For 37 days following Hurricane Katrina, we could not return to New Orleans or the seminary campus. The city and the campus were closed. The seminary administrators had to wait to open the campus until city officials gave the okay for residents to return. Once the city was open, they had to wait for the campus to dry out. It was a hard wait.
The seminary devised a phased move-out plan for seminary families. Between Oct. 5-9, the campus would be open for residents to come in and salvage their personal items from campus dorms, apartments, and houses. After Oct. 9. the campus would return to lock-down and the multi-million dollar restoration would begin. Our day was set for Oct. 7, however, I had to go Oct. 5 for work (interviewing campus residents and taking photos for an article).
We had about a week of lead time to find a moving truck and place to store our stuff. That sounds easy, but due to all the damage miles and miles inland, many trucks, trailers, and storage units were not available. Some of our friends rented trucks and trailers in Georgia and Alabama. We found a truck in Hattiesburg, Miss., and a storage unit in Meridian, Miss. (3 ½ hours north of New Orleans). I would travel to Mandeville, La., Oct. 4, and go to campus Oct. 5. I would return to Hickory, Miss., that night and the next day we would travel back to Mandeville to get ready for a hard day moving our stuff.
I entered New Orleans shortly after dawn Oct. 5. The city was devastated. A gray and brown, dusty patina covered the ground. Everything was dead – no color anywhere. Our once beautiful campus was equally drab. Dust, leaves, plant debris and broken limbs covered the ground. It was an assault on the senses – especially the senses of sight and smell.
Every door, on campus and off, had a brightly colored spray-painted “X” to signify the dwelling had been searched by the police or National Guard. At the top and the sides of the “X,” information about the search date and search team was displayed. At the bottom, there was another number. You wanted to see a zero because the number signified how many dead bodies were found in the dwelling. Thankfully, every door on campus had a zero at the bottom.
I went first to our old apartment for a quick peek. It stank. It looked much the way we left it, except for the large house flies buzzing throughout the rooms. I then stopped for a look at our beloved-but-worn-out Honda Civic which had been swamped by 9 feet of water. Sad. Then I got to the tough emotional task of reporting the events of the day.
A somber sadness hung over the campus. Residents worked busily to clean out their belongings. Soon large piles of broken memories and once-precious things littered the yards in front of the faculty homes and student dorms. This had to be the hardest part of the whole Katrina experience — letting go of ruined irreplaceable photos and heirlooms.
It hurt to see the faculty members hurt. Over the years I had learned much from these men and women. We had often laughed and joked together. We had even traveled the world together. No journalistic distance here … no detachment.
I walked around campus, visiting homes and apartments, taking photos and interviewing people as they sorted through moldering mementos from happier times. I felt so uncomfortable – like an intruder witnessing private moments of pain and grief that I shouldn’t see.
While I was in New Orleans, Kimberly was trying to find another truck. The truck in Hattiesburg had fallen through. We knew they were struggling to find new tires for the truck the week before, but we thought they would be able to solve the issue. Even that long after Katrina, supplies (like truck tires) were depleted as far north as Memphis. They simply were not able to get a set of tires in time and therefore, they could not rent the truck. Kimberly called around and found a truck in Meridian. One catch, we could pick up the truck on Oct. 6, but we had to have it back in Meridian Oct. 7 before midnight. We had no choice. We had to agree to the terms.
After a hard day interviewing hurting people Oct. 5, I drove back to Hickory. It was a long, lonely drive. The sights and smells haunted my thoughts. Seeing the city and campus in such a state of utter ruin was shocking and traumatic. The campus was in bad shape, but the city was in bad shape times ten. Being there brought more questions than answers. A quick recovery seemed impossible.