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Memories still painful 7 years after Katrina

This monument was erected in memory of the people who died in St. Bernard Parrish from Hurricane Katrina.

This monument was erected in memory of the people who died in St. Bernard Parrish from Hurricane Katrina.

ALBANY, Ga. — It’s been seven years since Hurricane Katrina, the second worst storm to come ashore in the United States, pummeled the Gulf Coast, killing an unknown number of Americans and displacing hundreds of thousands of more from the gulf region.

While Louisiana, parts of Texas and Mississippi have largely recovered, the impact of Katrina is still tangible in many communities throughout the Gulf.

And in the hearts of those like Albany resident Crystal Morrison, the very name Katrina still elicits raw emotions over friends and communities that were loved and lost.

Morrison joined a wave of evacuees who fled New Orleans and the state of Louisiana, seeking physical and emotional shelter from the storm. He had hoped that her flight from the “Big Easy” would be a temporary one.

In recounting her story, Morrison writes:

“I get a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach each year at the arrival of hurricane season. I don’t think PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) ever completely does away. With the anticipation of Isaac possibly aiming straight to my hometown of New Orleans, my anxiety level rises. I’ve been on the telephone, Facebook and emailing with everyone the last 48 hours and will continue to do so until that bad boy is no more. We talk about supplies gotten and needed, the past storms, compare them to the current one, and recall our childhood memories of losing our homes in 1965 to Betsy, and the close calls of Camille, Georges, Ivan and, most recently, Gustave. But nothing in our adult life compares to the wrath of Katrina.

“I worked in academia at the time and worked the days preceding Katrina arranging for incoming students to return to their home towns and transporting the International students to the LSU campus in Baton Rouge. On the morning of Sunday, August 28, with only hours of escape time and not wanting to remain on campus to ‘ride out the storm,’ I evacuated to a friend’s farm about 70 miles from my home in New Orleans, an hour-and-a-half drive on a normal day and an nine-plus hour drive in contra flow traffic.

“The storm bands reached us in the early morning hours. Except for the expected loss of power, all was fine until a tornado hit about dawn, causing major damage to the house. In addition, trees and power lines had fallen on the road leading up to the house from the highway, making it impossible to leave.

“Once the weather cleared, work began to clear the area leading up to the highway. We spent our days cleaning up debris, making do with what foodstuffs we had and using swimming pool water to do everything from makeshift bathing water to flushing toilets. On September 11, the road from the farm was clear, as was the highway, and my friends left their home to seek shelter with other family members and I left with my dog, the items I had evacuated with (a few changes of clothing, photographs, and insurance policies and other important documents), a map and voucher from FEMA and Red Cross in hand and headed to my next destination — Tunica, Miss.

“I remember driving into Tunica and the closer I got to the casinos, the more it looked like the Emerald City with all the lights. My first night there was spent soaking in a tub (the first real bath I’d had since the big day) and watching Anderson Cooper on CNN. I knew my family had lost their homes due to living in lower lying areas outside the New Orleans city limits, but I wasn’t certain of what was remaining of my own home. I assumed I, too, had nothing left.

“A few weeks later, I managed to get in touch with a friend who had news from back home. Our homes had significant damage, but had been spared.

“The people of Tunica and the surrounding towns were wonderful. I may have been living in a resort, but the experience was a very humbling one not to be forgotten. The banks in the New Orleans area were closed, so there was no access to money. One could obtain $300 from Red Cross for clothing and necessities. That process took two days to complete. The next reality check was the day I, along with hundreds of others, stood in line to apply for food stamps. People from every walk of life were forced to that line. I saw men cry when completing the application to get a card to be able to feed themselves and their family. Waiting in those lines was almost therapeutic. We were all in the same boat, and we’d talk and exchange information and meet with one another throughout the time we were evacuated. I remain in contact with several of those friends I made while waiting in those lines.

“My first trip back to New Orleans was in early November to meet with an insurance adjuster. I will never forget the smell and the sights as I entered the city. So many familiar places were gone. There was no power, so no traffic lights and most of the street signs were gone. Clothes were strewn throughout what was left of trees. There was destruction and devastation everywhere you looked and it was overwhelming. Upon going through clearance with the military police to get into my neighborhood, I arrived at my house, a 19th century shotgun double situated in the City Park area of town. The only thing remaining on the roof was the decking, but that was a good thing. The water had risen to somewhere between 6-8 feet, but my home was on piers and I did not have water in the house. The plumbing and electrical was no more and would have to be replaced, but the house was intact. The street above me was not so lucky, as those folks had water in their homes. The military was everywhere on the streets, as well as in the air flying overhead in helicopters. I cannot explain in words how it felt and looked to see and experience what I did in those few hours before returning to Tunica.

“I lived in Tunica until December and returned to New Orleans once some of the home repairs were under way. This event brought out the best in most people. Strangers came to help and asked for nothing in return. There was still no power, gas or water, so I was dependent on the Red Cross and from help with volunteers who had come down to help. My youngest sister and her family would be moving in with me in the early part of 2006 and would remain with me until they built a new home. The remainder of 2005 and until I relocated to Albany was a very difficult time. I cannot tell you how many funerals I attended. People not only lost their lives in the flooding of the city, but many friends were suicide victims and one of my closest friends lost her battle with cancer due to not being able to get proper medical treatment in the months following Katrina. The body of another childhood friend who stayed behind to help others went unidentified for months. It is still difficult for me to speak of many of the things that happened and things I saw.

“In 2007, I had an opportunity to relocate to Albany. I’d never lived anywhere else for an extended period of time, but I felt a compelling urge to try something new and adventurous. I am where I am supposed to be at this stage in my life. I sold my home in New Orleans in record time. My sister and her family moved into their new home in late January 2008, and I moved to Albany in early February.

“While much of the city has resumed its ‘Big Easy’ lifestyle, it is not the same. Most things I knew as a child are no more. I miss what was, but not what is. Each time I go back, I drive to the place I grew up, now just one of the many empty lots in what was once a thriving community and I can’t quite identify exactly where our house was located. I visit for four-five days and cry. I know it is time to return to my new home town of Albany. I have wonderful friends here, and as most people know, I have never met a stranger. While I have no family relations, here, I have an Albany family. My new family has been checking in to see how my New Orleans family is fairing during this stressful time. I’d like to think that I have brought a bit of my culture and New Orleans to Albany.”