Remembering Katrina: “I didn’t plan to evacuate”

By Angel Hampton 

Special to The Mississippi Link

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Angel Hampton

I didn’t plan to evacuate. I had gotten used to hurricane threats being a way of life early on as a student at Xavier University. Sometimes we evacuated and sometimes we made the decision to ride out the storm depending on the forecasted track and severity.

I had spoken to a few friends earlier in the weekend and we all had said that our plans wouldn’t involve evacuating this time. I continued to watch the news throughout the weekend and at some point, the hurricane strengthened and its potential landfall included New Orleans as a possible target.

The governor announced that the Superdome would be opened as a shelter of last resort and I decided to err on the side of caution and leave the city, especially since my hometown was only a short drive away.

At this point, I had been living in New Orleans for almost ten years and had evacuated many times. I was accustomed to using an evacuation as a reason for a short vacation home and then when at the last minute the storm turned east and missed I would simply head back to the city.

So, ten years ago I packed a small bag for Tokey, my 4-year-old Shih Tzu, and enough clothes for myself to last three days, and the two of us got into my SUV to head home to Jackson, Mississippi. Tokey and I arrived home about 24 hours before the storm made landfall.

What was normally a two and a half hour drive, took me five hours with the number of evacuees on the road. I considered myself blessed because I had heard of people leaving an hour after I did and it took them eight hours or more to make the same drive. Although I was glad to be home with my family, I was concerned about my friends that had not evacuated and the city I had come to know as home.

For a short time, I remember feeling relieved when I found out that New Orleans dodged a direct hit. However, that feeling of relief was very short lived. We were without power for a week even in Jackson; therefore I had seen very little in the way of news reports.

My daily routine consisted of going around town on the hunt for ice and gas. I remember going to the mall to break up the monotony of the day and as I passed by the stores with TVs, I remember crying as I saw the city that I had called home for ten years was under water and its citizens on rooftops waiting to be rescued.

After seeing some of the devastating scenes, I went to my cousin’s house, which happened to have electricity. There I was able to see more in disbelief. I was truly devastated and broke into tears unlike members of my family had ever seen from me.

You see, even though there was not a direct hit to the city, the tremendous amount of wind and rain from such a large storm had caused the levees to breach and for a city that sat so far below sea level that caused immense devastation. I remember trying desperately to contact the friends that had decided to remain in the city but to no avail, as there was no cellular service. All I could do was pray.

In the weeks after the storm, I was eventually able to contact my friends. One who had decided not to leave said that he was stranded for three days in the attic of his apartment building. When I asked him what he did during those three days, he stated that he was trying nonstop to break through the roof. He was eventually rescued by helicopter and taken to San Antonio.

Another friend who had evacuated with family to Texas at the same time that I evacuated to Jackson, had to leave there less than a month later to flee hurricane Rita. He came to Jackson as well and ten years later has his own barbershop in Jackson, the city which is now his home.

At some point in early September, on the Westbank of New Orleans, there was one day in which the Parish would be opened during daylight hours only. This is where my apartment was located. My cousin and uncle got their truck and trailer and drove me back to my apartment to salvage what I could.

There still was no power in the city or parish that day, and in the dim light and extreme heat we loaded up what we could during the time allotted so that we could be out and on our way back by dark.

It was very emotional for me to see first-hand the devastation that had occurred. It was during that trip back into the city that I realized it would be a long time before things would be back to some semblance of normalcy.

I had to figure out what I was going to do next. I did not think that I would be back in Jackson long term. Prior to Hurricane Katrina I worked for the Jefferson Parish Public School System as web site designer for the school district.

While in Jackson representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) visited my mom’s office at The Mississippi Link newspaper and informed her that FEMA had opened a local office and was looking for persons with information technology skills and suggested to her that I should apply for the position.

I had become somewhat familiar with FEMA over the previous month as a disaster survivor and now I had the opportunity to work for FEMA to assist other disaster survivors. My “temporary” employment, working 12 hours a day, seven days a week was supposed to last 120 days.

Over the next year, I traveled to counties throughout the state of Mississippi, providing IT support to the local offices that had opened in various cities to assist survivors of Hurricane Katrina. I heard many stories of loss, bravery, perseverance, heroism and strength as people recounted what they had been through.

My work with FEMA has spanned the last ten years. I used the computer science degree that I obtained from Xavier University, New Orleans to provide network support to our various offices.

I have continued to travel around the United States, providing assistance to disaster survivors of tornados, floods, snowstorms, ice storms including Hurricane Sandy in New York where I spent 50 weeks, and in a remote village in Alaska where I also spent almost a year.

I took Tokey with me on several of these disasters to include Alaska and Massachusetts. Ten years after Katrina, in Massachusetts, my little companion recently became ill and peacefully passed away.

I can’t help but think about evacuating New Orleans ten years ago with just enough clothes to last me for three days, and my little dog Tokey.

I try to use what I have seen and been through, to be able to offer compassion to others who have been displaced. Although Hurricane Katrina was a terrible disaster, I am now glad that it brought me back home to my family.

I have been able to travel and see places that I may not have ever seen. I have since been able to purchase a home and complete a graduate degree that I was just one hour from completing when I left New Orleans due to Hurricane Katrina.

Angel Hampton received a BS degree in computer science from Xavier University and a MBA in technology management from the University of Phoenix. She is employed by FEMA as an information technology network manager. Angel is also the daughter of The Mississippi Link publisher Jackie Hampton.

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Hampton in Alaska
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Hampton in Alaska
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Hampton with Tokey at home in Mississippi