Monday, September 19, 2005

Waiting With Baited Breath on Hurricane Rita

As many of you know, and for those of you who don't, I live right outside of New Orleans and the area has been hit by the most devastating natural disasters recorded in American History. If you're from Mars or Jupiter, then you might not know what I'm speaking of, but if you're anywhere in the Continental United States or other neighboring country, you know I'm speaking of Hurricane Katrina that struck on August 29, 2005.

Here we are three weeks later, and we are possibly faced with the impending threat of yet another Hurricane. Rita is her name. Most people who live inside Orleans Parish has not been allowed to return home yet to survey the damage and destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina. Over the past few days, they were given a glimmer of hope of possibly returning only to hear Mayor Nagin annouce that the reentry plan has been cancelled and for those that did make it in to the West Bank of the River (Algiers) have been warned that they must make preparations to leave by Wednesday as we await Rita's passage over southern Florida and enter the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

The latest newscast say that Rita should reach hurricane force winds tonight as Southern Florida once again gets pounded. And those of us that live along the southern coastline (Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Texas) wait with baited breath as Rita decides her destructive path.

I have seen the pictures first hand, and heard some of the stories from inside sources that will never make the headlines of some of the happenings in and around the New Orleans area since Hurricane Katrina struck. Sad, just sickeningly sad and utterly unbelieveable I tell myself.

I, being an employee of law enforcement community, must stay behind and mann the fort, while my family once again gathers precious belongings and head for higher, safer grounds. This has been the 'norm' for me for the past 28 years. Many people have often asked me through the years, why I must stay. To them I say, "Somebody's gotta do it." I've been doing this so lone, it's almost second nature to me now although I admit, my heart aches as my family pulls out of the driveway.

Once they depart, it is not long before I suck it all up, and head for my 911 Center, which will become my temporary home until after nature unfolds its wrath. So once again, I sit, and wait and in between sitting and waiting, I pray. But I pray for this entire area, because as much as I pray the storm bypasses us, I know that someone will be in Rita's path, but for all that we've suffered here in southern Louisiana, I know that this area may not be able to withstand a mild thunderstorm, let alone a major hurricane.

I guess there's not much else we can do either way, except pray. I'll be praying for us but I asked each and everyone of you to pray for us all as well. God speed!

Saturday, September 10, 2005

An Eye Witness to Hurricane Katrina

It's been over a week since Hurrican Katrina spread her wrath over the Gulf Coast line and disrupted the lives of many, while destroying the lives and livlihood of many more. I have been employed by St. Charles Parish Sheriff's Office since 1977 and I've spent all of my time in the Communications Division, now serving as the 911 Dispatch Supervisor. Being classified as 'essential personnel' meant that I was one of the many who had took an oath to remain at my post for the duration of the storm.

We were placed on active standby a few days before Katrina was expected to make landfall somewhere along the coast of Louisiana, Mississippi or Alabama. Many, if not all of us nervously packed our family members and precious personal belongings and sent them away to safer, higher grounds since most, if not all of the area is below sea level and with the levels of water predicted to accompany Katrina, well, let me just say it was not a pretty picture being painted by the our Emergency Operations Center and the National Weather Service.

For the first time ever, half of my department's employees were being evacuated to East Baton Rouge Sheriff's Department for safe keeping. This just goes to show you the mindset of my administration. Eleven of us stayed behind to hold down the forte.
At 2300 hours on Sunday, August 28, 2005, the winds were beginning to increase so much so that we decided it was time to shut down the operations in the 911 Center and take cover in the main courthouse building. My Dispatchers manned the dispatch area in the basement of Emergency Operations Center, while the other employees bunked down on the 3rd floor of the building.

At 0100 hours on Monday, August 29th, everyone settled down on the army cots in what used to be our Criminal Records Division/II Division. At approximately 0330 hours, I was awakened by the sounds of a constant alarm sound. The room was completely dark, but being familiar with my surroundings as I was in the room behind what used to be our Communications Rom, I fumbled my way out into the hallway to find more darkness with only the sounds of the alarm penetrating the air. For approximately 5 minutes I stood there, as my mind began to wonder if the courthouse had been evacuated and I'd been forgotten as the alarm that was sounding obviously hadn't awaken anyone else.

