Hurricanes Past & Present
by COLONEL KENNETH ALLARD (US ARMY, RET.)
August 27, 2012
FSM Editors: As Hurricane Isaac bears down on New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, there are eerie similarities with Hurricane Katrina, which struck the same area precisely 7 years ago. Colonel Ken Allard, a survivor of that storm, wrote this retrospective on the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in 2010. We re-publish it now as a timely eyewitness reminder of what happens whenever nature displays its raw power.
Years later, the howl of Hurricane Katrina's winds is still a vivid memory. Before it was all over, I would become a Katrina survivor, a relief worker and an NBC News ‘embed' in New Orleans with the famed 82nd Airborne Division.
Raised in New England, where northeasters are common, I was still a newcomer in Daphne, Alabama, a picturesque village tucked into the northeastern shore of Mobile Bay. First lesson: Gulf hurricanes make northeasters look tame. In 2003, Hurricane Ivan passed directly overhead, knocking down trees but doing its worst damage east of us in Pensacola. Outside a war zone, you don't usually see such thorough destruction. Ivan's tornadoes uprooted forests, its storm surge leveling Floribama hangouts and pricey beachfront condos alike.
Now Katrina was churning offshore, a Category Five storm that filled the entire Gulf but was supposed to miss us. What seemed eerily providential was that I had recently recovered my faith, a Jesus-take-the wheel moment that was a long time coming. Even a rookie Christian knows you're supposed to listen for the still small voice while ignoring oncoming storms. But is it OK to pray that the storm hits somewhere else or are you simply being selfish? Should God listen to me or to those rich hedonists on the Florida Panhandle, the casino operators along the Mississippi Gulf coast or the pleasure-worshipers of New Orleans? These were tough theological issues that I was still debating when the storm hit at dawn that Monday morning, August 29, 2005.
Like a dragster going from zero to sixty, its winds instantly rose from gusty to shriek. Before the power failed, we learned that Katrina was coming ashore along the Louisiana-Mississippi line - a distinction without much difference. Even the side-lobes of Katrina were strong enough to snap branches and uproot trees Ivan had overlooked. The calm waters of Mobile Bay were roiled by a storm-driven fetch that drove the famed battleship USS Alabama off its moorings with a twenty-degree list. The cyclonic winds also deposited a fine mist of salt-spray that blighted trees for miles inland, as though autumn had come in a single afternoon.
Life after Katrina was a pre-electrical state of nature: unrelenting heat and humidity, gas-driven power saws and generators. Eventually the leafy barricades were cleared and power trucks broke through. My first lesson in practical Christianity - Simple Gratitude - came from a church with a damaged roof but an unbroken spirit. Their welcome sign displayed a passage from First Chronicles: "We thank Thee and praise Thy glorious name." The second was Loving Your Neighbor as desperate refugees flocked into Daphne from flooded New Orleans. Our new civic center was instantly transformed into a 250-bed shelter complete with medical staff and job assistance. The lobby became an indoor playground overrun with stuffed animals and board games. A local businesswoman sweet-talked a corporation into lending her a vacant warehouse. By Labor Day a drop-off center for hurricane relief opened. Every conceivable item - food, diapers, clothing and school supplies - began arriving from all points of the compass, filling and re-filling the building. Somehow a distribution network was organized and 18-wheelers soon pulled up to the drop-off center en route to the hardest hit areas of Mississippi and Louisiana.
The next weekend, our church men's group joined hundreds of others in Pascagoula, Mississippi - delivering relief supplies and beginning the long process of re-building shattered lives. Going the Second Mile was important because Pascagoula had been hit by an American tsunami that instantly transformed the first into last. One woman wept as bags of food and diapers were loaded into her car, "I feel so ashamed accepting this. Normally, we're the ones helping out the less fortunate. But now that's us."
When I joined them in New Orleans, the 82nd was already performing prodigies of humanitarian relief -clearing debris and providing medical screening in poor neighborhoods. In a country that no longer requires wartime service, most of those red-bereted troopers had served tours in Iraq, Afghanistan or both before being suddenly ordered to New Orleans. Their weapons casually holstered or shouldered, the 82nd showed how the Band of Brothers could also be used as their Brother's Keeper - sisters too, for that matter.
And then I noticed an odd thing. Military service after 911 or helping one's neighbors after a hurricane prompted exactly the same questions that precede religious conversion. What do you really believe? And what are you prepared to do about it? And by the way: true religion reaches out to the poor, the homeless, the helpless. Anything less is simply hot air and hurricanes already have plenty of that.
Colonel Ken Allard is a widely known commentator on foreign policy and security issues. For more than a decade, he was a featured military analyst on NBC News, MSNBC and CNBC. That experience provided the backdrop for his most recent book, Warheads: Cable News and the Fog of War.