Troubling Predictions Come True For Reporter And Friends

February 15, 2005



"We have a different fear of hurricanes."

My friend Yasmin was trying to rationalize her fearlessness in the face of an imposing Hurricane Katrina, expected to make landfall near New Orleans the next day, from her first-floor Uptown apartment.

But I was having difficulty, although safe in a hotel room near Memphis. I was frantic, yelling into the phone at Yasmin, "You cannot stay there."

A series of evacuation plans had already failed Yasmin. And she was determined to remain confident that she'd be safe in weathering Katrina.

At about 7:30 a.m. Monday morning, while Hurricane Katrina was trashing New Orleans, my cell phone rang. "The storm is tearing this hospital apart," Yasmin said. "You guys were so right to leave here."

On Tuesday, we learned of the levee breaches and that New Orleans was drowning. I began to fear the worst for my friend, whom I had persuaded to take shelter at a neighborhood hospital where her roommate worked. I hadn't heard from either of them.

Since I began reporting on coastal issues in southeast Louisiana, I'd heard about the worst case scenario. Although many had warned of an impending disaster along the Louisiana coast – with doomsday scenarios of Louisiana crippled and New Orleans all but destroyed – I don't think people were ready for what they saw.

"I don't think most people have in their frame of reference the type of destruction that these powerful storms can do," said Windell Curole, a local levee system and parish emergency preparedness manager. We were discussing Hurricane Betsy, the last major storm to hit our area directly, for a story I'd been working on about Betsy's landfall 40 years earlier. More powerful than Betsy? Without a doubt, Hurricane Camille in 1969 had leveled the Mississippi Gulf Coast. What would a storm like that leave behind today were it to hit south Louisiana?

Aggravating the situation was our state's ongoing subsidence and coastal land loss. A veteran in flood protection and coastal issues, Curole considered the possibilities. "Oh, man," he said, shaking his head.

When Katrina came around, I figured we were in trouble when our company encouraged employees to evacuate. I ended up in Tunica, Miss. with a caravan of family. But I knew we were in trouble when there was talk of delaying publication.

With family I spent my time watching the national news until we returned home on Thursday. I was intermittently buoyed by the knowledge that my friend had sought shelter in a place that would surely be a priority for authorities to check on and secure. But I also knew there was a lapse in communications that might have posed danger. With no electricity, no television or Internet, for example, people might set out after the storm's winds had passed to inspect the damage to their homes. Unknown to them, their neighborhood might be flooding due to the levee breaches.

Through it all, I wanted to be home, doing my job. I felt helpless sitting in front of a TV inMississippi. I'd jot notes from TV press conferences, scribble quotes from people I had met in northwestern Mississippi, hoping I could use the material when I returned home.

I arrived back in Thibodaux Thursday to an empty newspaper building and a newspaper whose banner headline that day read, "We've been really blessed." Although I knew it to be true, I couldn't really appreciate that sentiment then. New Orleans was decimated, a few of our own communities were hit hard and I still hadn't found my friend. I was left with a sense of loss – and guilt.

Why hadn't I done more to get her out of there? I left for The Courier in Houma, our sister newspaper where staffers from New Orleans' Times-Picayune were camped out and our own operations were ongoing. Our newspapers' leaders had decided on combined storm editions for the Comet and Courier.

I wouldn't get my first post-Katrina assignment until a few days later. In the meantime, my editor agreed it would be best for me to go home and wait.

Nearly a week after Katrina had made landfall, I got a 1:30 a.m. call. My friend was safe in Houston.

My first post-Katrina assignment was to check on residents and property in nearby Grand Isle, the small barrier island made famous in Kate Chopin's "The Awakening" as a resort for New Orleans' wealthiest.

Grand Isle, after Katrina, was heatwrenching.

It took two attempts just to make it to Grand Isle. I made it riding with folks from the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance who had set up camp to provide food, clothing and medical supplies to affected residents. The destruction on Grand Isle was immediately evident, with piles of rubble – once camps and homes for part-time and full-time residents alike – lining Louisiana Route 1 and the hurricane protection levee that separates the island from what's now left of its beach and the Gulf of Mexico.

We met with town officials who spoke of the most urgent of needs, re-establishing electricity to the island and providing medical care for residents and responders. Medics were working from the island's central fire station, which already was showing signs of mold, and the Presbyterian Disaster Agency and the local Catholic diocese had joined forces to establish a medical clinic on the island.

More than 500 structures on the island had been destroyed and another 400 had been badly damaged, officials estimated. Grand Isle only had about 1,200 permanent residents, so those numbers were startling.

Having interviewed officials, residents and first responders in such damaged communities about the loss of lives and homes, I appreciate now how fortunate I am.

My friend is safe and our area's recovery efforts are ongoing.

When Hurricane Rita raised water levels in the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, threatening to flood my own neighborhood in southern Lafourche Parish, I went to bed one night uncertain of what was to come. High tides were expected in the early morning, and the Intracoastal had already overtopped its banks.

But I was certain I'd work the next morning nonetheless. The water didn't come for us.

Grand Isle, though, was once again dealt a blow. Rita erased much of the recovery effort that followed Katrina.

Such anguish across the Gulf Coast reminded Edna Duplechin Ortego, 91, and a native of Avoyelles Parish, of the great Mississippi River flood of 1927. She told me how many people didn't heed the talk of high water coming, how her family was displaced from their farm to a tent city and how had to wait months to find out if friends or family had survived.

Nearly 80 years later, as television stations broadcast photos of a flooded New Orleans, Ortego said, "I felt so bad for those poor people when….I hope they can do what we did."


Katina Gaudet reports for the Daily Comet in Thibodaux 

** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Winter, 2005 issue

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