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“That’s the life we have to live being in hurricane alley.” Hurricane Katrina 10 years later

Chalmette, LA after Hurricane Katrina hit. A home which once stood on a solid foundation now sits in the middle of a road. Photo courtesy Emily Walker

Chalmette, LA after Hurricane Katrina hit. A home which once stood on a solid foundation now sits in the middle of a road. Photo courtesy Emily Walker

By Audrey Sparks

August 29 marked the tenth anniversary of the landfall of Hurricane Katrina. Katrina, originally slated as a category three, quickly grew with crushing winds reaching 157 mph or higher catapulting the storm into the rankings of a category five according to the Saffor-Simpson hurricane wind scale and into the record books of American history. While many of us are accustomed to the heavy rains Midwest storms can bring, few have ever felt the grip of fear a category five hurricane can inflict on an individual and community. The description provided by the National Weather Service of a category five hurricane includes these harrowing words, “catastrophic damage will occur.” Waldorf senior Emily Walker knows all too well the damage, both physically and emotionally, a storm of this magnitude will deliver.

Originally from Bellechase, La., a suburb of New Orleans, Walker recalled the days and months following Hurricane Katrina. “We went to bed that night and we woke up and it was a category five. It took up the whole gulf, and my Dad said, ‘Ya’ll should probably leave,’” Walker said.

On a hunch her dad, Jeff Walker, sent the family, her mother, Nancy Walker, and younger sister, Jennifer Walker, to Hattiesburg, Miss., 122 miles to the north, searching for safety with Walker’s grandmother days prior to the official evacuation. “My most vivid memory of the event was waking up on the day before Katrina hit and realizing how big and how strong the storm was,” Jeff said. “I knew then it was time to leave. Growing up in south Louisiana, and being through several large hurricanes growing up, I had never seen a storm that big. I looked at the TV and started shaking.”

Walker, 14 years old at the time, remembers worrying her dad wouldn’t make it out in time. Jeff had chosen to stay behind with the family pets, two dogs and a cat, and help a family friend, Cory Beaux, who was a firefighter. “It was scary. I remember just wanting Dad with us,” Walker said. “Trees were literally bending. Pine trees were parallel to the ground.” He only stayed two days before loading up the animals and joining the family. It took him 16 hours to drive the 122 miles to safety due to massive congestion caused by the evacuation.

Official evacuations of New Orleans and the surrounding areas began on the 28. Unfortunately the city, and the nation, were not prepared for the magnitude of the devastation. Katrina would affect some 90,000 square miles, leaving hundreds of thousands homeless and causing more than $100 billion in damages.

Fran Dobson, a family friend of the Walkers and Louisiana resident at the time of Hurricane Katrina, has vivid memories of the struggles individuals would face. “One of the saddest, yet most hopeful events was walking into a homeless shelter with a new born baby. Our granddaughter, Emma, was born just two days after Katrina destroyed all of our homes,” Dobson said. “Walking into that shelter, knowing that we were all homeless was a horrendous and heart breaking feeling that is very difficult to describe.  But holding that sweet, new born baby gave us such hope for the future.”

“It was surreal. Not everyone came back and we lost a lot of our friends because their homes were destroyed,” Walker said. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) did the best they could to provide displaced families with some form of normalcy, but the help they would bring would be delayed weeks, even months, and fall far short of adequate. “It’s crazy to think a family of seven would go into this itty bitty trailer with only two bedrooms, a kitchen, and a pull out couch. That’s not a home,” Walker said.

Even with a history of massive hurricane damage, the first hurricane hitting the area in 1779 followed by subsequent hurricanes in 1915, 1947, 1965, 1969, 1992, an additional hurricane in 2005 right on the heels of Katrina, and one in 2008, natives refused to leave their heritage behind building right on the water’s newly formed edge. What used to be a community just 12 miles south of Walker’s home, now sits completely submerged. “That’s their home. That’s what they wanted to do,” Walker said.

Jeff Walker returned to the devastation just two months after the hurricane left a path of destruction. Upon returning he found a very different place to call home. “The whole city was dark except for isolated patches of light around medical centers,” Jeff said. “One thing that was quite obvious was the silence everywhere. In such a busy, bustling city, the eerie silence was deafening.”

Walker wouldn’t return to her home until December. Middle schools and high schools were destroyed forcing students to pack into Walker’s high school. “Everyone wore their own uniforms. It was kind of creepy, but at the time it was good because we all bonded over this tragedy,” Walker said. Her high school jumped from its original student body size of around 600 to a couple of thousand students.

Emotionally many will carry scars which will take years, perhaps even a life-time, to heal. Thousands now suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) brought on by the stressful environment they were forced to live in, including Walker’s family friend Beaux.

What’s the future hold for Walker, her family, and the New Orleans community? “As a whole New Orleans grew as an unofficial family. The city might have been damaged, but its thriving more than ever,” Walker said. “Because our culture is so different than the rest of the world everyone realizes we are stronger than most people think we are as a community.”

It’s scary to think with the next hurricane the home Walker once lived in could be destroyed completely as the ocean takes another bite out of the coastline. But as far as Walker is concerned, “That’s the life we have to live being in hurricane alley.”