Most people cannot believe it when I tell them that my father, my cat, and I evacuated from my home on the actual day of Hurricane Katrina in the middle of the storm’s fury, but we did. It almost cost us our lives, but a miracle that occurred on a bridge in Mississippi saved us.
I need to start off my story three days before the storm hit to show how it led up to our being in such a dire predicament. Three days prior to the storm, it was just another ordinary beginning of a weekend. That Friday, August 26, I administered a test to my Fine Arts Survey class at Andrew Jackson Fundamental Magnet High School in Chalmette, Louisiana, where I had been teaching for thirty years. Chalmette is in St. Bernard Parish, a suburb just outside of New Orleans. At the end of the school day, I left the building with the test papers in my briefcase and a smile on my face, looking forward to the weekend. I bid goodbye to my students and peers with the addition of, “See you Monday,” completely oblivious of the fact that by Monday, there would be no more Andrew Jackson Fundamental Magnet High School or any other school in St. Bernard Parish. There would be no more jobs, no more community, many deaths, and the beginnings of a new way of life foreign to all of us. The weather reports said that the new hurricane named Katrina was headed to Florida, so we didn’t give a thought to it at that point in time.
I didn’t watch the weather report during the day Saturday, but by the night report, the storm had not made the predicted “turn to the east” that would take it directly to Florida. It appeared to be coming our way, but yet the prediction was still made that it would turn east. Just as a precaution, I got on the Internet and logged on to a site for “pet friendly” motels to see if there were any openings for my seven cats, my father, and me. There were no openings for Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, or Texas. There was no way that I would leave my cats. Being single and living with my then eighty-eight year old handicapped father, they were my little “fur children.”
On Sunday, my father and I got dressed and arrived at our parish church, St. Robert Bellarmine, for Mass, only to discover that the parking lot was empty and the church was locked up. Even the priest was gone. We went to two other churches in our area, but they were also closed. When we got home, we turned on the television, which now had continuous weather reports. The prediction was now ominous. The storm had not turned east, and it didn’t look like it intended to do so. My father’s brother in Minden called and invited us to stay there, and my aunt in Mobile invited us to go there; but in neither case, could I bring all my cats with us. I figured that if the storm came, we would just stay.
By Sunday evening, many of the citizens of the metro New Orleans area had already left in a bumper-to-bumper ride to get out of the now- predicted path of the storm. My relatives from Minden and Mobile called again and again, but I was still determined to stay with my cats. Much later that night the news report said that if anyone hadn’t gone yet, it was probably too late to leave; and they would just have to secure everything and bunk down for the storm. By this time, the wind was starting to howl and the rain was really coming down. I realized that my father would not be able to climb up the ladder leading to the entrance of our attic and hoist himself up there in case some water would come into the house. In Hurricane Betsy in 1965, we only got about 4 � feet of water inside the house, and I didn’t expect that there would be any more than that, if it flooded at all.
I hurried up and went into the cats’ room, which was really a half-enclosed screened porch on the back of the house. We had pulled down the heavy plastic shade on the outside of the porch and tied it tightly so the rain wouldn’t come in, which is what we always did whenever there was inclement weather. I put up three ladders for the cats to climb, in case water came in. There were also several plastic bookcases on which they could climb.
The only cat that I said I absolutely had to take was my “senior citizen” cat, Sox; he wouldn’t be able to climb as easily as the others. I put him in his case and packed him in my car along with his food, water bowl, and litter box. I tossed in a few clothes for my father and me, along with my laptop, printer, teacher’s editions, and students’ test papers; and the three of us headed out into the hard, driving rain and strong winds of Hurricane Katrina, with Mobile as our destination. It was now 2:30 A.M. on Monday, August 29; it was just about six hours before the devastating surge of water would inundate our home along with the rest of our community.
