I got around 4-5 hours of sleep that night on the floor of a pre-school room at the Christus Victor Lutheran Church. I slept deeply and morning came too early. We all began to stir around 6am and it was time to get moving, yet again. I decided to forego a shower, because I honestly didn’t see the point. I was sweaty and filthy, but so was everyone else, and I figured I’d be sweaty again pretty soon. There was a thick heat during the day and it was suffocating with the humidity. So, I grabbed a pop-tart and my bottled water and began the day. We all had jobs to do and we were headed in many different directions. Residents of the shelter, almost 100 strong began to wake as well, and we were all facing a very busy day. After some preliminary organization, I went with a guy from our church to City Hall to try and secure MRE’s for the shelter. He set it up, and we headed back. Throughout yesterday evening and this morning, there had been all kinds of discussion about whether or not I should travel the 60 or so miles to Picayune alone. I felt alright with it, but everyone else felt like someone else should go with me. Chuck and Rob decided to come with me, and, as the day wore on, I would be so glad they did.
We set out for Picayune mid-morning (click on map to enlarge – we were coming on I-10 from the east). I was in the lead vehicle and we had no way to communicate as all the cell phone towers were down. As we drove west on I-10, the destruction was significant. We were 5-10 miles from the beach, but there were items in trees, signs down, buildings torn apart, and rubble stewn all over. I would later come to find out that the water was 19 feet high at I-10, north of Waveland, MS, 5 miles from the coast. The water came up the bays, rivers, and bayous, and flooded everything.
There were not many cars on the road, and the drive was uneventful. I think they were all at gas stations. Here and there, a gas station would open, and there would be a line a mile or two long, at least. People were running out of gas and they were afraid of what would happen. Stations would get gas deliveries and just be open until they ran out. Then, folks would wait for the next station to open. It went on like this for a couple of weeks down there.
I decided to forego the 603/43 shortcut through the Kiln to Picayune. It is a backroad that would save me about 10 minutes, but I was afraid the roads might be closed or trees might be down. I decided to press on to I-59 just north of Slidell, LA and go north to Picayune. About 15 minutes before I was to turn north, I began to get this strange feeling that we should go south to Slidell and check on my grandmother first. My plan was to go to Picayune first on Saturday, and then go to Slidell on Sunday and find out what happened to my Mamaw. From everything we were able to figure out, she had already been evacuated. My Dad said as much the other night when I had talked with him. At least that’s what he understood. I kept trying to push this feeling down, but it kept coming back up, "Go to Slidell first." After a while, it started making sense, as I realized that I would save some gas if I went to Slidell now instead of waiting until tomorrow and taking the 40 mile round trip. I figured I would find a note or something about where they took the residents of the Northshore Living Center where my Mamaw stayed. My plan, after I made sure my parents were o.k., was to take off and find where they took Mamaw. So, I drove south once we got to I-59/10.
We were driving through ground zero. Katrina had made landfall about 15 miles south of where I was on the interstate with 135 mph winds. Trees were down everywhere, snapped in two, like twigs. Pine needles were stripped from the trees. Everything had a dead and barren look to it, like there had been some type of fire. There were abandoned cars here and there, and wherever a structure used to stand, it was damaged in some type of significant way. Things were a mess. When we turned south on I-59/10, we drove just a couple of miles before we came into Slidell. We turned on Gause Blvd. and saw barricades on the interstate leading to New Orleans. They were turning people back because the bridge over Lake Ponchatrain was out, washed away by the storm surge. It would be several months before it would be fixed.
We drove to the Northshore Living Center in the Northshore Medical Center complex on Gause Blvd. in Slidell. It looked like something out of a war movie. There were National Guard troops and helicopters everywhere. It was blazing hot, and we had to go through a checkpoint to get in. I got to the checkpoint and I asked the guard if I could find out what happened to my grandmother. He called in and they waved me back. They said that she was there! They had not yet evacuated! I drove back there, parked, and went in. Everyone was running around frantically, making last minute preparations. They said that they would be leaving in about two hours, taking everyone with them, because they were no longer able to provide care for the residents. I asked them where they were taking her, and they said they didn’t know.
Standing in the lobby of that nursing home in the middle of a disaster zone, with nurses running around, helicopters flying overhead, troops guarding the complex, and general chaos reigning was a surreal experience. I was wearing a little Red Cross badge that we made with the computer the night before to go along with the Red Cross sticker on my borrowed red truck, and people recognized me as Red Cross. Well, I guess I was. It was amazing. People were just looking for someone to make a decision and they were looking for anyone who seemed to have authority. I made a decision for my Mamaw right then and there. I asked the nursing home administrator if I could take her. She was 88 years old and not in the best of health. I didn’t want her to be shipped off on some bus to sleep on a cot in a high school gym or something. She deserved better than that. The administrator said sure, without asking for I.D. or anything. They were desperate to get rid of their patients, because they knew they couldn’t take care of them. I decided that I would, even though I had no idea how.
