EYEWITNESS ACCOUNT OF THE STORM SURGE

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Slidell

Elizabeth Ashe Havrilla\r\nJanuary 21, 2008\r\n EYEWITNESS ACCOUNT OF THE STORM SURGE\r\n \r\nHaving lived in New Orleans all my life, I was well aware of the catastrophic damage a dangerous storm is capable of and remember quite vividly the devastation caused by Hurricane Camille in 1968. Therefore, I should have known better and insisted that my husband Tom and I evacuate our beautiful three story home on Lake Pontchartrain. Unfortunately, we stayed and weathered the storm. The decision to stay is one we will regret for the rest of our lives. Not only because it was a horrifying experience that nearly cost us our lives but also because we witnessed first hand the destruction of our home and loss of every single possession we owned. The raging winds and ferocious water were relentless as they battered our home and took with it a life time of memorabilia and many irreplaceable items which meant so much to us. \r\n \r\nWe justified staying for a number of reasons, all of which seem senseless now. One reason was a party we planed at our home on Saturday August 27th, for our son James, and his fiancee Ronda to celebrate their up coming wedding. Around three hundred people were expected to attend; however, when we woke on Saturday morning the phone started ringing, and people began canceling because of the storm. I couldn\'t understand why people were leaving; even if they wanted to evacuate, why they were leaving so soon? Many used the excuse that they were afraid if they came they wouldn\'t be able to make it home because of the contra-flow. Although the attendance was well below what we expected, it was a great party, and everyone had a good time. Little did I know that it would be the last party we would ever have in our beautiful home. \r\n \r\n Another reason we stayed was Tom\'s certainty that even if the first floor flooded and the roof came off we would be safe on the second floor. His logic made sense, and I knew we had a generator large enough to run the entire house, so I agreed to stay. We took all the necessary precautions for the storm, removed all of our lawn furniture, plants and anything else in the yard that could fly around and cause damage. It was late when we finished and we went to bed without watching the news. Possibly if we had things might have turned out differently for us. \r\n \r\nWe woke up early Monday morning and the wind was blowing hard, and debris was flying everywhere; however, we did not feel we were in any grave danger. Both of us were constantly on our cell phones with our friends and family keeping them updated on the situation. We stayed on the second floor because we had a better view of the storm. By nine o\'clock the winds were blowing significantly harder, and we watched helplessly as our neighbor\'s Cadillac, my Mercedes and my husband\'s Hummer blew one by one into the bayou across the street. I had no idea of the wind speed but it must have been very high to blow those heavy vehicles into the water. I remember thinking this can\'t be real it must be a dream. From then on things went from bad to worse, and the rain was coming in through the light fixtures, air condition vents, and even through the seams of the windows. Tom and I were running around frantically getting towels so we could soak up the water trying desperately to save our beautiful Brazilian wood floors and imported furniture. Suddenly, we heard the roof coming off of the house, and Tom said, \"I think it\'s the roof over our closet.\" We raced up the stairs and moved all of my clothes out of the closet and on to our bed. Tom didn\'t remove anything of his; he was only concerned with getting the cash he had hidden in his suit pocket. I remember thinking all of his stuff will be ruined, and he\'ll get to buy an entire new wardrobe, which made me mad. As soon as we finished with my clothes we went downstairs to deal with the water again. By now, the water was coming in so fast we just gave up. After that, we went back down to the first floor and could see that the weather had gotten much worse. I knew in my heart that our beautiful house along with a life time of precious memorabilia would be destroyed. As sad as that made me there wasn\'t much time to dwell on that because it was evident that we were in trouble and going into the water, which terrified me to death. \r\nThe lights began to flicker, and we knew what that meant; we were about to loose the generator and electricity. Tom went upstairs to check things out, and sure enough the generator was gone. I heard Tom screaming. \"Get up here, get up here!\" Thank God I left when I did because a few seconds after I got upstairs a tornado ripped off the entire side of the house. Within seconds the house started swaying back and forth. We both just stood there watching in total disbelief at what was happening to our home. The fierce wind was pounding our house to death, and the water was rising quickly. With every second that passed the water was getting higher and higher, and we heard the sound of glass crashing; we ran to the window and couldn\'t believe our eyes. Everything from downstairs came out the house and floated away. It is very difficult to loose everything you own, especially the way we did. \r\n \r\nWe realized that the house couldn\'t take much more of a beating. It had been weakened by hours of strong winds and now the raging water; we knew it was just a matter of time before the house came down. We were standing on the landing of the second floor with the lake at our feet. I looked at Tom and said, \"This was a very bad idea.\" Tom stared straight into my eyes and said, \"Don\'t worry, we\'re gonna be ok.