Instructors’ Personal Hurricane Stories
Hurricanes are very personal for us. Dinah lived through the calamitous Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005 and Tim was literally a first responder after Hurricane Andrew struck Miami in 1992 and lived through the much less severe Hurricane Fran that hit North Carolina in 1996. We start this module with these personal stories before moving to describe several of the most significant recent storms in detail. Each storm has lessons to tell about how our society deals with national disasters, what storms will be like in the future, and what we need to do to prepare for them.
Years of evacuation preceded Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. These included Hurricane Georges, Hurricane Ivan, and others for which New Orleanians packed up their cars and headed to wherever they had a safe haven. If you did not have relatives and friends in places within driving distance that were safe, or you didn’t have a reliable car, you stayed. I had packed up my daughter and dogs and headed with friends to places like Lafayette for a three-day trip and then returned to an unscathed city on several occasions. Hurricanes on track to impact New Orleans had a habit of making a northerly turn as they approached the Mississippi River delta and hitting the Mississippi coast instead of Louisiana. We were all armchair hurricane experts by the time Katrina entered the Gulf. At the University of New Orleans, I worked with a network of coastal scientists, some of whom were actual hurricane experts, including my boss, the late Dr. Shea Penland who was a renowned coastal geomorphologist and director of the UNO Pontchartrain Institute for Environmental Sciences. He had made a fateful prediction in the Scientific American Magazine the year before that it was just a matter of time before a storm surge would overwhelm the flood protection system and devastate New Orleans. I clearly remember our staff meeting on Friday, August 26, 2005, in which we discussed the storm entering the Gulf, and the need to retrieve boats and other equipment from coastal locations. It is hard to fathom now, but three days later, on Monday, August 29, Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana. The adrenalin-driven scramble to prepare for the impending storm is now a blur, punctuated by flashes of memories of moving computer equipment away from windows, moveable objects from yards, and conferring with elderly neighbors about their plans for leaving. After several days of exhausting preparation, during which I observed a general lack of urgency in New Orleans, I was ready to evacuate. I had noticed less boarding up than for Hurricane Ivan in 2004, and many acquaintances seemed almost blasé – I so clearly remember a rowdy crowd spilling from a daiquiri bar onto the street as I made my way home on Saturday night. There was a certain amount of bravado in not leaving. But then there were so many people who did not have any good choices, being without reliable transportation or no place to go to or being too frail or sick to choose for themselves. Neighbors and extended family formed support networks, but these efforts could not avoid the coming specter of tens of thousands of people seeking shelter in the Superdome and Convention Center after the storm flooded the city. The city neglected to plan a mass evacuation by bus prior to the storm.
I evacuated with my two dogs and a few belongings on Sunday, August 28th at around 4:30 am. I heard the Mayor of New Orleans announce the MANDATORY evacuation on the radio as I drove. This was way too late. Residents would have to at least have made their plans and be packing up to leave by then. Many already had, because we were so well trained to do so, but many were too cynical or had no choice but to stay put. Others did not want to leave their property unoccupied. But we were not uninformed. I took back roads to avoid the crush on the interstate. People reported taking four hours to reach Baton Rouge, a trip that usually takes a little over an hour. This was despite the use of contraflow on the interstate highways leading away from New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. I finally arrived in the small town of Walker, to the east of Baton Rouge, where my colleagues had been gathering. There, our business manager, Karen Ramsey, and her husband had a home that could accommodate quite a few people. But I arrived too late - there was no room at the inn. I traveled on to share an off-campus LSU dorm room in Baton Rouge with my daughter, literally time sharing her bed, with the dogs sleeping underneath. The complex of student housing, which amazingly still had power, quickly filled up with evacuee families. I wasn’t sure where I was going to stay for the longer term but, I had enough friends in Baton Rouge that I was soon able to find kind people with a room where I could stay with my dogs for several weeks. The population of Baton Rouge exploded with displaced New Orleanians, which caused some tension. This was happening in cities across the south as half a million people had to find somewhere to stay.
