A decade after Hurricane Katrina hit the beaches of Louisiana and Mississippi, destroying entire neighborhoods and claiming more than 1,800 lives, the scars remain.
According to the Illinois Department of Human Services, more than 10,000 people who lived in the path of Katrina came to Illinois to seek refuge. More than two years later, in 2007, about 6,000 remained. About 2,500 Katrina refugees moved here to stay. An equal number of metro-east residents responded to the Gulf Coast’s call for help, traveling to Mississippi and Louisiana to help rescue victims and clean up the mess.
Shiloh resident Donna Meyers lived on the east side of New Orleans in 2005 when Katrina started to brew.
The Gulf Coast was jittery in those days already because 2004 saw four major hurricanes batter the southeast, especially Florida. So residents of New Orleans breathed a sigh of relief when word came that Katrina weakened from a Category 5 storm to a Category 3, and it appeared the storm would miss the Crescent City, heading instead to Texas.
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But Meyers’ husband, Kirkwood, a deep sea fisherman, was familiar with the way weather worked in the Gulf of Mexico. And he didn’t like what he saw.
“Everybody kind of dropped their guard on that Friday and a lot of people were trapped because there was no real evacuation plan,” Meyers said. “But my husband was watching the water temperatures and the direction of the storm. He said that it wasn’t going to be good and we needed to get out of there.”
Meyers and her children, her mother, her mother-in-law and a menagerie of family pets piled into her sport utility vehicle and headed north. They drove until they got to Fairview Heights, where the family had a relative.
“We didn’t plan to stay,” Meyers said. “We thought we would be here until they could get the electricity back on. We had the clothes on our back and the rest of our things were in garbage bags.”
What was supposed to be a few days stay out of town lasted until October when the Meyers family was allowed back into their neighborhood in New Orleans.
“We had to break into our house because the doors were fused shut,” Meyers said. “We had 10 feet of water in our house. The refrigerator floated from the kitchen into the living room. Nothing could be saved.”
The family had just finished an extensive renovation of the home and new furniture, still wrapped in shipping plastic, had to be thrown away.
“My husband said if I was just a little less impulsive that the furniture would have still been at the store,” Meyers said.
As upset as the family was to see a lifetime worth of work destroyed in a short time, Meyers said that was only part of the reason the family decided not to stay in New Orleans.
Outside, police armed with rifles patrolled the streets to keep out looters and other criminals who tried to capitalize on the fact that homeowners weren’t around to protect their property.
As scary as an army of police who had trouble telling apart who should be in an area and who shouldn’t was, that couldn’t stop Meyers from being victimized a second time. When a series of credit card charges she didn’t make started rolling in, she realized criminals had entered her home and found information they could use to steal her identity.
The fact that she had two young children, Kirkwood Jr., 14 at the time of the storm and Justin who was 10, and because the local schools and infrastructure seemed hopelessly destroyed, Meyers realized she couldn’t go back home.
Meyers said she was overwhelmed with how helpful and supportive metro-east residents were to her family. They were provided a donated place to live until they got on their feet and, while many Katrina refugees struggled to re-establish their lives with no records or documentation to prove who they were, O’Fallon schools helped get the Meyers children back to a normal life.
“It was hard at first because, technically, we were homeless,” Meyers said. “I didn’t want my kids to hear that.”
The family residence in New Orleans was sold to a developer and the Meyers were in the metro-east to stay.
“It’s such a laid back lifestyle here,” Meyers said. “We love the fact that we’re so close to St. Louis, and we can still go hear some good jazz. The only thing we really haven’t been able to replace is the food.”
And sometimes it’s the little things that bring the terrible times of Katrina back.
“People were so nice to us,” Meyers said. “More than anything, we want to say we’re grateful to all the people who have helped us. They invited us into their homes for dinner and, as people do, they’d bring out photo albums or we’d see the pictures on the wall and we’d be reminded that we lost all those things forever.”
‘All we could do was sit there and watch’
When Katrina started to brew in the Atlantic Ocean in late August 2005, O’Fallon native Heather Foraker was a weather forecaster with the U.S. Navy stationed in Pensacola, Fla.
“When it entered the Gulf of Mexico, Katrina was a Category 5 storm,” Foraker said. “We could tell it was going to be a monster.”
That was especially bad news because New Orleans and the surrounding area is below sea level, Foraker said. Any hurricane is a major disaster for the city. She knew one of the most powerful storms in history would do unspeakable damage.
“We had a rough hurricane season the year before in Florida,” Foraker said. “We knew it was going to be terrible, but all we could do was sit there and watch.”
Up to that point, 2004 was the most expensive hurricane season in history causing about $45 billion in damage. Four major storms — Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne — did damage from one end of Florida to the other. But Katrina was a different storm.
It was the third-most powerful hurricane in U.S. history behind only a 1935 Category 5 storm (in those days hurricanes didn’t get names) which drove up the Gulf Coast of Florida before taking a turn to the east, cutting across the northern part of the state before continuing up the Atlantic seaboard and Hurricane Camille in 1969.
Camille, which landed in Mississippi, packing 175 mph winds, was the second of only three Category 5 storms to strike the United States in the 20th century. The other was hurricane Andrew which hit south Florida in 1992.
Although Katrina weakened to a Category 3 storm before it made landfall, it was still a massive storm.
“As bad as it was, it could have been worse as far as intensity goes,” Foraker said.
Typically, the northwest quadrant of a hurricane is the most powerful part. That portion of Katrina seemed to be lined up for the population center of New Orleans. But the storm turned slightly and dealt its strongest blow to the Biloxi, Miss., area.
“New Orleans might have been all right if the levees would have held,” Foraker said. “But when they broke and the city flooded, that’s when things really turned bad fast.”
