The devastation of Hurricane Katrina to the Gulf Coast is almost unfathomable even to people who are there. I've noticed that many of my friends here in Los Angeles, while sympathetic to the destruction they see, don't know what it is like to live through a hurricane. I (I'm dispensing with the editorial "we" for this post) grew up on the Gulf Coast, in Houston, Texas, so I do know about hurricanes, though those I've been through were not as deadly as Katrina. Think of the night this January in Los Angeles when, after days of rain, the streets flooded and houses slid down cliffs. Now imagine that amount of water coming down in a few hours, and accompanied by winds at speeds of hundreds of miles per hour. Now you have not only the water and wind to deal with, but the wind rips up trees by the roots, peels off the roofs of houses, and sends them hurling at you.
I've had friends and neighbors have trees land on their houses and cars. My aunt lives on Mississippi Gulf Coast and lost most of her possessions when the house she was then renting flooded in Hurricane Danny in 1997. She, her boyfriend, and the cat evacuated successfully to avoid Katrina, and she reported yesterday that a friend drove by her house, and that it was still standing, without a tree on it. "We had expected slabs," she remarked. They still cannot reach many of their friends, and hope that this is simply because the friends were able to evacuate.
I don't know if people here know what the Gulf Coast is like. Even in normal times, the separation between the water and the land is not as distinct as it is here in Los Angeles, with this city's dry cliffs and desert winds. Below sea level, as New Orleans and Houston are, you can feel the damp ocean breeze wash over you all day. The air is usually thick and humid, and muddy bayous slug their way inland. The land is completely flat and floods easily. The consternation over the alligator in the lake in San Pedro had been amusing to me until a few days ago, because on the Gulf Coast, alligators, who thrive in its swampiness, will occasionally crawl into in someone's backyard and menace the household pets, much as coyotes do here, or will turn up lounging in someone's parked car. Now, of course, the flooded streets of New Orleans and other cities may hide alligators and snakes (there were reports of a shark swimming through the streets of New Orleans), as well as disease.