The thing to remember about New Orleans is that it is surrounded by flood protection structures including levees and floodwalls, and the draining of the wetlands upon which the city was built has resulted in significant subsidence of the land elevation so that 50% of the land area within the flood defenses sits below sea level. The other thing was that in 2005, the levees and floodwalls, designed and built after Hurricane Betsy in 1965, to protect the city from a category 3 storm surge, were now almost 4 decades old. They were worn, had subsided, and had many flaws. We had been warned repeatedly via so many information channels that this was a recipe for disaster. The disaster slowly unfolded on Monday morning, but at first, many residents in New Orleans were unaware that it was happening. The cell towers had toppled with Katrina’s winds so only landlines still worked. I was able to call my ex-husband before my cellphone went kaput on Monday morning. He had chosen to stay and was nonchalant at that point, oblivious to the encroaching floodwaters, which had by then broken through the flood defenses in many places and the “bowl” of the city was filling up. I remember saying I thought it was a matter of time before the waters reached his house, and that is what happened. The real misery began after the storm itself had passed and moved north. People were trapped on rooftops or were wading or floating on debris through floodwaters trying to find refuge, with children, pets, and belongings in tow. It was blazing hot. Meanwhile, I was in the safety of Baton Rouge just watching in horror and feeling helpless and suffering from survivor’s guilt. I was able to travel to deliver cash I had collected before leaving New Orleans to a friend (how do you access your New Orleans bank account when everything is broken?) and go to a hotel lobby in a small Southwest Louisiana town to use their computer to add texting to my cellphone account so my daughter could locate her father. Not many people were using texting in 2005 and with cell towers down, for some reason, texting worked but calling did not. A family I talked to at the hotel were from St. Bernard Parish, southeast of New Orleans and devastated, and they did not know if members of their family were alive or not, or how to reach them. My daughter was able to locate her dad who had made it out of New Orleans with dogs and cats; and she picked them all up in Baton Rouge. Many people and pets were not so lucky. Many ended up in shelters far from home and loved ones could not locate them. Children were separated from parents and elderly grandparents were lost in the chaos. Helicopters continually plied back and forth between Baton Rouge and other locations and the city, on rescue missions.
My first trip back into the city was on September 16. I clearly remember the unforgettable, indescribable smell as we got close to the UNO campus. My colleagues and I were headed there to pick up work vehicles and equipment to bring back to Walker to set up a temporary office for the Pontchartrain Institute. We needed a special permit to enter the city at that point. Although the city had been drained of floodwaters by then (using pumps shipped in from around the world), the entire population of over 480,000 had forcibly been moved out (by 2006 only about half had returned). We stopped to check on colleagues’ houses which had flooded to the roof and the contents jumbled around inside, covered with stinking mud. Dead fish lay in the streets. There was no power, so we had to feel our way up hot, dark stairwells to our offices where mold was already growing, making breathing hazardous. The National Guard had used our offices as a triage center and the campus was a processing center where people were shipped out to shelters. It was quite surreal. I remember looking out of a third-floor window at the downtown skyline and thinking how normal it looked from there, while the city as a whole was wrecked. The UNO campus sits on slightly elevated land on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain, next to the London Avenue drainage canal in which the concrete floodwalls had been breached and Lake Pontchartrain had poured into the low lying Gentilly neighborhood. It is worth repeating that 80% of the city had gone underwater and approximately 1,000 people had died (the exact number will never be known). My old neighborhood, where I had recently sold my home of 14 years had been deeply flooded. The neighborhood where was renting an apartment was fine because it was in Carrollton, an old part of the city on the natural high ground built by the Mississippi River. But on this occasion, I was not allowed to go to my apartment. We were there strictly on official business and we loaded up the trucks and drove back to Walker.
I was very fortunate to still have a job and an intact home, and eventually, we set up a place to work for a year in Walker. Our offices on the UNO campus were closed off for that duration. The fall semester, which had been so rudely interrupted by Katrina, continued in some fashion with online classes, but mostly it was a wash. Students scattered to other institutions to try to continue their studies, only slowly trickling back as accommodation was hard to come by. Residents of the city were able to return neighborhood by neighborhood in October, about six weeks after the storm. Most had to commute from outlying areas to begin work on their wrecked homes (remember the count of flooded houses in New Orleans alone was 134,000). The traffic was bumper to bumper from Baton Rouge to New Orleans with materials for rebuilding being shipped in. Recovery had to start from scratch. At first, the power supply was spotty and the infrastructure sparse, with few services such as groceries, doctors, etc. It was very hard to imagine how the city could possibly recover. I returned in November, having exhausted accommodation options, but still had to commute 1-2 hours to Walker to go to work.
One of the tasks I had in my varied job as a research associate after Katrina was to accompany a photographer who was working on documenting the aftermath of the storm. This took us to many outlying neighborhoods in St. Bernard parish as well as all over New Orleans. Shattered neighborhoods were silent and empty. Dried mud covered everything. Cars sat atop fallen roofs and household items and children’s toys were strewn across the landscape. This was before rebuilding began in earnest, but signs of activity were here and there. Homemade yard signs and sculptures made from the debris were evidence of the enduring humor of the south Louisiana people. Later the sounds of hammering and voices of the thousands of volunteers and day laborers who poured in to help rebuild filled the eerie silence. It was to be a long and difficult road to recovery and one of the many details that we could not fathom before the impending disaster happened, despite all the warnings. Year by year, for the first decade, New Orleans slowly became a fully functioning community. The levees were rebuilt and reinforced. The scars are still clearly visible with swaths of vacant land where there were once neighborhoods and shopping centers, but lives have been rebuilt and the city has moved on.
