• Christopher Heaps

How to Survive a Disaster

Updated: Dec 1, 2020

In the summer of 2005, I was a summer intern at Oregon's largest law firm, in downtown Portland. I worked a block from the Multnomah County Courthouse and the federal building, an area that is now essentially a war zone. I was preparing for my final year of law school in the Fall, and it was a heady time for me, filled with joy and hope for the prospects of a satisfying legal career and building a home in Portland, a place I love dearly.

On Monday morning, August 29, 2005, I sat down at my desk and pulled up the news. The immense hurricane that had been churning in the Gulf of Mexico for a while was the top story of the day. It had finally made landfall (again). I watched the video of the eye of the great storm move directly over my hometown, Waveland and Bay St Louis, Mississippi.

Immediately, I felt a sense of dread; that deep, heavy feeling in your gut; the dawning awareness of profound loss, of death. I knew that my hometown was gone, would never be the same. I had spoken to my parents the day before, and they told me they weren't sure whether they would be evacuating.

We had sheltered through a handful of hurricanes when I was a kid, each time dealing with minor damage to the house and flooded streets. The worst part was having no electricity for days, no air conditioning in the Southern summer, and no TV. (For those of you who are younger, the Internet as we know it was still decades away.)

My parents had grown complacent, perhaps too complacent.

This hurricane was different. It was a Category 5, and it had brought a storm surge 20 feet high. That means the surface of the ocean goes up by 20 feet, and my parents' house, the house I grew up in, was about two miles from the shoreline, and only a hundred yards or so from brackish-water bayous. It is 5-7 feet above sea level at most.

If my parents were still in the house when the storm hit overnight Sunday, they were dead, drowned by the sea if not killed by the winds first. If either of my college-age brothers were at home, they were gone too.

I sat in silence. I knew what I had to do, but it felt like an eternal moment before I reached for my phone. The call would not go through at all. There was no ring tone, and no way to leave a message. There were no more phone lines or cell towers. Perhaps there were no phones to receive the call, either.

About an hour later, I walked in my boss's office and told him I would not be able to finish out the summer as I had hoped. I would be going to Mississippi as soon as possible. I was very grateful that everyone understood my need to leave, and even more grateful that they did not hold it against me in the hiring decision.

I went to the bank and withdrew as much cash as I could. Then I went to REI and bought 50 dehydrated meals, water cans, and gas cans. Then I got in my truck and just drove, and I kept driving, stopping only for a few hours of sleep on the side of the road in Utah and Missouri.

When I reached northern Mississippi, on Wednesday morning, I finally received a call from my parents. They were alive, and staying with my brothers in Hattiesburg. That's about 70 miles inland, but still filled with damaged buildings, downed trees, no water, and no electricity.

It's the only time I've ever heard my parents truly afraid. There seemed to be no help from the government, with most of the Mississippi National Guard deployed in Iraq. There was no food left on the grocery store shelves, no more gasoline available, and downed trees blocking nearly all of the roads. There was no way out, and no way to survive once the supplies ran out.

I arrived to bridge the gap until civil order was restored. We had a weeks-long hurricane party, and we made it through together. And that's where we are now, again, except it's the whole country, not just one region. Death and destruction are all around us. The situation seems dire, the future uncertain.

I still can't really talk about many of the things I saw in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. Surviving a natural disaster permanently changed me, partly for good and partly for ill. The good, if there really is any, is that I'm not afraid anymore. At least not as afraid as I would be if it hadn't happened, and not as afraid as I know many people are now.

I know I can survive. And I'm writing this post to let you know that you can, too.

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