Saturday, September 23, 2006

Remembering Rita

I know exactly where I was and what I was doing one year ago today. You see, around 2am tomorrow morning will be the anniversary of the landfall of Hurricane Rita, the largely forgotten storm. Rita was the fourth most powerful Atlantic hurricane to hit the US, yet it has been eclipsed in the public eye, by Hurricane Katrina.

One year ago, I was not living in my own house, due to it being used by a family of evacuees from Hurricane Katrina. Instead, I was staying across town. Around 9 pm, I realized that I should go an check on my house, as the evacuees had left, due to fear of the storm. As I drove across town, I was the only vehicle on the road. The one exception was an NBC television crew who were cowering in the lee of a parking garage downtown. Even at this early hour, there was a lot of rain that was falling almost horizontally and a fair bit of wind. Earlier that evening, I had chatting with an old friend in Europe, as the first rainbands began to hit.

It was just as well that I went to check on my house. In their panic, the evacuees had taken no precautions to protect the building. Indeed, both screen doors were flapping in the already strong wind. I secured everything, did my best to round up anything that could act as flying debris and then drove back across town though the worsening tempest.

In the house I was staying in, we sat and watched the Doppler radar on the internet and kept an eye out on bulletins on the television. Around midnight, the power went out. The power cables outside the house had been blown down, or knocked down by flying debris. Unfortunately, this did not cut off the power to the downed lines, so we were treated to a display of blue sparks as the cables blew back an forth in the wind. I don't know what time sleep eventually came that evening. All one could hear was the shreak of the wind. It was obvious that Rita was a powerful storm. However, it was also obvious that it was not that powerful, at least not with us. In other words, we had been lucky. This meant that others had not.

The next morning, everybody awoke to a world transformed. There were cable and bits of tree everywhere. However, it was also quite obvious that Rita had just struck us a glancing blow. While the place was a mess, there was not too much by way of really bad damage. We have seen worse. People were out in the streets, talking to their neighbors. Nobody had power, so hasty arrangements were made by people to cook and share the contents of their freezers. One neighbor, Chris, cooked a large shrimp gumbo and offered it to anybody who was hungry. By noon, the power crews showed up. By 2 pm, they had fixed the broken power cables and the power came back.

The story was different closer to the coast. The storm surge forced millions of gallons of salt water from the Gulf of Mexico onto the low lying coastal land. What many people fail to remember is that salt water has the effect of poisoning the land. Many of the coastal communities were entirely under water.

The damage was incredible. What had once been verdant green vegitation became brown brush, if it had not been swept away entirely. One town, Holly beach, which used to be called 'The Cajun Riviera', was almost entirely obliterated. As one local wag put it at the time "Holly Beach is not!".

A few months later, I took a trip down to the region to see the effects on these once vibrant small coastal communities. The devastation was incredible. The land was brown, due to the salt poisoning. Houses were smashed and displaced.

Many people appeared to be living in tents. In places, it was necessary to drive along the center line of the road, due to the edges of the road being washed a way. Clearly, many people had lost everything. The pictures posted here were taken on that trip -- judge for yourself.

One year later, there are no television specials to commemorate Rita, unlike Katrina. Yet, the very real disaster still remains. They are still collecting debris in the coastal wet lands. People are still displaced, or living in trailers, or tents. The people of Vermilion and Cameron Parishes in Louisiana are still living with the aftermath of Rita. I remember Rita. So should you.

The CP


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