Hurricane Katrina Damages
I was literally one of the first people into Miami after Hurricane Andrew roared ashore on August 24th, 1992. I was on my way down to South Florida to fly to Cuba for fieldwork when I heard about the storm approaching. I had a seat on a charter flight, very difficult to obtain so there was no backing out or changes possible. The storm accelerated in the couple of days before slamming into southern Dade county leaving folks little time to prepare. I had lived in South Florida in the late 1980s and grew used to the days-long wait as storms approached, store shelves emptied out, windows were boarded up, only to see the storm veer off or weaken at the last minute. So it was easy to see how everyone was a little complacent in 1992.
Andrew formed over the Atlantic on August 16th, 1992 but very rapidly gained strength on August 23rd over the Bahamas. The storm made landfall in the early morning hours of August 24th near Homestead FL as a category 5 storm with sustained winds of 165 mph making it one of the strongest storms ever to make landfall. Gusts were over 175 and there were reports of gauges on boats recording 195 mph. The fact that the storm intensified so fast as it approached also increased the shock of the damage.
I packed my truck full of coolers, water, camping gas canisters, canned goods, and tarps, left Chapel Hill in the early afternoon of the 24th, and arrived in Miami in the early morning hours of the 25th. One good thing about a hurricane is the cops let you speed, I made 862 miles in just over 10 hours! The morning brought into focus the extent of the damage, but also how most of the heavily populated central and northern part of Miami had minimal damage and had really dodged a bullet. If the storm had gone just 10 miles further north the cost would have been far, far higher. But that was of no consolation to the communities that got hit, and hit very hard. In Kendall and South Miami, where I used to live, and in the Homestead, Cutler Ridge and Perrine areas the damage was unlike anything I had ever seen. It was like Andrew had mowed down the whole landscape, houses included. Almost every home had extensive roof damage, windows had blown out, and houses and pools were full of debris and sand. Some areas were worse than others with whole parts of homes completely destroyed. But the very worst areas were cordoned off by police and inaccessible. Almost every palm tree had lost all of its leaves and palm fronds were everywhere. Roofs of gas stations were now mangled metal and road signs and billboards were flattened. The sun was out and blazing, but power was out everywhere. People were in a daze and told harrowing stories of nights spent in bathtubs covered by mattresses only to emerge to see their homes almost gone. My supplies were happily accepted. I spent much of the next few days nailing tarps to roofs in the blazing sun before leaving for Cuba. It was amazing to leave powerless South Florida and arrive in the relative comforts of the communist country. My Andrew experience left an indelible mark on me, it made me in awe of the force of nature and fascinated by hurricanes and the threat they cause to coastal communities. From then on I became an avid storm watcher, glued to the Weather Channel when a storm was active and to the National Hurricane Center’s website. I’ve seen how sophisticated prediction has become, but, even then, there is still a lot of uncertainty which makes living in a coastal community very challenging in the summertime.
I experienced a hurricane up close, Hurricane Fran in Chapel Hill, North Carolina in 1996, although the storm was very minor compared to Andrew and Katrina. The storm was just turning seaward when I went to bed and the TV forecaster said “looks like we are out of the woods, folks” then the power went out. Imagine the shock then when a 150-foot red oak fell on our tin roof at 2 AM! The noise was deafening and woke me out of a deep sleep. Outside the wind was incredible and all I could hear was the snapping of trees then the boom as they hit the ground, tcshick-thud, tcshick-thud, tcshick-thud, tcshick-thud. They were snapping like matches! It was pitch dark and impossible to see anything and I was terrified (living through a storm is much worse at night believe me!). As I wandered around the house everything looked OK………until water started pouring through the light fixtures and terrified squirrels who came down with the tree and into the house came out of their dazes! Luckily we didn’t have to wait long to see the damage in the daylight, the huge oak tree had cut our roof in two, but fortunately hit the edge of the house so much of it was spared. It could have easily hit me when I was sleeping. Neighbors didn’t fare as well, whole pieces of houses were lifted out of their foundations by giant trees, people were trapped in their bedrooms, and cars were cut in half. Turns out the damage was done by microburst tornadoes spun off by the storm. Sustained winds in our neighborhood were about 60 mph but the tornadoes were over 100 mph.
After the storm came weeks-long rebuilding effort, eight hot days with no power, the constant buzz of chainsaws through the daylight hours, nights of curfew, haggling with the insurance companies. Within months things were back to normal, but the psychological scars were there for years, sleepless nights when thunderstorms came, worrying about which trees could fall and what direction they would fall in. The worrying would increase in summer as storms approached. But my Fran experience was nothing like what people who have lived through category 4 and 5 storms have gone through. And specifically what Dinah went through during and after Katrina.