Whitney's Big Hurricane Katrina Adventure
When Hurricane Katrina was stirring in the gulf, Whitney was a carefree 18 year old with her own apartment which she shared with her boyfriend Justin and her beloved older brother Vincent, who was 21. She lived in an apartment complex in old Aurora, on the west bank of the city of New Orleans. Being their mother, I worried for them, but when I knew of the hurricane and where it was headed, I worried more. I strongly advised Whitney and Vincent to evacuate, offering for them to come with me. I pestered them all day Saturday to leave. Vincent got an evacuation plan, but Whitney said she wasn't evacuating, as many New Orleanians did at the time. Being afraid and suborn myself, I convinced her to go. Little did I know that she was going with another teenager who was a huge Britney Spears fan and had been asking Whitney to go see the pop singer's house in Kentwood Louisiana for some time now.
Since Justin had the next few days off work, they decided why not go on this trip with her friend, the Britney Spears fanatic. Sky got an old rattletrap car together and convinced her mother's friend Randy to go with them too. Randy got the wild idea that since he was a tree trimmer, he could get work at the Spears\' house. He wasn\'t going far from home because he anticipated a lot of tree work in the city after the storm. Whitney and Justin regarded the trip as a vacation, rather than an evacuation. Many residents of New Orleans at the time had this attitude. I left for St. Louis on that Saturday with my two youngest children, who were 12 and 2, not exchanging land line numbers to where I would be, totally relying on Whitney's cell as a way to get n touch with her. My other two girls age 16 and 23, had their own evacuation plan. We were all going somewhere different. Whitney promised me she would leave too, on Sunday. We all expected to be home in about four days.
Whitney left that Sunday with Randy, his friend's daughter, Sky , who was 17 at the time, and Justin who was 19. Randy was 46. Justin had just gotten his paycheck for $200.00 and Randy had about the same on him. That night, Sunday, August 28th 2005, they made it as far as Hammond L.A. because the roads were full of evacuating cars and the travel was slow. The tired little party got a hotel room in Hammond, which turned out to be the last room there was available. With four to the room, and the beer and food they brought, they settled down for the night. That night it was calm and the hotel had plenty of ice.
The gang partied all night, finishing off the beer. When they were only asleep a short time, next morning Monday, August 29th, the hurricane began to blow where they were. Shortly after the first strong winds, they lost power, so they opened the hotel door. The heat was sweltering. From this door they watched trees being blown down, car windows smashing, lawn furniture blowing down the street, and Whitney described the branches of the trees as falling from the sky like the rain. The storm blew for so long that they all took a nap. When they awoke it wasn't blowing as hard and they ventured out in their car, which had survived, to survey the damage.
On this drive through Hammond, they saw whole trees and branches down, some blocking roads and the highway. There were wrecked cars, household debris, and every ditch was overflowing with water. The state troopers were everywhere! Back at the hotel they observed the lobby full of people watching TV footage of New Orleans, which was bad, but the levees had not breeched at this point. They watched little of the news as they were still planning to go to Britney Spears' house to see if they need some trees worked on. Crazy Randy, who has never left teen-hood, was driving, so Justin and Whitney had to go along. It seems there is Britney's mother's house, and one her father lives in. The mother's house was gated and inaccessible. The father's house was not gated, but had some mean dogs there. The kids fed the dogs doughnuts while Randy knocked on a door that was never answered.
Since they did not have much money, food or clothing, and they had not been following the news, they decided to try to get back home. They first went back to the hotel to gather their things and pay the bill, but the computers were down and no one was able to pay. They viewed the news briefly and heard of the death and destruction in New Orleans and wanted to get back to check on family and their apartment. Since the storm hit, they had been trying to call relatives, but there was no phone service anywhere. They were in shock at this point, but had enough sense to worry. They had no idea how bad it was or how bad it would get. Thinking this was the only thing to do, they got in the car and started toward New Orleans. They quickly discovered that the roads to New Orleans were all blocked off, and they were forced to head north once more.
At this point they are driving north with only 20 dollars between them and very little gas. There was no food, ice or gas anywhere, and the temperatures soared into the upper 90's, with a heat index over 100. In the car, which had no AC, it was even hotter. It was a miracle the car held together because it was not a reliabl3e car. Finally they heard from someone that there was gas in Meadville L.A. They headed toward Meadville praying the gas and little water they had to drink would last. There was no food. In Meadville, they found a little gas, some ice and food, but they didn't know where to go. Then someone told them of a church in the woods that was offering shelter.
They drove there to find a small one room church situated in the middle of the woods next to a cemetery. There was no one there but another small family who was looking for a place to stay. Whitney described the place as being very spooky. It was a dark place in a heavy wooded area. There were graves all around and nothing else, except the small chapel. In the graveyard there were some open graves, which made the experience much more frightening. They slept that night on the floor of that hot, spooky chapel with mosquitoes eating them alive. They were squatting, as Whitney put it, along with the other family. They used some clothes as pillows, and the hard floor was their bed.