If there was any consolation in leaving at this time, it was that there was virtually no traffic on the Interstate. Everyone who had planned to evacuate had already done so many hours before. All along the route, the bright blue flashings of transformers blowing out acted like photographers snapping celebrities. Although the rain was pouring, we encountered no actual flooding up to that point. When we were approaching Pascagoula, Mississippi, which is on the route to Mobile, we had to go over the bridge known by locals as the “long bridge,” which crosses the Pascagoula River. I drove partway up the bridge, and my father told me to watch out because I was veering a little too much toward the right. I tried to slow down so I could swerve back to the correct lane; but I realized that instead of slowing down, my car was speeding up and wouldn’t stop. I panicked! My father said to put on the emergency brake. I did, but the car continued to speed. When I looked out the side window, I could see the blur of the little spokes on the railing of the bridge as they went whizzing by. He said to put the car in “park.” This didn’t work either. I looked ahead in horror as the car was “barreling” down the road on the bridge. I started to pray out loud. Finally, my father said to take the keys out of the ignition. I did it. The car stopped. I was very much out of breath from the ordeal, but my father seemed strangely calm. After I regained my composure to a certain extent, he told me that all the time I thought my car was speeding down the road, the car was actually stationary.
“What? No indeed!” I said. “I saw the little spokes of the railing on the bridge go whizzing by, and I saw them stop when my car stopped! My car was moving, and FAST!” I said.
But my father still insisted that we didn’t move an inch. Resolved to finally get over the bridge and on our way, I started the car, but it wouldn’t budge when I put it in “drive.” Of course, I panicked again. To make things worse, my father and I both noticed that the waves from the normally shallow and calm Pascagoula River were beginning to dash up on the bridge, and the wind was pushing hard against my stopped car. I began to get totally hysterical, constantly praying out loud. I really thought we would go into the water. My father got out my cell phone, dialed 911, and handed it to me. The operator came on; and amid my screams, pleadings, prayers, and hysterics, I told her where we were and what happened. Of course, the operator told me that we shouldn’t have been out in the hurricane in the first place, but I didn’t need to be told that. I began to get hysterical again. She told me that a trooper would soon be coming to help us, and she tried to calm me down with questions. She wanted to know who was in the car with me.
I answered,” My father and my cat.”
She then started asking silly questions like, “What is your cat’s name? What color is he? What color is your car?”
I answered her questions amid screams, prayers, sobs, and hysterics. The water kept splashing over the bridge, and the car was still being buffeted by the strong wind. Now, my father was also very nervous. Sox didn’t say a word.
Finally, the state trooper came up on the bridge, his yellow slicker flailing out behind him like a cape. He came up to my window.
“Back your car down off the bridge and into the rest area at the foot of the bridge,” he said.
“ Back it down? It was because my car wouldn’t move that I called 911 in the first place!” I thought.
I put the key in the ignition; then put in “reverse”; and to my surprise, the car started immediately and moved easily, which allowed me to back it down into the rest area as the trooper ordered. He then came up to my window and told me not to try to go up on that bridge again and to stay at the rest area until someone would come to rescue us. We were then told that not long before we ascended the bridge and just a little distance from where we were, a barge had broken lose and rammed it, taking out a huge portion of it. The huge portion that was not too far ahead of us had fallen into the river. There was no sign put up because it was in the middle of the hurricane. Unknowingly, we were on our way to that point where there was no bridge left at all, and we would have gone into the river! I then remembered that my father said that the car had stopped from the moment I slowed down to swerve back into my lane. He said it remained still all the time I was screaming about us speeding uncontrollably down the road of the bridge. I also must have just imagined that the car wouldn’t move when I went to go again after the imaginary “speeding” incident because it moved easily, both forward and backwards when the trooper told me to back down the bridge and go to the rest area! In other words, I imagined all the problems with the car; and this imagination is what saved our lives!
What caused me to imagine those things? Why didn’t we just keep going until we plunged off the edge of the damaged bridge and into the river? Was it a miracle? Did God keep us from drowning by allowing my mind to imagine that my car was malfunctioning just to make me call 911 and thus prevent me from driving to my doom? Was it my prayers to Mary to intercede with her son Jesus on my behalf? Did my deceased mother ask God to let her warn me, and He did? Was it my Guardian Angel? Was it a combination of all of these? In any case, I firmly believe that it was not a natural coincidence, and no one to whom I tell this does either. I just know that my dad, my cat, and I would not be here today had it not been for this miracle.
