Updated: Nov 23, 2020
During hurricane Katrina I kept a journal. I posted this journal on another website and soon enough time forgot about it. By chance I stumbled upon it yesterday and had forgot that I even wrote it. It’s like a little time capsule. This entry is the entire journal from learning about the storm to returning to the city.
Saturday, August 27, 2005 12:40 AM The Beginning
I remember the first time I saw her. I was sitting in gross anatomy lecture and about three rows in front of me someone was surfing the internet on a laptop and looking up weather maps. There she was just east of Florida with a projected path straight into new Orleans. I’m of course talking about the now famous hurricane Katrina. Earlier in the week I didn’t take it very serious, I even think I forgot about it. I had been in New Orleans for med school about two months, within those two months I had weathered through the tip of hurricane Dennis, and Tropical storm cindi, I mean I was pro. This morning I got an email, and about ten different phone calls from people saying that school has been canceled until Thursday because of the impending hurricane.
My immediate first reaction was that of joy, like any other little kid that just learned they had been rewarded with a snow day. The fact that our cell and molecular biology test that was scheduled for Monday would now have to be pushed back also seemed like a plus. The seriousness of the matter really set it when everyone was panicking about making arrangements to leave the city.
I knew that if they really meant it I should probably get out, but there was this enigmas sense of adventure about a hurricane, and the same little kid inside of me that used to stay up late and watch thunderstorms wanted to stay and see it. Thankfully this little kid has grown up a little and I started to make my own arrangements to get out of the city.
It seemed like a good idea to go to Arizona and visit my mom and grandma, its hard to schedule time outside of Christmas to make my way out there, so I figure I should take advantage of the opportunity. I booked a flight for Sunday morning. The less then 24 hour notice of buying a plane ticket set me back almost $600.
Later in the day I drove the scooter over to a fellow med students apartment to help staple plastic sealing on her windows in case of water damage. The chaos in the city was an almost surreal experience. It was a calm sunny August day and all around people were emptying shelves of grocery stores, packing their cars to the brim with things they would need for an undisclosed amount of time, gas stations posted signs on pumps reading “out”. I already had my plane ticket so I couldn’t help but feel outside of the panicking and chaos.
Later that night I packed up as much stuff as I could into a suitcase and two backpacks. I was going to pack much lighter but my roommate Anita convinced me to take as much as I could. Thankfully I also assumed that in a worse case scenario the garage might be flooded so I moved my scooter upstairs and into my living room via the elevator.
Sunday, August 28, 2005 12:44 AM: Run Away
I was paranoid that I wouldn’t get to the airport in time because I would hit some massive amount of traffic full of people evacuating, so I left my self 5 hours to get there, even though it’s a 20 minute drive. It turned out that the main roads were pretty bad, and it might have actually taken 3 or 4 hours to get to the airport, but with the help of the map program I have on my laptop I was able to negotiate side streets and get there in about an hour.
At the airport I was only able to park my car on the roof of the parking structure exposing it to the elements. The scene inside the airport was chaos. The ticket line for the major airlines, Northwest, American, seemed to wrap around the building. I had over heard that the wait in the ticket line alone would be 2-3 hours. Thankfully continental hardly had a line and I got my ticket in no time. Turns out that for whatever reason I also purchased an elite pass that let me cut in the security line. The elite pass was really a big break because I probably cut in front of about 100 people. When I finally arrived at my gate I had about 2 hours to spare.
My flight left at 1130am, I later learned that at 1pm the same day the airport shut down and was not allowing any more flight to come in or out. I knew for certain that vast majority of people still in the airport must be stuck. Did they stay in the airport for shelter, or did they helplessly try to drive out of the city? I'll never know. As my flight took off the captain informed us that we could see hurricane Katrina coming in off the left side of the plane, but all you could really see was a dark sky that seemed to stretch out over the gulf as far as the eye could see. Later in the day I had a layover in Houston Texas for a couple of hours. I remember sitting at a bar and having lunch while checking the weather updates on my cell phone. As I read the weather update I nearly lost my lunch. The hurricane was now producing winds of up to 175mph, enough to be considered tornado force winds. Just imagine if a 150mile wide tornado was barreling towards your town how you would feel. The people at the bar all crowded around my cell phone in disbelief of the news, people instantly started talking and consoling in one another, most of them were from New Orleans. I read one article that described what types of building structures would survive and which ones would be destroyed. One lady at the bar made a comment as I was leaving, she said “It’s going to be a shame to see that city destroyed, I used to love going there”. It was dumbfounding to think that this lady might have a point, and that the city that I was growing to love might be no more. When I arrived in Arizona I was met by my mom and grandma. As nice as it was to see them I was a little upset by the chain of events of the last few days so my affection was not complete. I was actually completely distant, all I could do was think about what was going to happen to the city, and what was going to be with my med school.
