Narración de una Odisea
Por Jorge A. Maspóns
Hurricane "KATRINA" - A Narrative Odyssey
by Jorge A. Maspons
July 5th, 2006
During the last days of August, 2005 Hurricane Katrina, after passing by Florida, turned toward the northwestern part of the nation, dangerously threatening New Orleans and intensifying to category 5, the highest and most destructive of these tropical storms. The warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico made its macabre plans easier and provided fertile ground for the storm. On the morning of August 27 (Saturday) we were almost sure that we would be attacked by the storm but we did not know exactly when and where. Thousands upon thousands of people began evacuating the city and very soon the roads would be filled with automobiles trying to escape the wrath of Katrina
We too considered leaving the city but for the sake of my in-laws, who did not want to evacuate, did not do it at that moment and we went over to their house to keep them company, considering that their house was well prepared to resist a high intensity category 5 hurricane. The decision that they made, and indirectly ours, because we wanted to assist them, was almost fatal and by a very short time almost very costly.
Katrina was approaching New Orleans as if it had eyes and desires for vengeance. During the afternoon and the night of Sunday, August 28th Katrina entered between the border of Louisiana and Mississippi. Turning then toward the north-east, Katrina rolled leaving death and destruction wherever it passed by. Although we have seen many small hurricanes, Katrina is the hurricane we feared would come some day, “The Big One”, the one many have been talking about for many years. Before Katrina, the biggest storm I remember is “Betsy” (1965) a category 3 hurricane which destroyed large sections of the city. In was in the days of Betsy that I arrived in the City of New Orleans and remember very well the difficulties caused by the storm.
For several moments it appeared to us that we had overcome the crisis; we did not see notable evidences of destruction around us, and although we were without electricity, we thought that in a short period of time everything would return to normal. We did see, however, many power lines down as well as trees torn and cut by the heavy winds. We thought that the defenses of the city, “the levees” as we call the walls of protection, had held well and done the job for which they were designed. But everything began to change very soon that Sunday afternoon. Listening to the radio, we knew that three of these levees were either breached and topped or destroyed altogether by the strong waters which were pushed by the powerful hurricane winds. The city began to sink in the waters and a very dangerous situation was facing us. By Monday the 29th , the local authorities were loosing control of the population and chaos reigned in many parts of the city.
The situation worsened as the hours passed. Large sections of the city fell victim to the brackish waters brought by the storm surge. In the areas where you could still move, there were thousands of people running from one place to the other, as if they were the passengers of the HMS Titanic in search of life boats. In the downtown parts of the city the looting of businesses prevailed and even members of the police department participated in the mass theft and destruction of other peoples properties. The screams for help by the civilian authorities were seen around the world, and soon we realized that only the force and resources of the Federal Government could take control of the city. To be fair to the Mayor, many citizens did not leave because they challenged the hurricane, and by not evacuating caused more problems. Many others waited for the public charities to come to their rescue.
We were relatively well off until that Tuesday afternoon. After some discussions and especially with the help of Mama Dora, we persuaded my father-in-law that it was imperative to abandon the city, no matter the cost, and as soon as humanly possible. There was a door of escape still open and it was within our reach; we had to take that opportunity, if we did not, we would risk serious damages, perhaps even dangers to our own lives. On Wednesday the 31st , besides not having electricity, the water was turned off. The window of opportunity, the only one left, was to cross the Mississippi River and make a very long detour by the west until we got to Jackson, Mississippi. More on this in the later paragraphs.
The “ramp” to the Mississippi River bridge, the only one available was relatively near us but there were many obstacles along the way. We had to take Magazine Street, two blocks from the house, turn to the right and drive until Jackson Avenue, where we turned right again until we reached Tchoupitoulas Street and then turn to the left and drive until reaching the bridge. Therefore, we prepared for the exodus from the city on Wednesday the 31st. I felt a strong urgency to leave the city, something I have felt very few times, because I saw the dangerous disaster coming closer and closer. I can only compare these feelings to the sentiments I had when I was younger, upon leaving my native country, Cuba, fearing for our very lives. I saw that the doors were closing and I did not know how we would protect my elderly in-laws and I feared for the lives of my wife and daughter. These are not exaggerations, the situation was indeed very ugly and serious. And we did not have fire arms to protect ourselves.
