Picking up the pieces
Five years later, the MSU community reflects on Hurricane Katrina's impact
As Katie Lamb watched footage showing devastation in her hometown on TV five years ago, she hung onto a glimmer of hope that her home was still standing and her possessions were intact.
She’d later find out that both her parents’ homes were gutted by Hurricane Katrina, which struck the U.S.’s Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005.
Lamb, now a psychology senior and a cadet with MSU Army ROTC, grew up in her mother’s home in New Orleans, and later moved into her father and stepmother’s home in Pass Christian, Miss.
She evacuated with her mother, who was then living about 30 minutes from New Orleans in Slidell, La., before the storm hit. She couldn’t get ahold of her father, who evacuated separately, for a week.
Evacuations were nothing new for her community, Lamb said, and no one grasped the storm’s potential in the beginning.
“It wasn’t until after — when the images started coming in — that I realized that this is for real,” she said.
As this year’s One Book, One Community selection about a family’s journey during the crisis brings the issue back to the surface for many in the MSU and East Lansing communities, Lamb and thousands of others are still picking up the pieces and moving on with their lives.
The book, Dave Eggers’ “Zeitoun,” was chosen in part to remind people of these ongoing struggles, said Ginny Haas, MSU director of Community Relations and a member of the book selection committee.
“We know that city is not rebuilt,” Haas said. “You always have to be vigilant with these issues.”
‘Just one foot in front of the other’
After the initial shock of losing 18 years worth of pictures, mementos and a brand new car, Lamb said she had to move on fairly quickly because of the speed at which everything happened.
“The pictures and stuff you kind of get over because you have to move on and you have to go on with your life or you’re just going to drown,” she said.
Lamb was a senior in high school when the hurricane hit, changing her life.
She moved in with her stepfather’s brother in Carthage, Ill., for her fall semester before returning to Mississippi for her last semester of high school and graduation. The school was temporarily being run out of trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The decision to attend MSU was hasty, she said. A family friend lived in Michigan and she had visited the state once before.
“Everything went so fast. It wasn’t hard because there wasn’t really time to think about how hard that would be in any other situation,” Lamb said.
“After Katrina, it was just one foot in front of the other. There wasn’t a lot of time for planning. It’s somewhere to go.”
As Lamb adjusted to life with a cold winter and without her family, Brad O’Neil, now an international relations senior, volunteered to travel south and help rebuild.
As part of MSU’s Alternative Spring Break, O’Neil traveled to New Orleans on two separate volunteer trips to help salvage materials and rebuild houses.
The hurricane was the strongest ever in the Gulf Coast, said Thomas Wolff, MSU associate dean for undergraduate studies in the College of Engineering. Wolff also served on the American Society of Civil Engineers’ investigation team and as reviewer for the Interagency Project Evaluation Team, which completed the official government report on the issue.
“It recorded the lowest barometric pressure ever recorded in the Gulf of Mexico,” he said. “In the open gulf, they recorded a wave of 50 feet high.”
Following the initial storm front, the east and north sides of New Orleans flooded extensively because of the overflowing and failing of levees designed to hold water back from the city, which lies below sea level, he said. A mandatory evacuation of New Orleans was issued two days before the storm hit. Katrina caused damage incomparable to any other U.S. hurricane in recent history, Wolff said. The storm affected the area from a little west of New Orleans to the Mississippi coast, he said.
New Orleans, buckling under the storm front and water rushing through the levees, was left in disrepair and will continue to require extensive rebuilding efforts, O’Neil said.
“I remember watching it on the news and having an overwhelming sense of wanting to go there and do something, but I was in high school, so I couldn’t really,” he said. “I thought, ‘The majority of the work is probably done,’ and so I kind of felt guilty, but then once I got there, I realized I was wrong and there was a lot to do.”
O’Neil went on service trips during the spring breaks of 2008 and 2009. The amount of work left to do in New Orleans was shocking, he said.
“Some places you can go to today, and it’s still like 2005,” he said. “And some places look like the place was never hit. There’s still a lot to do.”
Before going to New Orleans as a site leader in 2009, O’Neil said he asked his group to read “Zeitoun.”
“Having that experience, and then reading the book, it solidified not only my experience, but a hope for continuing recovery,” he said. “It really helped my group wrap their minds around the issue.”
Kathy and Abdulrahman Zeitoun, the subjects of Eggers’ book, visited East Lansing on Sunday to share their experiences during the disaster and events following. The book details the rescues Abdulrahman Zeitoun made in the storm’s aftermath, his arrest and eventual release.
Abdulrahman Zeitoun believes he was brought into this world to help people, Kathy Zeitoun said.
“The more he helped, he wanted to help,” Kathy Zeitoun said.
Receiving attention and outreach from readers because of the book has been a positive experience for the couple, Kathy Zeitoun said.
“Most people, they call or e-mail and say, ‘We’re so sorry,’ but I say, ‘Don’t apologize. It isn’t your fault’,” she said.
Lamb said it’s easy to see the positive that has come out of such a tragedy, such as the sense of community it evoked. Because nobody had anything, it was as if everyone was in the same boat, she said.
“It is something that I overcame, but I don’t see it as a horrible thing in my life,” she said. “I see it as this beautiful thing that has brought (me) to where I am today and made me who I am today.
“I believe in the American spirit — I have seen it.”