New Orleans' Day of Reckoning
by Debbie OConnor
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I moved to Southeastern Louisiana in 1990. Two years later, I experienced my first hurricane—Andrew. He brought wind, closed businesses and gave me a welcome day off work—nothing terrible. People boarded their places and left town. Newscasters prophesied our doom. I thought they panicked for nothing. I had lived through Southern California’s earthquakes and the eruption of Mt. St. Helens without incident; surely, hurricanes were no worse.
News footage of Andrew’s destructive power in South Florida changed my thinking. I gained respect for hurricanes, respect that grew as storm after storm blew through my area. I grew even wiser after hearing the stories of friends and relatives who chopped their way out of attics when Betsy’s storm surge flooded the city. They talked of camping for weeks in their own neighborhoods with no power—cooking, washing and living in large groups.
Year after year, newscasters warned that the perfect storm would wipe us out. While they cast every storm in the most dramatic, climactic terms, we all half-laughed about Louisiana’s political corruption and the “good ol’ boy” network that kept us from improving the levees so that they could withstand the phantom killer that was always lurking around the corner of hurricane season.
I was in denial. I did not want to believe it was that bad. I think most of our state was like me; the rest were playing a dangerous game of Russian roulette.
In 1997, Hurricane Georges roared across the Gulf of Mexico, on what seemed a beeline for the mouth of the Mississippi. Most of the city spent two days on the interstates trying to get out of the way. My husband’s family evacuated to central Louisiana, while my husband and I spent the evening in the hospital with our two-year-old daughter. As a respiratory therapist, an essential member of hospital personnel, my husband has always been required to be at work before, during and after hurricanes.
Georges was a near miss. Everyone came home to complain about the traffic and the newscasters who hyped us up to think we needed to get out of town. I experienced real fear over a hurricane for the first time. Afterward, God convicted me of being anxious to protect temporary earthly things. He reminded me that earth is not my home and that I should trust Him to carry me through whatever the future might bring.
Hurricane Lili came hard on the heels of Tropical Storm Isidore in 2002. I was nervous, but I packed my dog, cat and kids and headed to my parent’s home while Jim was locked down at Ochsner. I stopped to teach Wednesday night Bible class for the three year olds at church before the move. It was an anxious, tiring time, but we were missed again. I did not allow fear to overpower me as I had with Georges.
Then in 2004, Hurricane Ivan made me refugee camp director for our New Orleans’ family while Jim moved into the hospital again. Living north of the flood zone on the way out of town gave us some security, so we spent a weekend camping in my house with intermittent power—ready to run at the first sign the storm was coming our way. Exhausted from the experience, I was glad to have a home to share, but hurricanes were wearing thin.
In February of 2005, my husband left his job at Ochsner for one near our home on the Northshore. He liked his former job, but the opportunity to trade a seventy-six mile round trip commute for a fourteen-mile round trip commute was too good to pass up. When Hurricane Dennis threatened the gulf, he was pleasantly surprised to discover that his new hospital had a different hurricane policy. If you are on duty, you are required to stay. If you are off duty, you are to report as soon as you can. A human touch allows employees to secure their families in case of emergency, rather than forcing all employees to report and not allowing them to leave.
Then, in June, my husband decided he wanted a truck. The compact commuter car he had been driving into New Orleans was no longer as necessary to our budget. He wanted to be able to haul equipment, lumber and appliances for his obsession with home improvement, and he wanted a vehicle that could reasonably transport our family of four plus two ferrets, a cat and a golden retriever in case of emergency.
We had been down this road before. The last time my husband decided he wanted a new vehicle—the commuter car—I resisted. It did not make sense with our budget. Jim backed off the idea even though he strongly felt that we should get a new vehicle. Two months later, our SUV died to the tune of $4,000. I learned an important lesson about letting my husband lead.
So, when the truck idea came up I made no argument. Jim researched, negotiated and got exactly what he wanted…exactly what we would soon need.
On Friday, August 26, 2005, all Gulf Coast residents were watching to see where Hurricane Katrina would go. By the morning of the 27th, it seemed clear that her goal was New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
We watched in horror as the storm’s power increased and all tracks headed right for us. I live three miles north of the mandatory evacuation zone. We had planned to stay home, but my husband called me from work to tell me he had a “horrible feeling” we needed to leave. Katrina confirmed his feeling by reaching Category 5, the strongest level of hurricane, and continuing to head in a disastrous direction.
Katrina was not as bad a storm as she might have been. She downgraded to a Category 4 before making landfall and took a merciful (to us) jog east of the city. New Orleans breathed a small sigh of relief—then the levees broke. Just as predicted for years.
I am one of hundreds of thousands who fled from Katrina.