Fortunately the gasoline tanks of both vans were full, and I knew that we could at least reach Jackson, Mississippi before having to refuel. Taking several essential things with us, some water and food we had left, we departed that unforgettable morning, destination: Virginia, to the house of my sister-in-law, Rose. We took with us four additional people, neighbors who did not have means of transportation, and acting in a Christian like manner we offered to take them along. One of the passengers was trying to get to Birmingham, Alabama but decided to get off in Jackson and join a friend who was also going to the same place. The other three passengers wanted to go to North Carolina where their families live. This meant that we had to take a long and difficult detour of many miles to bring them to safety. It was 10 A.M. that August 31th.
I was driving my cargo van and Grace was riding with me in the front. We had loaded everything we could and needed for the trip to Virginia. Ramona was driving our family van which was loaded with the passengers and some additional cargo. We dodged power lines, trees and some people coming to do who knows what.
Upon departing my in-laws' house that morning, as we drove toward the bridge, we saw the magnitude of the catastrophe. Destruction and debris all around us but the worst was the mobs, large groups of unrestrained people walking the streets in search of prey to attack and rob. But we had to move on ahead; God helped us and guided us and we were able to reach the bridge and once there, I knew we would be OK. At that moment I felt better; from that point forward, I knew the roads very well and it was a matter of time and lots of patience.
Crossing the Mississippi River, upon reaching the “West Bank” we continue driving on the West Bank Expressway until the U.S. Hwy 90 Junction (about 12 miles) and then to the town of Boutte, where we crossed the Luling Bridge and returned to the “East Bank”, all the way to Interstate 10, turning west to find Interstate 55 to Jackson, Mississippi. During this part of the trip the roads were full of police and regular army troops, something that brought back many memories for me. Unfortunately Hurricane Katrina had also damaged that part of the state of Mississippi and we were not able to find fuel until the town of Brandon, MS some two and one half hours later in the trip. It was about 6 P.M., August 31th. In Brandon we refueled after waiting in line a long time, and after getting to Temple, GA (outside of Atlanta) Ramona and I needed some rest, so, stopping at a truck stop, at 2 A.M. on September 1st, we got something to eat and rested on the seats of our vans for approximately three hours. There was no lodging available anywhere. (Note: All roads to the east were blocked, especially Interstate 10, because the southern part of the State of Mississippi was completely destroyed, and many bridges were down.)
At dawn of that first day of the month of September we continued the trip. We passed the City of Augusta, Georgia, we went through South Carolina stopping for a brief moment in the Welcome Center and proceeding to the town of Lumberton, North Carolina to drop off the three remaining passengers. By this time, it was already night and we were able to find a Best Western motel where we at last could rest a little and watch some news coverage on television. We could not believe what we were seeing!
The following morning, September 2nd we continued our journey to Natural Bridge, Virginia, arriving at my sister-in-laws' home that evening at 10 P.M. Everything appeared impossible to me and it could not quite enter my mind. A nightmare similar to our departure from Cuba, something I never thought would be repeated, was once again a reality.
Rose's house is right by the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the beautiful scenery served as a “therapy” in those difficult moments, and there we found refuge; that place is like a farm in which we also labored a little bit making some small repairs and cutting grass, and in the process, making our stay more pleasant. Rose was not home when we arrived, she travels a lot with her work and could not be back before that Saturday, however, she had made arrangements with some of her friends to let us into her home. She deserves a lot of credit for helping us.
The future seemed very uncertain and we did not have any idea how much time we would be in our new exile. I felt as if after all these years history was repeating itself and we had to begin all over again. At least I had the opportunity to testify about Cuba and the communist atrocities, as many people who saw us coming from New Orleans were asking questions of our experiences.
