It’s 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, I’d 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. “It’s 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 we’d 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. That’s 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 won’t be enough rooms, enough teachers,
enough books to keep up with the influx of children.
Still, we’re glad they’re 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
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.