Wesley's Blog: My Katrina Story - WLOX.com - The News for South Mississippi

Wesley's Blog: My Katrina Story

Wesley Williams shares his Katrina experience. (Photo source: WLOX) Wesley Williams shares his Katrina experience. (Photo source: WLOX)

I remember selling concessions with fellow Troop 35 Boy Scouts at the Superdome during a Friday night Saints game, just 3 days before Katrina's landfall.

When I got home that night and saw the major hurricane was forecast to make a landfall in Louisiana in just a few days, I knew it was time to get my family and loved ones out of harm's way.

I called all of my friends, aunts, uncles and cousins. I also told my parents that we need to go west. With no particular destination in mind, the next morning, we hit the road.

I-10 was packed with all kinds of traffic out of the New Orleans metro area. Hours sitting in stop-and-go traffic as a teenager didn't bother me too much. My girlfriend at the time, who would become my wife nine years later, was also evacuating with her family west.

Later that day, we arrived near Beaumont, Texas. An evacuation shelter, we found, was being set up at the Ford Park Event Center in Beaumont. 

During the following day, Sunday, over one thousand people gathered at Ford Park along with us to seek safe shelter from the storm. In Beaumont, the skies were as blue as ever with no impacts from Katrina expected.

But, we knew hundreds of miles east our home was beginning to feel the effects of heavy rain bands.

We slept on the cots in the evacuation shelter that night. My family and I were worried about our home town, New Orleans. But, oddly enough, my homework was at the top of my mind.

Yes, the Friday before the storm, my high school gave us reading assignments to complete over the weekend. I was a senior at Benjamin Franklin High School, one of the state's highest performing schools. I couldn't afford to miss any homework.

I assumed that the storm would be over Tuesday, and we'd be back in town and in class later that week. So, I did some reading to help myself get to sleep.

Little did I know, I would not return home for about five months.

The next morning, the good folks in charge of the Ford Park evacuation shelter set up a TV so we could all watch the latest on Katrina. Horrified looks from hundreds as we gathered around the screen and looked at the bleak images of the Superdome roof ripping off, windows blown out of high-rise buildings downtown, and ultimately, when the levees broke.

We could not believe this was happening to our city. The water was so high. My cousins, whose home was located in the 9th Ward, were in shock when they saw the water to the rooftops of other houses in their neighborhood.

It was definitely a traumatic day. With lots of tears. And the sadness led to confusion. Where do we go now? Even after the hurricane lifted away from the Coast, our city would remained closed for quite some time to anyone trying to re-enter. 

So, we moved to Lumberton, Texas, a suburb of Beaumont. There, I attended Lumberton High School alongside my cousins. Displaced from the storm, it was difficult to adjust to the new schooling environment. But, I made new friends anyway. 

Less than one month later, major Hurricane Rita would directly strike Lumberton. Following a mandatory evacuation days before Rita made landfall, my family and I hit the road, yet again, with no particular destination.

We drove north, inland, to escape any storm surge threats. The highway was filled with traffic moving as slow as molasses. Sometimes we would be stopped for 30 minutes at a time or more. When the traffic became too much, we stopped in Huntington, Texas.

There, we found another emergency evacuation shelter at the city's high school. Red Cross volunteers graciously accommodated us into the school's hallways. This time, we were not in the safe-zone. This time would not be like when we evacuated from Katrina. This time, we would actually have to endure hurricane-force winds and torrential rains.

In fact, at one point while we were sheltered at the high school, we were under a tornado warning. The shelter organizers gathered the hundreds of people spread all throughout the school and immediately crowded us into the gymnasium.

This was likely the most scared I have ever been of the weather. I heard the strong wind roaring outside the gym walls. We all prayed. And after a few terrified screams, we broke out into song, singing, "This Little Light."

After the tornado passed, and the conditions became safe, we walked outside to see what the aftermath was.

All of the vehicles in the parking lot were miraculously undamaged. I can remember looking around the high school and seeing downed trees everywhere. But, somehow, they all fell away from the school's buildings and our vehicles. I knew that someone must have been looking out for us.

We drove back through a damaged Beaumont (billboards snapped, roofs blown off) to Lumberton where I resumed my schooling through December. My cousin would go on to make history in Lumberton, becoming the city's high school's first black graduate. 

Amazingly, my immediate family's home, located on the West Bank of the New Orleans Metro, sustained only a foot or less of water damage from Katrina. I'll never forget the sight of the line of mold growing on the walls, marking how high the water got... and that awful, awful moldy smell. 

We were fortunate enough to make repairs and move back in by the beginning of 2006. Even more amazingly, I was able to finish my high schooling at Ben Franklin in New Orleans where I graduated that spring.

That's my Katrina story. What happened after that storm, made me who I am today. 

I'm certainly not fond of these memories. Sometimes, I try to forget. But, some would say it's therapeutic to reflect.

At the very least, I'm thankful that I lost no loved ones to hurricanes that year. Man, what a bad year. Even after writing it all out... it's impossible to paint the whole picture. You had to be there. You had to live through it. It's a part of me. And only I will truly know how much it has affected me.

My prayers to you, if you suffered loss due to this storm. We better not ever have to go through something like this again. If you were affected by this storm, I hope it has resulted in at least one good thing for you over the last decade. Hold onto that little light, and let it shine.

The bad: my family is now separated. Much of my extended family were unable to return, their houses flooded to the rooftop. Gone are the days of Sunday dinners with my cousins, aunts and uncles just a short trip across town.

The good (and I have to search really hard to find something good that came out of this): I would say that this changed the way that I look at tropical weather. It strengthened my passion for forecasting hurricanes and tropical storms.

I now realize the critical importance of potentially life-saving tropical forecasts. And it fuels my passion today to strive to always make sure that I explain the threats from an approaching tropical system in a way that is easy to understand, with no nonsense, and a bottom line.

It ultimately may decide whether someone chooses to evacuate to safety, or stay and risk their life.

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