NOTE: Today I am writing about things … things lost in Katrina and things salvaged. While I enjoy things, people are much more important. So, first I want to make that point clear. Katrina taught me that one can live without most of the material things we hold dear. Our stuff was in storage for eight months and we made it just fine. You cannot make it without family and friends.
On Oct. 6, 2005, Kimberly and I picked up a rental truck in Meridian, Miss., and made our way toward New Orleans. We would be sleeping on the floor at First Baptist Mandeville for the night. Three guys from Georgia (whom we had never met) planned to meet us there. They were on a mission trip to Gulfport, Miss., helping with hurricane relief at our old church. They heard we needed help and couldn’t resist the chance to see post-Katrina New Orleans.
Our small crew got up early Oct. 7 and hit the road around 5 a.m. We crossed Lake Ponchartrain on the 26-mile Causeway bridge from Mandeville to Metairie. It was slow going on the Causeway, lots of traffic. We reached New Orleans before dawn. And though I was eager to get started we took the long way to campus (I-10 rather than I-610). I-10 makes a deep loop toward downtown mirroring the curve of the Mississippi River (the “crescent” of the Crescent City). Ahead, I could see the lights of the Central Business District as we traveled south on I-10, but to my left, the Mid-City neighborhood was dark. In fact, most of the city was dark. We made the loop and headed north into darkness as we drove toward campus. Before long I saw a sight that gave me chills. It was the steeple of Leavell Chapel on our campus. It was lit … one small, shining light in a sea of darkness. It was very meaningful to me. The shining steeple could be seen from several miles in every direction. It was one moment of hope and happiness on an otherwise bleak day.
The campus was already buzzing with activity, just as it was when I was there two days earlier. We made our way to the back of campus to our building. We found our apartment much as we had left it (except for the horrible smell). Kimberly had just stocked up on meat the week before we evacuated. The smell of rotting food (especially the meat) and the mold from the apartments below was overwhelming. The air was thick with humidity. Every porous thing in the apartment had picked up the dreaded smell. Books, clothes, towels, sheets, chairs, mattresses and our couch absorbed the smell. Enough about the smell for now. Unless you’ve helped clean out a flooded, molded home (or apartments above flooded homes) you wouldn’t understand.
Now I don’t know about you, but usually, when we move, it takes us weeks to pack. This time we only had a day to pack, load and unload the truck. We worked hard all day packing and carrying things to the truck. We decided to leave some things that were not worth the effort to clean — our worn-out couch, some of Jonathan’s stuffed toys and many other items. We also had to leave our washing machine. Somehow, flood water had backed up into the washer and had even spilled over into the laundry closet, the dining room, and the hall closet. Talk about a smell. The smelly overflow water took out a few items in a hall closet.
As hard as we worked, we still ran out of time. We left many things that we wanted to take because we just didn’t have time to pack it up before the 6 p.m. campus closing time (the city was still under a night curfew).
Even four years after the storm I am still realizing the things we left at our apartment (that we didn’t want to leave). Just the other day I was looking for my large artboard (which I had used since my sophomore year in college) and then remembered that it was ruined by the washing machine overflow water.
So with the help of the guys from Georgia and several members of the Oregon National Guard, we packed what we could and around 6 p.m. we headed for Meridian.
The day was a physical, emotional and mental assault – a battering of body, soul, and mind. Seeing our flooded car, bikes, grill, Jonathan’s wagon, etc., was tough. Then there was the guilt. We had been spared … at least in comparison to our neighbors up and down the street who lost everything. We talked to people that day who were only able to salvage a few items, yet we had a whole (BIG) truckload of smelly stuff. We hurt for our neighbors because of what they lost. Then we dreaded the long process of cleaning our stuff that we were in for because so much was spared.
The usually 3.5-hour drive took about 4.5 due to extreme traffic flowing from the city. Kimberly’s Dad and brother met us in Meridian to help unload the truck. It was late and unloading took a while. We then had to gas the truck and return it.
I parked the truck at the rental place just about midnight and ran to the drop box with the keys and paperwork. I then ran to our van. We were ready for sleep. All the running took place under the watchful eye of a Meridian police officer. He pulled over to investigate. Just for a moment, I thought “I’m going to have a nervous breakdown.” But I didn’t. I didn’t give him a chance to say anything. I spoke first and laid it out plain and simple what we had been through that day and that I wasn’t in the mood for a hassle. He believed our ridiculous, but true story and sent us on our way.
The move-out day was the longest and hardest day of the whole Katrina experience. Raw emotions were laid bare. Happiness mingled with guilt. I also wondered if I should really be happy our stuff was okay … now we had to pay for storage and we would have to work hard to clean it all. The burden of having most of our stuff was a different burden than many others were facing, but it was a burden nonetheless.
I slept well that night. I think it took me three days to get that smell out of my nose.