OpEd: Remembering Hurricane Katrina & 8 Years of Survivors’ Guilt

KSatellite-labeledToday, I paused at 9:29 am, the time Hurricane Katrina went over my house 8 years ago and changed everything I knew about life and home.  The power had gone off at 5:31 a.m., and we spent the next 12 hours riding out the storm, in the hallway, hearing parts of the roof breaking off, hearing parts of the neighbors’ houses breaking off and crashing into ours, and thinking the whole house was going to fly off the foundation as the 200-mile wide storm passed over, sounding like a hundred angry freight trains ready to rip us to shreds.

After it was over, we were alive and unhurt.  There was damage to the house inside and out as well as to the property.  We survived when others did not.  We had 4 walls standing when others did not.  I felt guilty.

For weeks after, we got our food by standing in distribution lines for hours in the 94-degree sun.  We ate MRE’s — the military’s Meals Ready to Eat, and I felt guilty for eating food meant for our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Soldiers just back from combat arrived to clear roads and hand out food and water to the adults and stuffed animals to the kids, including my daughter.  One soldier just off the plane from Iraq told me the Mississippi Gulf Coast looked worse than Baghdad.  These soldiers should have been home with their families, and I felt guilty we needed them more.

Our first responders went through hell emotionally and psychologically as search and rescue missions became search and recover.  I felt guilty I couldn’t help them.  I met firefighters from New York — if anyone knew about dealing with a disaster, these men did.  I had seen the rubble of the World Trade Center in February 2003.  I told them I couldn’t believe they were here to help us when they were still hurting.  I felt guilty even more.

Then-President Bush was on vacation in Texas when Katrina happened.  He remained on vacation for 5 days, while people here on the Mississippi Gulf Coast went without food or water for 4 days.  Within a couple days of the storm, the National Guard arrived, after having had to chainsaw and remove over 2 miles of downed trees on the main highway into the Coast, so they could start bringing in supplies to the Coast’s 150,000 residents.

When the power was restored in my neighborhood on September 10th at 8:41 p.m., I instantly tried to get online.  I found my show’s cast was safe, albeit scattered around the country — one guy even evacuated to Australia.  I was informed I was listed on the Red Cross’ website under Missing or Dead.  I emailed my director mentor in New York to let him know I was okay, but he asked what I meant.  I told him we had gone through Hurricane Katrina.  He said, “No, Katrina hit New Orleans.  I haven’t heard anything about Mississippi in the news.”

The media was only covering New Orleans, whose levees broke the day after Katrina.  Mississippi was barely mentioned.  No one knew what we were going through, and I was pissed.  And I still am.  Even the Washington Post ran an OpEd piece saying all federal disaster funds should go to New Orleans, and that if Mississippi, Alabama, or Texas took any federal emergency aid, we were stealing from the poor people of Louisiana.  The writer — all of America — didn’t know the truth about what happened.

Hurricanes break up once they hit land, spawning tornadoes, but Katrina was still classified as a Cat 1 hurricane as it went over northern Mississippi, over 350 miles north of the coastline.   Later, weather geeks argued that Katrina was “only” a Category 3 storm — as if that changed the damage inflicted or the lives lost.  Hurricane Katrina was a HUGE storm.  And Mississippi took the full brunt of Katrina.  We didn’t wait for people to give us hand-outs.  We didn’t have mayors getting on TV demanding the government clean up our towns.  We just helped each other and began cleaning up debris.

Volunteers from around the world arrived to help, and we owe them.  The volunteers were the key to our survival.

On the 5th anniversary of Katrina, I moved out of my bad marriage and settled in the artists’ hamlet called Ocean Springs, MS.  The recovery of Katrina has been difficult for everyone, and for those of us still dealing with the PTSD of the experience, emotions can still get the best of us sometimes.  But every day is a welcomed blessing.

The month of August is a tenuous time here.  Baby boomers remember Hurricane Camille, the storm that was supposed to be the storm to end all storms.  They never expected to see another one, or see one that was worse.  Hearing the stories of Camille, those of us who came after that storm figured we’d never see anything like it.  Katrina took us all by surprise.

I know the U.S. hates Mississippi, but many wonderful people here were devastated by Katrina in ways you can’t know unless you also have been in a horrible disaster.  I will commemorate Katrina by being grateful for being alive to tell the tale and let the world know the people here in Mississippi are survivors.  And for that, I am proud.