Once the storm cleared, Foraker was one of the first people from outside Louisiana or Mississippi to learn the extent of the damage. She was communicating with Navy flight crews, providing weather information to them as they flew survey missions to assess the damage.
“The hardest part was that there was nothing they could do to help,” Foraker said. “They could see the damage and the people on the rooftops and they wanted to do something. But that wasn’t their mission.”
Soon Foraker would venture into the storm zone herself. A friend lived in storm-ravaged Mississippi and was without power. He had to stay to help with the cleanup. But his pets weren’t going to survive long in the steam bath that was left after the hurricane, because there was no air conditioning.
Foraker went to get the animals — a drive that should have taken a couple of hours took half a day.
“The destruction was unbelievable,” Foraker said. “Buildings that used to be there were just gone. It was like being in a war zone.”
‘We got out early’
John Mooney is a native of Long Island, New York, but he spent time in the metro-east in the mid-1990s when stationed at Scott Air Force Base as a military recruiter. Mooney was stationed at Keesley Air Force Base near Biloxi, Miss., in August 2005.
“Katrina hit on the 29th and by the 25th and 26th it was just sitting in the Gulf,” Mooney said. “(The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration) had no idea where it was going. We had a card game one night a month, and we were playing cards when we got the word that we were going to evacuate.”
Mooney took his family to Savannah, Ga., with three days worth of clothes.
“We got out early and made it without problems,” Mooney said. “People who waited to evacuate got on Interstate 10 and found it took 10-12 hours for what was usually a 50-mile ride. It was a parking lot.”
Mooney said, from the safety of Georgia, he watched the storm on television like most people across the country.
“We knew it was going to be bad because, while some storms move fast, Katrina just sort of sat there, beating the daylights out of things,” Mooney said. “We ended up being gone for 10 days, and when we were allowed to go back, I couldn’t believe the devastation.”
Mooney said landmarks he used to get around town were completely obliterated to the point that he had a difficult time locating his rented house.
One of the few things that was recognizable was a giant, guitar-shaped sign at the Hard Rock Cafe near the beach.
“I remember talking to the guys who put the sign up a couple weeks before Katrina,” Mooney said. “I asked them what was going to happen when a hurricane came. The guy said that it would stand up to a Category 3 hurricane, no problem. He was right.”
Mooney’s house didn’t fare nearly as well.
Five trees fell through the roof and the residence was flooded by Katrina’s storm surge. The only thing that could be saved was a portrait of his daughter, Crystal that was above the fireplace — above the reach of the flood waters.
Mooney and his wife, DeAnn, lived for months in a 20-foot camper on the parking lot of a laundry company. And they considered themselves lucky to have what they did, even though their furniture and belongings were long gone.
He was able to salvage his satellite television dish from his destroyed house and took it to the camper. He called the provider and was told it would be weeks before he could get his television connection restored. So Mooney bribed an installer he caught at a restaurant to set up the dish on a telephone pole.
“I just had to have a connection to the outside world so I could find out what was going on,” Mooney said.
Eager to go back to work, Mooney told his commander he was ready for duty.
“He told me, John, there’s nothing left here, so figure out where you want to go,” Mooney said.
He enjoyed his previous time at Scott Air Force Base and DeAnn’s family is from Columbia, Mo. So Mooney chose the metro-east.
Call for help
While many metro-east residents opened their doors to Katrina victims, a lot of them also went to the Gulf Coast to help with the clean up.
In the days after the storm, people in Mississippi and Louisiana were desperate for food, clean water and gasoline.
Former Sparta mayor Randy Bertetto said a former resident of his city who left for a job with the Harris County, Miss. Sheriff’s Department made a plea to his former community for gasoline in the wake of Katrina.
Betello met with directors of the local Farm Service operation in Sparta. Together they rounded up two tractor-trailers full of gas and made an overnight trip to the devastated Gulf Coast to deliver the fuel.
“FS had one condition,” Bertetto said. “They wanted an armed guard because people were hi-jacking fuel trucks, and when they didn’t get them, the government was seizing them because they needed the gas, too.”
A marked Sparta Police Department patrol car accompanied the truck to keep it safe from carjackers and looters. Still, it was a harrowing journey through what Betello said looked like the aftermath of a nuclear bomb explosion.
“It was quite an ordeal, and we really saw a lot of terrible things,” Bertetto said. “But I’m glad to have done it.”
The trucks left on Saturday afternoon at the start of the Labor Day weekend holiday. They arrived in Mississippi, spent several hours unloading and headed back to Sparta, arriving mid-day Monday.
While the Katrina survivors who moved to the area are happy with what they’ve got, they say sometimes thinking about what they lost still hurts.
Mooney said it took him a long time to accept that a life’s worth of personal items are gone.
“For a long time I kept a bunch of pictures of my daughter when she was a little girl,” Mooney said. “I kept telling myself that someday they would dry out and I would be able to pull them apart. Finally, one day I finally said “who am I kidding?”
Meyers said she is still sometimes bitter about the response of the government to the approaching hurricane. She said New Orleans leaders failed to have an evacuation plan in place and the federal government failed to make sure the levees would stand.
When they breached, 80 percent of the city was flooded and it was forever changed, Meyers said.
“I think of all the culture that was lost forever,” Meyers said. “We have so many friends, people we saw on a regular basis, that we have no idea if they are still alive today.”
Mooney and Meyers agreed, despite what happened, that their decision not to move back to the Gulf Coast had nothing to do with hurricanes.
“I still am less afraid of hurricanes than the tornadoes that you get here,” Meyers said. “At least you get a little bit of warning that the hurricane is coming.”