I was flying at this point. I was making decisions quickly, since there wasn’t any real time to think. I’d figure out what to do as I went along. I asked for her charts, medicine, and any paperwork that she had. I was going to check her out as though she would never come back. I didn’t know if she would or not, but I wanted to have everything I needed just in case. I decided to try and call my aunt and uncle in Little Rock to see if they could meet me in Jackson, MS the next day. If I had to drive to Little Rock, I would, but I really needed them to come down and get Mamaw so I could focus on my Dad and the situation in Picayune. The phones at the nursing home were dead. My cell phone was dead. Nothing worked, but it didn’t matter. I was going to take her with me, take care of her, and get her to safety one way or another.
I went out to the parking lot and saw Chuck and Rob. It was about 1pm and they were eating lunch, which reminded me that I was really getting hungry. That pop-tart was long gone. The heat was oppressive, military and medical helicopters were flying overhead and landing in the hospital complex, and troops in Humvees were riding around. I was in a war zone, or at least it felt like one. I asked the guys, if by any chance, their cell phones worked. Rumor had it, that once in a while, someone could pick up a signal. Chuck had nothing. Rob tried and . . . he had a signal! Unbelievable! Praise God! I quickly used his phone and called Little Rock (please be home, I thought). My aunt picked up the phone, and between a great deal of static and the sound of helicopters, I told her and my uncle that I found Mamaw and I needed them to come get her. My uncle said they would come to Picayune tomorrow and take her back with them to Little Rock. Praise God! This was going to work! We talked about logistics for a few more minutes, and I rushed back into the nursing home to get her things.
I walked down the hall and saw her in the cafeteria, sitting in a wheel chair looking out the window. She saw me and her face lit up, she smiled, and said, "Hey you sweet thing, how are you doing?" She beamed and tears came to my eyes. It was so good to see her. She has dementia, but she always remembers me. I told her that we were going to take a little trip because of the storm. She got confused and did not remember the storm. She didn’t understand why she was leaving, but she maintained her usual high spirits. I told her to trust me and everything would be alright. It was hard not to think back on all the years that she took care of me, taught me about Jesus, made me chocolate and coconut cakes, and was just the best grandmother a little boy could have. It was a privilege to be taking care of her now. She was going to be alright. God truly is good.
We packed everything and helped her into my truck. I realized that I was taking her away, and sending her to Arkansas, where I might never see her again. I was really starting to deal with sadness, as I thought about the horror of this storm and all that was lost. As we drove north toward Picayune on I-59, she kept saying, "Would you look at that!" and "What happened?" Trees were snapped and sheared everywhere. It was truly a mess. Then, she said something that stopped me in my tracks. All week long, I had been taken aback by the horror of what had taken place. I only thought about what had happened in the negative. "How horrible, how terrible," I had said. I had entertained and tried to answer questions like, "Why did God allow this to happen," and "How could a God of love let people suffer so?" I knew the theological answers, but I was only seeing the negative. Then, my 88 year old Mamaw with dementia taught me the greatest theolgical lesson of my life, driving in that truck, north to Picayune. Instead of complaining or saying how terrible it was, she said,
"Will you look at what God did? Look at His power! He just snapped these trees in half with His mighty hand! We serve an awesome God, son. He can do anything. We have to praise Him! The rocks and trees will cry out if we don’t praise Him! Look at what God did! Isn’t He powerful? I just don’t understand how people don’t praise the Lord. Look at His power!"
I was stunned. I sat in my seat and looked at this lady who had served the Lord all her life. She never stopped praising God and believing that He was at work in everything. She knew that even the wind and waves obeyed Him. I knew I was in the presence of a precious saint of the Lord. All my life, I never heard her complain – not once about anything. She was not to break her record now. She was giving God praise! I was reminded of Philippians 4:4, "Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again rejoice. Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near." God was speaking through her to me. She had prayed for me all my life and I always felt such a connection with her. But, now, God was speaking through her to me, straight from heaven. At that moment I knew that God was in control. Truly, in control. I would need this lesson.