\"\r\n \r\n Earlier in the day, I had put all my jewelry in two small cases and then in the closet on the second floor. When the water started coming into the second floor, I got both jewelry cases out of the closet, ran to the laundry room, threw them into the dryer, and shut the door. It\'s funny, I don\'t know even know what made me do that; possibly I thought my jewelry might be safe inside the dryer. One of the last things my daughter asked me before she left was did I want her to take my jewelry? I said no, and that was another decision I regret. \r\n \r\nThe water was pouring into the second floor from everywhere, and the house was swaying back and forth. I knew that there was no place else for us to go except up, so we went up to our master bedroom on the third floor. When we got there we saw huge cracks in the bedroom ceiling. As soon as we saw that we both knew we didn\'t have much time. Even though, being inside the house was frightening, it wasn\'t nearly as frightening as being outside in the hurricane. The only thing on the balcony was our Jacuzzi and the cover which miraculously had not blown away. I asked Tom if it would float, and he said, \"Yes, I think so.\" The house was leaning to the left which caused Tom to fall down, and I was afraid that the Jacuzzi would slide and crush him. All of a sudden there was a look of fright on his face; I thought he was just losing it. What I didn\'t know then, but do now, is that Tom was watching a thirty foot wall of water heading straight at us. My back was to the lake; therefore, I didn\'t see the wave coming. Just as the wave approached the edge of the balcony Tom pushed both of us into the wall of water holding onto the Jacuzzi cover. \r\n \r\nThe water was dirty, salty, and moving very quickly; neither of us knew where we were headed. Then Tom spied a tree, and said. \"Liz, you have to get into that tree.\" I remember saying \"How can I\"? Tom said, \"Don\'t worry the water will take you there.\" He was absolutely right. It only took a few seconds for us to reach the tree, and there out of nowhere was a chain wrapped around the tree limbs which gave me something to grab onto so I could get up into the tree. Once I felt secure I turned around and looked towards the lake, and the only thing I could see was the top of our house directly in front of me. I remember thinking, oh my God, I am gonna be crushed; without thinking I raised up my legs and used the flats of my feet to push the house off of me. \r\n \r\nAs I watched the top of the house slowly sink into the water I saw Tom hanging on to the Jacuzzi cover with one hand and a pilling with the other. He didn\'t notice me looking at him, and I am glad because he would have certainly seen a look of desperation on my face. The next instant he was gone, a wave washed him away. I\'m not sure why, but I looked at my watch, and it was 11 am; that would be the last time I saw him until the next day. \r\n \r\nAlone, wet, frightened, and twenty feet up in a tree, I was surrounded by nothing but water for as far as I could see. I could not believe what happened and that everything we owned was gone, nor was I sure if Tom was alive. For seven long hours I remained in the tree, holding on for dear life, as I was pounded by wind, rain, and debris. Eventually, the water began to subside, and my worse nightmare was revealed; nearly all the homes in our subdivision were gone or destroyed. \r\n \r\nSeven hours is a long time and a lot of things went through my mind while I was up in that tree. I knew the kids would be worried sick and hanging on to the hope that somehow someway we had made it. I also knew I was hurt, my blood sugar was low, and that no one was coming to rescue me. It was getting late, and if I didn\'t get out of the tree soon I would be stuck in it all night. I was desperately looking everywhere for a safe place to spend the night. The homes that were standing had lost their bottom floors and stairs to the second floor. Finally, I spied a house with the stairs still attached and knew I had to devise a plan to get inside that house before it got dark. \r\n \r\nAround 6:30 or so in the evening, I decided to get out of the tree, so I slid to the bottom where I encountered a big black snake inches from my left leg. My fear of snakes caused me to fall into the water, and a nail went through my right hand. I got up and hobbled down the street; I climbed over mounds of debris and onto the slab of our neighbor\'s house. I was only about fifteen feet away from the iron stairs I was trying to reach, but it might as well have been one hundred feet. The waves were coming fast and furious and crashing into the brick bulk head. In order to get to the stairs that meant I had to swim through the water and battle the waves. I was scared to death and had procrastinated as long as I could. It was almost dark, and I knew I had to make a move, so I dove in the water and swam as hard as I could to the stairs. Just as I reached the stairs and grabbed on another big wave came. As soon as the second wave was over I climbed to the top and could not believe what I saw. There was nothing left to the house; the rear wall was completely missing, and all I could see was the lake. The kitchen, bathroom, furniture, walls, and floors were gone. The only thing left was a sofa and a refrigerator that got stuck on their way out. \r\n \r\nI was exhausted and needed to rest, and the sofa was the only place I could lie down. The cushions on the sofa were wet and full of glass, so I turned them over, and just as I was about to lay down I noticed a door that was cracked open. Without giving it a second thought, I climbed over the sofa and debris then wiggled my way through the hall way, and what I saw next is simply unexplainable. I could not believe my eyes; there