I live in a small town in Southeast Texas called Silsbee, two hours east of Houston and about an hour from Lake Charles, Louisiana. 2005 turned out to be one hell of year for a whole lot of us. \r\nIn August, I graduated from Lamar University with a bachelor of fine arts and proudly magna cum laude. Our local paper, the university and the small museum I directed wrote stories about it, and I was humbled. Widowed with three minor boys in 2000, working and going to school really hadn\'t been all that hard, but seems others thought so.\r\nIn September, we were all reeling from what had occurred with Hurricane Katrina, realizing how close we had come to being victims ourselves. Many in my town took in Louisiana family and friends. Evident were the trailers parked in front yards, folks buying groceries in multiple baskets, and the same bringing extended family to church. We all felt lucky and blessed.\r\nBy the end of September, we were beginning to get nervous about Rita. Two days before she hit, our county commissioner showed up with dump trucks dropping sand for us to bag and place around our homes. My boys and I shoveled and sweat, shoveled and bagged, shoveled and carried until we were exhausted. One neighbor said it didn\'t really do any good. I stopped dead in my tracks.\r\n\"What? Then why are we doing this?\" I asked. He said, \"Because we have to do something.\"\r\nI decided I had enough bags and returned to pack clothes, bedding and the dog crate. I packed towels, pillows, shampoo, soap, and dog food. When I thought we had all we could take, we drove north. I\'d managed a shortcut to Jasper then headed northeast into Louisiana. We made it as far as Many, where a state trooper told us we could stay at the Many High School gym for shelter.\r\nWe found the gym and carried in our belongings. Not too many people, I thought, but as the night grew late we found ourselves joined by more and more. They were black, white, Hispanic, middle class, and plenty of people with no money at all. Most were wonderful, some were frightening.\r\nWe seemed to instinctually arrange our plots and bedding like homes in a neighborhood, leaving long lanes for walking around, and allowing our neighbors on each side a little personal space. Some of us had more than others, and others brought things they shouldn\'t have. By late the first night, the sounds of snores and babies crying was annoying, but we were so tired, we did our best to ignore it.\r\nThe next morning the winds picked up and the sky was growing cloudy. We were still getting some news from the high school staff. By afternoon, a misty rain had begun and many of us were losing cell phone connection. Some of the young adults had organized a football game with the kids. Someone from the high school showed up to pass out MREs. My 13 year old son thought he was on a grand adventure. There were showers for men and others for women. They had also provided air mattresses which I thought were pure heaven. But as the hurricane descended upon us, darker personalities began to appear.\r\nThe electricity went out at about midnight. Somewhere in the foyer of the gym, a card game was going on. The crude language grew louder and more violent as the evening wore on. A woman moved near us, saying that another woman had slapped her child. The chubby little thing didn\'t look too victimized, but moms can be pretty defensive. We asked why. \r\n\"She\'s on drugs,\" said the mother. Though she didn\'t tell us, we later learned that the two women were related as sister in laws. \r\nEven later, a man lying with his wife began to scream vulgar names at her. Startling most of us, it was particularly sad because she was embarrassed and pleaded with him to stop. He did not. To make matters worse, her son, who looked to be about 24, suffered from a severe form of cerebral palsy. He was nearly quadriplegic and wore a diaper that she changed in that open setting with a great deal of dignity and finesse.\r\nThe woman crawled to her son and tried to sleep past her husband\'s cursings. Ha! None of us could sleep past it. He kept it up most of the night. About an hour later, I decided he had passed out and was blurting in his sleep.\r\nAnother man, sitting in a wheelchair had apparently soiled himself. The odor he emitted was profound and staggering.\r\nThe next day, it rained and the gym stayed dark. No Many High School staff arrived that day, and many of us had no food. Some offered to share, others were cooking what they had salvaged from their freezers at home. Walking into a restroom, I noticed a group of women busily washing and preparing raw, whole chickens in the sinks. It occurred to me to go somewhere else to do my business.\r\nAs night came, those without flashlights struggled to see and get near those with battery operated radios. No real good reason because the volumes were usually turned all the way up. We were all hungry for news. Others lit candles. A precarious situation, especially by those who lit them often had young children jumping about. Someone had started a rumor that the water was going to fail. Soon, no one would have water to drink or to shower with. I was afraid to sleep that night. I decided we were leaving the next day. I didn\'t know where we\'d go. I just knew we had to. We\'ll just go north until we can find a hotel with an available room, I thought.