Two days before Katrina struck my home town of New Orleans, I was a happy man. I was sitting on a beach in Panama City, Fla., soaking up the sun and drinking ice-cold beer with my fiancee, Holly. Our biggest concern was the clarity of the water every morning. Life was going great. I had a healthy income writing mostly about New Orleans entertainment for local and national publications, we were getting ready to plan our wedding, and I was even lining myself up to buy my first home. I'll turn 30 next year, the age at which I always said I wanted to become a father.
Until Saturday, Aug. 27, most indications were that Hurricane Katrina was going to hit the Florida panhandle. But every time we interrupted our stay in paradise to check the news, things were looking worse.
That night Holly and I made a mad dash through the darkness to get back to New Orleans. Interstate 10, the most direct route home, was closed to new traffic at the Louisiana-Mississippi state line, so we detoured south near Biloxi and rode in the back way, the Old Highway 90. On our way back to Jefferson Parish, we passed all the glimmering casinos of the Gulf Coast and had little idea that the fun would soon come to an end.
It's an odd moment when you have just a few hours to pack what you need and prepare for your home to possibly be destroyed. Most New Orleans residents have their own personal emergency plans, but when it comes down to the last minute, no one seems to be really sure what to do. If the hurricane strikes and you take too little, you're in trouble. If you pack too much and the hurricane turns, then you have a lot to unload when you get back home. Some people have no plan other than to sit at home and ride it out -- a plan that was deadly for many who stayed for Katrina.
My plan started with items that could never be replaced -- family photos, heirlooms and my grandmother's ashes. After that it was the tower of my desktop computer, which held the business documents and invoices that I would need to survive wherever I would end up. It soon became clear that there was simply no room in the truck for the monitor and peripherals, so I left them behind. Holly and I took our pet cockatiel to another home and placed it on a high shelf. We left my six little box turtles with food and water and headed for my sister's condo in Baton Rouge.
This was the third time since 1998 that we had packed up and prepared for the worst, but both of the others had turned out to be false alarms. Perhaps that's why I didn't pack everything I should have. Things were looking worse by the hour, but I still told myself this catastrophe wasn't going to happen in my lifetime.
While we packed up the apartment, we were watching the news. City leaders were saying this was going to be the New Orleans doomsday scenario that we had always feared. After stuffing clothes into a backpack and suitcase, I grabbed my business suit and dress shoes. Holly, who works at Starbucks, knows she'll have a job when everything settles down, but I knew that if this storm were to really hit, I'd be going on a lot of job interviews.
Financial documents were the last things I was thinking about -- my financial plan was nothing more than $500 and the credit cards in my wallet.
Two weeks ago, I was digging through my credit history and trying to achieve the highest FICO score possible. I wanted to land a good interest rate on a home loan. Now I have credit card bills, a car note, the prospect of less than half the income I had before and no idea where we're going to live. Of my four credit cards, I have been able to reach only one company, Discover. With no questions asked, my New Orleans mailing address qualified me for a two-month waiver on minimum payments and no interest during that period. Let's just hope the others are as generous.
Going online from my sister's place, I filed for FEMA assistance and Louisiana unemployment insurance, neither of which I have done before. I'm not sure what I'm entitled to as I'm not really sure what I lost. More than 60 percent of my writing income came from writing about the city of New Orleans and from New Orleans publications. Except for the local newspaper, the Times-Picayune, which probably isn't too concerned about my travel articles at the moment, all the local publications have closed their doors. Any assignments related to fun or travel in New Orleans are gone. One of the few clients I have left is AmericanDad.com, a Web site focusing on fathers and their children. I compile weekly events listings for 10 cities, but it's hard to write about fun things to do when all the fathers I know from New Orleans are living in a state of shock.
I have no way to pay the rent, which was due on Sept. 3. I have the money, but my landlord is nowhere to be found. I've tried calling, but the phones are dead. I can't mail a check because there won't be any mail delivery in the area for quite a while.
On Monday, I was allowed to get back into the parish to survey the damage. In my apartment complex, there were some minor flooding, a few broken windows, and trees and power lines down. Two of the buildings -- not mine -- had extensive roof damage, enough that the rain had come through the second floor and then down through the ceilings of the first floor. Luckily, my apartment was intact. But there was no electricity, no water, no sewerage and no open stores in the neighborhood.
It's hard being away from my home. My files are backed up, but all my handwritten notes, bills, documents and articles are sitting on my desk. Even when we were allowed in on Monday, Holly and I weren't thinking about documents. There was a horrendous stench emanating from the refrigerator; step No. 1 was to clear that out. We had to bury food products and human waste. The apartment was dark and damp, and the batteries in my flashlight died. It wasn't a place one wanted to be in for too long, and we were under pressure from a 6 p.m. curfew -- the local sheriff said that anyone on the streets after that time would be considered a looter.
My accounting system is a crucial element of my writing business -- I need to find out who owes me how much and when the bills are due. But that's all locked in my hard drive, and I can't buy a new monitor and peripherals because I'm scared to spend any money. I am living day by day and have no idea what I'll be doing next week, let alone next month when more bills are due. As a rough estimate, I'd say that I am waiting on $3,500 in receivables, wondering if I will ever see it.
I was supposed to go to Sri Lanka in a few weeks to write some travel articles, but that is the least of my concerns at the moment. Anyway, my passport, along with my birth certificate, is back home.
Some people barely escaped with their lives -- when floodwaters are rising by the minute, houses are catching fire and looters are banging down the door, the last thing one thinks about is grabbing the title to the house or insurance documents. I interviewed a man who escaped the rising floodwaters with nothing more than his driver's license. He has no cash, no credit cards and no access to his bank account. He had been employed in the medical industry for more than 30 years but is now virtually starting from scratch.
Staying at my sister's condo are my mother, my father, my stepmother, my sister, her boyfriend, a roommate, two cats and one dog. Holly recently went to her parents' vacation house in Arkansas, where I plan to meet her soon.
Everyone fights over the computers and the phones because we all have financial business to take care of. I am writing this on a borrowed laptop in a corner of a room that I have cleared.
It's been two weeks since I left my home on a moment's notice. Whenever life resumes some sense of normalcy and no matter where I am living, my outlook on personal finance and preparation for disasters will have changed profoundly. Some who have never experienced this may call me paranoid. I will make copies of documents and mail them to relatives in other states for safekeeping. I will stuff them in a hidden compartment in my vehicle. I may even tattoo my account numbers on my inner thigh, just in case.
Don't feel sorry for me -- I'm one of the lucky ones. My family and I are alive and safe and I will eventually get back on my feet. But the financial loss will take its toll. Over the course of one nasty night, by a terrible act of nature, I have been set back years. All those dreams and the things I have been working for -- the wedding, the house, the financial security -- are just going to have to wait a little bit longer.