Out of Katrina’s Wreckage

How a Mississippian Came to Santa Barbara

By Kat Carter

Katrina.jpgHaving grown up in southern Florida, I was familiar with the power of a hurricane. I thought that was behind me when I moved to Mississippi in 2001. People there didn’t seem too worried when June would roll around. When Hurricane Katrina first formed and headed for Florida, my concern was for old friends and family in my home state. When Katrina made landfall there as a Category One, she knocked out power, tore off some roofs, and caused minimal flooding, but everyone in my circle was safe. We assumed Katrina would dissipate after making landfall, like most hurricanes.

A few days later, on Saturday, August 27, I awoke to a beautiful, sunny morning in Waveland, Mississippi. My partner Debbie was buzzing around frantically, as news reached us that the hurricane was turning in our direction. I turned the TV channel to the weather station and stared blankly at the massive circle of power headed straight for us. I watched for a while, then had to turn it off.

We sat at our kitchen table, looking out at the water and white sandy beach. We’d moved to Waveland three weeks before to start a beach rental business. I watched the buoys bobbing in the usually calm water, finally asking Debbie what she wanted for breakfast. Deep down we knew it would be our last meal in our new home. After breakfast, we kicked into gear. We moved the jet skis and the concession stand inland. Everything else — kayaks, bicycles — had to stay. As I packed, I calculated the space needed for our three animals, cages, and litter box, and began putting back some of my belongings. Leaving the animals was never an option.

I cooked all the food in the house and froze every bottle of water, placing everything in the gigantic cooler that took up half the back seat. After we’d packed my Mustang and Debbie’s Explorer to capacity, we sat down in our living room for one last moment. Debbie kept jumping up, tucking things into cabinets. “Just stop,” I said. “It won’t matter if it’s in a cabinet, [Katrina’s] going to take the whole thing.” After one last look at our home, we closed the door to the past and what we’d thought was going to be our future.

The End of the World We drove across the bay to Debbie’s mother’s home in Pass Christian. Mama, 78 years old and set in her ways, was in denial. She yelled about previous false alarms and said she and her 59-year-old son Gene — Debbie’s brother — planned to take refuge in Gene’s attic. I witnessed the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew in 1992, which made landfall as a Category Five and ripped Florida to shreds. There were no attics left standing.

Girl.jpgDebbie told Mama that if she and Gene wanted to stay and die in Gene’s attic that would be fine, but we were going to Jackson. Mama went to her bedroom and pouted for a while, then came back poking fun at her own stubbornness. We were grateful she’d come to her senses, as we would have taken her with us regardless.

That night we slept in Pass Christian and waited for a miracle. We woke on Sunday to find Katrina was bigger, stronger, and still headed right for us. Concerned about traffic, we consolidated everything into Debbie’s Explorer, removing things to make room for Mama and her pets. We were now three women, four dogs, two cats, and a beta fish in a mayonnaise jar. We headed for Jackson, where a well-connected friend had saved a floor of rooms for his family and friends. We were fortunate enough to be on that list. We arrived Sunday afternoon. After getting ourselves and the animals settled, I began putting my clothes in the dresser. “Why are you putting your clothes away when we’re only going to be here for a night or two?” Mama asked innocently. I forced a smile and kept unpacking, keenly aware that life as I knew it was over.

Early Monday morning Katrina made history — its eye hit Waveland as a powerful Category Three. When cameras finally got there, Waveland looked like match sticks strewn about. No landmarks were left; we couldn’t tell what was what. “It’s all gone, oh my God, it’s all gone,” were the only words we uttered. I tried to imagine what the wave looked like as it raked my car, home, and business out to sea.

The worst realization, though, was of Debbie’s brother Gene’s plan to ride out the storm in Waveland. We cried for what seemed like certain death. Mama rocked back and forth, clutching tightly to her pillow, sobbing, “I want my son, I want my boy,” until she was exhausted and crawled under the covers. Numb with grief, Debbie and I went downstairs to walk the dogs. The hotel bar was packed, all eyes glued to the news. No tears, just glazed-over stares.

Like the rest of the world, those first few days we mostly got our information from television. Knowing that help was on the way gave comfort, but after a few days we became concerned when it seemed the helpers had forgotten their mission. I wondered if the rest of the world thought it odd that the government couldn’t get into the area, but Harry Connick Jr. was there, covering a man with the shirt off his back and bringing him to safety we finally received news that Gene and all of our loved ones were safe. Gene had gone inland at the last minute, just ahead of the storm. Eventually, we made our way back there. Driving through the area was surreal: cars in treetops, houses stacked on each other like pancakes, stairs leading nowhere.

At the place where our home had been, we found nothing but a slab of concrete. Walking around, Debbie found a vintage record from her collection, and I found a candle holder. This was all that was left. Debbie flung the damaged record like a Frisbee into the wetlands, and I placed the candle holder dead center of the slab. We drove away without looking back. I could almost hear the door slamming shut on that life. But the drive, moving forward, eased the harshness of the slam.

Debbie’s Santa Barbara friends threw a garage sale to raise money, and an article in The Independent let others know of our situation. My Florida family sent boxes of food and necessities. They gave us strength when we were weak, hope when we were hopeless, and courage when we needed it the most. “Thank you” didn’t feel powerful enough to express our gratitude.

After three months at the hotel in Jackson, we got Mama safely back to Pass Christian. Though it had been flooded and needed a good deal of work, her house was one of only six left standing in the neighborhood. My Mustang was a total loss, but the boxes of mementos I’d moved inside were welcome treasures.

Santa Barbara was going to be our new home, thanks to Debbie’s longtime friend Mary, who invited us to stay with her as long as we needed to. We arrived in early December to find that friends Matt and Sigrid had set up a bedroom for us at Mary’s. Overwhelmed, we broke down when we saw the soft sheets, pillows, and candles — a warm sanctuary that had been missing from our lives since late August. We felt embraced by the love of our new family. The next chapter of our lives was unfolding. Katrina was a thief in many ways, but we refused to allow her to steal our hope and faith for a promising future.

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