Its been nearly a week since Hurricane Katrina came roaring into Louisiana ripping roofs from homes, knocking down utility lines, sending water surging into streets, houses and buildings in New Orleans, Slidell, Jefferson Parish, St. Charles Parish, St. Bernard Parish and Plaquemines Parish. My home is just east of Baton Rouge in the satellite city of Denham Springs. Like most Louisiana residents, Id been through a hurricane or two and knew what to expect: hours of relentless, howling winds, heavy rains, flooding and then, worst of all, losing electricity for a few days and having to endure the jungle heat of south Louisiana with no air conditioning.
But Katrina was different. All of us soon found out that there are worse things to lose than electric service. Huddled around battery powered televisions and radios, we listened in disbelief to the reports from nearby areas to our east and south. There was 12 feet of water over all of St. Bernard Parish. Katrina gave a final kick as she exited the area on the way to ravage Mississippi and sent a devastating tidal surge crashing into Slidell and Lacombe along the North Shore of Lake Pontchartrain. At first New Orleans, about 70 miles away, seemed to have escaped with just wind damage. Then came the worst news of all. The levee had broken in New Orleans. Lake Pontchartrain was pouring into the city.
It soon became the surreal horror show that we all watched on television. Its like a science fiction movie, one of my co-workers remarked. We can only wish it were all a disaster movie that would end and wed be able to get up and walk out of the theater and into the Louisiana we used to know. But that world is gone, maybe forever.
Even before the storm hit, Baton Rouge was thronged with people who did heed the evacuation order. Shelters at schools and other public buildings were filled to capacity. Family and friends reached out. Nearly everyone has someone from New Orleans staying with them. Some media estimates have the city doubling in size, but most believe Baton Rouge gained about 100,000 people. Thats enough to stretch supply lines taut. Like the rest of the nation, we have hardly any gasoline. Traffic is insane. Schools are closed but will open next week, and when they do, there will be many new students to tax the capacity of the systems. There wont be enough rooms, enough teachers, enough books to keep up with the influx of children.
Still, were glad theyre here. All week long I listened as my wife tried to contact her brothers in Slidell, Hammond and Pearl River. Cellular phone service in the storm area was all but nonexistent, and land lines were down. Then each checked in, one-by-one, until all her siblings were accounted for. It was then time to try to find missing cousins because we have big, extended families here in Louisiana. Not all of her family has been accounted for. She is still looking, still hoping.
In the coming weeks, a lot of hopes will be shattered as the thousands of dead are recovered from flooded home and streets across south Louisiana. It is the catastrophic event of our generation, the place mark of our lives. Thousands of people have been evacuated to Texas, to Tennessee, to Arkansas, to Oklahoma and even to West Virginia. Will they all return from their exodus? Even if most do get back to New Orleans, the city will never be the same.
Some day in the near future writers will take up their pens and begin to tell about the great hurricane of 2005, Katrina. It may well be that the social and economic upheaveal, the pain and suffering, the wide scale death and destruction from Alabama to Mississippi to Louisiana and the massive displacements of people from those places will all combine to generate a great body of literature. We may look back on Katrina as did the generation who lost the Civil War and eventually came to refer to that time as the late unpleasantness. I look forward to that day.
Greg Langley is a journalist who works in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.