The impact of a hurricane: One person’s experience with Hurricane Katrina
Updated: Aug 13, 2020
Author’s Note: This is an article I wrote for an assignment in my Master’s program. It ended up being three times as long as it needed to be, so I’m posting it here in order to be able to share the entire story, rather than just a part of it. If the writing seems different than my normal style, it’s because that’s what the assignment required.
Hurricane Katrina is one of those events that people talk about and everyone remembers what they were doing when they first heard the storm made landfall. In that aspect, it is similar to the death of Princess Diana or the assassination of John F. Kennedy. But Hurricane Katrina was very different because it impacted millions of people all along the Gulf coast and far into the rest of the United States.
When most people think of Hurricane Katrina, they think of the devastation they saw on the news in New Orleans and the flooding that happened after the levees were breached. Josh Davis has a unique perspective of the hurricane, as he lived a half-block from the beach in Long Beach, Mississippi. This interview explores a lesser known, but still very real, experience of someone who escaped Hurricane Katrina’s wrath from the beach in Mississippi, but still lost everything.
Making the Decision to Leave
Davis didn’t watch a lot of news around the time of the hurricane, but his friends had started talking about it. Hurricane Ivan had been the previous fall and he had evacuated during that storm, so he knew the drill. Only when he saw people boarding up the windows of the local K-Mart, did it really hit him that something significant was likely going to occur.
Conversations for about half a week prior to the storm making landfall were dominated with talk of preparations and evacuation. “People were talking about whether or not they had family inland and where they were going to go,” Davis said. “Since I lived a half-block from the beach, many of my neighbors were talking about what to do with their 2nd car and their animals.”
Based on the forecast, there wasn’t ever really any question about whether or not he would be evacuating. It was more a matter of when. Davis lived in a complex of rental townhomes and spoke with his landlord about the plans for boarding up the properties. They came to board things up on Friday and Davis left town very early Sunday morning to beat the anticipated high volume of evacuation traffic. Davis knew the manager of the poker room at the Grand casino in Tunica, Mississippi, who was able to get him a room at the casino hotel, where he stayed for five days.
What to Take
Since he had been through an evacuation before, he already knew which items he would be taking with him and what he would leave behind. Davis worked from a home office, so he knew that he needed to take equipment to be able to continue working. He packed 2 computers, four computer monitors, a large monitor stand, power strips and modems, as well as a week’s worth of clothes into his small Chevy Blazer. He also packed important documents, like his passport, and a folder of personal mementos. “I didn’t take a lot,” he said.
He remembers specifically, one piece of clothing he took with him. “I took my B.U.M. brand sweatshirt I bought in Wichita when I was in high school,” he said.
Although he didn’t take much with him, he did put a lot of thought into how he wanted to leave his house. Davis spent several days moving items from the first floor of his townhouse to the second floor, to try to avoid the flooding that was sure to happen. “I hauled over 2,000 CDs, my whole glass art collection, basically anything that wasn’t nailed down or too big to move, upstairs. I figured if I got everything to the 2nd floor, it would still be salvageable,” Davis remembered.
Davis had just purchased a brand new bedroom set, so he put everything he could on top of the bed before he left town. The only items that remained on the first floor were the television, couches, dining room table, brand new washer and dryer and items in the kitchen cabinets.
Recalling the items he left behind, if he had it to do over again, Davis would have taken pieces of his glass art and CD collections. “With my limited space, if I had known how bad it was going to be, I would have taken my CDs and I would have taken the time to pack up three or four pieces of my glass art collection.”
Davis didn’t personally know anyone in his neighborhood who stayed behind. “Quite a few people went inland a mile, ten miles, or an hour. Anyone who stayed in my neighborhood would have died. Everything was gone. I was a half-block from the beach and there were no structures remaining, just concrete foundations.” About a mile inland from the beach, there was an elevated railroad track that helped keep much of the storm surge from impacting the rest of Long Beach, but anything that was between the beach and the railroad track was destroyed by the storm surge. “Even today, very little of what was there before has been rebuilt,” Davis said.
Emotions Run High
Watching the news coverage of the damage was particularly difficult for Davis. He spent a lot of time in the casino hotel fitness center, watching the news. He remembers crying several times throughout the five days he was in the hotel and going back to his hotel room to email or call friends and family members. “Everyone was just saying it was really bad,” he remembered. “I cried thinking that I would probably not see some people again, not knowing if they made it or not, and realizing that this was devastating enough that we wouldn’t likely all be back together geographically again any time soon.”
Davis didn’t know he had lot everything until he was able to talk to his friend, Jessica. She told him that although no one had been able to get to his neighborhood, there were planes flying overhead, taking aerial shots and they could tell that everything was gone.
By this time, it was clear to Davis that he wouldn’t be returning to Long Beach, so he had to decide where he wanted to go. “I think I decided that since I had all of my stuff in the Blazer still, I would come back to Kansas and stay with my parents,” he remembered. Davis left Tunica and drove to Marquette, Kansas to stay with his parents for five days, where he decided what he wanted to do next.
Davis considered flying to Portland, Oregon to look for property, but decided instead to drive to Lawrence, Kansas for a couple of days. He had gone to the University of Kansas for his undergrad and had a cousin who still lived in Lawrence. During his trip to Lawrence, he picked up a couple of local newspapers to look for housing. “It was about three o’clock in the afternoon and I was sitting at the bar at The Replay, looking through the papers for a place to rent. I ended up at a property management office for the lofts at Tenth and New Hampshire, signed the lease and went back to Central Kansas to get my stuff,” Davis recalled. His cousins and parents helped him move into the new loft the next day.
First Time Back
Davis returned to Long Beach for four days in October 2005. At the time, he hadn’t ruled out moving back to the area, and before the storm, he had even been casually looking at property to buy in the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans. After visiting the area and seeing the damage and resulting housing shortage, he decided to stay in Lawrence. “There’s still a housing shortage in the Long Beach area today. Some of my friends were living in FEMA trailers or had stayed in their homes further inland that weren’t damaged. There was just so much construction going on at the time. Since I didn’t grow up there, I didn’t have as strong pull to go back,” he remembered.
While back in Long Beach, Davis and some of his friends went back to the site of his townhouse. There, they found one of the computers he’d left behind completely packed with dirt. Before he returned to town, one of his friends, Shannon, had been walking in the area and found one of his pieces of glass art, almost fully intact, and saved it for him. He still has the piece displayed in his home today.
Over the years, through his work, Davis had become a part of a strong online community. The manager of the poker room at the Grand, in Tunica, who had secured the hotel room for him to stay in, posted in the online community about Davis’ situation. The community wanted to help. A week later, the community had raised over $5,000 to help Davis rebuilt his life. “It was a true testament to how powerful online communities can be,” Davis said.
Not So Silver Linings
After the storm, Davis was never able to get a hold of his previous landlord. This meant that he wasn’t able to get his security deposit back. In 2015, Davis was notified that he had a lien on his credit report for unpaid taxes for 2005, the year of the storm. He had paid all applicable taxes up until the point he left Mississippi, but because of the damage and loss of all of his records, he had no way to prove it. The lien was filed in 2009, but he hadn’t received any notice of it because the state was mailing letters to an address that no longer existed.
Today, Davis is still living in Lawrence, Kansas, with his wife, Amanda, two dogs and two cats. They own a home in East Lawrence and are very involved in the community. When asked if he would ever consider living in an area prone to hurricanes again, he was brief in his answer, “Yes, although unlikely, since I like Lawrence so much.”