When it came time to go to New Orleans for the Hurricane Katrina disaster, even seasoned pros quit their jobs and refused to go. Most were like, “Hell no, I ain’t going to New Orleans! There’s no law and order, people are shooting each other in the streets. You could get raped and murdered in about a minute, plus there’s talk of a cholera epidemic. No amount of money is worth risking my life.”
From my home in the country, I spoke to more than a few disaster relief workers and they all said about the same thing. It was a tough decision for me. I was a single woman living in a lovely home in the country. There’s probably not a more opposite situation than moving from a quiet home in the country to New Orleans right after Katrina. But I had a mortgage to pay and no husband to help out with it so my bottom line was the money. Disaster work pays good.
I packed my things and drove to Houston, Texas, the home of our very first field office. FEMA had decided that Houston was the closest big city where they could set up their disaster operations but still be out of harm’s way. They do make some effort to keep workers out of danger. Houston was overflowing with disaster refugees and workers who had come from all over America and Canada to help out with the relief efforts.
The media was there too. They always get the best or only hotels rooms available. Once you arrive, you’re supposed to go directly to a field office and check in. Next you get a briefing and all your equipment. This situation was much different than other disasters though. New Orleans and most of the Gulf Coast was flooded in about 15 to 20 feet of the nastiest water you ever saw. When those levees broke, the whole area went underwater within a few hours.
All the people and animals there who had survived the powerful hurricane were now threatened with drowning. The Superdome was still filled with thousands who were tired, angry, hungry and scared. That story has been told hundreds of times now but my sources say that Americans never were told the real truth about what went on there. In some countries overseas they saw and heard a much different tale than the one we were given here in the states.
Thousands of disasters workers sat around their hotel rooms for 10 days waiting on the flood waters to recede. We saw the same frightening pictures everyone else was seeing and many of us were doubting our decisions to work this one. I returned to my home in Greenville, Texas and set up a home office there.
FEMA was already getting thousands of applications for assistance but since we couldn’t travel to the area, they were trying to figure out other ways we could get assistance to the victims and these alternatives included initial emergency payments of several hundred dollars. With the government though, there is always a lot of paperwork to be done before you can get any type of assistance. I contacted my applicants and told them what types of documents they needed to fax me and then worked their applications from a home office.
Sadly, that didn’t last long. After about 10 days, we began to hear that the flooding was going down and that the military and National Guard was formulating a plan to allow homeowners and workers into certain areas. Within two weeks of Katrina’s landfall, I found myself in the city of New Orleans. I’ll never forget sitting there on the Twin Bridges that lead into the city from Baton Rouge. On both sides of the highway there were all sorts of debris lying at various angles in the bayous and in Lake Ponchatrain.
I’d move the car up a few feet and then wait a few more minutes and then move a few more feet. It was hot and muggy there with huge mosquitos and the car would overheat quickly. Out the car window on the right, there was a train car lying on its side. Out the driver’s window, there were several coffins floating by. Down the highway another mile, there was a semi-trailer lying upside down on the right in a water-filled ditch and on the other side of the road in the lake, there was part of someone’s home.
That was only the beginning of what turned out to be a two-month long nightmare where I spent each day talking to homeowners who had lost everything and hearing the most sorrow-filled stories of what Katrina had stolen from them. Along with that, they would usually say that many of their family members and everyone they knew also lost everything because they too, had lived within her path.
The days were long and hot and the nights were spent on an army cot in a makeshift dorm two hours north of New Orleans fashioned for us disaster workers by FEMA. There were lines everywhere. I never liked waiting in long lines. In fact, I hate it! You had to sit in a long line to get gas for your car. There was a long line at any open restaurants, stores or cafes north of New Orleans. At our government compound, there were lines to eat, to use the fax machines….just about everything you wanted to do, you had to stand in line first.
When they finally brought the shower trailers in for us, we were all so relieved. Those first few days at the compound, we had to be bused to a local rec center for showers. Then they brought in about six 18 wheelers that had been fully equipped with shower stalls. The trouble was that there was no air at all in them. It could be 120 degrees inside those trailers at times. You’d go in there hot and sweaty from a long day of crawling over muddy, wet couches and take your shower but be sweaty again before ever leaving the trailer.
I got deployed to the Gulf coast in Chalmette, St. Bernard’s Parish. This was one of the hardest hit areas and the danger was greatly enhanced by the fact that there had been a massive oil spill from Murphy Oil. The entire city was ruined. There was one to two feet of toxic mud covering everything. The EPA was there measuring the toxicity daily. I ran into a woman from the EPA one day while working and pulled her over. We were in a residential neighborhood, surrounded by every type of rotting debris.
“Hey, how’s it going?” I said greeting the woman.
“Are you with FEMA?” she asked, looking down at the badge around my neck.” I nodded. “This is a tough one, isn’t it?” She smiled but I could see a grimace behind her smile and knew she was probably suffering through the same horrible conditions as the rest of us.
“How’s the air, soil and water quality?”
“Not too bad…really.”
