As all of us remain affected directly or indirectly by the Coronavirus pandemic, another tragedy is also on my mind. August 29th is the 15-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s direct impact on my family and me.
My sister, my only sibling, settled in New Orleans in 1977 after graduating from Tulane University and marrying an area native. My parents retired there in 1989 to be closer to their two grandchildren. Thus, the city became my de facto hometown, and I visited often.
With most of New Orleans below sea level, the threat of flooding was always present when storms struck, hence my family was used to evacuating. In mid-August 2005, it became likely that tropical storm Katrina was going to reach hurricane strength and impact the Gulf Coast. My family all left for Houston after the storm was projected to hit New Orleans. Like previous evacuations, they fully expected Katrina to change paths or dissipate and they would return in a day or two.
When it became evident that the hurricane could be catastrophic, my sister decided to fly our 79-year-old father (my mother had passed away two years earlier) to Colorado to stay with my wife and me because emergency accommodations in Houston were limited. Dad was en route while the storm was hitting New Orleans, hence he knew nothing of what was happening. Just before I left for the Denver airport to meet him, I found an internet news photo showing his townhouse with floodwaters up to the eaves.
Dad arrived in Colorado with only one change of clothes and some toiletries in his tote bag. I had to break the news that those were likely all of the physical possessions he owned anymore, and he wouldn’t be going home any time soon.
In fact, none of my family returned home any time soon. After the floodwaters receded, I flew to Houston and drove with my sister and brother-in-law into New Orleans to assess the damage and salvage what we could from both houses. Despite the news reports and their striking visuals, I wasn’t prepared for the condition of my father’s townhouse—the first location we visited. Toxic sewage waste-filled mud was six inches deep and mold-covered everything else. Flies and mosquitos swarmed in the heat and humidity. None of the first-floor furniture or appliances were in their original locations, having floated elsewhere. I found dead fish on the landing to the loft. None of the artwork and other collectibles from my parents’ foreign travels could be saved. My sister’s house, only two miles away but on slightly higher ground, only received a foot of flooding, but nothing was salvageable from the first floor because of the mold. Despite spending less than two hours in the houses and wearing a safety mask, I contracted mold-borne bronchial problems that persisted for months.
My father’s townhouse was a total loss. Because of the extended environmental, infrastructure, and medical service issues in New Orleans, Dad stayed in Colorado until his death four years later. My sister’s house was rebuilt over the next year, almost from the ground up. The rebuilding of New Orleans, 80 percent of which was underwater, became the inspiration for my subsequent involvement in community service.
As I visited the city often post-Katrina to assist with the disposition of my father’s property and my sister’s rebuilding, I was always struck by the generosity of the populace. From providing housing for displaced residents to the daunting task of restoring basic services and supplies, everywhere I went, people pitched in and helped others.
I got the message. With time on my hands after retirement, I no longer had an excuse for not giving back here at home. I volunteered for neighborhood and civic service, non-profit boards, recreation coaching, and even dusted off my long-dormant journalism degree to write for publications like North Forty News. But none of my efforts could equal the selflessness in my adopted hometown that brought that city back from one of the country’s worst natural disasters.
Get involved yourself. Give back. It’s very rewarding.
Phil Goldstein writes Tales from Timnath periodically for North Forty News. Phil is a 10-year Timnath resident who serves the Town of Timnath as chair of the Timnath Planning Commission. Phil is finally using his journalism degree after getting sidetracked 47 years ago. The views expressed herein are Phil’s only. Contact him with comments on the column or suggestions for future columns at NFNTimnath@gmail.com.