\r\nThe next morning the rain had stopped. We packed up, said goodbye to the new friends we\'d made, and thanked the Many High School staff who\'d arrived. My cell phone rang, and it was my sister in Long Beach, Mississippi. Ironically, she said we could get to her. Long Beach is just a short distance west of New Orleans. She had endured Katrina a month earlier, and what we would see when we got there was devastation beyond my imagination.\r\nShe directed me north to Shreveport and then west to Jackson, Mississippi. We\'d then drive south to Long Beach. The strange route was necessary for two reasons. First, we didn\'t want to drive into the tail of Rita. Second, we needed to drive major highways because they would have been cleared of debris more quickly than the smaller roads.\r\nAs we got closer to Long Beach, we began to see fallen trees, signs, and other building materials littering the sides of the roads. Entering the urban area, we noticed the trees, those still standing, had been stripped bare. Great heaps of splintered wood and metal lay where buildings once stood. \r\nFollowing her directions, we moved slowly through intersections of mass traffic. The closer we got to her house, the slower I drove. She had warned me not to follow to close behind the many dump trucks filled with debris. She said they dropped material, nails and screws, and a flat tire was a common result.\r\nHer neighborhood and house had seemed to survive the worst of Katrina. She had lost some siding and part of a fence, but other than that, her house was fine. We stayed with her for a week before driving back to Silsbee. She had recently gotten electricity, and she had air conditioning and a stocked freezer. But, she said, we can\'t get milk, butter, cheese or produce yet. Sure enough, we took a trip to one of the few groceries stores open. Whole aisles empty of product and the only produce I could see were a few potatoes and even fewer onions. It was a little surreal to me.\r\nWe left Long Beach to join what looked like an armada of emergency vehicles and mobile homes on their way to New Orleans. Some were National Guard jeeps and trucks. We waved, they waved back.\r\nThe drive was interesting as we noted no break in damage to trees, signs and buildings. We reached Sabine Pass by the afternoon, and headed north to Silsbee. It didn\'t get worse, it just stayed the same.\r\nDriving into town, we were awed by the tremendous strength that would take out the giant church spire of First Baptist Church and cause it to spear the ground below. Dairy Queen was unrecognizable, and as we drove away from downtown and toward our neighborhood, the condition of the trees was tragic. This part of the country is known for its giant Loblolly pines. Nearly all of them had snapped off and landed in the same direction. The oaks with shallower root systems had simply fallen over exposing their bottoms of root and dirt.\r\nWhen we got home, we entered through the back patio door. The smell of mildew was unmistakable. The heat drained us within minutes. We learned that the house had flooded, taking in four inches at its highest level. The garage took six. There was no power, so we had no idea until later what appliances were gone. Mold was growing on the bottom of the furniture and in the carpet. The work that it would take to give me back my house overwhelmed me. I was tired just thinking about it. \r\nMy boys and I worked for days to tear out the carpet and laminate flooring. We then began to tear out the drywall from two feet up. The mud became dust, and we weren\'t going to have clean feet for a long time. Contractors were nowhere to be had, and I had no idea how my flood insurance would pay out.\r\nBy now it was October. Fortunately we had a gas water heater and a gas stove and oven. I was able to cook and shower comfortably. One day while showering, I noticed a lump in my breast. I thought, great, this is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month and at any other time I could get a free mammogram. All the towns around Silsbee were still without power. I ended up going to Houston to the Southeast Regional Medical Center. The doctors there thought the lump was suspicious and ordered an ultrasound.\r\nSo, in October I was diagnosed with breast cancer. By November I\'d started chemotherapy, and by December my hair began to fall out. I met 2006 with a whole new sense of fashion, and learned to enjoy wearing hats and earrings. The cancer and my treatment took nearly a year to complete. Things have worked out well for me, and today I\'m cancer free, my house has had a facelift, and life moves on.\r\n\r\n


Sue Bard, “[Untitled],” Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, accessed February 28, 2020, http://hurricanearchive.org/items/show/38345.