Monday, August 29, 2005 12:06 AM: The CNN addict
Everyone reaches a point in their lives when they find themselves completely addicted to the news. It becomes more consuming than the greatest action or love story that they have ever seen in any theater. For me that point is now. For the last three days I have found myself glued to the TV, I have been watching in awe as a city is slowly being consumed by the wrath of Mother Nature. At first I was relieved to see that there was the possibility of minimal water damage, and wind damage was the only concern. It wasn’t until the levies started to break that I realized the seriousness of the situation. At first there were no reports about specific damage, all I knew was that somewhere just north of my apartment there was a mysterious amount of water rushing down my street. Then there were images of water half way up houses, people in boats, and recognizable street signs up to their neck in water. I eventually became exhausted with watching TV. There is only so much bad news you can take, only so many lives you can watch become shattered and destroyed until you become numbed by the whole experience, and you simply have to turn it off. I’m not sure why now, but for some reason I was still convinced that we would be going back to school within the week. So I tried to catch up on some of my studying, little did I know I was studying for a class that would be cancelled this semester. I think studying was a way to take my mind off of the possible effects Katrina might have on my future. In such an abnormal situation burying my head in textbooks was the only normal thing I could do.
Thursday, September 8, 2005 12:15 AM: Saving the world
Although it was nice to be visiting my grandmother and my mom, as the days passed they became more and more mundane. We had been running so fast at Tulane to keep up with class, and then all of a sudden we stopped and now I found myself sitting around my grandma’s apartment all day with the anxious feeling that I should be doing something. I used to get the same feeling in college when we would have finals and then a long break. The first few days of the break I could never relax, I always felt overcome by anxiety to be studying or doing something.
The first few days I was at my grandma’s I had no internet access, I had no idea about the status of the school outside of watching TV and talking to random people on the phone who didn’t seem to know much either. I was starting to starve for information. I eventually broke down and bought a verizon PC card for my computer that allows me to get broadband internet access anywhere. So now instead of sitting around watching TV, hanging out, and going to the gym, I could sit around watch TV, hang out, go to the gym, and surf the internet.
This new little feature actually became very useful, I could now log on to the student forums, send emails, and talk on instant messenger. Before I was starved for information on what was going on, now I feel like I’m drowning in everyone’s opinion of what is going on. I eventually stopped studying when I found out that it was going to possibly be another 3-4 weeks before we were back in school. There were of course all kinds of speculations about where we actually were going to attend school. The cruise ship rumor was very popular for a while, the idea was that a cruise ship would pull into Galveston bay and we would be known as the salty dogs of medicine and dress in full pirate regatta, as we were shuffled back and forth to attend class somewhere in Houston. Eventually they managed to work out some kind of arrangement with Baylor in Houston for us to use their facilities and resume our “normal” schedule.
So now I found myself faced with the problem of what to do with myself for the next three weeks. I would obviously lose my mind from boredom if I stayed in Arizona. Just from looking online, and talking within the student forum it seemed like there were plenty of opportunities to get back to the gulf coast and volunteer.
At first I wanted to do something with the Red Cross, I had heard that some of the people in my class were working in shelters and doing some really interesting stuff. Unfortunately the Red Cross told me that I would have to first go through a shelter training course, and then they could not guarantee when I would leave, it might be two days, or two weeks. I eventually found something on the Tulane forum about a second year whose mom was the director of nursing at a nursing home in New Orleans. This nursing home evacuated all of their patients during the storm to a remote old abandoned nursing home in northern rural Louisiana. Apparently most of the nurses had quit, and they desperately needed help. I was told they had 70 some patients with 2 nurses working around the clock. Having been a nursing assistant for over 3 years I decided I could be of some use.
