Below the Water Line provides a gripping account of a family’s hurricane evacuation experiences and all that followed in the decade after Hurricane Katrina. The story begins in August 2005, when author Lisa Karlin, her husband, thirteen-year-old daughter, eleven-year-old son, and two dogs evacuated New Orleans for what they thought would be a two-day “hurrication.” The day-by-day account of the weeks that follow vividly chronicles the unprecedented displacement of thousands of Americans, and on a personal level, describes how her family makes the trifecta of major life decisions: where to live, where to work, and where to enroll their children in school. Below the Water Line provides a first-hand commentary on how everyday life has been impacted by Katrina’s aftermath and how, a decade later, there are still lingering effects of one of the most devastating events in American history.
The pool water is bathtub warm, and the sky is postcard-perfect, clear and blue.
Thirteen-year-old Samantha floats on a raft near me. My daughter has carefully positioned herself with her arms extended by her sides and her chin tilted up toward the sun. Since school started last week, her tan has faded and she is determined to preserve it. She lies perfectly still; her only movement is the subtle rise and fall of her chest as she breathes.
A major hurricane named Katrina lurks just a few hundred miles away, out in the Gulf of Mexico, but we are not concerned. Landfall predictions are still uncertain, and I’m expecting that this hurricane will turn to the east or west and spare New Orleans, just like all of the hurricanes in the past forty years have done.
I take notice when I come in from the pool, turn on the television, and see the satellite image showing that Katrina has increased in intensity, and is now bigger than the state of Texas. Even so, the hurricane watch area extends all the way from western Louisiana to the eastern edge of the Florida panhandle. Anything can happen with this hurricane at this point.
Late in the afternoon, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin calls for a voluntary evacuation. He says he’s adhering to the state's evacuation plan, and will not order a mandatory evacuation until thirty hours before Katrina’s expected landfall so that people living in low-lying surrounding areas can leave first and avoid gridlocked escape routes.
My eleven-year-old son calls and tells me he’s ready to be picked up from his friend Colin’s house. On the stoop outside their house, Colin’s father asks if we are evacuating, and I tell him my plan is to watch the news and The Weather Channel and then decide. If Jim Cantore shows up in New Orleans, then we’re going to skedaddle, since he always seems to broadcast from the bulls-eye of a storm. Colin’s father says he plans to see how things look in the morning. And I have jury duty on Tuesday, I tell him. Can’t miss that!
My son John and I make a quick stop at Breaux Mart on the way home. Cars circle the parking lot, competing for the few open spaces. The store is clogged with people, and many shelves already are bare. I dispatch John to see if there are any hamburger buns still on the shelf. He reports back that just a few packages remain and like a fisherman, proudly holds up his catch. I see a few scattered packages of ground beef lying in a refrigerator case, and speed up to get there before anyone else does.
There’s nervous chatter in the long checkout line as people debate hunkering down or getting on the road. Older folks recall evacuating in ’92 after Hurricane Andrew blasted across southern Florida, and then entered the Gulf of Mexico and headed toward Louisiana. Andrew made landfall as a category 3 hurricane a couple of hours west of New Orleans, so we dodged that bullet. Hurricane Alberto in ’94 looked like it was headed for New Orleans, but veered off to the Florida Panhandle. And no one could forget evacuating for Hurricane Ivan last year and the arduous, tortuous process that was.
With ample time in the checkout line, many evacuation stories are told, eliciting nods of recognition from the people standing in the adjacent lines. We know all too well what it was like to batten-down the house, creep north along the interstates, spend a sleepless night out, and return a day or two later to sunny, intact New Orleans to start reversing the process. “Here we go again,” another “hurrication,” seems to be the sentiment of many in line. A number of people say they’re waiting to see how things look in the morning.
It’s inconceivable that a major hurricane is headed this way. The sky is clear, the air is still, and the sunset is spectacular. Buddy, our 80-pound yellow Lab, takes a leisurely swim in our pool while we eat dinner on the patio. It’s just another ordinary day.
All evening long, we wear down the television remote jumping from station to station. We, too, have decided to see how things look in the morning, knowing that a lot can happen in twelve hours. I’m still predicting that fateful turn that hurricanes take at the last minute, the turn that produces a collective sigh of relief from the people in their initial path.
We watch evacuation footage and see that even with the contraflow on the interstate this year, it’s no better than last September when about half of the people in New Orleans evacuated for Hurricane Ivan. Despite six lanes of traffic all heading westward, the traffic on Interstate 10 does not move at all. People are standing beside their cars, an impromptu and odd social gathering of sorts. Good thing we didn’t leave tonight, I tell my husband, Rich. We’d be stuck out there on the highway in the dark. I can’t imagine our family—two adults, two kids, and two dogs—inching along the interstate all night.
John plops down on the couch and announces that it would be fun (fun?) to evacuate at night. He tells us he would bed-down in our car, tell the dogs goodnight, and go to sleep. Rich raises his eyebrows. He knows our two kids would be squabbling before we back out of the driveway. And there’s no telling how Buddy and John’s 12-pound Jack Russell Terrier, which he named Jack, would handle a long car ride. We have trouble driving around the neighborhood with our dogs, and with our kids for that matter.
A news announcer casually mentions that Pat Sajak and Vanna White, who are in town taping New Orleans-themed episodes of Wheel of Fortune, have cut production short and are leaving. The “Wheelmobile” and eight tractor trailers of equipment are being readied for departure. It is the first time in its thirty-year history that the long-running game show cancels taping.
I silently pray that Katrina weakens and changes course, but the latest information indicates that this hurricane is strengthening and coming our way. Local weatherman Bob Breck pronounces that “the water will be so high that you’ll be on the roof with the cockroaches!”
Around 10 p.m., we are surprised to see Mayor Ray Nagin back on TV. He looks just as surprised to be on TV; earlier today, he said he would issue his next statement in the morning. The mayor says he received a phone call from Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, who in turn had received a call from the National Hurricane Center Director. The news is not good. As Nagin puts it, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is not a test. This is the real deal.”
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About the Author
Lisa Karlin is the author of Below the Water Line: Getting Out, Going Back, and Moving Forward in the Decade After Hurricane Katrina. She is an oncology nurse who, unlike weather chasers who look for storms to track, has had the weather chase her, and these experiences are described in her memoir. Lisa lives in New Orleans, Louisiana with her husband, daughter, son, and Yellow Lab named Buddy.