I could tell she was lying. Everyone I spoke to said that Chalmette had 300,000 times over the limit of poisons like benzene and cyanide in the air, soil and water.
“There are thousands of snakes here,” I told her. “Have you run into any?”
She ducked her head so I wouldn’t see the fear in her eyes. “A few. Where did they come from?”
I figured she must have traveled from up north somewhere. “There were wetlands along the coast here. The storm washed all those marsh grasses into Chalmette and the snakes were in those grasses.”
“All this brown hay-looking stuff is actually marsh grass?” She definitely wasn’t from the south.
“Yep, afraid so. It makes quite a sight, doesn’t it? A foot or two of toxic mud covered with a foot or two of dead marsh grasses. It’s challenging to get up to the houses to inspect them.”
“Do you ever go inside any of them?”
“Occasionally,” I said, covering my eyes from the intense Louisiana sun. “All the structures are unsound so we don’t have to go inside but I’ve been in a few of them. They’re all filled with snakes.”
“Yikes! I’d stay out of these houses if it was me. Do you know what kind of snakes they are? Are they poisonous?”
“Afraid so…these are cottonmouth water moccasins.”
She stepped back and straightened her stance. “Oh my gosh! Won’t those kill you?”
I grinned. “Only if they bite you. I grew up on a farm in East Texas and we had cotton-mouthed water moccasins in our stock tank.”
“So they don’t bother you?”
“Oh yeah, they bother me plenty, but I stay out of their way.”
She sighed. “Man, I’ll be glad when this one is over.”
“Me too. Believe it or not, I’m praying for a nice little hurricane in Miami so I can get transferred out of this hell-hole.”
She laughed. “Well, good luck with that.” She gazed down the street at the broken houses, crushed autos and huge piles of debris that had come from God knows where. “Guess I should get back to work. It was nice talking to you.”
“Same here,” I told her, waving good-bye.
She drove away and I traveled down the road a few blocks to meet with my next applicant. It turned out to be an Asian couple in their thirties driving a white mini-van. They both pretended to speak much better English than they actually spoke and I could tell they hadn’t been in the U.S. very long.
I greeted them and then said, “Let’s just do our paperwork out here at the back of your van, if that’s okay.”
They both nodded and I went over all the legal documents they had to sign and explained what they meant and ask them both to sign. Then I checked their ID’s, looked at their insurance policies and made a bunch of notes about the house and the things they were telling me about their losses.
Finally, the woman looks at me and says, “You go in, yes? You go in and see.”
I glanced up from entering information into my computer. “No ma’am. That structure isn’t safe to go inside. It sat under water for 10 days. The construction is compromised.”
“You go in and see, yes?”
I sighed. “No ma’am. I don’t need to go inside. It looks exactly like every other house in New Orleans.”
She got a bit more persistent. Taking me by the hand, she started pulling me toward the house. “You go in and see now.”
I was shaking my head the whole way but followed her up close to the front door. The entrance was covered in toxic mud, marsh grasses full of snakes and peppered with chairs, couches, tables, parts of a fence, somebody’s computer monitor and other assorted soggy, broken, stinking furniture.
“We go inside. You see,” she said for the fifth or sixth time.
I pulled my hand away and stood my ground. “Ma’am, under no circumstances am I going inside that house. It isn’t safe, plus it’s filled with snakes.”
She ignored my warning and starting climbing over debris to get to the door. Reaching down, she took hold of a chair to push it out of her way. Out crawled a big ole cotton-mouthed water moccasin.
I sighed and shook my head. “Ma’am, there’s a snake there,” I calmly told her.
She turns around to face me, smiles and says, “You go in. You see.”
I pointed at the snake which was well on its way to crawling out from under the chair. “There’s a snake there, ma’am.”
Right up behind me came her husband. He shouted something in Chinese and the woman looked down, saw the snake and started jumping all around. She jumped, leaped and hopped all over the place, through the mud and over a soggy couch before finally landing out in the middle of the yard covered in mud.
I watched the whole thing and it seemed to unfold in slow motion. Her husband quickly ran to her side to see if she was okay and she was, but I stood there laughing as hard as I could. I knew it was wrong but just couldn’t stop myself. I must have laughed a good 3 or 4 minutes. The lady did not see any humor at all in what had just happened but I couldn’t help myself. It was the funniest thing I’d seen since coming to New Orleans.
I had already seen and heard an unbelievable amount of harsh reality and devastating truth, so these few moments of laughter seemed to bring a little healing to my soul. I was thankful the woman wasn’t injured because there were no hospitals to be found within a 100-mile radius. As the days and weeks drug by, I thought of that incident many times and laughed every single time. There were way too many long, weary days and nights without enough sleep or food. There were many times when you honestly didn’t feel you could place one foot in front of another and make it one more step.
On October 24th of 2005, Hurricane Wilma made landfall in Southern Florida and I immediately asked to be transferred there. My transfer came through around the first week of November and I spent a lovely Thanksgiving working in the gorgeous West Palm Beach area.
Carolyn L. Sorrell - © Copyright July 2012 – All Rights Reserved