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Lesley Haynes: Reflecting on Katrina, a decade after disaster

A doomsday storm had been warned for 100 years in New Orleans. The city is surrounded on all sides by water – Mississippi River to the east, south and west and Lake Pontchartrain to the north. On Aug. 29, 2005, the storm made landfall on southeast Louisiana, levees collapsed, ultimately flooding 80 percent of New Orleans and many of the neighborhood parishes. For the first time in history, then Mayor Ray Nagin ordered a mandatory evacuation of the city.

The official death toll stood at 1,604 with more than 2,000 people unaccounted for. These numbers were not final even seven months after the storm.

Fast-forward to April 2006. We were six men and six women who had answered the call to travel to New Orleans as mission volunteers. We arrived at the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance Tent City and received our assigned cots and sleeping bags.

The first day we traveled to our assignment in the Gentilly section, we were smiling and happy. However, our mood became somber as we observed the abandoned buildings. We knew that 300,000 residents had been relocated to Houston, Texas, but were not aware that few had returned.

Personal items were scattered everywhere in the house that we were to work on. Dressers turned upside down by the turbulent waters. A refrigerator was lying on the floor. All items were waterlogged – beds, sofas and carpets saturated. Bedding, towels and clothing sopping wet. Everything we removed was heavy from the excess weight of the stagnant water that had been sitting in the home for the last seven months.

Our team started working immediately. We donned our safety goggles and wore masks to prevent us from breathing the foul, musty odor coming from the presence of decayed, rotting food, mildewed clothing and decomposing walls. We tore sheetrock from the walls, kicked down ceilings, pulled hundreds of nails from the rafters and beams, swept floors and hauled away heavy furniture.

We worked daily and we listened quietly as individuals shared their personal stories with us.

Many homes were painted with the grim information left by building inspectors. Bright orange paint recorded the date of the inspection and how many bodies were found there. Some houses had other messages, such as “dead dog inside,” “no cats found here,” “danger – building unsafe to enter,” painted on the outside walls.

Sixty thousand houses were reported as damaged beyond repair and there was no sign of returning residents in this area, no sign of life at all. Thousands of water-damaged cars were abandoned. Boats were stranded on roofs or upside down in trees. In this area, there was no electricity, telephones, gas or running water even seven months after the storm.

After 10 days, our work was completed. We had stripped the walls down to the studs, and removed an estimated 5 tons of debris from the interior.

Doris, the owner of the house, wept quietly as she told us that her brother Edward, 72, had been trapped in the attic of his home for four days, unable to escape. During his time in the attic his feet had been immersed in the toxic water made poisonous by chemicals and sewer waste. When rescued by helicopter he was taken to a nursing home in Kentucky after amputation of 10 toes and four fingers. She cannot travel to see him.

She gave us a card of thanks. Inside she wrote: “You will never know what this has done to us. – Doris.”