This month marks the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the 46th anniversary of Hurricane Camille. Like many residents still living on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, I personally experienced both storms, feeling the fear and weathering them too.
I understand why we as a community might celebrate in memoriam a particular natural disaster, especially if it's to remember those who died in it, but also to remind ourselves that people helping people should be paramount in the way we live out each day. But having personally witnessed and lived through more than a few hurricanes, especially Camille and Katrina, I find I lack the enthusiasm others have in reliving or reviewing the images of two of the most horrific natural disasters in American history. But, once again I continue to be reminded, on this anniversary date, of the redeeming lessons learned and to be learned from such natural disasters.
With Katrina forecast to hit the Mississippi Gulf Coast, my wife left with two of our children to stay with her sister in Jackson. My oldest son was out of town. So with my youngest son Philip, 15, we held down the fort -- along with our family pets -- a Jack Russell mutt named Jack, our cat Sadie, and our disabled rescued squirrel Chino, all of whom were housed in the upstairs bathroom.
At sunrise the water in the Biloxi Bay began rising in our back yard. Rapidly, it began lapping on the back patio doors and within minutes water began gushing, with wave action, through the fireplace clean out, into the fireplace, and into the den. Soon one foot white caps began crashing on the entire back of the house. Upon checking the master bedroom, a step higher than the den, I walked through the doorway just in time to witness and hear the explosion of both French glass doors and the then, to this point in time, dammed up water to come gushing into the bedroom in torrents and begin swirling around. The sound was deafening. I retreated to the den and wading now in two feet of water, and surprised by the rapidly rising water, Philip and I hurriedly retrieved as many framed pictures off the wall as we could. Then we retreated up the stairs and waited with our small zoo. It was a helpless feeling.
Upstairs we sat in the play/visit room, its windows looking eastward across the marsh and bay. The marsh and all shrubbery was submerged. An hour later, on looking westward from the bedroom windows my SUV was swimming about thirty yards from where it had been parked against the house. Two-foot white caps were now rolling in on the bay from the west, an image comparable to what one might see during a summer squall in the Gulf.
Sitting at the top of the stairs we continued to witness the rise of the water as it filled the first floor, rising ominously up the stairs, eventually to seven feet, Philip and I wondering when it would stop. I assured myself that all was okay and we only had to wait it out, until I sensed, I thought, the house shake. My heart skipped, then a minute later I felt it again. It was then I told Philip it was best for us to sit next to the upstairs window in the event a wall collapsed so that we could maybe leap out of the unlatched window and onto the back patio roof. Then on second thought, I wondered if being close to the window would subject us to flying glass in the event a tornado came slamming through. Neither option was good. So we donned life-jackets for just in case.
Eventually, about eleven o'clock, the water began to very slowly recede down the stairs until it reached its two-foot depth allowing us to wade out of the house at about 4 pm. After the water completely receded to the bay, the aftermath looked not unlike what everyone else had experienced. Seven feet of swirling water had created an image as if a big giant had shook the house, scrambling and breaking everything topsy-turvy. Black bay mud was three inches thick everywhere. The north brick wall of the garage was down, the garage door ripped off, all the doors were off their hinges, and the freezer, refrigerator and stove were ten feet from their original place. It was an ugly scene.
I remember as a physician after the storm seeing patients complaining of nervousness and melancholy as a result of having to unavoidably see daily the destruction around town with the common refrain being something like "Everything is fallen, or down on the ground -- it's just ugly."
The primary lesson I think with any natural disaster including this one is the realization that there are so many things we think matter that really matter very little. Like material things. Those who seemed to be most affected were those who had invested a strong attachment to material things. The one loss I most lamented over, aside from family photos, was books of which I had accumulated more than a few over the years.
But the real blessing I think was to witness neighbor, friends, and strangers, reaching out to each other, in addition to the massive outpouring of love and aid that flooded in from around the country. These are the memories I hold most dear, as I know you do, truly a testament to the uplifting spirit of humanity. For there's no more helpless feeling than to be sitting without power and a dwindling water and food supply wondering when the "cavalry" would be coming to our aid.
So we gave then, and continue to give, thanks that our family, extended family, and friends and many neighbors had not been hurt and were safe. And reinforced again on this anniversary date is the more important lesson that as a community we really do need each other. And as trying and taxing as it was to clean-up and rebuild, on looking back and seeing the point from which we all came, rising from the piles of debris and destruction, and the community spirit it engendered -- it was really (almost) a piece of cake -- including the cleaning up of that most untidy bathroom where Jack, Sadie, and Chino had stayed.