However, I am here to say that through the wrath of this deadly storm I have had a refuge. God is my strong tower. His tender care protected my family and gave us strength to endure the storm. He directed my husband’s job change and the purchase of a truck that got us safely and comfortably to Atlanta and back. He gave my husband the “awful feeling” we needed to leave. He gave me peace that surpasses understanding through the prayers of friends and the generous support and provision of my extended family.
The Saturday before Katrina struck, my mother-in-law, Yvonne, tried to make her way to my house when evacuated by her county, St. Bernard Parish. The contraflow evacuation plan, which forces all lanes of I-10 to go north, sent her past our community to Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Concerned about using her cell phone battery, Yvonne called her daughter, Pam, to say she was in a Wal Mart in Hattiesburg and that she could not get to my house. She told her daughter she would call the next morning and turned the cell phone off. We waited. The next morning there was no phone call and her cell was still off. Finally, Pam’s family took off in search of Yvonne. They did not know where to look. We prayed, and they miraculously pulled up right behind Yvonne on I-59 between Slidell and Hattiesburg in the midst of thousands of evacuees. Yvonne had tried to get back to my house and then panicked and turned north again. When Pam pulled up behind her flashing her lights and honking, they held a tearful family reunion on the side of the road.
A short time later, after helping my parents prepare their home, we were on the road to Atlanta—where relatives we have rarely seen had offered to provide my family, my parents and our combined zoo with shelter. We felt a little like the Beverly Hillbillies in our truck with the dog, cat, ferrets, clothes, food, computer and other paraphernalia. We fought stop and go traffic all the way up I-59 from Slidell, Louisiana to the turn east on I-20 toward Tuscaloosa. We finally arrived at my aunt’s home in Conyers at 2:30 a.m. eastern time.
My brother, Jim, is a New Orleans police officer. He watched Katrina roar through town from the shelter of a parking garage. He was in the city when the levees broke. He found his apartment flooded to the rooftop. He fought looters hand to hand and stood guard over firefighters with a shotgun. He worked long hours and slept little. He and his wife were separated for most of seventeen days, but God arranged a meeting for them at a Northshore Wal-Mart where he was trying to buy weapons for a depleted police force. He called her on his cell phone only to discover she was already there. She had been staying in Baton Rouge, but had come back to check on our homes.
In Conyers, Georgia, we watched the storm on TV with the rest of the nation. As our stay extended from a few days to a week and a half, my father regularly called his home phone to see if his answering machine would pick up, indicating the restoration of power. He had only talked to my brother once since the hurricane struck. The phone rang and my brother answered. He had returned to the Northshore to rest while on leave—my father called at the perfect time. My husband was able to direct my brother to a place to get gas. It is another example of God’s grace in our time of need.
Yvonne returned to her home in St. Bernard Parish at the end of September. The water line reaches five and a half feet throughout the house. Mold has grown to the ceiling. Furniture is strewn about like a child’s playthings. Her refrigerator lies on its side in the kitchen.
On August 19, 2005, Yvonne purchased a new Bible. She left that Bible on an end table in her living room before the storm. When she re-entered her home, Yvonne found that Bible sitting on her waterlogged kitchen table perfectly and inexplicably dry. “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever," Isaiah 40:8.
On the day of reckoning in New Orleans, the Lord was our refuge. I pray that He will become your refuge as well, for days of reckoning come to us all.
©2006 Deborah O’Connor
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Debbie, thanks for sharing this moving account. Many of us here at FW were praying for you during this time - it is now so awesome to see how God answered our prayers. What a wonderful testimony. God Bless.
What an account, Debbie. Praise God for who He is to you and yours, the many 'coincidences' showing His extra care, and for your well-written testimony of His goodness.
Oh, Debbie! Thank you for sharing this heartfelt account of what you went through and of God's hand on your family during this horrific event. I was captivated by your story and got chills when I read about the Bible. Awesome! Still praying for your family as you deal with the aftermath of Katrina. Life is hard - but, as you've shown us, God is still good! Love, hugs, & blessings, Lynda
I too will continue praying for your family as you deal with the aftermath of Katrina. Thank you for sharing such an encouraging story of our Refuge and His wondrous provision. What faith! What strength! And only because you cling to our Provider, Jehovah Jireh. May God bless you abundantly, above measure.
Isn't God wonderful? A touching story of His goodness and awesome power! I know God will continue to carry you through your life-altering experience and use it for good. Blessings to you always. :) Jo
Debbie, your first hand account of refuge in the storm was a real blessing to us all. To know our God makes a way when there seems no way and to read first hand of His provisions is so wonderfully awesome. Thank you for sharing your experiences with us. Surely we all stand in awesome wonder at the mighty works of our Lord and Savior…Praise His holy name.
God is so awesome, and so amazing to take care of so many little things: little to Him but big for you.