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The Forgotten Storm MAG
What would you do if you knew that in a few hours all your possessions, home, and even town could be gone completely? And how would you feel if you knew you might be gone, too, if you stayed? Most people don’t have to ask these questions. But when Mother Nature decides to send a Category 5 hurricane our way, these fears become all too real.
September 22, 2005, was just an ordinary day in my southwest Louisiana town. I went to school, talked to friends, did homework, and went to soccer practice. I was especially looking forward to the Homecoming football game that coming weekend. Unfortunately, that game never took place.
I had heard about hurricanes and seen the devastating stories on the news, but I had never really given them much thought. Then Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, a city just three hours from me. The devastation was unbelievable; many who didn’t have the money or time to evacuate died. Somehow we didn’t even get a drop of rain.
When Hurricane Rita was predicted to hit the Gulf Coast, everyone was scared because of what had happened to our neighbors. We all became glued to the Weather Channel, our eyes transfixed on the yellow cone of the projected path, willing it to disappear. School was cancelled for the following day, and in a weird way, I was almost excited. I didn’t believe the hurricane would actually come. It was just one of those events you read about, like a plane crash or winning the lottery. Besides, the path was pointed straight into Galveston Island, Texas, far enough away not to be worried.
When I woke up on September 24, everything had changed. The eye of the storm was now projected to hit my town of Lake Charles directly. The government ordered a mandatory evacuation and no one wasted time. My father bought plywood and I helped him nail it over the windows, thinking how ironic it was that we were preparing for this big storm while the sun looked down on us from a blue, cloudless sky. Despite the beautiful day, an eerie foreboding lingered. Knowing that my house could be reduced to rubble made it hard to decide what to pack. We crammed everything we could into our truck: photo albums, clothes, food, and my little sister’s entire doll collection. Gas was scarce with prices climbing. As we left, I looked back at my house and realized it might be the last time I saw it intact. The city seemed abandoned, perhaps foreshadowing what was approaching. As we drove past people still boarding up their houses, I could see a growing fear in their eyes that made them hammer faster.
We drove to Baton Rouge, a city normally two hours away. Tonight it took six hours on the traffic-jammed streets with five people, a dog, and a ridiculous amount of luggage. Once we arrived where we were staying, I was too worried to sleep. We watched the news as the storm approached, saw the TV crews and people who decided to “hunker down” and wait the storm out. Were they brave to stay, or too scared to leave? The rain came, along with the 120 m.p.h. winds normally associated with a Category 5 hurricane. I watched a reporter from CNN on the roof of a casino, trying to stand against the wind as he was pelted with rain. We hoped for the best, but expected the worst. Soon the power went off in Baton Rouge, and tornado warnings sprang up around our area.
We stayed for a few days, until our city started letting people back in, if they had written permission. My dad returned first and gave us the good news: our house was standing! As it turned out, the eye had gone just west of us and Rita had been reduced to a Category 3 by the time it reached us. Many houses were standing, but others were flooded or had trees crushing their roofs. The damage was calculated at 11.3 billion dollars!
My whole family returned the next day, although I was really scared of what I would find. It was a surreal experience as we drove down the empty roads. The National Guard stopped us as we approached the town and questioned my dad. We had to watch for fallen trees. When we finally got to our neighborhood, I couldn’t believe what I saw. Where a house had been hit by a tornado, there was a gaping hole, leaving a clear view right through to the backyard. The garage door was twisted in a way I wouldn’t have thought possible.
No one else had returned yet. We picked up stray shingles from the lawn and hauled fence pieces to the curb. We had lots of holes in our roof and every time it rained streams of water would come through. We removed all the insulation from the walls and ceiling so mold wouldn’t grow. As we did this, part of the ceiling fell on my mother, sending insulation everywhere. Since it was wet it didn’t hurt her, but it showed us what could have happened with no nearby hospital in operation.
We stayed in our home for two weeks with no power. It was so hot without air conditioning that I couldn’t sleep at night and was constantly thirsty. A dusk-to-dawn curfew had been instituted to prevent looting, and military helicopters flew by constantly to search for those who disobeyed it. It was so dark at night without streetlights that when you went outside you could not see right in front of you. We had no way to cook, so we went to the civic center where the military was handing out free MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) and water. It wasn’t exactly gourmet. We weren’t supposed to use or drink the water since they didn’t know if it was safe yet. During our second week, my dad bought a generator which helped work our ceiling fan and a few lights. The fan was heavenly. I would eagerly await the town press conferences on the radio that stated the developing improvements around town, like where to drop off garbage or predictions of when the power would come back on.
The absolute worst part was the saltwater mosquitoes. It was the most bugs I have ever seen in one place. There had to be over a hundred in my house, and each day I would wake up with lots more bites than I had the day before. Every inch of me was itchy.
In time, others returned and began rebuilding their homes and lives. One day a pizza restaurant re-opened, and since we had not had a hot meal in weeks, we hurried there before curfew. It was the best pizza I’ve ever
Although I’d definitely never want to go through another hurricane again, it taught me what is important in life and made me thankful for many things we take for granted, like air conditioning and hot water. I realized that although material things could have been lost, they weren’t really what mattered. According to the National Weather Service, Rita was a much stronger storm than Katrina, the fourth worst storm in history, while Katrina was the sixth worst.
My town was luckier than Cameron Parish, just south of us, which was completely leveled. It had been destroyed in the 1950s during Hurricane Audrey, yet even knowing this, people returned to rebuild. Why? Because it was their home, and they wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. Most of all, the hurricane made me realize that humans have a lot of power, but we have no way to defend ourselves when it comes to the wrath of Mother Nature. Although the wreckage may be gone and the blue-tarped roofs are repaired, the effects and memory of Hurricane Rita will live on. It is a storm forgotten by many, but remembered forever by those who experienced it.