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Katrina ~ A Memoir
by Darby Diana

There is an old Cajun saying, “Half of Louisiana is under water and the other half is under indictment.” The city infrastructure hasn’t been improved since the 1940’s. The levees were only 7 feet tall, and weren’t built for a storm surge of the magnitude of Katrina. The federal money sent in the 1990’s for the levees was used to repair highways. The corruption of Louisiana politics is ages old. The poverty element breeds crime and the rich politicians live off the poor Americans—there is no middle class. New Orleans has always been corrupt. Almost 85% of poor blacks live on welfare and the old Southern families in the cotton and sugar businesses had the money.

When the storm was coming, my husband and I were debating what to do. We decided to ride it out. Evacuation was impossible. The mentality of the people of Louisiana is to wait until the last minute, so the roads were jammed with cars. The only route out of Orleans Parish is Interstate 10, and it was blocked with traffic from New Orleans to the Mississippi state line. Greyhound stopped business as soon as the evacuation notice was on the media. The New Orleans airport shut down and all flights were cancelled. It was total chaos.

We only knew when to expect landfall—the TV media wasn’t too sure where the landfall would hit. We watched TV until the electricity went out.

The whole city got quiet and anxiety filled the air. The sky was real white and then the rains began around 7:00 p.m. It poured like a torrent on a river. The winds were intermittent until the rain bands began to pound fiercely on the roof. The wind came from the east between the apartment buildings and whipped branches from the oak and magnolia trees—they sounded like cracking waves of lightning.

The walls in my kitchen separated, and the sounds were like a train that didn’t want to stop. The studs from the roof broke in half and the shingles from the roof blew inside the kitchen. Dirt and wood chips fell from the plaster. The back wall dropped on the lower apartment roof. The old homes have pieces of metal for roof siding and slate tile that cracked into a million pieces.

I prayed all night, listening to nature rip my home apart. Everything was total darkness. The only protection I had was a box spring from my bed. I barricaded all my belongings against the wall away from the windows. I told myself, “I don’t want to die, not like this!” It was like the end of life was closing in on me. The electric poles cracked in pieces and the wires landed on my balcony. All the utilities were out by midnight. The storm continued until 6:00 or 7:00 a.m. the next day.

The morning after the storm was a quiet, desperate day. I couldn’t see out the balcony because it was blocked by limbs from the magnolia trees next to the building. We didn’t sleep any during the night and the sound of silence was weird. The wrought iron gate to the apartment was blocked by a huge mass of oak branches that were too heavy to move. We climbed over the fence and looked up and down the street. Dead silence. Nothing was moving. The debris of torn roofs and walls and uprooted beautiful 200-year old magnolia and oak trees lay all over the streets. Utility lines were strung all over the branches so you had to be careful of stepping on them; some of them were sparking electric current. I thought to myself, this is real damage. I thought of the end of the world. It looked like a bombed out war zone. No people were moving, just a few stray dogs running.

We hollered to the next apartment and there was nobody around. Everyone had left. We were the only tenants left in the building. My husband walked down the street about two blocks but there was no one in sight.

All of my kitchen appliances were torn up. The cabinet doors were ripped off and the items inside were broken and dropped on what was left of the floor. The water went off sometime during the night after the winds became stronger, but the gas lines were not destroyed and I had gas in the stove. All of my personal items in my closet—clothes, pictures, shoes—were soaked.

Our first task was a search for water. We walked about 4 or 5 blocks to see if anyone needed help. I found a swimming pool where the water looked fairly clear. The fences were torn loose so we climbed over the debris. I had collected empty plastic bottles along the sidewalks to put water in -- water to boil for drinking use. Other people came with pails and trash cans for water for the bathroom.

I salvaged what I could from my refrigerator. Our diet for five days after the storm was peanut butter, tunafish and crackers.

One neighbor with a battery operated radio heard an alert that the National Guard was being sent from San Diego and would be in the city with water and military rations. But we didn’t expect any help. The rumors from the radio were that the roads in Mississippi and Louisiana were totally destroyed—no bridges. So the Red Cross was being held up for 2 or 3 days—they had supplies but couldn’t get through the damage. There was no television because of power failure. I really didn’t expect any help because I know how poorly managed the city is. The Mayor was screaming to the federal government for help. I really think no one knew how to help.

We heard on the neighbor’s radio that there was suicide and rebellion at the Superdome. The criminal element was firing weapons at the Federal troops. The people were trapped and no transportation was given to them until six days after the storm.

All kinds of rumors were rampant. We heard that babies and seniors were dying from heat and dehydration. We heard the authorities found bodies in wheelchairs and victims of rape in the Superdome and that all the bodies disappeared and there was no evidence in the morgue. We were told the politicians covered this up to keep the media away from the Superdome. All this information was rumored in the city.

My husband and I decided not to go to the shelters because of the crime. The people in the neighborhoods stayed in their homes even though there was extensive damage—they were concerned for their safety. I boiled water and used it for bathing and cleaned the floors to kill any bacteria. I did a lot of writing during the eight days; poetry kept me sane. I learned a lot of survival skills in the Navy, and my intuition as a nurse taught me to keep things clean but also conserve water.

The thing that seals the whole story is that a few of the local cops ran and looted the stores with their patrol cars. My husband tried to get water the first day and the cops told him to go away, they were keeping the water for themselves. They broke into abandoned homes and looted valuables. The whole city was like a free-for-all, business places were stripped to the walls. The radio said many of the cops left New Orleans in their patrol cars and took Red Cross supplies with them.