A plan started to unfold that would allow me to get to this nursing home. In a few days I’m going to fly to Birmingham Alabama, where I will be picked up at the airport by Andy Coyle, who is in my class. We will then stay the night at his friends house in Birmingham, the next day we will drive about 400 miles to Quitman Louisiana where this nursing home is. I did some research on Quitman and found out that it has a town population of 168 people, of those people 2 are latino, 1 is black, and 165 are Caucasian. The town has one restaurant called the Catfish Inn, and the main industry is a paper mill in an adjoining town.
Saturday, September 10, 2005 12:17 AM: The nursing home that time forgot
I think in some way my trip to Europe last summer prepared me for all the chaos I’ve had to deal with lately. You can learn a lot about yourself and what you really need in order to sustain when you are traveling for weeks at a time in strange countries with nothing but a backpack. I feel like I now find myself in somewhat of a similar situation, instead of a backpack I have a suitcase and a small bag full of books. I find myself in a random pickup truck heading towards some random town in northern Louisiana, with no idea where I am sleeping tonight, or what I will eat for dinner. I can understand how this situation would seem unpleasant to some, but I think I am almost in my element, dealing with the unpredictable and adapting to any given situation is fun to me. It beats sitting on my grandma’s couch watching TV.
The ride to Quitman wasn’t really that bad, sure it was long, but the company was good. Andy has some what of an addiction to NPR, which at first made me cringe. I can’t say I have ever sat in a car for hours at a time listening to NPR, but after a while I realized that it actually is pretty interesting, especially since what most of what they are talking about directly pertained to us, and also because it breaks the ice a little bit, and opens up for some good conversation.
When we finally arrived at Quitman, it was just as I imagined a town of 160 people would like. We proceeded right to the nursing home because we really had no where else to go. I suppose this felt a little strange, because you would typically expect to check into a hotel, drop off your bags, stretch your legs, or just something. Instead we got right out of the car expecting to start working.
We meet with the nursing director and she gave us a quick tour and informed us that they were setting up a room for us in one of the spare patient rooms. The place obviously appeared that it was put together in a matter of days. She informed us that the dressers in the rooms weren’t being used because the rat poop and garbage that was in them had not yet been cleaned out. The stock room looked like a tornado went through it; there was no organization what so ever. There were no bathrooms in any of the rooms, instead there was one per hall, and it was barley functional, all of the sinks apparently leaked and they were all out of order. The shower was kind of grimy, with a nice film of something all over it. I guess the place had closed down about 5 years ago, and was being used as storage since then, but it looked like it had not been renovated in at least 30 years. We stayed the night in a standard patient room. My bed was an old nursing home bed with one of those triangle devices above it to assist in getting out of bed. Whenever someone down the hall pushed on their call light a loud buzzer rang through the entire hallway preventing much sleep.
Sunday, September 11, 2005
Breakfast in the morning was of course a limited option, in fact so was lunch and dinner. In the adjacent town there were a Mcdonalds, subway, pizzahut, and a Chinese buffet that we had to choose from. Our task for the day in the nursing home was to organize and inventory the stock room. This proved to be quite the tedious task, and it took the better part of the day, but there was definitely that sense of accomplishment when we were done. Personally I was more than happy to spend the day in the stock room, having had experience as a nursing assistant, and knowing the horrors that lie waiting for me in the diaper of the man down the hall.
I managed to convince Andy that spending a night in the sleaziest motel we could find would be a better thing than spending another night in the nursing home, so after we stocked the back room we went and checked in at the “Motel Inn”, which turned out to be the only small motel within 25 miles. When we told people about the experience we had the previous night in the nursing home, and explained that we were now staying in the motel inn, they always winced and said they would have rather stayed at the nursing home.
That night we went back to the nursing home for a few hours to help with the nightly rounds. We cleaned people up, changed beds, and basically just did what we could to help out. The situation was just as bad as I thought it would be, some patients had obviously not been cleaned or changed in days. I think the biggest problem the home was experiencing was not necessarily lack of staff, but lack of quality staff. The director of nursing had been forced to hire whoever came to her door in the first few days, so the people now employed would probably have never gotten a job if the situation wasn’t as desperate as it was. While Andy and I were doing all the work most of the nursing assistants were outside smoking, or just hanging out. The ones that actually did work had this vague idea of what gentle patient care should be. I specifically remember these two seventeen year old girls. They were good nursing assistants in the sense that they stayed on track, and actually stuck to their job description, but they would just man handle these frail old people. When the patients screamed in pain, they would just push harder. I had heard previously that this is a common problem in nursing homes, but I still thought it was inexcusable and fairly shocking.