Good News: Very soon after arriving in Virginia I received a telephone call from my regional manager, Mr. Chris Saxe of Rand McNally, the company I represent in Louisiana. They supported me and assured me that I was valuable to the company. Many others also called or sent messages of support, and I considered it a blessing to have these expressions of friendship and support; I sure felt better after that. (Note: My District Manager and immediate supervisor, Mr. Andy Mayeux, was also evacuated. He was in Texas and he was also a great encourager, even though he too was going through some personal troubles. We were very grateful for this.)
Bad News: Using my sister-in-law's computer we could see satellite photographs and focus over our house in New Orleans. Incredible? Well, it is possible and we could see our house totally surrounded by the water that stayed for too many days, destroying everything in its path. (There was 7 ½ ft. of water in the house.) Everything was gone and or destroyed; the salt water destroyed everything it touched. I lost many valuable books and many years of correspondence as well as college work which I had in a filing cabinet. But, after all, these are material things and we just have to go on with our lives and rebuilt as best as we can.
Almost at once we began the many legal and insurance steps and plans of action. We knew the insurance companies would take their time and it was a long and painful process to deal with them. We will never receive all they promise, but it is at least enough to help us start reconstruction. These are troublesome times but we accept what has happened and we move forward. We must confront these problems head on as the situation requires it. We can not blame God, we live in an imperfect world and until the end of the world we will witness these natural disasters. (Special note: For those interested, I recommend that you read very carefully the 8th Chapter of the Book of Romans, it is difficult but it does provide some answers to these questions.)
VIRGINIA: The State of Virginia is very rich in American History. We considered that, in the midst of the problems we were facing, it would be good to take advantage of the opportunity to see some of the historical sites around us. Yours truly is interested in American History and Virginia, in particular, has many educational opportunities and you can learn much about the Revolutionary War and the War Between the States (1861-1865) Therefore, my daughter Grace and I spent time together studying and reviewing many things we had already read about. This was very valuable and served to calm down the concerns that overwhelmed us. For example: We visited Appomattox Court House (September 10) the place where Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia, and it is considered as the beginning of the end of the Civil War. Very near was Lexington, the city of General Thomas Jonathan (Stonewall) Jackson, valuable confederate general whose accidental death by one of his own men may have cost the Southern states to loose the war. We visited his home, and his tomb in the town's cemetery. In Lexington you find Virginia Military Institute (VMI) and the George C. Marshall Museum. For those who may not know it, Marshall was a 5 star general and credited as the father of the “Marshall Plan” which helped to rebuild Europe at the conclusion of the Second World War. Lexington is also the home of Washington and Lee University and the final resting place of General Lee.
WASHINGTON, D.C.: The capital city of the United States is about 3-4 hours drive from Natural Bridge. My sister-in-law encouraged us to visit the city and offered us three free nights in a hotel right in the center of Washington. She had some credits that she was not planning to use, therefore we had a mini-vacation with almost no personal expenses. The trip to Washington (September 15-18) served as an important educational contribution. Grace could appreciate better our system of government and we visited the city's many historical monuments. Of course, it was especially personal and interesting to me to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. As we reflected on all these places, we also walked to the new World War II Memorial. On the final day, while returning to my sister-in-law's house, we had an opportunity to visit another historical site that we wanted to see: “MOUNT VERNON,: (September 18th) home of the first president of the United States, George Washington. We arrived at Rose's home that very same afternoon.
BALTIMORE, Maryland: During the first week in October there was a need in Rand McNally to complete a special project in the City of Baltimore, Maryland. I was asked if I was willing to take on the mission and naturally I said yes. Besides working, I saw the opportunities to visit some relatives in Sterling, Virginia and perhaps to see some more historical sites. Taking my daughter Grace along, we departed on Sunday, October 1st, making our first stop in the home of my cousins Maria Antonia “Nica” and Mercedes “Merci”, continuing the trip to Baltimore the following day. Although new in this city the work we performed in Baltimore was satisfactory and on Friday afternoon, the 7th we had time to visit Fort McHenry, the historical fortress which played an important role in the War of 1812, stopping the British, and the birthplace of the “Star Spangle Banner”, by Francis Scott Key and which is today the American National Anthem. Returning, we again stayed with my cousins and had a very pleasant time remembering the old days and renewing our family relationship. The following day we returned to Natural Bridge, having enjoyed this time with my relatives. It was the night of October 7th.
