As I’m watching the media coverage of the impact of Hurricane Harvey, I keep flashing back to my experiences with Hurricane Andrew.
In August 1992, I had just relocated to Baton Rouge, Louisiana for graduate school. I knew exactly one person, a classmate from undergrad. I wasn’t especially enamored of post-graduate work and not especially interested in political science. But, somehow, here I was because I had no viable options in mind.
Louisana was truly like a foreign culture to me. I was in awe and struggling mightily with homesickness as I navigated those first few days. My roommate was a Louisiana native who had never left the state except to visit Mississippi. When I realized a hurricane was coming out way, I hoped her 25+ years in the region would be my salvation.
I was wrong.
As I watched the news coverage of Andrew, my fear grew. Coming from Western Pennsylvania, I had zero preparation for a hurricane. This was just the cusp of the Internet era so I had nowhere to turn for information although I did have a shiny new email address courtesy of LSU. I was living in a third floor apartment.
That’s when my then-roommate did the most selfish thing I’ve ever experienced. She left me alone to take refuge with her sister. She told me there wasn’t room for me in the sister’s place so I was on my own. I was appalled. Isn’t a looming hurricane a good reason to offer up a couch or throw some blankets on the floor? How do you just leave your roommate of ten days from Pennsylvania on her own in a hurricane?
So I duct taped the windows (including her room) and began eating ice cream since I knew the power would eventually go out. I had batteries, flash lights and a landline phone that didn’t require electricity.
I briefly considered fleeing for home. I figured if I drove north to Illinois and then east to Pittsburgh, I could avoid the storm fallout. It would only take me two days and I could start a new/old life in Pittsurgh finding a job doing something, maybe go to graduate school up there.
Then the landline rang. It was my college friend, Phil, who lived down the street with his brother in a one-bedroom apartment. They invited me to come hunker down with them. I was never so grateful to spend the night with two guys I barely knew in a dingy apartments with no electricity. We ate sandwiches, fruit and went to bed early because the power was out. I did have time to call my parents and tell them where I was riding out the storm.
I was on the sofa. I could see into the courtyard of the apartment complex through the sheets the guys used as curtains. I could see the trees bending to the ground in the wind. I could hear the wind, the rain, the occasional eerie quiet. I was terrified and in awe like I had never experienced before.
Eventually, I fell asleep. The next day, I discovered that my car was fine even though tree branches were everywhere. Phil’s mother lived in Lafayette in the Acadiana region of the state and she invited us to come stay with her for a few days. I drove back to my apartment to get some things.
After climbing over the large tree branches blocking the apartment (and the one that fell where my car was parked before I left for Phil’s), I discovered that my roommate had returned because she had a fight with her sister. She had no idea how to contact Phil (I left a note, but not a number.) She thought she deserved brownie points for returning to me, but I eventually realied she was playing me emotionally. Sad, but nonetheless the apartment was fine and so was she.
Phil and I drove out to Lafayette where the power was still active because they had trimmed the trees around power lines in the spring. We spent some time with the luxury of hot water, home cooked foods and television. I slept in Phil’s old room per his mother’s decision. My college freshman roommate had had a big crush on Phil back then so I fell asleep thinking how much freshman Sue and Amy would be enjoying the current state of affairs.
I drove back into Baton Rouge a few days later with Phil’s younger brother, Scott. We knew that the City had weathered the storm and was back together. The campus had food and resources.
I went back to my life of nervous graduate student. When Andrew came up, people would typically boast about their experiences with other storms. We weren’t talking about climate change in 1992. We never talked about the people who died or the devastation, probably we were too young and mostly not from the area. Our lives were pretty much intact because of our relationship to the university and by extension the infrastructure around it.
Across the state, the hurricane damaged 23,000 homes and destroyed 985 homes and 1,951 mobile homes; private property damage was estimated at $1 billion. The high winds destroyed large areas of sugar and soybean crops, estimated at $289 million in damage.Strong winds also left at least 230,000 people without electricity. During the storm’s passage, upwelling occurred in the Atchafalaya Basin and Bayou Lafourche, killing 187 million freshwater fish. Damage to the fishing industry was estimated at $266 million. Overall, losses in the state of Louisiana reached approximately $1.56 billion. A total of 17 deaths occurred in Louisiana, 8 directly and 9 from indirect causes. At least 75 injuries were reported.
Andrew wasn’t Katrina. I was living in Pittsburgh during Katrina. I had Internet access so I tried to track down my grad school comrades to see how they were faring. I am still in touch with Phil who told me that one of our professors had lost his house in New Orleans, but his family was safe. That was the worst of it for people that I actually knew. I became so engaged in trying to reconnect with my old friends and being affronted at the institutional failures that I lost sight of Katrina’s personal impact on me.
Katrina reminded me of my outrage, but Harvey brought back my fear. I close my eyes and I’m right back in that apartment, alone and afraid. I’m crouched on a sofa watching the world tear itself apart through the window. I don’t know that the system is skewed to protect me because I’m part of LSU and not in the direct path and because I had a local friend. I’m not flooded on the third floor and I am well-versed in not driving through water on the roadway. I grasp onto what I can appreciate and stuff all of these conflicting feelings into a box of “what an experience!” to share someday.
For 25 years, I’ve kept that agreement with myself. I shared my experiences with Hurricane Andrew like an anecdote. I was grateful that it wasn’t worse, but I rarely spoke about how it felt. I even made my roommate abandoning me into just another chapter in the story.
The one thing that stayed with me was Mr. Ardoin’s comments about LaFayette municipal goverment always keeping tree branches trimmed around power lines to minimize disruption of services. It worked because we had power at his house. And I would wonder a lot about why the other parishes didn’t follow suit.
But I didn’t have tools to understand the larger implications of municipal resources. Even when I did some brief project work on environmental racism, I didn’t connect the dots. And no one suggested there were dots to be connected.
When I sought therapy at the LSU counseling center about 7 weeks later, no one asked me about the Hurricane. I know that I had longstanding struggles with depression and anxiety, but no clue that it was impacted by this traumatic experience. It was just not spoken about.
Even as I blog this post, I’m tempted to continually state that I didn’t have it so bad, that Andrew wasn’t Katrina and that I didn’t lose any of my posessions, much less my health or life. As if you you, my reader, doesn’t know that I know that or that I would keep that in mind.
I can be a person who experienced a trauma and be a person who still has a sense of proportion about the much greater losses others experienced. That balance is what helps me be empathetic to those experiencing natural disasters and continue advocating around the man-made parts.
There’s no powerful way to close this post. I hope tonight I can close my eyes and not go back to those 1992 memories. I hope I can talk with my therapist about the themes of abandonement, isolation and being rescued around those memories. I hope I can take a deep breath and let some of it go.
Because along with the great story, there’s still some fear and anxiety. Maybe that will always be the case.