A reporter's journey in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina

11/23/2005

 

Nov. 2: Go

I felt someone's hand grab mine. Could he see the tears in my eyes?


For a second, it felt like my dad's hand. But through the blazing stage lights, I saw his shadow next to my mom's in the crowd.
 

It was a stranger's hand. I reflexively felt a sting of fear — for the unknown, for the changes I would face. Fear that I wasn't ready for something like this.
 

I was one face in a galaxy of volunteers trying to bring light to one of the darkest natural disasters in the nation's history, the Gulf Coast ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.
 

I stood on stage among nearly 80 volunteers from Crossroads Church in Loveland, three days before departure. A standing ovation sent us off. The hugeness of it all simultaneously intimidated and inspired me.


It was the same feeling I'd had three months earlier when I stood at the base of Longs Peak. It was 3 a.m. The air was black and cold. My dad squeezed my hand.
 

We started the trek blindly, pushed forward by an almost sixth sense. I couldn't see or even imagine the path. But I could sense the mountain breathing above me. I could sense something awesome ahead. So I climbed.
 

Nov. 3: The stats

Mission: Bay St. Louis, Miss., aka the "Estes Park" of Mississippi.

Tourist hot spot on the coast that was hit by a 30-plus-foot wall of water during Hurricane Katrina. Buildings were leveled, most homes destroyed, asphalt overturned, lives also overturned.


Population pre-Katrina: Approximately 8,200. More than 3,000 displaced.


The troops: Nearly 80 from across the Northern Front Range, organized through Crossroads Church in Loveland. Relief experience ranges from expertise level to complete panicked infancy (me).


Living quarters: Floor of Baptist Church of Bay St. Louis. Sleeping bags and cots.
 

Work involved: Remove mud from homes; empty them of possessions, drywall and everything except the frame; cut down trees; run and organize supply stores in the church.
 

Nov. 6: The beginning
 

Our arrival in Bay St. Louis was long anticipated. After 13 hours in the van today and 12 yesterday, I'd run out of stories to tell and caffeine to keep my eyelids light. I collapsed, cheek on window, around

7 p.m. somewhere in Louisiana.
 

I awoke to the van slowing. Outside was black. I squinted to make out a jagged hill beyond my window. At first I thought I was dreaming: a 10-foot-tall mound of shattered sinks and toilets.


We had arrived in a ghost town. For the first time in two days, our van grew silent. Most of the buildings were deserted and dark. All we could make out were eerie shapes, briefly illuminated in our passing headlights. Unnatural piles on the side of the road. A home naked without its porch. A gas station without pumps. A white chapel without the steeple and cross.
 

It was as if someone had taken an eraser and rubbed away random chunks of life. Then we turned the corner, our headlights shifted and everything dissolved into blackness.


I am afraid what the sunrise will bring.


Nov. 8: Third day

I've heard the word "surreal" used over and over to describe this disaster. Especially this city, which barely registered a pulse on the relief screen, despite the fact that its damage was so extensive it was

originally reported as "wiped off the planet," locals say. Entire neighborhoods dissolved to dust. Houses lifted off their foundations and dropped back 50 feet away. Cars twisted like taffy. A new baby's photo album caked with mud.
 

It was worse than any photo could capture. And the coastline today looked identical to photos taken the day after the storm, down to tiny scraps of wood. There was so much disaster and so little help.

The city invited the church where we stayed to join a "community cleanup day." I expected the city's survivors and all the other volunteers to emerge and work together.
 

I never saw anyone other than us.


Officials said about half of the city staff did not return after the storm, so they didn't have enough bodies to fulfill the basic city duties. They wanted us to repair manholes and pick up trash on the side

of the road so they could mow. Seemed pointless collecting muddy cardboard and papers, while 10 feet away an entire gas station had been squashed into an accordion.
 

Later, a city worker explained that this small effort returned some sense of normalcy; the city was a war zone, but that two-mile stretch of road looked beautiful. One mile at a time.
 

Nov. 8: Three crosses

Pastor Al Green expected to return to Bay St. Louis and have to conduct five funerals, at least.


Five members of his Baptist congregation had decided to weather out the storm at the church. The news had reported Hurricane Katrina took his entire town with it.
 

In part, that was true. The beach had grown, absorbing the first block of homes and businesses. But two blocks from the ocean, his large brick church still stood.
 

Green said he began walking the streets, searching for familiar faces and some kind of explanation to share with those he did find. 

It was back at the church that something caught his eye. Whereas houses, built to withstand a hurricane, had been ripped from their concrete foundations, three crosses placed loosely in front of the church still stood. Only the wind had spun the crosses in different directions, he said. The one on the right faced outward. The one on the left had spun inward.
 

Suddenly, Green said, the answer he'd been seeking clicked. The cross display represented the choices hurricane survivors had: to turn away from God, or to turn toward him.
 

Then Green noticed the middle cross. It was facing the cross on its left, the cross that had spun toward it. 

"It doesn't matter how bad the storm gets," Green said. "If we turn to him, he will already be turned to us, with the destruction under control."


Nov. 8: Update

Too many stories to tell. Not enough time.

Everyone you meet is a novel.

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© 2019 by Aimee Heckel

Photos by Iman Woods Collective, Whitney Bryen, Shannon McTighe Photography and Hollywood Calling