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Human spirit in the eye of hurricanes

In a departure from a constant menu of politics in the news these days, the big story right now is probably of greater importance to millions of Americans: one of the most powerful hurricanes in modern times slamming into America’s east coast. BoomerCafé co-founder and executive editor Greg Dobbs has covered major hurricanes over the years, and writes about the impacts that we don’t necessarily see.

If “how we handle” means two in a row, I’d say, so what? It’s something fresh, and maybe helps keep people (who get the alert, anyway), checking us out, and buying time til we’re back up with more new material.

As Hurricane Florence smacks the East Coast, we can all see the big picture if we watch the news: masses evacuated, neighborhoods devastated.

But how does it look up close? And how does it feel? What’s it like for those who worked at their jobs and sheltered their kids and paid their bills and never expected to be homeless, yet now they are. A few lessons learned thirteen years ago from covering Hurricane Katrina might answer those questions.

From the Florida panhandle to eastern Texas, maybe a million people uprooted by Katrina had to go months without a home. They had no place to live, no place to work, no place to get food, no place to send their kids to school. In my career as a journalist, I covered some of the major wars and natural disasters of the past several decades, and after Katrina, I saw scene after scene that I could only compare to those experiences. The difference was, in war zones, people were fleeing the fighting; when Katrina blew in, they were fleeing the wind, and the water.

Wherever my cameraman and I went, we saw people who I could only liken to the walking dead. For instance in New Orleans, a guy maybe 30, pushing his father, maybe 60, in a wheelchair. Through two- or three-foot-deep water. We could have set off a firecracker next to them; they wouldn’t have flinched. I guess they’d just seen too much tragedy and suffered too much loss of hope to react to two strangers with a TV camera pointed at them.

Another day we waded through the same depths of water to get to New Orleans’ Super Dome, which had become the biggest of several refugee camps. Busses had been commandeered to get the refugees to a safer haven. People who just four or five days earlier had had homes, and jobs, and normal lives, were now boarding busses with sweaty bodies and soaking wet shoes to go to some other city they might never have seen before, with no promise for how they’d survive once they get there. Watching one particular man carrying a baby in one arm, a three- or four-year-old girl in the other, it struck me that he had what amounted to his whole life in his arms.

New Orleans after hurricane Katrina in 2005.

But people clobbered in a catastrophe are like that. They have no realistic hope for the foreseeable future. If it’s a hurricane, their homes are under water; their places of work, their schools, their markets, their highways, their cars, their doctor’s offices, their checkbooks, their marriage licenses and birth certificates and computers and televisions and clothing and furniture— it’s all submerged and saturated. And then, whether a hurricane or a tornado, an earthquake or a fire or a flood or anything else, when and if people can finally come back, they come back to a level of loss few other Americans have ever suffered.

They might also come back to a city that smells like a sewer. That’s something in an eerie post-calamity landscape that TV video and news photos can’t convey. It’s a warning about how difficult it will be to make the city habitable again. Sewage deposited in the streets, sewage stuck to the walls, sewage in every crack.

Greg Dobbs

On maybe the fourth day after Katrina struck, we drove east to Biloxi, Mississippi, what locals called, with a combination of horror and the perverse pride of survivors, the “ground zero” of Katrina. By their definition of “ground zero,” Biloxi and its people were every bit as devastated as the infamous ground zero from September 11th, four years earlier.

Biloxi was another war zone. Another tragedy. Hiroshima with a southern accent. Whole neighborhoods were erased by water and wind. The smell of death was not just a newsman’s cliché.

Many people who roam through their ravaged neighborhoods after a catastrophe look catatonic, but in Biloxi we came across one couple more confused than catatonic. Although mostly collapsed, a house stood squarely on the concrete slab that was the foundation of their property. But it wasn’t their house. Theirs had blown into a million pieces, somewhere. This was someone else’s, but it ended up on their land. They pointed to another house that sat at about a 45-degree angle, the upper part elevated by a van crushed underneath. This had been their neighbors’ house. The van had been the neighbors’ only car. The fact that it was still there told this couple that the neighbors hadn’t tried to get away. Which meant they were probably dead inside.

Another day we came across about a dozen poor black people sitting on a long porch. There was no longer a house behind it. They told me how they’d all gone up to the second floor of the house that was no longer there. But the storm surge came in and the water rose fast and they started bailing out through the window, grabbing someone’s arm who had made it to the strong limb of a tall tree. One man was too old, too frail, and he just couldn’t hold on. He drowned.

We came across a different man, walking the grounds of his house. There was nothing left. Not timber, not bricks, no washers or dryers or anything. Just three cement steps still firmly anchored to the ground. They had led into the house. But the house had now disappeared. He had felt his home would survive because of the five-story brick hotel between the house and the seafront. It didn’t. The big brick hotel was gone too.

Maybe the most moving moment in my several weeks’ coverage was at a chain restaurant called The Waffle House, about five miles north of Biloxi. It reopened the day we got in. I don’t know how they did it, because power had been out and all the food had to spoil. But somehow they got eggs and white bread, and they opened their doors to anyone who found out about it. They got together all the staff that normally worked the three different daily/nightly shifts, and had everyone there at once for the few hours they were open. The place was frantic with activity. The cameraman and I grabbed seats at the counter, and I happened to be watching a young heavy-set black man turning eggs on the griddle as fast as he could. Suddenly an older waitress, white, came along and just put her arms around him and gave him a long hug. When his face turned so I could see it, tears were streaming down his face. And hers. Who knows what they lost? But there they were, working. Cooking for us.

I’m a bit of a cynic about the value of organized religion. It has been at the core of too many of the conflicts I covered overseas. But covering Katrina, I saw its benefits. On the first Sunday after the hurricane, we went looking for a church service in an area flattened by the storm. We found one in the heart of a poor black part of Biloxi. The people had dug up folding chairs and were singing like it was the happiest day of their lives. The minister was right out of central casting for a holy-roller preacher on the Mississippi coast. He didn’t just look like Little Richard; he even sounded like him. And when he told this crowd that had just lost everything they owned that their faith would get them through, they said Hallelujah. Because faith was one of the last things they had left.

This reflects the typical response when you ask people how they’re coping after a calamity. Almost universally, they say they feel lucky to have survived. And happy to have their families together. I have my life, I have my loved ones, I’ll find my future.

We’ll see the same things this week after Florence. And hear the same unconquerable human spirit.