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Former News reporter details Katrina's wrath

Editor's note: Former Desert News reporter Dion M. Harris gives her first-person account of evacuating from New Orleans and being a Hurricane Katrina refugee.

When I left home on Aug. 28, a quiet and overcast Sunday, it was 3:36 p.m., and I didn't look back. I had decided to evacuate three hours earlier, no previous plan considered or intended.

My friend Gordon, a district fire chief, had called me again shortly after I'd awakened, refreshed and finally able to consider traveling after a long but prosperous late-summer week shuttling conventioneers around town — then to and from the airport — in my taxi.

"Friend, I think you should go. It's looking pretty bad," he informed me around 9:30 a.m. It was 10 hours after I'd last seen him on a break from his Magazine Street post amid feverish preparations for the approaching storm, Hurricane Katrina.

We had enjoyed "Native Tongues 4," the fourth installment in the bitingly hilarious series of monologues authored by various Crescent City writers, at Le Chat Noir. We went out for a night on the town Saturday despite increasingly dour predictions of the pending tempest. But the front page of the Friday Times-Picayune, which rested on my kitchen table, had reported that the storm had grazed southern Florida and was dissipating. I clearly remember thinking that Friday morning after retrieving the paper from the lawn: "We're doing good. We're at 'K' and almost through the hurricane season without incident."

I admit I am one of many New Orleanians increasingly complacent to the litany of dire forecasts and suggestions for evacuation. Although we all knew we sit below sea level in a saucer-shaped city with subsidence issues — in an increasingly warm landscape — we succumbed to the Chicken Little Syndrome: one too many bogus calls for voluntary evacuation coupled with the chaos in the Superdome during the 1998 Hurricane Georges evacuation debacle and fresh scars from the 2004 Hurricane Ivan traffic jam.

Many of us had either resigned ourselves to riding hurricanes out or traveling to distant safe houses, only to return in a day or two to clear, sunny skies and vexing little damage at home. For too many of us, the hassle just wasn't worth it. Nothing bad ever happened, anyway.

Until Katrina.

I evacuated to McComb, Miss., where I had a reservation with the deputy sheriff I befriended last year during the Ivan evacuation. I spent the first 11 days after the storm there in a furnished family house that I had all to myself. We lived for six days without electricity in late August, in southern Mississippi.

Water, ice, gasoline and C-size batteries were the commodities to have this time. Jan, the deputy's sister, and I were roasting in the late-morning sun when the gear-shift went out in my eight-year-old Saturn coupe; we were waiting in an everlastingly long line that snaked around the perimeter of the Pike County Fairgrounds for free ice. And there were sickeningly long lines at the Super Wal-Mart, which had a generator up and running.

At Piggly Wiggly there was no electricity, so we had to wait to get in two or three at a time. And due to looting concerns, we weren't allowed to shop on our own. We submitted an order to the waiting clerk once we entered the darkened store, then waited as the items were retrieved for us.

On Sept. 1, I paid $2.99, plus tax, for a two-pack of Shur Fine C-cell batteries. This was highway robbery. I considered reporting to the Attorney General's Price Gauging Hotline but ultimately did not. Demand was high for these certain items and supply low. I saw mile-long gasoline lines in person for the first time in my life.

Baton Rouge radio station WIBR became my salvation, broadcasting news updates and providing a thoughtful forum for an increasingly frustrated, scared and battle-scarred populace of displaced New Orleanians.

"Refugees" was, in fact, the correct term for us because I sure felt like one until five weeks ago, when I finally moved into my own apartment. Do you have any idea what it feels like to be a homeowner and a business owner, then find yourself homeless overnight and out of business?

When the electricity came back on and my car's transmission had been fixed, I continued up Interstate 55 toward Carbondale, Ill., where a college buddy awaited. But first I needed to stop off in Memphis. The good people of Mississippi are kind and exceedingly polite, but they don't know squat about feeding vegetarians. I am vegan, and I hadn't eaten a vegetable or a hot meal in 12 or 13 days. I had also dropped at least five pounds, which I don't need to lose. I knew that if I made it to Memphis, I could eat.

One night crashing with my uncle, aunt and cousin in Memphis, Tenn., turned into 10 nights — 10 long, smoky nights in a two-bedroom, bath-and-a-half apartment with fellow evacuees.

When that got too psychologically and physically hectic, I moved on to a Holiday Inn. I spent 27 nights there, with the Red Cross and FEMA picking up the tab. Living in a hotel while my money was low was difficult, and I couldn't find a suitable apartment.

Finally I found a one-bedroom, gated-entry apartment, paid for out of my own pocket. I am in a six-month lease. I figured that would give me enough time to figure out what I'm going to do.

