September 26, 2005
I promised many of you that I would keep you posted on life after Katrina. Here’s a quick update…
Tomorrow marks two weeks of being on-site. Seems like forever.
For me, this all started when I was asked to attend Disaster Inspector training. A firm that provides FEMA with qualified inspectors was looking for inspectors willing to help when disasters are declared in the upper Midwest. Work would be limited (30-day max./once every couple years or so). Seemed like a good opportunity to help out (use my powers for good, not evil). I completed training in May and maintained my qualifications over the following months.
Along came Katrina…
Being a news junkie, I was glued to the developments down South. Watching people still being plucked off roofs at day three made my heart sink. About that same time, I received a short e-mail simply stating “consider making yourself available for deployment.” Dianne and I talked it over and decided that, if needed, I would go. Then, we began getting things in order for the possible phone call.
Deployment was interesting. Saturday, late afternoon, I received an automated voice message to my cell phone saying “press 1 to accept this deployment.” When I pressed 1, I was put through to a travel agent who booked me on the first flight from Rochester to Houston.
Monday morning, September 12
Two days in Houston for briefings, shots and “basic training,” and it was off to New Orleans to hit the ground running. Clients turn in a claim to FEMA and guys like me go inspect the home to ensure damages claimed were related to this disaster. What makes this disaster so different, is that most of the homes have been locked, flooded and without power for over two hot weeks. Many are just being opened this week. Take a minute to think about that…
Get up right now and walk out of your house, load it up with 18-36 inches of sewer water, shut off the power and let it sit…for two-three hot weeks. Gary Smalley would call that a word picture…and not a pretty one.
I was with a young family of four when they came back for the first time. They had spent the night of the hurricane hunkered down in their Metairie, La., home. They were sure they were in the clear once the eye passed. Later that evening, the water rose so fast they were forced to retreat to their attic as the water line in their one-story slab-on-grade grew to 18 inches. That family spent just under three days on the roof and in the attic waiting to be rescued. The dad, being the resourceful hunter-gatherer, created a bathroom in the attic by cutting a hole in the ceiling just above the toilet. The Army would not allow pets during the rescue effort, so the three cats had to stay behind. The home was secured, its power shut off, and the family was shipped off to Houston for two weeks.
Enter the Inspector…
The clients asked if I would go in first because they didn’t know if they could bear it. They were right; nobody could. The cats were happy to see them; they had even had kittens during the ordeal. The thawing freezer managed to open and spill out its cargo. The buckling hardwood floors toppled much of the furnishings. The walls looked like a lab sample from a 9th grade science project, and the bathroom…let’s not go there. I get by by rubbing mentholatum in a surgical mask.
The other day, while opening a home for a Realtor® whose tenants had moved out three weeks ago, we found their Golden Lab lying at the base of the stairway. He could barely lift his head. We gave him the three Nutra-Grain bars I had in my trunk and a couple bottles of water. Then, we contacted a client I had earlier that day who told me she worked for New Orleans Animal Rescue. She seemed to think “Lucky” is going to be okay.
I showed up to inspect the home of a 70-year-old woman living in a low-income housing project that had the entire roof structure and half the third-floor apartments ripped away. This was her first view after returning from Houston. The apartment had no water or electricity. It smelled of raw sewage and mildew. She sat in her easy chair sobbing, as my boots sloshed across the carpet going room to room.
I told her she couldn’t stay in the apartment, but she insisted, saying, “I have nowhere else to go.” I think I cried the entire three blocks back to my car.
Today, I was briefly deployed to Lake Charles, La., and, after waiting 45 minutes to buy the maximum $15 worth of gas, I had to have the West Virginia National Guard unit in town drive ahead of me to clear 50 miles of Highway 109 (fallen trees) just to get access to clients.
I’ve seen people who had very little before Katrina… and now… I can’t imagine what they’ll do. I spent nine years in the Army National Guard and never saw a war zone, but I have to imagine there is little difference. I hear the local radio station talk about avoiding the “G” word (ghost town), but this seems like the beginnings of one.
Always one to end on a positive note…
The abandoned grade school I’m living in served crawdads over rice the other night, and FEMA shipped in two military shower trailers, so no more taking the bus to the high school. Hallelujah!
Be thankful for the home you’ve made…and pray for those less fortunate.
October 21, 2005
More from the field…
Well, it’s been over six weeks on the ground here in New Orleans. Only two weeks to go. Seems like I’ve been here forever and only have forever to go. Can’t wait to get back to hangin’ with my family again. No more Port-a-potties, canned water, two hour commutes, $30-a-day fuel bills or barracks living. I will miss the Crawdads.
I’ve inspected many different areas of the “Crescent City.” Starting in Metarie, La., where water levels grew as high as 32 inches. Then to Gretna/Terrytown, La., where winds ripped roofs and walls from their structures like a baby brother to your best card house. Currently, I’m working the Garden District of New Orleans––everything from mansions to “shotgun” houses. This area seems to have as much damage from fire and looting as it does from wind, rain or flood.
Some businesses are slowly coming back, but they are few and at significantly reduced hours (due to a lack of workforce/housing). This morning, I finally found a coffee shop (God bless the Red Cross, but they’re no Dunn Brothers) complete with Wi/Fi. It was packed with business folks dying for office space.
I’ve taken a ton of pictures and plan on putting together a PowerPoint presentation once I get back. Each time I snap a photo, I think that anyone who sees just this picture will never be able to grasp the magnitude of this disaster. Just a single picture without the sounds, smells and surroundings… just not the same.
I’m still meeting people at their homes when they are seeing it for the first time. Their faces are burned into my memory. They’ll be staring blankly at their home that the wind has torn the side off of and say something like, “Well, ‘lot a folks got it a lot worse.”
It will be interesting to see what the future holds for New Orleans. I know it’s a story I’ll be following closely… but I’ll be watching from a lot farther north.
I’m looking forward to being back in business the week of Nov. 13th. I’ll see you then, and remember…
Be thankful for the home you’ve made, and pray for those less fortunate.
All photos courtesy of the author.