These are the times that try men’s souls. But trying is not good enough. You have to get it right: people’s lives are on the line.
It’s still early in the process of assessing the full extent of the damage to life and property wrought by the wrath of Katrina. Louisiana and Mississippi have had the faces of their states altered. Entire neighborhoods are gone or ruined. Bridges have been disabled. Long stretches of highway are now primitive walkways, while others have simply broken off and fallen into the sea. The entire city of New Orleans may be unlivable for months. Where television has been accused in the past of magnifying small events by zooming in with camera shots, it has now proven inadequate to convey the extent of devastation so widespread.
Here is a poignant vignette that tells it all. This was recounted by Tampa resident John Preston over the airwaves on the Todd Schnitt Show. Schnitt is a talented talk-show host whose Tampa-based show is broadcast in Miami as well. The following is Mr. Preston’s story.
He hails from the Biloxi, Mississippi area and much of his family continued to reside there until early this week. His sister lives there with her four children; they were able to be safely evacuated on Monday to a nearby town that was bypassed by the storm. However, his mother was a hospital nurse and she had to work a shift until 7 p.m. on Monday. The family was not so concerned because they lived in a two-story brick structure that had been standing for many years, surviving even the legendary Hurricane Camille of 1969, which killed 262 people in that region.
They were also hearing that the road out of town was jammed and it was taking hours to get anywhere. So they decided to stay. The family included John’s Mom and Dad, his brother, sister-in-law and their two sons, age eight and five. They put up their shutters and, being veterans of many hurricane scares over the years, they went to sleep. John, over in Tampa, was less sanguine and he sat up late, monitoring the news to see when and where Katrina would make landfall. When the 3 a.m. update upgraded it to a Category 5 hurricane, he called his brother and woke up the house. It’s time to be up and alert, he told them, it’s getting close.
After it made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane at about 6 a.m., he called again. Yes, they said, they hear the winds howling and see the beginnings of the rain. At ten o’clock he got through once more. This time they said that the rain was coming into the house. They were ankle-deep in water on the first floor so they had called the upstairs neighbors, who invited them to their place to wait out the downpour. That was the last time that he succeeded in getting through. Silence. Deathly silence.
He watched every TV and Internet report about the region that he could find. In the late afternoon he was amazed to see footage showing his little five-year-old nephew being rescued while floating on a pile of debris. The reporter mentioned the hospital to which the child was brought. At that point, John decided that he had to travel there immediately. He made arrangements to fly to the nearest operating airport and rent a car. By Tuesday morning he was in Biloxi.
He drove to the neighborhood that he knew so well. To his shock, it was gone. His family’s building had been one of thirty homes in a given radius. Every one of them had vanished without a trace. There were thirty concrete pads on the ground to indicate the foundations and some driveways were recognizable. Other than that, nothing. No walls, no bricks, no boards, no furniture; there was no sign that the place had ever been devoted to human habitation.
From there he went to the hospital. After the staff was persuaded by his ID that he was the child’s uncle, they took him to the boy’s room. But first they prepared him for hearing the boy’s story. This five-year-old kid was explaining that his parents and grandparents had tried to swim to Georgia but he thinks they’re drowned and not coming back. His father had taken him and said, “Son, since you can’t swim, I’m going to put you on top of this stuff, try not to fall off, maybe you’ll be saved.”
John’s sister met him at the hospital and they agreed that he would assume care for his orphaned nephew; he would adopt him and take him to live in Tampa. John was trying hard to keep control over his emotions and focus on the needs of the boy rather than the scope of his loss. They were involved in signing various releases when in walked his sister-in-law in bra and shorts, covered in cuts and bruises, leading the eight-year-old boy by the hand.
HER STORY WAS AMAZING. The family had been upstairs at the neighbors, listening to all the horrible noises outside, seeing the water rise outside their window. They did not realize that the entire first floor was full of water. Then, suddenly, the floor beneath their feet, grown sodden and brittle, gave way and they were all swimming in water. Then the pressure grew too strong for the walls and the water from the inside burst outward through a wide breach. They were being washed away.
The last words her husband said to her were, “Honey, this was my fault.” He died a giant of the spirit, standing up and taking responsibility. Her mother-in-law, John’s mother, a lifetime as a nurse, said to her, “I love you,” and drifted off into the great beyond, unselfish and loving to the last. Then it was her turn. She was borne away on a sea of water, clinging somehow to her eight-year-old son.
They washed up against a group of trees still standing alongside the railroad track about a block and a half from where their home had stood. She managed to grab a floating door and wedge it between the trees at an angle that limited the force of water bearing down on them. A suitcase came by and she turned that into a sheltering tent for her son. The waters kept pushing her clothing tight around her neck, threatening to strangle her, so she ripped them off. And so they sat, in a makeshift fortress fashioned from flotsam, huddling against the storm’s night of rage.
In the morning all was still again. They pulled themselves up, ragged and bedraggled, beaten and battered, and began to walk. Somewhere down the road a car pulled up alongside and they were driven to a shelter. Once her identity was discovered, people told her about seeing her younger son’s rescue on TV. She headed immediately to the hospital, as dazed as she was, there to meet John shepherding her other child. They have all decided to go live with him in Tampa; his home family grew even as his extended family was ravaged.
John’s message to all of us for the future: “If they tell you to go, go. Don’t stay because you can’t save your dog or your property. You can buy a new dog at a pet store and new stuff at a Wal-Mart, but I can’t buy myself a new father, mother and brother.”
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