The next day, Tuesday, august 30, Th they were itchy, hungry, tired and ready to find some better shelter. That is, Justin and Whitney wanted better shelter. Randy was happy in the woods with the spooky cemetery and the mosquitoes. They convinced him to drive out of the woods and see what the shelter situation was. Finding no hotels or shelters, Randy wanted to go back to the woods. He had dug a nice hole for a toilet, and decided he would make the graveyard his home for a while. He wanted the others to join him. Whitney and Justin wanted to go north to find a better shelter. An argument ensued in which the police took notice of. In other words, Justin and Randy were going to duke it out. The officer got between them and put his hand on Justin. Justin, being a sensitive guy got offended and slapped the officer. Instead of arresting Justin, the officer told him to calm down and talked to him. After hearing both sides of the story, the officer sides with Justin and Whitney that they should go north. At this point, they are hungry from lack of available food, hot, tired from not sleeping well in the spooky woods, and thirsty. If they had a little water, it was warm.
The highway was still bumper to bumper with cars headed north to find shelter. Finally, they headed toward Natchez on a tip from a fellow traveler. They were told of a church that had room and were giving out food. The church in Natchez was crowded but they had their own room, the four of them, Randy, Sky, Whitney and Justin. Their beds were pushed together chairs, but there was a game room and cafeteria.
They got a lot of help in the next few days in the way of food, clothing and good shelter, even medical care. Whitney, being thin and tall didn't find clothing in the piles of clothing the Red Cross brought to the church. A church member had a daughter Whitney's size and gave her some of her daughter's clothing. Their basic needs were being met, but they still did not make contact with their families.
Justin was the only one who was able to reach his family. Whitney is very close to her family. She could not reach me, her mother, her father, or any of her siblings, including Vincent, who lived with her and bonded there with her in that time that they were roommates. As the weeks passed, Whitney and the crew went to mass daily to pray. The people who ran the church had volunteers working around the clock trying to find loved ones of the evacuees.
On Sundays the preacher at First Baptist Church would make announcements of evacuees' family members whereabouts as they were found. Most of the stories of lost loved ones were tragic. There were many deaths announced every week, and devastating news of New Orleans, where Whitney was raised. Whitney felt safe herself, but she felt as if her home was gone, and her loved ones might be dead.
For two weeks no one knew where Whitney was. I didn't know, and neither did her father. Her father was in Mississippi, and I was high and dry in St. Louis, but we didn't know if our daughter was alive or dead. I had by that time gotten in contact with everyone else except Whitney. I was frantic and terribly distraught, her father was frantic as well. Finally, her father's cell phone got service, and the volunteer was able to get in touch with her father. When Whitney was handed the phone, she shook with emotion. As she heard her father's voice, she burst into sobs. One can only imagine the conversation she had. It is a blur to her except for the tears of joy and the news that her family was ok.
He called me right away with the news that she was alive, and he had spoken to her. At church that Sunday, Whitney had mixed emotions as they did the announcements. They first announced the deaths, and last, as a ray of hope to everyone, they announced that Whitney had spoken to her father and found out that her family was ok. She was happy, but guilty in a way that her family should be all ok when other's family members were being discovered as deceased.
Shortly after Justin's father found out where his son and Whitney were, he came to get them and took them to Dallas, Texas. After they were there about two weeks, Whitney decided she wanted to go back to New Orleans and see what happened to her apartment and all of her possessions. This trip took place Sept .30th, 2005, shortly after Hurricane Rita hit.
When she got to her apartment, she found a building in ruins. The roof of the building caved in, and she had a second story apartment. She jokes that her closet was the only place in the apartment that didn't cave in, but most of her clothes were on the floor. Ultimately, she lost everything but two shirts. So she walked away with almost literally, the shirt on her back. Her losses included new electronics, furniture, and clothes, but the worst of the losses, were her pictures, and personal mementos, including a bear she had from when she was three years old.
With no apartment, and no desire to go back to Texas, Whitney decided to stay in New Orleans, somehow. A family friend was working with a catering service who was feeding the workers who were rebuilding the city. Whitney fit right in and the job paid ten dollars an hour and she worked 16 hours a day seven days a week. It was tough, but it gave her a new start and a way to help. Justin soon joined her.
Living in New Orleans at that time was both smelly and dangerous. Whitney and Justin witnessed a lot of violence. There were people being shot near to where they lived. Whitney described the air as smelling like a rotten refrigerator and death. That's because they were everywhere sitting on curbs, hundreds of rotten refrigerators, and there were dead bodies. There were buildings still falling down, and random fires, Whitney reported to me. There were junk piles everywhere as well. Where was the order?
The order came in the form of hundreds of police. Some were nice, according to Whitney, and some took their authority too far. Troopers were standing on street corners with machine guns ready to fire. Besides that, there was a curfew from 6:00 in the morning to 8:00PM. There was limited food, only a few restaurants. No fast food, grocery stores or drug stores. It was like a brand new settlement.
In February of 2006 it began to get normal, and by that time, Whitney was pregnant with my first and only, to this date, grandson. He is our little wake from the storm. Whitney survived the storm, and helped with the rebuilding of New Orleans. I am proud of that, and a little shocked that I never knew the whole story of her adventure until I decided to write it. It was quite a story to tell.


Citation

“[Untitled],” Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, accessed June 27, 2022, https://hurricanearchive.org/items/show/45270.