This bridge incident has evidently been recorded in tape by television stations. My Mobile cousin’s mother-in-law said she watched a news show played in Mobile about heroes of Katrina, and one of the “heroes” was a trooper who came to the aid of some people trapped on that bridge. The reporter interviewed the trooper, and they played a 911 tape with a hysterical woman screaming about being trapped on the bridge. After the tape was played, the trooper told the newsman, “And I got there just in time.” This must have been sent to other stations because a friend of mine told me that his cousin saw the same program in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the same day. Now that the horror of it is over, I would love to see that broadcast and hear my tape. I wish there was a way for me to do this.
After the trooper left us at the rest area where we were supposed to be rescued, we spent an hour being battered by flying debris. The “rescuers” never came to get us, so we decided to venture out on our own to find another route to Mobile. The wind and rain wasn’t quite as bad as it was, and we could tell that the worst of the storm had passed. On the way, we ran into countless roads that were underwater and lots of tree branches and debris on the roads until I got a flat tire just outside of Gulfport. Several trooper cars went by despite my horn blowing. Finally, a wonderful man and his wife, who were coming back to see if they still had a house, stopped to help. He got out in the rain, changed the tire, and put on the little “donut tire” that came with the car. My dad gave him a twenty-dollar bill to take his wife to dinner; once again, we were on our way.
A trooper who saw us on the road came by and told us that we needed to get out of the weather and into a shelter, even though the storm was almost over. He directed us to a school in Gulfport, and we spent the next three nights in that shelter without electricity or running water. Sox had to stay outside in his carrying case, but he had company since many evacuees took their pets. I slept with Sox at night in my car, so he could run free and have his litter box handy. Most of the evacuees were from the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and their homes were literally torn apart by the huge storm surge from the Gulf of Mexico a few hours before. There were also a very few residents of our own St. Bernard Parish who somehow wound up there, and it was they who told us that our community had been devastated by walls of water and levee breaches. Our own subdivision, Carolyn Park, went under at least twelve feet of water.
I cried,” My cats! They’ve drowned! I left my ‘children’ home and they drowned!” I felt like the most unfit mother on earth!
I’ve never forgotten that and never will. I continually, even to this day, envision them howling and trying desperately to hold on as the ladders topple over, pushed by the water’s force. I see them trying to save themselves by climbing up the screens and trying to hold on as the water rises until it covers them. A neighbor who stayed and rescued people using his boat said he thought he heard a woman’s screams coming from my house. I realize that it was probably the cats.
I also realize now that neither my father nor I would have survived the flood if we had stayed. With a one-story home, twelve feet of water would have been way up in the attic; I can’t swim, and my father is handicapped.
Meanwhile, my relatives in Mobile were frantically trying to find us. They finally went to one of the Mobile television stations and got the list of refugees at all the shelters in Mississippi and found our names. They picked us up three days later when the roads were again passable. We went to my cousin’s home and stayed with her and her immediate family until mid-October.
In mid-September, the St. Bernard Parish officials gave its residents the appointed days when each section of the parish could visit, salvage what they could, and then leave until further notice. We went on our appointed day. Although my father was not able to enter the house because of his leg problems and all the slippery, thick mud that was on the floor; he wore the same decontamination suit that my cousin and I wore. It included a white coverall suit, mask, goggles, gloves, and boots. The stench was awful as we entered. It was supposed to be the smell of death. Because the water had risen quite a bit into the attic, all the ceilings in the house came down; and with it came the dirty, wet, pink insulation and many things that were stored in the attic for many years. Everything was ruined. My parents’ framed wedding and fiftieth wedding anniversary portraits were no longer on the wall, but rather lay broken, wet, moldy, and faded in the stinking, wet mud on the floor. My father’s car, turned sideways on the carport, was in the same condition as the possessions in the house. I hadn’t taken any photograph albums when we evacuated, and I was anxious to salvage what I could of them. As I opened each wet album, I discovered that all the pictures were ruined. We had stored a big box of photographs that included those of my parents, grandparents, and myself as babies and children, way up on the top shelf of the closet of my father’s bedroom. When I opened the box, not one picture was salvageable.
