katrina in the country

On days when I think I’ll go stark raving mad if I have to fold one more load of laundry or unload the dishwasher one more time, I’ll think back to a September afternoon five years ago.

It was about two weeks after Hurricane Katrina turned the world upside down.

You probably didn’t hear much about Washington Parish during Katrina –– perhaps rightly so because it fared much better than its neighbors to the south and east. Even so, we took an amazingly hard lick. It is a witness to Katrina’s awesome power –– not that any is needed –– that a place 65 miles from the coast got hammered as badly as we did. By most estimates, we had winds well in excess of 100 miles per hour.

Having said that, I would never compare our parish’s travails to the unthinkable nightmares that befell New Orleans and Mississippi. Yet, like other rural areas that experienced Katrina’s wrath far from the TV cameras, we emerged forever changed –– as individuals and as a community.

My Katrina memories begin two days before the hurricane, when, ironically, we took in a houseful of evacuees from Slidell and Plaquemines Parish. On Sunday, we awoke to discover Katrina was a Category 5 barreling down on New Orleans. Most predictions put us directly in her immediate path –– a major buzzkill for our hurricane party.

By day’s end, we were all scattering to safer locations. It was the first time anyone had evacuated this farm for a hurricane, and, frankly, we kind of wondered if weren’t overreacting. I’ll never forget my husband’s incredulous last words as I rushed around packing up photos and emptying freezers: “What are you doing? We’re coming home tomorrow night!” He was, of course, just a tad off on that prediction.

Tuesday morning after Katrina, Harvey and his brothers drove back from Baton Rouge to take stock of the damage here. They found tens of thousands of trees down. Roads impassable. No power anywhere in the parish. No communications — not even police radios were working. All schools and businesses were shut down. The parish government had commandeered the gas stations, reserving gasoline for first responders only.

Rumors of anarchy and impending martial law were running rampant. There was looting in town and a riot at the jail. The outside world heard little about these dramas or about the way everyday citizens with chain saws banded together to clear the roads or deliver water to their neighbors when official help was still nowhere in sight. A few days after the storm, TV reporters were eerily referring to Washington Parish as “a black hole” because zero information was coming out or going in. In desperation, our parish president finally drove to Baton Rouge to get on TV and beg for help.

In the end, the boys and I stayed in Baton Rouge 12 days. Our relatives heroically accommodated six children and as many adults in their three-bedroom house. Unlike so many others, we were comfortable and well-fed, although hardly worry-free.  As I watched the horror unfolding on TV, I wondered how life could ever be normal again. It was nearly impossible to envision Louisiana surviving without the beating heart of New Orleans.

Every one of us in that house was emotional and on edge. Our hostess –– our sister-in-law –– works for the Louisiana Sheriffs Association. At night she came home with heartbreaking stories from the world of law enforcement. I remember we all cried the night she told us about a bus that had arrived from New Orleans carrying babies unaccompanied by any parents. Their mothers had been so desperate to get them out of that living hell that they had thrust them into the arms of strangers lucky enough to get a seat on a departing bus.

Another night, I remember passing through a room where a concert for hurricane relief was on TV. I heard Paul Simon singing a soft, sad acoustic version of some Mardi Gras song and, to my own surprise, burst into tears.

Because we were initially hearing it would be a minimum of two months until power was restored at home, I reluctantly enrolled our son in a Baton Rouge kindergarten. Leaving our shy 4-year-old at a strange elementary school in a strange town was agonizing. In fact, I think it’s what did me in. My son attended class for just two days before I decided we were going home –– electricity or no. If worse came to worst, I vowed, we’d do kindergarten at home by candlelight, Abe Lincoln-style.

Once home, I was ecstatic to see the place, even if it did have collapsed ceilings and shingles blanketing the yard.

Nearly all of the farm’s 12 buildings sustained roof damage, and our hay barn got clobbered. More than 200 large trees lay across our fences. Those are just the ones we counted because they met the government’s criteria for disaster cleanup funds. Hundreds more went uncounted.

Yet this level of destruction was merely run-of-the-mill for Washington Parish. For weeks, National Guardsmen and Boston police stood guard over our town’s banks and businesses. The skies droned with a steady procession of military helicopters. Twelve- hundred power line workers were living in massive tents in our little town (population: 3,500.)  When our son’s school reopened in late September, there were still soldiers sleeping in the lunchroom and Black Hawk helicopters parked on the football field.

We camped out in our house, relying on a small, gasoline-powered generator to run an appliance here and there.

Gasoline was too expensive and too scarce to use it 24 hours a day. Harvey’s brother owned a large tractor-powered generator that could run an entire house, but, there again, it burned $100 worth of diesel a day.

Still, we were adapting pretty well to roughing it. Then one afternoon we decided we needed a break, and our hot, stinky house with moldy carpets needed cleaning. So we splurged on my brother-in-law’s big generator. For about four heavenly hours, our house came back to life. Light switches worked. Washing machines agitated. Vacuum cleaners roared. Air conditioners hummed.

I’m no Heloise, believe me, but I can’t remember many times in my life when I’ve felt as deep-down happy as I did that afternoon. Probably for the first time in my life, I didn’t just appreciate the little things; I rejoiced in them. And I swore that I would never complain about housework again.

As I wrote in a Christmas letter that year: “I don’t know if we’ve ever been so keenly appreciative of our home,
our family and friends and all the blessings we used to take for granted.”

When I wrote those words, I believed time would forever-after be divided into “before Katrina” and “after Katrina.”  Five years later, the roofs no longer leak. The dead trees are gone. And only sometimes do I remember to be thankful when I’m staring down a mountain of dirty clothes. I guess that’s a good sign.