The next day we meet with the director of nursing and we reported the things we had done, and the progress that was being made, but I also mentioned all the things I saw that could be improved such as the incompetence of the nursing assistants. She informed me that some of them were indeed a problem, but there was not much that they could do about it at that point. Sensing our competence she said with full seriousness that we should come in tonight to work the night shift, and we could be in charge of the shift to make sure that everyone is on task. At first I was kicking myself for opening my mouth, but after thinking about it, this could be a good opportunity to really make a difference in how they were doing things.
The staffed was briefed before we came in that night that we would be “supervising”. At first it was a little strange, I wasn’t sure if I should follow them around and correct them, or try to lead by example. It turns out that I really didn’t have to do much, just the fact that they knew someone was watching them seemed to make all the difference. They stayed on task and did everything they should have. I did give them some tips on how to move patients and just approach the whole idea of nursing more effectively, I don’t really know if any thing I said stuck or not.
We basically decided that there was no real way that we could keep up this kind of work, on the current schedule. We also really couldn't bare to stay in the current town for more then a few more days at the most. So after a couple more days of doing the same thing, we decided to head out of town. In the end I am glad I had the experience, although I was pretty happy to get out of there. Basically I will never complain about how dirty or inefficient any hospital is ever again. We need experiences like this to humble us, and make us appreciate things taken for granted.
Monday, September 12, 2005
I’m starting to learn that no matter how chaotic or unpredictable a situation is there is usually a solution, remaining calm and having a plan A, B, and C is critical. This was how my mind was working as we drove out of Quitman heading back to New Orleans. The plan was that Andy would take me back to my car which was in long term airport parking; that was if we could get into the airport. From there I was going to head down to Cut Off Louisiana where my friend and classmate Janie lived.
After a few more hours of NPR news we started to get close to the city. We could tell we were getting closer when we started seeing trees that had all fallen over in the same direction. The only other time I had seen trees that looked like this was in films of nuclear blasts. We passed a storage unit that was just off the freeway. The entire building had been stripped of its siding, but everything that was in storage was still intact. The storage units were completely transparent, you could see clear through them, with everyone’s personal belongings there on display for the world to see.
My car was still in the same spot I left it, I guess it was crazy that I was actually worried that my car might have blown away. I got luck though, my car was facing into the wind and there were some minute cracks and chips in the windshield. There were other cars around me that had their back windows facing into the wind, which were completely blown out because the back windows are less reinforced than the windshields.
My original plan was to drive down to Janie’s place, but I decided to take my chances with the city. I was too close, and too curious to pass up the opportunity. The first check point I was stopped at was on the freeway about 3 miles out, I had my Air Force ID handy. As I waited in line most people were being forced to turn around, so I started to think this wasn’t going to work. As I got closer I decided the only chance I had was to play the military card. When the National Guard soldier stopped me I showed him my ID, he looked at it for a second and then questioned me about where I was trying to go. I thought for a second he was going to turn me away, instead after hearing my description of where my apartment was and where I was trying to go he informed me that the city was still flooded, but I was welcome to try if I wanted, and he let me go by.
This was pretty shocking at first, but as I would later come to find out my little green military ID would pretty much serve as an all access pass to the city. I passed about 5 more checkpoints in my journey through the city, some of them would not even say anything to me when they saw my ID.
I was unable to get to my apartment, because all of midcity was still flooded, the scenery I witnessed that day will forever stay with me. It reminded me of some horror movie where everyone dies suddenly and there is always that one lone survivor trenching through some abandoned wasteland of a city that used to be a booming metropolis. It was strange to see the outhouses, couches, and lawn chairs in the middle of the freeway, a remnant of the people waiting for days after being evacuated from the superdome. At one point I tried to leave the city going north on 10, I came over a hill and was stopped dead in my tracks by a lake in the middle of the freeway. In the middle of this lake was a beige car, and the whole scene looked all too familiar. It hit me that this was the scene that was on the news for days after the storm of that guy that drove his car into a flooded portion of freeway and some news anchor man saved him. The funny part was that I of course had to turn around and drive back to the nearest exit on the freeway, which meant driving the wrong way on the freeway, which only added to the surrealism of the situation, how many times in your life can you say you got drive the wrong direction on the freeway.