was a bedroom unscathed, 4 big pillows with brand new white pillows cases, and a big fluffy comforter. There was a chest of drawers that had not moved an inch, and inside was a dry white T-shirt and dry sheets. I removed my wet clothes and put on the shirt; then wrapped my body in the sheet. I lay quietly in the bed, thinking about all I had been through and had endured, and wondering where was Tom and why my life was spared. \r\n \r\nIt was very dark inside the bedroom, and I couldn\'t see my watch anymore, but I think it was around 9 or 10 pm by the time I settled in. I couldn\'t sleep the wind was still blowing, and the waves still beating against the bulkhead. The time was passing very slowly, and it was impossible to relax enough to sleep. Finally, I looked up at a star filled sky with the most beautiful quarter moon, and I knew the storm was finally over. I must have fallen to sleep because the next thing I remember is sunlight in my face. I went to the window and yelled for Tom. I screamed Tom, Tom, Tom, he didn\'t answer, so I yelled his name again, and that time louder. Then I heard him say \"Liz, where are you, I can\'t see you, stay where you are, I coming to get you\"? I can\'t find the right words to express how I felt when I heard his voice. Tom said at first, he didn\'t believe what he was hearing, and he wasn\'t even sure it was me yelling. He said he was actually coming to look for me when he heard me yell for him. I was anxious to be with him, so I climbed over the debris and down the stairs, through the front yard, and up the street. \r\n \r\nAt last, I saw him, and he was a muddy bloody mess, crying and smiling at me. We hurried towards each other, and when we finally reached we just held each other tightly, and not a word was spoken, not a breath taken, just two very grateful people holding on to each other with all their might. I can\'t remember exactly how long we held one another, but what I do remember is how wonderful it felt to be safe in his arms. \r\n \r\nTom took one look at my legs, and he knew immediately that I needed medical attention. He said it looked as if someone had beaten me with a whip. We found a house with a set of stairs intact and still attached to a house, so we broke in, and got medicine and water. Tom washed off my muddy legs, put Neosporin on all of my cuts, and bandaged my wounds the best he could. As he cleaned me up we began to talk about what happened, and that is when Tom revealed what he had been through. He had spent hours in the water hanging on to the Jacuzzi cover for dear life while he fought off snakes, alligators, and other animals. He said he nearly drowned several times when he swallowed gallons of salty dirty water. Eventually, he found refuge in a home that was in good shape and waited until morning to come and look for me. \r\n \r\nNeither one of us knew how long it would be before we were rescued, so we began to look for things we thought we might need to survive. We went back to our slab and started searching through the debris, digging through the sand like dogs looking for anything that was ours. Unfortunately, all we were able to find were a few dinner plates, several forks and knives, a silver platter I got for my fiftieth birthday, and a dozen or so bottles of liquor. We couldn\'t believe what little remained of our things, but we continued to look through the debris for a couple of hours. It was extremely hot, and we were exhausted, so we decided to go back to the house where he had spent the night. It made sense to both of us, because that house was still standing, dry, and clean. There were also candles, flashlights, and bottled water. The road to the house was full of debris, and snakes were crawling everywhere. Finally, we reached the house, and the first thing I noticed was a note Tom had written to our kids. As I read it I wept uncontrollably because I realized that Tom thought I had perished in the storm, and when he left to look for me he was going to recover my body. \r\n \r\nWe were only in the house ten minutes when we heard a siren, and Tom yelled it\'s a rescue boat. I rushed outside and down the street as fast as I could only to see the boat disappear from my sight. I could still hear the siren, and someone was talking on the bull horn, when all of a sudden I saw the boat heading straight towards me. Then I heard someone say, \"Sir, do you need assistance?\" Tom had managed to get to the shoreline and they saw him. Then I heard the man say, \"Ma\'am, are you ok, do you need assistance?\" I was yelling, yes, yes, I need help. \r\n \r\nThey were pretty surprised to see us, and we were very grateful to see them. Eventually, we were reunited with our family, and nine days latter returned to our lot with our new Winnebago where we lived for fourteen months. We have spent endless hours searching for anything lost in the storm and all to no avail. Tom hired a crane operator to look for the dryer that I put my jewelry in, and sadly we found it empty. He also hired a diver to look for my jewelry at the bottom of the canal and he was unsuccessful. A final attempt was made to locate the jewelry, and this time we hired a barge and barge operator to pull up debris in the canal, where we thought the jewelry might be; still no luck. I have come to the conclusion that the jewelry along with our home and all our possessions are forever gone and that is just the way it is. August 29, 2005 we lost many material things, but one thing we were able to hold on to is each other and respect for the mighty wrath of hurricanes. \r\n \r\n

Citation

Elizabeth Ashe Havrilla, “EYEWITNESS ACCOUNT OF THE STORM SURGE,” Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, accessed June 17, 2019, http://hurricanearchive.org/items/show/33390.