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The Eye of the Storm

  August 29

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It’s an odd phrase: the calm before the storm. It implies a sense of intuition, a sense of knowing what’s to come in an increasingly unpredictable world. I experienced a moment like this, a moment of true recognition and amazement, as I stood outside on a balcony in the eye of Hurricane Katrina.

Just a few days before that moment, my life was on the brink of a major shift. I was supposed to be a new freshman in college at Tulane University in New Orleans, just thirty minutes from my hometown. I had a full tuition scholarship, my parents were proud, and life was good.

Like thousands of students across the country, I was ready to be set free, ready to take on the world, and ready for a new environment and new experiences. And yet there I was on a balcony of a three story office building staring at the broken world in front of me, instead of spending that Monday in my first day of college classes.

The spot where I stood was a part of my parents’ office, a sturdy brick building in the center of town. My family and I went there to ride out the storm, since my parents’ status as healthcare professionals necessitated that they stay in our city.

Standing there, looking out at the destruction, my mind shifted to the whirlwind of events of the preceding days. I could only recall shadows of packing my belongings for college and meeting my roommate for the first time. My conversation with my parents on the way to school seemed like a dream. I remembered that it revolved around football and my concern over eligible bachelors that were sure to be milling about Tulane. I definitely didn’t think that I’d turn right back around after putting my things in my first college dorm room to return right back home.

When I was trying to move into my college dorm, the hurricane that was set to enter into the Gulf seemed to matter very little, but at that moment, standing in the middle of its destruction, I realized it meant everything.

All our preparation for the storm seemed fruitless. I recalled the way my entire family scurried around in a crazed state as we scrambled to lift our furniture a few feet off the ground, packed our belongings, and headed to the office – the same office where I stood outside and first witnessed the destruction.

As we settled into our fortress and the day dragged on, I just watched in awe as the wind toppled over a three foot thick brick sign. The water kept rising and touched the first floor of the building. And that was just from the outer bands of the hurricane. The real thing wasn’t quite there yet.

My parents, I’m sure, were terrified but never showed it.

The night before the eye of the storm came was especially restless. I slept on the floor with my family in the central room of my parents’ office building. At one point, the loudest noise I’ve ever heard pierced the air and woke us all up. It sounded as if the entire building ruptured, as the two large French doors that led to the balcony burst open from the force of the wind. My brother, then only 14 years old, and my dad rushed to grab rope and threw it around the handles with gusto, pushing their combined weight against the doors to force them closed. I have never been so stunned. We had no idea what the result of the storm would be, but by that point, we knew it was bad.

The Eye

In our most desperate moments, sometimes one finds humor in the most bizarre details. It was my dad who alerted me that the eye of the storm was passing over us. Everyone else was asleep, and I went to stand with him on that balcony. Details that would have impressed an interior designer, like the gorgeous ten foot French doors that blew open the night before, were now a safety net and the only barrier guarding our senses from the destruction outside. My dad stood in silence looking out over our town with a cup of sweet tea in his hand.

It suddenly struck me that his glass had ice in it.

There was certainly a lot to stare at, like hundred foot pine trees strewn about the ground like wounded soldiers. But, just as the eye of the storm swept its cold stare over me, I couldn’t tear my eyes away from my dad’s cup of tea. How did he get sweet tea? How did he get ice? The moment was too pure and hysterical and cliché for me to even question it. Of course he had sweet tea with ice standing on a balcony in the eye of history’s deadliest storm. This is the deep south, y’all. We take our sweet tea seriously.

I Felt Numb

My moment of amazement and delirium shifted into the numbness of the days following Katrina’s rude departure. We eventually traveled to a family member’s home two hours north. Our cars were miraculously unharmed. For my first meal after the storm, we ate fast food, and I threw it all up. The shock, it seemed, was setting in. With Tulane closed, I registered for classes at Louisiana State University. I drove there from a hotel room the first few weeks of school. To my parents credit, they immediately made sure my brother and I had a schedule and school to attend, while they drove back and forth to New Orleans two hours each way trying to assess the damage, bringing things like gas and water to our town’s hospital, and in general staying in 100% action mode.

It Never Happened

I feel as if I started college at L.S.U. as if nothing happened, like this major destruction was just a minor blip, an accidental key pressed in the story of my life. I pretended like I was supposed to go to L.S.U. all along and kind of forgot about the whole issue of having a full scholarship and a dorm room and a roommate at Tulane that were all *poof* gone in one life-altering day.