Wednesday, September 14, 2005
After battling with trying to get around New Orleans I decided I should get heading towards Janie’s place. Janie lives in a really nice house that is about an hour south of New Orleans down a bayou. There are only a handful of bayous that run down through the delta country that are populated south of New Orleans, so this was an interesting experience. Basically there are a bunch of small towns that are strung out along this one bayou. The center of every town is pretty much the bayou, and the towns are no larger than the streets that run up and down the bayou, and maybe a couple of side streets. So as you drive up and down the bayou, what you see is what you get. Janie informed me that to give directions in this country people either say “up the bayou, or down the bayou”, or “UTB, or DTB”.
Over the next couple of days the definition of southern Cajun hospitality would become apparent to me. Just about every night the whole family gets together and they cook a feast, which usually consists of some sort of fried seafood. Of course I was invited to eat as much as I possibly could, and you can bet I did after surviving on subway and McDonalds for almost a week.
The original plan was that the next day we would drive to Houston together. But of course things change. Janie was heading back to New Orleans to salvage what she could from her place, I decided I would go along to help, and possibly try to get back to my place again. The military ID worked even more fluid getting us into the city. We debated what it would be like if I didn’t have the ID, and we guessed that you could still probably get in, but it might take some coercing. We decided to head to my place first, the water was receded just enough to get in the front door, about a half block away it was still impassable by car. Since the water had just receded all the sludge on the ground was fresh, I say sludge because this is the only accurate way to describe this mess. It was a combination of sewage, dirt, and God knows what else. Some of the shops in the front of the building had been looted. The coffee shop was broken into, but strange enough valuable things that I thought would have been stolen were still intact, instead food was stolen. I think this was because the looting was done by desperate residents of the building and not necessarily criminal looters that everyone saw on the news.
The restaurant was also broken into, but again just the food was taken, this was obvious because of the full bar that was still there. The elevators in the building of course did not work so we had to take the stairs. There was little ventilation in the stairs and the fermenting smell of rot was so strong that I doubt you could have been in there very long without passing out. My apartment thankfully was in fine condition. The fact that I was on the 4th floor was a big fluke, when I went to the American Can complex in June they had one unit left on the 4th floor, it could have just as easily been the first floor and I would have taken it. I got as much of my stuff as I could and we got out of there. There was no looting apparent in my apartment, at this point.
Janie’s apartment complex at the Saulet was intact, there was little flooding, and a lot of wind damage. Janie’s apartment had just a small amount of water in it, but we learned this was all it took. There were small traces of mold growing on the wall surrounding the door frame, and the whole place had a very unforgiving moldy rotting smell. We moved as quickly as we could and unloaded all of her things into her brother’s pick up truck. Physically and mentally exhausted we headed back to Cut Off for a relaxing night of fried seafood and watching TV on the biggest TV I have ever seen.
The next morning we decided that we would feel too guilty leaving rotting food in our warm refrigerators for who knows how many months. So of course plans change, and we decided to head back into the city to accomplish the daunting task of emptying out refrigerators. I wish I didn’t even have to describe this, because that just means I have to think about it again and I’m traumatized enough by it. We went to my place first. We knew that as soon as we opened the refrigerator the smell would disperse and overcome us quickly, so we had to move fast. One of Janie’s friends came with us and was helping by holding the trash bag. As quick as I could I opened the door and started throwing things in the trash bag while trying not to look at what I was touching. Occasionally I would look and see something that once resembled vegetables, but had know turned into this green and brown soup like mixture. There was of course fruit flies everywhere, although we didn’t see any maggots, we knew they must have been there some where. After getting everything out we scrubbed the whole thing with whatever number of chemicals we had, and finally we poured baking powder over the whole thing because someone told us that this will help with the smell.
Janie’s refrigerator was not much different, the major difference was the presence of maggots everywhere, and they were crawling all over the food and up the walls. Now I want you to examine that feeling you have in your stomach right now and multiply it by about 100 and you will have a vague conception of how bad this truly was. About a month later we would come to find out that our landlords threw all the fridges out and replaced them with new ones, so all of our effort was pointless.