I thought about my cats in the porch. The back door of the kitchen, which led into the porch, was blocked; so nobody could go in at that time. It was just as well because I just couldn’t bring myself to go near the porch. I became sick, and we had to leave after taking only a few ruined photographs and some blackened silverware.
As if it weren’t bad enough, the day after we went to see our home, Hurricane Rita, which didn’t actually hit the New Orleans area, caused a storm surge that came through the already-breeched levee at the Industrial Canal, which contributed to our original flooding during Katrina; and we were flooded again. This put off our next visit until the end of September, at which time my cousin, her husband, and another cousin, a Navy SEAL from California, joined me in the journey through my home to salvage things. The worst part of that visit was the sight of the message that the Humane Society spray-painted on the front of the house. It read, “5 Cats-D.O.A.” I didn’t need to see that. They evidently didn’t see one of them because there were six cats in there. One of my cousins scrubbed the message off because he saw how it was affecting me. This time we got more black silverware, jewelry, and some dirty ceramics.
We realized that traveling to the New Orleans area from Mobile was too far and too tiring, so we knew we had to find a place nearer. Fortunately, another family member offered an apartment in the back yard of his home in the town of Jefferson in nearby Jefferson Parish for us to stay. It was only one room, but we were grateful. We were able to make frequent visits to our flooded Arabi home until we were able to gather what we could. My cousin, the Navy SEAL, gathered the remains of my six cats, and, as he put it, disposed of them properly. There wasn’t really anything left of them, but I couldn’t bear to look. I didn’t even go that day.
The Navy SEAL cousin stayed for two weeks and gutted the house until there was nothing much left of it than moldy studs, a slab, a roof, some mud mixed with ruined possessions downstairs, and ruined things in the attic.
Catholic Charities came down and did some more cleaning for us at a later date but didn’t go into the attic either. We finally had to hire a man with a crew of Mexicans to go up in the attic and finish the job.
As if all this wasn’t enough, in February, my father had a minor stroke. He awoke one morning and his left hand wouldn’t move. It just hung down. I noticed that he was also speaking strangely. The doctor said it was probably a minor stroke and put him on medication, which helped. I know it was all the stress that caused it.
I was thankful that the little apartment had a basin in the back yard. I used it to wash the salvaged things. I washed the salvaged dishes, glassware, china, ceramics, jewelry, and other items in bleach, Lysol, Spic-N-Span, and hot water.
As time went on, life in the little one-room apartment was really getting stressful, mostly because we were very cramped with boxes of salvaged belongings in there. We tried to find bigger places to rent, but all the apartments were already rented and had long waiting lists. Homes for rent were scarce, and those that were available were outrageously high-priced. In March we finally found a house to rent. It suited us because it had a large shed in the back yard where we could store some of the salvaged possessions, and it didn’t cost an arm and a leg--well, maybe just an arm. It was still in Jefferson Parish, but this time it was in the town of Metairie.
Today we are still renting the home in Metairie in an area that did not flood. The home is nice and spacious, and my cat has room to romp. My father’s hand has improved to the point that he can eat with it. He is left-handed, so he really worked to get that hand moving. We’re waiting to see what this coming hurricane season brings before we decide where to locate. We have gutted our flooded Arabi home and we hired a man to cut the grass there every two weeks. We shut the windows and will purchase and install doors to keep it secure. We are just going to wait and see what this summer brings.
One thing is for sure. If a storm is in the Gulf and headed toward us, we are not going to even contemplate staying. We will join the rest of the “bumper-to-bumper” crowd. It’s better than having no traffic in the middle of a hurricane. I think we were miraculously saved on that bridge for a reason, and that reason could be the message that one does not stay to “ride out” a hurricane.