debris and muck, she's worrying about cleaning the floor?--but gradually began to make perfect sense: she was fighting to hold onto a few square feet of cleanliness, of normalcy.

Yet normalcy was a relative term. Power, telephones, cell phones, water, sewage were all gone. The rains were also gone, and would not return for days, but the Mississippi sun was bringing a fierce heat. The meager stockpiles of water we had collectively stored in the house were quickly used, and the father walked about 2 miles up to the main road to get more from the distribution center. Food was running out as well, the house was smelling oppressively of mold, the children were having nightmares, and it would be weeks before the situation would change substantially. Their own house was even less of an option: it had flooded to the ceiling and was now partially collapsed. (Perhaps it was another instance of fate that they had stayed in our house after all.) By Thursday, the family decided they had to try to leave. Their car had flooded out and now was ruined. Somehow they contacted a relative who lent them a rickety van, and they moved out to his place in Wiggins, about 45 minutes to the north-east, a town with relatively minor damage. Like we had done a few days ago, they were now pondering their next move; remarkably, they would soon end up near Birmingham as well.

As for Oscar, he was in the care of a neighbor 2 doors down, sharing digs with her two canine companions. He was also safe, and purportedly waiting patiently to be rescued. All told, though Katrina had brought death with destruction, no one we knew personally had perished.


brockton said...

Whew. How long was the house full of water? I'm glad everybody lived. Looking forward to the rest of the story.

Dr Scott said...

brockton--fortunately, the water wasn't up for too long; I think it had gone down within an hour, if not less. But more than enough time to cause permanent ruin.
Thanks for reading--more to come!

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