Three days after the storm, we tried to walk out but the streets were too blocked. The irony of it was that there was no gas for cars. The local people were stealing cars and gas from parked vehicles. They took gas out of our car and we had no other means of transportation. I felt like a trapped animal with no way out of harm’s way.

I had no contact with relatives until I was able to call my 83-year old mother on the third day after finding a pay phone intact about 5 blocks from my apartment.

We lived in uptown on Napoleon Avenue, about three blocks from the 17th Street levee. The geographic elevation is higher in uptown, but the water kept coming from the broken levee and the sewer lines broke. The water reached my street at a slow rate, but on the fourth day the water flooded uptown, where all the hospitals and nursing homes are. The flood waters reached 5-8 feet where my apartment was. We tried once to walk through the water, but the smell made me gag—the human sewage was unbearable. During this time the water had carried human bodies and dead bloated animals from the poverty-stricken areas where the housing projects were destroyed. The people in the flood waters drowned because there was no place to go after the housing areas flooded.

On the 5th day, the National Guard arrived. They had to shoot looters to keep them from firing at Federal vehicles. Gunshots were heard night and day from passing troops. They patrolled the streets and passed out water and MRE’s (Meals Ready to Eat) from the back of their trucks. Those brown government-issued boxes looked like gourmet meals to us. I was so hungry, I felt like a refugee in a third world country. This unit from San Diego was a special tactical force trained in urban warfare. They told us it was better to wait until the Coast Guard evacuated the dead and wounded. They were nice and generous with the water and rations. A military chaplain was taking photos of the city and he took our pictures with him in front of our apartment building. We decided to walk to the shelters but the streets were blocked by debris and we had to come back to the apartment. It was 3 miles to downtown where they were starting to transport people out of the city.

The days went by slowly. The heat and humidity were unbearable, and the smell of broken sewer lines was getting bad. Garbage piled up on the street. I walked in the evening to see if I could help anybody. There were people pushing their children and the elderly in grocery carts and wagons. Trash cans were being used to find water. We told people about the swimming pool. The humidity didn’t let up. August and September are the hottest months of the year.

The trucks carried dead citizens every day. You would see the trucks coming from the West Bank and the Lower 9th Ward with more body bags. That was real depressing. No one knows how many died in the storm.

The National Guard was being housed in schools and churches that weren’t destroyed. The National Guard carried automatic weapons and were dressed in full field uniforms. I knew they were hot. They patrolled when the sun went down. There were three units, from San Diego, Puerto Rico and Canada. The officers said there were no plans for a disaster of this magnitude, so the government failed to respond. They said they would stay until every citizen was evacuated from the city. The soldiers were well-trained and had exceptional military skills—if it hadn't been for them, more people would have died. They are the heroes of the storm. My husband and I began to gain a sense of confidence and waited for the right time.

The 8th day was the last day we were able to stay in our apartment. We were transported by truck to the airport and then 88 people were put on a plane. When we left the airport, I was so happy just to be alive. After we were in the air about 15 minutes, the pilot said, “The U.S. government is sending you to sunny Tucson, Arizona.” I thought to myself, “Good, at least there’s no water around Tucson.”

The flight out of Louisiana was heart-breaking. Looking over my shoulder, all I could see were flood waters covering the entire city. The trip to Tucson was a happy one—the airline fed us and gave us fruit. People were crying and still scared of the unknown future. The low life on the plane had dope and alcohol and most of them were drunk or high. They were even drinking cough syrup.

The community cheered us when we stepped off the plane, which gave me new hope in humanity. We were taken to the Tucson Convention Center. We had enough cash on us to stay in a motel, so we stayed at the Days Inn across from the Convention Center. I told the Red Cross volunteers about the criminal element on the plane.

I didn’t like the way the Red Cross asked too many personal questions about finances. I refused to answer their questions and told them, “It’s charity, not a bank.” They are supposed to help people without questions. We never got any money from them, just a gift card.

My husband is a master plumber, so he began calling employers. The next day he was hired by Baker Brothers Plumbing. They loaned us one of their trucks for transportation. I found an apartment for three weeks and then found the home we have now.

FEMA called us sixteen times and finally sent a letter saying that our loss was not enough for them to give us anything.

Seven weeks later we drove back to New Orleans to get the personal items I packed during the storm. The trip back was depressing. Garbage lay six feet high on every street. Torn up cars and debris were in the same place as seven weeks before. All the politicians did was make excuses that President Bush and Congress didn’t send them any money to clean up the city. I just loaded my things and left. It was like a landfill from Hell, the smell of sewage and mold was overwhelming in the apartment building. There were signs all over telling people they had to pay if they wanted to rebuild. I was ready to leave and didn’t look back. My husband is a native and will not return.

Tucson is our home now. We love it here and the peace of having our own home again. My husband has a good job and we have enjoyed the hospitality of the southwest of our country. I am writing every day and enjoying my new life. I will spend the rest of my days here knowing I am a survivor.


Darby Diana Beattie writes:
"I am a native of New Orleans, Louisiana. I was born in the French Quarter, two blocks from Bourbon Street. I started writing when I was a homeless female veteran. A lot of my poems have to do with life experience. Also, I write children's poetry. I write to share with the world. My favorite poet is Robert Frost. I am a disabled female veteran diagnosed with PTSD, a Hurricane Katrina survivor now living in Tucson, Arizona. I am working on a manuscript about the devastation of Katrina. More of my poetry may be found at A Southern Journal."

And CLICK HERE to read several of Darby's poems at USADEEPSOUTH.


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