Wednesday, August 31, 2005

August 31, 2005

We are watching the news like everyone else in the country. Hurricane Katrina has devastated the Gulf Coast oof Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. We used to live in Long Beach, Mississippi, right next to Gulfport. The neighborhood where we lived is gone.

We evacuated out of there ourselves when Hurricane Elena (1985) hit. At the time, it was the largest peacetime evacuation ever. We spent 2 nights in a shelter. My husband and some of his Battalion weren't there, so I was alone. When I arrived at the shelter with my children, 4 other military wives and their children, whom I'd picked up in my van because they had to bring baby things...we found ourselves sharing floor space with heavy equipment. We were in the SeaBee Battalion's warehouse for construction equipment. There were 5,000 people in there, most of them military spouses and dependents, although there were many civilians. We miltary wives came semi-prepared with blankets, snacks, drinks and games. We spread all the blankets on the dirty floor, stationed ourselves at the corners and only allowed the kids to play on the blankets. Several of us started the kids singing and playing games so they'd be entertained while we waited.

Because we were only expected to stay a few hours, no one had thought to provide water or food, except what they were carrying. I brought two 5 gallon containers of water for our group. We ended up in the shelter overnight. Little did I know that I was the ONLY person in the shelter with water. At the end of the night I was only filling baby bottles with what was left of my 10 gallons of water. The adults and older kids had to tough it out.

We were allowed to go home that morning. Within hours we were being told to evacuate again - Elena had gone out to sea for a time and then turned and decided to come back in. Police cars with bullhorns were driving through our neighborhood advising people to leave the area. By then, the outer bands were hitting and the rain and wind were already starting.

We evacuated to the shelter once more. I picked up the wives and this time we took more food and water. The Navy was more prepared, too. They had large tanks of potable water and cases of MREs. We stayed overnight again and at one point everyone clung to each other in terror as the roof and sides of the warehouse were pounded with what sounded like a million rocks. More people were in the shelter that night, too. It was hot, muggy and tense. The military dispensed MREs for dinner that night. I was the only one who got steak. I ate mine, which tasted pretty good at the time (later experimentation made me realize I was incredibly hungry and ANYTHING would've tasted good! MREs do NOT taste good in normal circumstances!).

At one point, clasutrophobia was overwhelming us. One of the military personnel opened a large garage door a mere crack to let air in. We wives took turns going over to the garage door and laying on the dirty floor with our noses up against the crack to get the merest breath of fresh air.

The next morning we were let loose once again. We came out to massive destruction. I had to drive on lawns to get people home - the streets were filled with debris.

I had filled the bathtubs with water and also all our watering cans. I had food, too. The girls were hungry so I dragged out the grill and began breakfast. I couldn't cook in the backyard, it was filled with debris. I was worried about snakes.

Next thing I know - people were coming to my driveway. Mostly neighbors, some of their friends. Except for the occasional steak or piece of chicken, they'd never cooked over open fire. I fed scrambled eggs, oatmeal and pancakes to every person who walked up. My neighbor across the street helped. That afternoon - we found two more grills and set up to feed the neighborhood. We told people to bring whatever was in their freezers, since it would begin rotting anyway, and we started cooking. Every morning and evening for a week, the neighbors and I shared food, cooking twice a day on those three grills.

At night, because of looters, I moved the girls and the cat back to the master bedroom and locked the bedroom door. I left a propane lantern running in the living room all night. We had to leave the sliding glass door in the bedroom open - it was so hot! Every morning when I opened the bedroom door the smell of propane fuel was staggering and the living room was incredibly hot. But there was no way I was leaving the light off - we lived close to the beach and the looters were ransacking dark, empty houses. I kept the gun nearby, too on the closet shelf where the girls couldn't get to it.

We flushed the toilets with dirty bathwater. I had a small plastic dishpan and bathed the girls and myself in it - wiping down in what is called a Marine bath. Then I saved the water and used it to flush the toilets. The clean water in the bathtubs was used for drinking. I boiled it first just to be sure it was safe.

A week went by with no power. Then one of our neighbors got power to her house. She left her back door unlocked and allowed all the neighbors in to do laundry. I did several loads, passing by neighbors also coming in to do loads. We simply took turns.

The next day the power came back on for all of us. The part of my hsuband's Battalion who were still in town began volunteering to help clean up the place. A bunch of civilian contractors in the area were upset because they were "losing" business from not being able to CHARGE for cleanup services and the military were ordered to stop cleanup. There was more than enough work for everyone, but these clean-up business owners saw dollar signs for months...unless the miltary cleaned it all up too soon! Many of the military men went out and volunteered on their own after work hours.

I spent the first day with power chopping up the 7 downed trees in our backyard. I piled the debris out by the curb when I finished. Everyone else did too. It was many weeks before it was picked up.

Hurricane Elena was a Catagory 3. Damage was estimated to be around 1.8 billion. God only knows if the Gulf Coast cities affected by Hurricane Katrina will recover. The thousands of people who lived and worked there...its all gone. Even with my experience, I cannot imagine what its like. I came back to a damaged but repairable home. For the victims of Katrina...they are coming back to nothing. My heart and my prayers go out to them.


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