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Katrina column | Pamdemonium
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Katrina column

Many of my old friends have wondered what it was like. Here is a column I wrote on the 1-year anniversary for The Tennessean. Apologies to those whose lives I appropriated. WARNING: This is a bit grim. Keep in mind this was August 2006, my dad died on Aug. 1, 2006, and I was in dark, dark place.

HURRICANE KATRINA

We who lived to tell about it are still living Katrina’s wrath

By PAMELA COYLE
Staff Writer

We were among the lucky.

Our home in Uptown New Orleans did not flood. As an assistant city editor at The Times-Picayune, I still had a job.

Still, Katrina was a bomb that shattered our world and continues to do so.

After sending my husband and our dogs away – he came to Nashville because the only open roads headed North – I reported to work in New Orleans Sunday evening. As with all hurricane threats, we packed for three days, bringing extra food, water and a change or two of clothes.

Monday night, we watched the floodwaters rise an inch an hour, swamping our cars and covering the steps to the building, one by one. By 6 a.m., it was clear we could no longer stay; top management organized a fleet of circulation trucks that evacuated more than 200 people through chest-high water. Out of the open backs of trucks, we saw our ruined city – houses submerged, downtown hotels missing entire facades – and hundreds of people lining the interstate, high ground, begging for help.

For hours, my husband did not know whether I made it out. I think he has forgiven me for staying. Almost.

It would be six weeks before we got home.

We landed in Baton Rouge. At least half my colleagues in the caravan had lost their homes. They soldiered on; those of us who suspected our homes were intact felt guilty, and when conversations turned to property loss, I often turned away, ashamed of our good fortune.

By the second day, one colleague, sleep deprived and manic, needed emergency psychiatric care; I walked back from the dorm with her teenage son to meet up with relatives who would take her home.

I was not in New Orleans when the city disintegrated into madness, yet the wounds are many and still open.

We learned from a good friend that her elderly mother’s best friend refused to leave her Lakeview area home of decades; she was among scores who drowned, alone.

A few weeks later, the brother of one of my reporters killed himself. A pediatrician, he lost not only his home but also his practice.

Within months, an acquaintance died of an overdose; his “friends” had called 911 before leaving him, alone in an apartment, for his final breaths.

Another started stalking his former girlfriend, later grabbed a gun and begged a friend of ours to take it away before he killed himself.

One set of friends with a young son and a baby on the way lost their home, with two rental units they had for income. They can’t afford not to rebuild and are back now, with an infant and young son, living in a neighborhood that is largely a wasteland.

Our best friends moved to Charlotte, N.C., with their toddler daughter. Many others are scattered across the country; some don’t yet know we relocated to Nashville.

We are angry and feel betrayed by a city we loved and those charged with protecting her and her people. We have trouble sleeping. When the tornadoes struck the Midstate in April, and The Tennessean staff briefly evacuated to the building’s basement, I burst into public tears and did again for days after.

And news of more tragedy comes in waves.

A colleague and friend, a photographer who stayed behind for Katrina’s horrific aftermath, tried to commit “suicide by cop” two weeks ago. He drove like a madman, backed into a police officer and begged the cops to kill him. They did not.

But they said they see similar behavior all the time now.

Despondent about money – his destroyed house was under-insured – and living the misery he documented, he saw no other way out. He and his wife have three children.

Journalists are by nature rather macabre. For years I joked, “What doesn’t kill you makes you strong.”

Luck aside, I don’t use that line much anymore. It rings hollow.

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