THE RETURN TO NEW ORLEANS: During those early days in October many were already returning to New Orleans. Although our house was destroyed we did have the opportunity to live temporarily in my in-law's house. Besides, my presence in the city was highly requested, since many of my customers were already leaving messages, saying that they needed maps. Embarking on the trip, we left Virginia on October 10th arriving in New Orleans on the 11th late at night. I will never forget that day. The city was almost completely dark; everything looked like a war torn city and many areas still had “curfews”. Explaining and/or describing the sites of New Orleans in this story is almost impossible to do. It is one of those things you must see to believe.
PROBLEMS AND DIFFICULTIES: The first working days were difficult. The warehouse I had, and maintained for Rand McNally, was destroyed and the merchandise looked like wet flour. The first task, therefore, was to search and find a new storage unit, and the second, just as important, to find a trucking company capable of, and willing to, deliver my maps. My District Manager, Andy Mayeaux spent hours in line waiting for a rental at a local storage place. Although everything was moving slowly and with many obstacles, we solved the problems satisfactorily and re-established our business.
THE CITY OF NEW ORLEANS AT THE PRESENT TIME: The weeks and months post Katrina have demonstrated a real challenge. In this report I will not be able to enumerate all the problems because it would be endless. However, it is important to mention several things that play a role in the city's recovery: Large portions of New Orleans are uninhabitable. Many, many thousands of houses and businesses were destroyed. It is not clear what the future will be for these properties (including our own home). Many people are living in the cities and towns around New Orleans. Thousands commute daily between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Most government programs are slow and poorly organized, ineffective and full of bureaucrats. Although FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) has provided some help, its errors are well known and in some cases outright dishonest. It is true that we have bad legislators in the state, but I think that in some cases they have been unjustly blamed for the problems that we face.
The nation at large, in spite of everything they have seen on television, can not totally appreciate the magnitude of this catastrophe. It is imperative that private businesses have full freedom to participate in the reconstruction, they still face too many obstacles and we run the risk of loosing many companies that are operating from outside places. Thousands of small businesses are practically broke and perhaps running the risk of closing permanently.
The State of Louisiana produces about one third of the oil in the entire nation, and almost all of the natural gas that goes to all the states. However, few people know that almost all the oil and gas is exploited by the federal government and Louisiana does not receive any of the royalties. The explanation is illogical: we are told that the State of Louisiana came to the Union as a result of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and that therefore, it was part of the federal government and not a sovereign state. As of this writing, there is a strong attempt in Congress to allow Louisiana to keep the royalties that rightfully belong to the state. Other states, such as Texas and New Mexico, enjoy large sums of dollars generated by the black gold. Should Louisiana be treated fairly, like these and other states, we would have the funds needed to rebuilt our coastline. And many forget that New Orleans is a key port for commerce of the entire nation.
OUR FUTURE: We trust in the God's Providence for our lives. Up to this present moment we have had everything we needed and as I write, we have already moved into our new home and needless to say, there is much work to be done and we are far from having a normal home. Our plans are to stay in New Orleans until “retirement” (if there is such a thing) and then perhaps we can consider moving somewhere else. Some friends have written to tell us they will be delighted to have us for their neighbors; that's something for the future.
We really do not know what the future has for us, however, we know the One who holds the future and He has always been there for us. He does not always keep us from the problems, but He goes through the problems with us and promises to be with us always.
Until my next report,
Jorge A. Maspons
Note: This narration was originally written on Thanksgiving Day, 2005