Watching Gustav, remembering Katrina, worrying for the environment
Posted August 29, 2008
On the three-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the Gulf Coast states are stocking up water, readying the National Guard, and preparing to evacuate as another storm heads their way. As of 8 p.m. Thursday, Tropical Storm Gustav, expected to regain hurricane strength after weakening over Jamaica, was on track to pass over Cuba and head into the Gulf of Mexico this weekend.
The current most likely scenario from the National Hurricane Center predicts that Gustav could become a Category 3 storm and threaten Louisiana by early next week (although the track is starting to look more like Hurricane Rita's than Katrina's). If a Cat 3 comes within 60 hours of making landfall on New Orleans, officials plan to order a mass evacuation, the Associated Press reports -- with no Superdome or other citywide shelter for those left behind this time.
All of this compels me to relive some rough memories. As Hurricane Katrina slammed ashore three years ago, I was one of the few people crazy enough to be driving full speed into the storm.
My newspaper chain had dispatched me -- then a reporter at The Charlotte Observer -- to the Gulf Coast, along with a photographer. We were headed to the newsroom of The Sun Herald in Biloxi, Miss., where all but a handful of staffers had evacuated with their families. The stalwarts needed reinforcements, and we were the first wave.
Patrick and I had covered several hurricanes along the Carolina coast, so we had at least some idea of what to expect. We rented the biggest SUV we could find, filled it with four shopping carts full of food and supplies from Wal-Mart, strapped several loaded gas cans to the top, and headed south. (My wife likes to tell the story of how she packed a little cooler for me with snacks, having no comprehension of what it really meant to head into a disaster zone.)
We left the night before Katrina struck, spent a few restless hours at a hotel in Alabama, then drove the rest of the way on Monday as the storm came ashore. We took turns driving, each of us struggling to stay on the road as powerful gusts and sideways rain slammed against the side of our vehicle. We saw road signs and tree branches flying across our path, but we managed to avoid getting hit. During the worst of it, we pulled off the highway and sheltered at a fire station.
We arrived in Biloxi just as night fell. The storm had passed, although the wind gusts continued throughout the night. The highway signs had been obliterated, and as darkness came, with all the power out, we realized that reaching the newspaper could prove even more difficult than we thought. The main bridges into town had been destroyed. Fortunately, we found a utility worker who could give us directions. Fallen trees blocked the path several times, and we nearly had to pull out our chainsaw at one point, but finally, we made it to the battered Sun Herald newsroom.
I spent the next few days working alongside the paper's brave, shellshocked reporters and editors -- who would eventually win the Pulitzer Prize for their efforts, cold comfort though it might be. Many had lost their homes. Some had lost family members. All of them had lost their community.
New Orleans got all the headlines, but the cities and towns along the Mississippi coast took the brunt of Katrina's fury. Entire streets, landmarks, businesses and neighborhoods were simply swept away by the storm. To this day, I still can't find the words to describe the devastation they experienced. New Orleans was flooded, but it stood. Much of the Mississippi coast was reduced to rubble. They're Katrina's forgotten victims.
My own experience was nothing compared to theirs, but it took a toll all the same. We had no power, no phones and no running water for most of our stay, and certainly no air conditioning -- not a pleasant experience on the Gulf Coast in late summer. The smell was overwhelming at times, especially in the parts of town where rotting chicken and other contents of shipping containers had spilled from the busy port. I slept, sweating, on the floor of the newspaper's conference room for several nights in a row. At least it was dark in there. Patrick slept in the truck, to guard our reserve supply of gasoline.
The suffering I saw, and the frustration at being able to do so little, haunts me to this day. Yet I remain proud that we helped the remarkable staff of The Sun Herald put out a newspaper every day, thanks largely to the satellite phones that Patrick and I brought along. They let us transmit stories and photos to one of the chain's other newspapers, where the Herald was assembled, printed and shipped back to Biloxi. The news was grim, but survivors were hungry for it.
We reported on the loss of life and property, on the desperate need for food and water, on concerns about disease and water contamination, on firefighters and rescue dogs combing through collapsed buildings, on families separated and survivors seeking to reunite. The Sun Herald's coverage continues to this day, reporting on the long, slow recovery of their community, and I can't help but worry about them -- and the many other people who might find themselves in Gustav's path -- as they brace for the possibility of another storm headed their way.
I worry also about the environmental consequences of another hurricane striking the Gulf Coast. My current employer, NRDC, did a lot of work documenting the damage from Katrina and pushing for policy changes. Unfortunately, it seems that three years later, not nearly enough has changed and the lessons have been forgotten. Just witness the current debate over increased offshore drilling. Katrina and Rita, which trailed a couple of weeks later, resulted in 125 spills of petroleum products from platforms, rigs and platforms, dumping 685,000 gallons into the environment. How could anyone think it would make sense to start drilling more on the Outer Continental Shelf, with the risk that hurricanes bring of long-term environmental damage to our oceans, food supply and coastlines?
As Gustav strengthens over the next few days, I won't be able to shake the memories of covering Katrina. I'm hoping the storm weakens or moves away from the coast, and there's no repeat of what happened three years ago. Sooner or later, though, the next Katrina will strike, on the Gulf or someplace else. I only hope that by then, we're better ready for it.
Share Your Stories
If Gustav does hit, or if you have memories or lessons from Katrina that you'd like to share, NRDC welcomes your participation in our new citizen journalism venture, Greenlight. Brought to you by NRDC's award-winning OnEarth magazine, Greenlight lets you be the reporter, photographer or commentator, sharing stories about the environment with the world. Join the conversation and work for change today.
Update: The New York Times' Andy Revkin is now reporting on the possibility of a double hurricane strike on the Gulf Coast, with Tropical Storm Hanna trailing a few days behind Gustav.
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