I left home with a garment bag, my backpack and a cooler. I packed five days' worth of clothes, some fruit and water. I thought I was going to the country for three or four days, then I'd be back home. Like always.

That hasn't proved to be the case.

My lower Ninth Ward neighborhood twice sat under 12 feet of water. After six weeks, I felt like I was going to have a nervous breakdown, not knowing the status of my property. On Day 44, I made the five-hour trek down Interstate 55 to New Orleans. I was on a mission.

Driving along I-10 through the western suburbs, I noticed wind-battered high-rises, missing billboards, blue-tarped residential roofs and piles of garbage. Once inside the city limits on I-610, I was struck by the utter lack of traffic. And by something, eerily strange, that I couldn't immediately put my finger on. It finally hit me: everything in our subtropical landscape was now brown.

My part of town — which isn't even delineated on the tourist maps — looked like a war zone: deserted streets void of all signs of life, mud-caked streets, overturned vehicles. Two of the three bridges leading to the lower Ninth Ward were raised and out of commission.

Somewhere between McComb and Hammond, La., I'd heard on the radio that this was the first day of reentry into the lower Ninth Ward. National Guardsmen passed out EPA pamphlets warning of toxic dust, water and mold to each vehicle, and I crossed the St. Claude Avenue Bridge. But I was unprepared for the barricades obstructing the northernmost quadrant in which I live.

I was four short blocks away from where some uninformed soul had spray-painted in black: "RIP Fats" on the still-living music legend's pink, yellow and white manse.

It was six weeks after Hurricane Katrina and two weeks after Hurricane Rita. But the Channel 6 was on the scene, and other media types were also wandering around.

I joined a crowd of aggravated and concerned residents after briefly chatting with my neighbor, Charles, who had driven down from Shreveport. He told me that when he drove by my house, all he saw was the taxi. My heart raced. I felt perplexed. Charles lives a half-block from me.

After standing around for 20 minutes, commiserating with others and intent on not being kept away from my property, I saw someone in a position of authority who could get me in. I'd have to leave my car and be escorted in. So I gathered the cleaning supplies, boots, gloves and respirator mask I had purchased for this occasion.

Maybe I could retrieve some of the things that were at the tops of my closets: two pairs of leather boots, seven years of journals, spare car keys, some photos. . . . Primarily, I had come to get my passport.

When we got to my street, Caffin Avenue, things didn't look so bad. Caffin is a major thoroughfare, so it was clear, albeit muddy with the thick black sludge the toxic flood waters had deposited. The covered basketball court still stood and so did the houses on the block.

Then I noticed one house four doors down from me had collapsed. Another was turned at a 90-degree angle. The driver inadvertently drove the SUV past my house, although he had been there before. He had to back up.

And then I saw it: There was no house standing on my double lot. Stairs, pilings, some debris. The chain link perimeter fence was mangled. The 2003 Buick LeSabre Limited taxicab I own and operate was parked just like I'd left it — under what used to be the double carport. The 24 feet of roofed cinder block storage that my dad built along the back of our property had all but been obliterated.

"Where is my house?" I asked Arnold, the driver. He pointed across the street to a pile of rubble that lay past the median. I looked at it, incredulous. Then I noticed three dresses from my bedroom closet, including the white & black eyelet number I had just bought for Piano Night in April and only worn once. It was trashed. Then I saw some of my favorite handbags. My surveillance television lay smashed on top of the large, damp heap.

My home had washed away from its very foundation. There was very little that was salvageable under the lumber, damp gypsum, metal and mud. Besides, my home had been co-mingled with the other house that no longer was.

It was worse than I had imagined. I had fully expected my wooden, shotgun double home to be standing intact. Still, I'd had 44 days to prepare for this moment. And it was the not knowing that was killing us all inside. When I was able to see my home — or the remains thereof — I had closure. Psychologically, I could move on.

My city has been devastated and my neighborhood utterly decimated. Twelve weeks later, homeowners are still not allowed in. The remains of my home were bulldozed away two weeks ago. I received my first insurance check today — a $1,500 advance on my homeowner's policy.

Everything my dad and I ever worked for is now gone, from the mundane Social Security card and automobile title to the priceless original art and reams of family photos. There are rumors that my entire neighborhood of some 30,000 residents will be razed.

Many African-Americans believe the Industrial Canal levee which flooded the Lower Ninth Ward was dynamited, just as they believe it was 40 years ago during Hurricane Betsy.

All physical proof of my past has been wiped away. Despite the material losses, I am living. And I will live again. I continue to live prayerfully, defiantly, one day at a time. Some days are just better than others.