A ruthless overachiever, I threw myself into my school work and began to adjust to a new life. I did not cry after the storm. I did not think about it. I just kept slaving away for four months on my schoolwork while eating MREs for dinner every night.

I Finally Broke

In December of 2005, when classes ended and grades were in, I went to talk to one of my professors who told me I earned a B in his course. He said something like he thought I’d be one of his A students, but I just missed it. I nodded, thanked him, and felt unnerved as I walked to my car. I really hated getting B’s. I tried to tell myself that my transcript did say student displaced due to Hurricane Katrina and the B didn’t matter. But, I was mad at myself.

I finally felt something.

I got into my car just like everyone else who was happy that the long semester was over. I put the keys into the ignition, and as if I had planned it all along, began sob so desperately, I didn’t think my heart could take it. I threw my arms over the steering wheel, letting the tears completely soak my shirt. I hiccuped for breath and heaved for over an hour.

It seemed the weight of the storm, of losing everything, of missing every picture and Christmas ornament that flooded, of leaving the school I intended to go to, all added up to that moment. Yes, it seemed that receiving a B in a class is what cracked me and started my healing process. Yet, unlike the aftermath of Katrina, my disappointment in my grade was completely and utterly predictable. Finally, life was back to normal.

Editor’s Note: My story has a happy ending. At L.S.U., I met my husband. He was a Katrina volunteer who contacted all displaced Tulane students on Facebook and offered to help them around campus. He was my friend, and he helped me piece my life back together. My feelings about the storm have changed over the years. I’ve gone from feeling guilty for being upset about it since so many people died and I didn’t. I really lost it when planning my wedding and had a really hard time with the fact that I wasn’t getting married in my home church and having the reception in my childhood backyard like I always wanted. However, with the hubs’ help and some very talented counselors, I’ve dealt with what happened in a very healthy way. I transferred to the College of William and Mary during my junior year. I went to graduate school, got married, lived abroad for a few years, and started a family.  I’m living proof that even in our deepest, darkest moments of despair, hope is always right around the corner. You never know what’s going to happen or where your life will take you, so cherish today. Tomorrow isn’t guaranteed.

60 responses to “The Eye of the Storm

  1. Wow – this is a truly touching, albeit heartbreaking account of that terrible tragedy. I teared up reading it – you did an incredible job conveying your emotions during that time. And, being from the south myself, can appreciate the humor and irony about the iced sweet tea. 😉 I’m glad that you are finding ways to heal and that from this terrible event, you met your husband. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing your story. It’s deeply personal, so I can see the hesitation to share at first. How you’ve dealt with everything really shows a wonderful success story. So much was out of your control, but you made it work in the end and have found a way to be happy with your life today. Inspiring.

  3. Wow thank you for sharing this Catherine! This must have been very hard to write. When we went to New Orleans last week, many people were talking about Katrina and how no one usually visits when we did.

    1. Thanks Michelle. It was hard to write at the time when I sat down to do it a few years ago, but things are okay now. 🙂 I’m sure a lot of people did mention Hurricane Season while you were there!

  4. Thank you for sharing your story, Cat, it was very touching. I am so glad it had a happy ending for you, and that you got to meet your husband by attending LSU. You’re so strong to have gone through all of that and come out on top.

  5. Thank you for sharing your story, Cat and being so willing to share with us what was clearly a devastating time. We, on the outside, were glued to our TVs and computers during Hurricane Katrina, and I cannot imagine how hard it was to be there during it and to see the loss afterwards. I’m glad you came out stronger and even found a happy ending.

  6. Thanks for sharing Cat. I think a lot of us who are pretty removed from Hurricane Katrina don’t think about just how much it impacted those who were in it’s path. So glad your story has a happy ending!

  7. Thanks for sharing your story! I have family on the gulf coast of Mississippi and visited Biloxi the year after the storm. It still humbles me to think back to that trip and the things we saw–even a year after Katrina. The beautiful stretch of historical homes gone, personal belongings strewn across the beach, and the eerie feeling that we were in a ghost town will always stay with me. Glad that experience was able to result in such blessing, with you meeting your husband. 🙂

    1. Oh yes, the Biloxi was really bad. That’s only a few miles from where I grew up. We were quite frustrated that they rebuilt all the casinos so quickly while all the houses across the street were gone.

  8. Cat, this is the perfect example of God taking something bad and turning it for good. Seeing you and hubs together, it seems like you just belong together, and to think you might not have met him at Tulane just doesn’t seem right. Thanks for sharing such a wonderful story. How great that you and your family were able to stick together and hang on as your world fell apart. You are blessed, my friend. 🙂

    1. Aw thanks Laurie! Yeah it’s really amazing how things work out. He is by far the best thing that’s ever happened to me. It’s just crazy I had to go through the worst thing to get to him!

