Icover disasters for a living -- hurricanes, earthquakes and wars in distant lands. As a foreign correspondent, I chronicle the plights of refugees, the destruction of villages, the deaths of the weak and helpless.
I recently came home to Lake Charles in southwestern Louisiana. Its disaster was Hurricane Rita, whose ruthless eastern eye wall sliced through the city like a buzz saw. The refugees were my family and friends. The destruction was in my front yard, and on every block in this city of 75,000 people. The dead included my grandmother, one of the weak and helpless who didn't survive the chaotic evacuation.
I didn't come here to cover a story. I came to help my family pick up the pieces.
I arrived in Lake Charles 18 days after Rita slammed ashore, four days after officials allowed residents to return. My home town was broken. There is no other word for it. Unlike New Orleans, it did not fill up with water like a fetid soup bowl. Here, the damage came from the ferocious winds -- gusts so strong they broke the gauge at the local airport at 110 miles per hour and spawned so many tornadoes local meteorologists couldn't count them all.
Rita left no block unscathed. Massive water oaks pulverized houses. Almost every telephone and electrical pole in the city was knocked down or tilted at an awkward angle. Fronts were ripped off stores and apartment buildings, exposing their insides like untidy dollhouses. I'd seen that kind of destruction in the Gaza Strip after Israeli bombs shattered neighborhoods, in Nicaragua after mudslides, in Afghanistan during its civil wars. I never expected to see it in my home town on Ryan Street where I shopped, on Canal Street where I jogged, on McNeese Street where I lived.
My mother, Betty Moore, a 76-year-old retired nurse, was still a refugee. She was staying in my grandmother's three-bedroom house, the same house where she'd sheltered 14 New Orleans relatives and three dogs after Hurricane Katrina.
A lifelong resident of Lake Charles, my mother had never left the city for a hurricane. Neither had most other city residents. Battered by hurricanes of varying velocities year in and year out, most local residents had become complacent. As a cub reporter for the Lake Charles American Press, I wrote a story about macho Cajun shrimpers and fishermen who tied up their boats along the lakefront and spent one hurricane riding the swells, guzzling beer and Jack Daniel's, and throwing up.
But Hurricane Katrina changed attitudes and undoubtedly saved many lives when Rita hit southwest Louisiana 28 days later. My mother's odyssey as a refugee had taken her from a Mississippi Red Cross shelter to a Memphis hotel to the floor of a one-bedroom apartment shared by seven relatives in Baton Rouge, La.
My grandmother, Victoria Ogea, was not one of those saved, however. The Lake Charles nursing home where she lived moved its residents by ambulance to three different cities, one after the other, in the chaos of the evacuation. After frantic days of trying to find Grandma, my mother, in the midst of her own displacement, learned she had been relocated to Opelousas, in central southern Louisiana.
But Opelousas suffered a power outage in the days just after the hurricane. Nurses worked valiantly to keep the elderly residents cool in stifling heat. Grandma died in a strange city with her family evacuated across four states.
My first morning in Lake Charles, my mother and I drove down the lane to the house where I grew up, a white wood frame home surrounded by four ancient oaks -- two of which have survived at least 450 years of storms. The land, with its meandering bayou, has been in my family for five generations.
A stand of pine trees I planted as a child had snapped in half like giant toothpicks. The decades-old water oak I used to sit under and fish lay toppled across the bayou, its rootball rising higher than a house. The oak where I'd built my first tree house -- gone. Our woods, like the entire city, were bare as winter at a time of year when leaves in Louisiana haven't even begun to turn fall colors. But, my family was among the lucky ones. The house was largely undamaged: the massive, gnarled live oaks appeared to have shielded it.
My mother organized the funeral for my grandmother at Hixson's Funeral Home, standing in the parking lot. There was no vigil service; the funeral home was wrecked. There were no flowers -- no florists were open. At the church, the priest -- one of my cousins -- competed to be heard with the whine of chain saws and the rumble of tractors clearing logs and trees outside. The cemetery was in such disarray that the gravediggers called us two hours before the service and asked my mother to help them find the family plot amid the downed trees.
Victoria Ogea had been the matriarch of a huge, close-knit family of eight children, 28 grandchildren, 52 great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren. All of the eight live in the Lake Charles area. Five of those, including my mother, live on land that was part of the original family farm. My grandmother resided in a nursing home built on the exact spot where her childhood house stood, just a few blocks from our house. My mother and other siblings visited her every day.
It was not her passing that we found the most distressing -- she turned 99 years old two days before the Rita evacuation. Rather, it was that she died alone in an alien city with none of her family at her side.
Each day, the obituary pages of the Lake Charles American Press were filled with death notices of the unseen storm victims, the ones that didn't make the news pages.
"A.C. Knight Jr., 88, went home to be with his Lord and Savior . . . after being displaced from his home by Hurricane Rita."
"Mrs. Dorothy Jean Caswell, 68, . . . died Sunday, Sept. 25, 2005 in Jonesville as a result of Hurricane Rita."
"Pearl Hinton, 84, passed away Thursday, Sept. 29. Due to Hurricane Rita she had to be evacuated to Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Lafayette, where she died."
The notices, like my grandmother's, that did not explicitly note the evacuation in the obituary were no less obvious: Elderly, lifelong residents of Lake Charles and surrounding towns who died in distant cities or states while our parish was under evacuation orders.
My grandmother was born Victoria Nelson in Lake Charles in 1906, the granddaughter of Swedish parents who immigrated here to work in the sawmills that fueled the region's economy in the late 1800s. She married a French-speaking Cajun named Simeon Ogea (pronounced o-zhay) and they built a farmhouse just a quarter of a mile from the home where she'd grown up.
They raised sugar cane, rice, cattle and eight children. Though neither of my grandparents went to college, they sent all five daughters and three sons to universities. My grandfather died 41 years ago. After more than half a century as a farmer's daughter and then a farmer's wife, my grandmother enrolled in real estate courses at the local college and began a new career buying and trading land and developing subdivisions.
And after spending her entire life on the same street in the same city, she began traveling the world, leading church groups and her local chapter of the American Association of Retired Persons on trips across Europe, Mexico and the United States. She came home not with stories of the great buildings and monuments she had seen, but of the people she met and the way they lived. Her chronicles sparked my first interest in becoming a foreign correspondent.
Her house always was the focus of old-fashioned family reunions and holiday celebrations where aunts and uncles and cousins piled the dining table with three kinds of jambalayas, black-eyed peas, mustard greens, sweet potatoes, fried chicken and trays of pies and cakes. She lived on her own in her house until a stroke forced her into a nursing home two years ago.
I once asked her what invention had the greatest impact on her life. I expected her to say the airplanes that allowed her to see the world or the telephone that allowed her to stay in contact with her big family. "Electricity," she said without hesitating a second. It came to the farm in 1948 and revolutionized life for her family, she said. She recalled one of my uncle's legs catching fire when he tipped a lantern on himself as a toddler.
It was a prescient choice: In the end, the lack of electricity accelerated her death.
Grandma's funeral was as much a homecoming for the family as it was a farewell. Of the roughly 150 family and friends filling the church, all but a handful were Lake Charles or New Orleans residents who had been forced from their homes by Katrina or Rita, or both. It had taken two weeks from the day of my grandmother's death to collect them all.
The funeral offered the first break we'd had in days of hauling branches, sawing limbs and soaking walls and refrigerators with chlorine bleach.
After the funeral, the family met at an aunt's house for what we all recognized as the last gathering of its kind. