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RDR: Remembering Katrina and her aftermath

New Orleans in the wake of Katrina.
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By Andrew W. Griffin

Red Dirt Report, editor

Posted: August 29, 2010

OKLAHOMA CITY -- It was about this time of day, late in the afternoon of Aug. 29, 2005, that I looked up in the skies over Alexandria, Louisiana,and could see the high, swirling clouds.

Alexandria was the Central Louisiana city I was living and working in the day Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf coast with a destructive fury like few had ever seen.

As a newspaper reporter for the Alexandria Town Talk for the past six years, I had come to be watchful of these powerful storms that roared up from the Gulf. In that time I had seen few that would have the impact that Katrina would have, and we would avoid a direct hit in the part of the state nicknamed "Cenla," which was short for Central Louisiana.

I noted the clouds and the way the late-day sun hit them. It was the far northwestern edge of the storm that was lashing southeastern Louisiana and coastal Mississippi. We were relatively safe in Alexandria. It would be a month-or-so later that Hurricane Rita would hit and cause far more devastation in our part of the Bayou State.

Noting the front page of the Baton Rouge Advocate the day Katrina hit, Mayor Ray Nagin is quoted, saying, "This is a once-in-probably-a-lifetime event ... The storm surge will most likely topple our levee system."

In retrospect, one wonders why Nagin and Gov. Kathleen Blanco didn't do more. Hindsight in 20/20 but many New Orleanians and Louisianans had lived through bad storms before. No one was really prepared for the wrath of Katrina.

Indeed. The destruction was so awful that it took your breath away. I had friends down there. One would come stay with me for a couple of week's as she figured out her next move, her home trapped in the floodwaters, her car destroyed by the rushing waters. Weeks later, I would  help her track down her two cats that had been trapped in the house and later recovered in the shipping village of Amelia, La. where folks had saved them and taken them for refuge until their owner came to find them.

For days, refugees streamed into our part of the state. Town Talk reporters sought out the stories these poor folks had to share. I have to say that I worked with some outstanding and professional reporters. Every day, following the aftermath of Katrina, The Town Talk staff produced some compelling articles, chronicling the events that came out of Katrina's devastating blow to our state and surrounding areas.

On Sept. 4, I received a tip that civil rights leader Jesse Jackson was aboard a bus that had left the Baton Rouge area and was coming to Alexandria/Pineville.

Arriving in Pineville late that night, Jackson and his busload of refugees pulled into a former Wal-Mart parking lot and told the media they were demanding that the England Airpark be opened up to Katrina evacuees.

Jackson then put his arm around me in a friendly way and said these were desperate people and that I needed to get that point across in my story. I got the story and I talked to evacuees who were accompanying Jackson. Two New Orleanians, Sara and Luz Merlo told me about their "horrific" five-day stay in the Superdome. We were hearing all sorts of bizarre and scary rumors about the Superdome. Raping and pillaging and all sorts of hellish activities. It sounded like an absolute nightmare. Much later we would find out that a lot of these stories had been embellished. And even later we learned that some really shocking crimes and murders happened in the midst of the chaos that took over the storm-ravaged region.

Gun confiscations took place. Many may have forgotten that. Disarmed citizens were left defenseless by police and National Guard troops. There were stories of folks trapped in attics. I interviewed one woman from the 9th Ward of New Orleans who insisted that a bomb had been detonated by the levees and that is why they failed and flooded much of the city. It wasn't always clear what to believe.

Nevertheless, Katrina took a psychological toll. Just knowing that a great American city could be nearly destroyed by an act of Mother Nature was really difficult to accept. And for the City of New Orleans and other communities to be so unprepared. Knowing friends who were trapped in the traffic jams streaming out of New Orleans. Knowing some had lost so much. It was really devastating and all I could do was offer my condolences and share their stories in The Town Talk or on a blog I was operating at the time. I was also very critical of the federal response and one blog post I wrote, referencing the "Bushville" camps that were sprouting up around the country, was picked up by some major sites by Sept. 7. I was very concerned about those displaced Gulf coast residents. I was also suspicious of where they were taking these people, many who were poor and had not been much beyond south Louisiana. It was a sad situation.

And covering it day after day as a newspaper reporter made you feel almost like a war correspondent. Driving out to remote campsites and other places in Cenla where evacuees were forced to make the best of the situation, it was really amazing. And the people of Cenla really extended their arms out for these folks. The kindness and warmth was truly something to see.

I would finally make my way into the heart of New Orleans by early October, some five weeks after Katrina hit. The devastation was heart wrenching. This was a city I had grown to know and love. I had spent a lot of time there and to see it looking dead ... it was hard to describe. The water had receded by that point but the damage was done - and extensive. The infamous "water line" marks were everywhere, indicating just how high the water had risen. Abandoned, flooded-out cars littered the streets. Stray animals searched for food. It was one of the most eerie experiences of my life.

By that time, Hurricane Rita had already hit and several other things occurred in my life that resulted in me making the difficult decision of finally leaving Louisiana and taking a job as a reporter at The Lawton Constitution a few months later.

And while I miss my friends and colleagues back in Louisiana I am happy to be in Oklahoma, where I met my wife and started Red Dirt Report, a website inspired by Chad Rogers, operator of The Dead Pelican website, based in the Baton Rouge area. Thinking back to those final weeks and months in Louisiana, bittersweet memories flood my mind. Still, it took those events to get me here and I'm the better for it.

I will still carry those memories and those experiences with me. 

And for those who were lost in the storm five years ago, we will not forget you.

Copyright 2010 West Marie Media

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Andrew W. Griffin

Editor & Owner.

Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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About Red Dirt Report

Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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