  9. This was a fantastically written piece, Cat – thank you for sharing such honest and emotional moments of your life with us. That’s kind of amazing the twists and turns that life has taken you – it definitely proves your resiliency and motivation to push on.

  10. Catherine,
    I totally forgot the date today was the anniversary of Katrina. Life is good! Remember how fortunate you are and even in the middle of the storm you were loved and taken care of. Katrina shaped all our lives in ways we never dreamed. Love MOM

  11. Such a beautiful essay, Cat – it makes me wish that I sill had some of the writing that I did as a newbie to the east coast as a college freshman when 9/11 took place. I remember writing trying to clear my thoughts, but don’t have those writings anymore.

  12. You are a wonderful writer Cat. You shared your incredible story so well. I read this sitting in at my new (just moved) office in New Orleans, knowing that it is the anniversary of Katrina and wanting to ask my coworkers about their experience yet not wanting to touch a painful subject. I know I will never fully understand what happened here and I personally have so much to learn regarding living in hurricane country in general. Thanks for being willing to share…..Never wanted to return to Tulane?

    1. Aw thank you Blair. I didn’t realize you were in New Orleans working. You’ll love it. I did want to return to Tulane, but a few things happened. First Newcomb, the women’s college at Tulane, shut down for a variety of reasons. So, that changed things. Then, even though Tulane opened back up after 1 semester, the city was still in general disarray, the hospitals were really messed up, and things were a bit unsafe. It was hard to decide what to do, but after a lot of talking, my parents and I decided that I should stay at LSU. I did want to go to a small, historic school though, so that’s why I eventually transferred to William and Mary once things settled down a little at home. Thanks for your interest in my story. 🙂

  13. Wow, I had no idea about any of this. I’m sorry for what you went through, but glad good came out of it. Best piece of writing I’ve read in a while – you blew this away. That detail about the glass and the ice stood out for me.

  14. Thank you so much for sharing this with us, Cat. And I couldn’t agree more w/ EE – I read that sentence a few times.

  15. Cat, I was moved to tears by your story. My next door neighbor lost her house in Katrina and moved back to Denver because nothing was left in New Orleans. Happily, she was able to move back but I don’t think she’ll ever forget that day. It disrupted her entire life for years like it did yours. I am so happy that you were able to slowly but surely recover. Wow.

  16. Thanks so much for sharing your story. I can’t imagine going through that. My friend also went to Tulane and got displaced and her stories are crazy. I am so glad you met your husband through this crazy experience though!

  17. Very moving story Cat. It seems like through your tragedy you found your husband, so that’s a wonderful silver lining. But, I’m so sorry you had to go through that. I’m glad you are healing now.

  18. Amazing story, thanks for sharing. That was an incredible event to watch. Besides the tragedy and suffering, it was devastating (as a civil engr) to see every man-made system and levee fail.
    BTW, some people are ecstatic when they get a B.

  19. Wow, thanks so much for sharing this piece of you Cat. As an aside, it was very beautifully written. At the time of Katrina I worked for a life insurance company that had a ton of reps in the south – especially Louisiana and heard about what they went through and I can’t even fathom what it was like, especially for those like your family that were there in the middle of it. As others have said, your line about your Dad and his sweet tea really stood out to me – I went back and re-read it several times. All that said, it’s so cool how everything worked out in the end and allowing you the opportunity to meet your husband.

  20. For those of us who viewed the news of Hurricane Katrina from a distance, it’s good to see an insiders perspective on how personally devastating this storm was. We always seem to focus on the property damage in situations like this and sometimes lose track of the emotional toll it places on people. It’s wonderful to see that even through through tragedy, good things can result. Thank you for sharing your journey of healing. Wonderfully written Cat!

  21. What an incredible story, Cat- thank you so much for sharing! I know it must have taken a lot for you to put the words down on paper. I love the happy twist at the end that allowed you to meet your husband. Life works in funny ways sometimes. <3

  22. Cat!!! I LOVE this post! I have had it saved on my desktop for weeks until I could finally get a time when I could really sit down and read it. It is amazing! So moving. I am weirdly obsessed with the topic because hurricanes frighten me to no end, yet ironically fascinate me. Thank you for sharing, and thank you for the wonderful reminder that life is ever-changing, and through all of the storms in our lives, we can still find happiness. <3

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