In the darkness I managed to find an icechest in the hallway and decided to sit and wait as I didn't know what else to do. Shortly thereafter, I saw a light heading my way. One of the IT guys had awakened to the sound of the alarm on the servers behind where I sat. He informed me that the emergency generators had failed. He then handed me a flashlight and I walked the hallways looking for other signs of light as he disappeared in the room where the servers were. Soon, a dear friend of mine, who's married to a Major in the Sheriff's Office walked out. We chatted for a few and then she said she was going back to bed. I told her I was headed down the three flights of stairs to get a look at the weather, that we could hear rumbling and whistling through the concrete walls of the courthouse. She declined to join me and told me to be careful as the stairwell was really dark.

Just then another member of my department joined me and we descended the darkened stairs. Once downstairs, we saw that members of the EOC and other parish officials were already down there, standing outside the double glass doors to the courhouse's back entrance. We found some chairs and decided to wait the storm out there. Every now and then we'd walk outside to get a feel of the weather. Before long, many of us found ourselves making bets about how long it would take for the awnings to be ripped off of one of the office trailers housed by our Public Relations Division, or which tree in the area would be the next victim to snap like a toothpick and topple over.

For hours we sat and watched the wrath of Hurrican Katrina unfold right before our eyes. Then it was announced that we should discontinue using restroom facilities until the generator could be repaired for fear it would back up into the EOC. Many of us ignored these warnings. You know how it is, tell us we can't use something and regardless of the consequences, mother nature will kick in quicker that you can blink your eyes. Before the morning dawned, I knew I could not function without bathing, so I informed a co-worker that I was going to sneak back up to the third floor and take a quick shower. As I undressed, and stepped under the trickling cold water, I suddenly heard a loud boom. Shivering, I showered and as I was getting dress, my co-worked came to check on me.

We later learned that the loud noise I heard was part of the roof being torn off the courthouse. It would be much later that we learned it was the work of a tornado that caused the destruction to the roof of the building. It's funny now that I think about it, but can you see the headlines now, "Sheriff's Department Employee Bares It All During Hurricane Katrina." LOL! Thanks God, I still have my dignity too!

Sustained winds got as high as 120 MPH at times where we were and as the sun rose, it was scary and errie, yet a wonderous site to see Mother Nature in action. Hours later as the winds and rain calmed a few deputies were dispatched to survey the area, for damage. I don't believe there wasn't a street in St. Charles Parish that didn't have trees down across them. The entire area was out of electricity. When it was cleared to do so, some of us got in my Jeep to check on our homes after learning I had a pecan tree sitting on the back of my house. Practically every house had some of the shingles blown away, while others had other property damage.

But with all of the devastion many of us suffered in St. Charles Parish, in no way can it can be compared to the destruction caused to our neighbors in Orleans as water rose to record levels across the entire New Orleans area almost completely covering the tops of roofs as the levee along the 17th Street Canal burst, to our neighbors in Jefferson, St. Bernard, Plaquemine Parishes, Grand Isle, LA, Biloxi and Gulfport Mississippi as well as areas in Alabama, where complete towns have been completely washed away, huge riverboat casinos have practically disappeared off the face of the earth. May of the surrounding states have opened up their arms and embraced our fleeing neighbors, trying to bring a sense of normalcy to the evacuees.

Today is Saturday, September 10, 2005 and it is twelve days since Katrina landed along the Gulf Shores, and the last of the evacuees are finally headed for safety in other states. But for the many that have gotten out, there are countless others who weren't as fortunate. As Mayor Ray Nagin and Governor Kathleen Blanco pleaded to our government for help, it was days before anyone heard their cries and responded. It was even longer for federal agencies began responding with basic necessities of food and water. Many sat squatted on the roofs of houses, apartment buildings, along the high rises of roadways, bridges for days, some literally dying of thirst and dehydration. It is believed that many will be found dead in the attics of their homes or trapped in cars and other things at the bottom of the waters. Twenty five thousand body bags were ordered for the city of New Orleans.

It is rumored that hundreds of NOPD officers walked off the job, in addition to a few who committed suicide shortly after Katrina exited the city. The water has slowly begun to recede in the affected areas, but it will be a very long time before life can and will return to normal in many areas. Many have declared thay are not coming back to New Orleans, I believe there will be many more who will return to the place they have called home, to New Orleans, the city that is world reknowned for it's culture, for it's food, for it's heritage, a city known as The Big Easy.

Life has almost returned to normal for us in the outlying areas surround New Orleans, well as normal can be anyway. Me being a product of the 50s, I can remember the wrath of Hurricane Betsy in 1965 and Camille in 1969, and through the years, those were the two named storms that many boasted about as being the worst but I believe now when you hear anyone talk about hurricanes, Katrina will certainly take the number one spot as worst storms ever experienced. To me, it certainly was a site to see and I don't think I will ever forget it.