We drove to my Dad’s house in Picayune first. It was a wreck. My Dad was in the house and was very hot and feeling pretty bad. Four trees had come through the back part of his house, mainly in his bedroom and had torn a large hole in the roof. It seemed insurmountable. Chuck and Rob cleaned up out front while I assessed the situation with my Dad and tried to figure out what to do with Mamaw. She sure couldn’t stay here. I called my mother and asked for a favor: would she be willing to let Mamaw stay with her for one night? I found out that they had a generator and it was cool there. She said that she could and I brought her over. Getting her settled was pretty stressful and there were some difficulties with the whole transition, but we finally worked all that out. Rob and Chuck went on back to Ocean Springs and we finally got settled.
It was late afternoon. My hometown was a mess. Trees were down everywhere, power was out, and buildings were destroyed. It wasn’t as bad as New Orleans or the Gulf Coast, but the high winds had done their damage. My childhood home was broken and I didn’t know if I could save it or if rain water would come in and start doing it’s damage. My homeland of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast were devastated. So much loss. I took it upon myself to take responsibility for my Mamaw, whom I was so close to, and tomorrow she would be gone. I doubted I would ever see her again. In a sense, it was kind of like she was dying to me. I was still carrying the emotional weight of the people that I had been with just the day before and their loss still sloshed around in my soul. I had not eaten all day, and had had no more than 4-5 hours of sleep each night all week as I killed myself to get home to help my folks. I was mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually exhausted. I was heading for a train wreck of grief.
Everyone was gone and I had accomplished my first task. I was home. I can’t say how it started, but there was a trigger. It was as though my soul and my mind were beginning to tear away from each other. The tears started to come and the sorrow began to well up within me. The pain was too much. The exhaustion was too heavy. The pressure was too great. I literally broke down in tears. I began crying profusely, and I couldn’t stop. In my mind, I was fine and I kept telling myself to get a grip, suck it up, and move on. I didn’t have time for this foolishness! But, my soul was saying something different. My heart was broken. I had tried so hard to help people, but was it enough? Did I do it right? So much pain and misery. Against my best efforts to stop it and "be a man," the tears of sorrow, exhaustion, relief, and pain came. They came for about 5 minutes. During that time, I literally could not control them. When it was over with, I felt amazingly better. I was able to think more clearly and I literally felt rested. My mother had fixed me a tuna sandwich that I had eaten just before this, and again, it was the best food I ever ate. I was home. Unfortunately, home was not the same.
I stayed at my Mom’s house that night and took care of my Mamaw. I slept on the floor next to her bed, and when she got up in the middle of the night several times, I got up with her to help her to the bathroom. She couldn’t really walk and she was confused and didn’t know where she was. Still, she maintained her joy. That night of taking care of her was one of the great experiences of my life and I praise God that He let me do it. Service like that is not a burden, but a privilege. I knew I was in the presence of a child of the King. Even so, sleep was fitful, as I dared not drift too deeply away, so I could listen for her awakenings. But, I went to sleep, following my Mamaw’s example and praising God.
A year later, I still have not been able to see her. She turns 90 in January, and it is my hope that I would be able to go to Little Rock and visit with her. I called her on the phone the other day, and she was her old self, rejoicing in the Lord, and making me laugh. She asked the same questions 20 times, because she could not remember the answers, so we didn’t cover much ground, but I had joy in answering them for her. She really wanted to know how many children I had and what their names were! I’d tell her all day long.
I have thought back over the events of those 6 days leading up to her evacuation, and I remember thinking I was trying to get to my parents to help them. I knew my Dad was in desperate need and I wanted to get him out of there. But, looking back, I realized that the sense of urgency I felt and everything that happened that week, happened so I could rescue my Mamaw, just two hours before she was to be shipped off. I really don’t think that God wanted her to go through that. I’ll write about this in the next couple of installments, but my uncle and cousins came and got her the next day and took her back to Little Rock. By Tuesday, they were able to miraculously get her a room in a really nice home 5 minutes from my aunt’s house where she can see her grandchildren and great grandchildren. God is really good.
The Lord had not forgotten her. He was faithful. So many people were rescued off of rooftops and overpasses in those days. The Coast Guard did an incredible job as did many others. Well, in a sense, I feel like God used me to rescue one of His special servants. She had always taken people in to live with her when she lived in New Orleans. My Dad tells stories of person after person that she ministered to and led to the Lord. In her 60’s and 70’s she and my Papaw ran a retirement home and she would minister to the people there, praying for them and leading them to the Lord. She never retired from service to her God. God was faithful to honor her and take care of her, even at the end of her life, when she had nothing left to offer but her praise and her joy in Him. Maybe that’s all He wants from any of us. He was faithful to her and never left her alone. God be praised.
Tomorrow: Katrina Remembrances Pt. 7: A Goodbye, an Overwhelming Task, and Faithful Friends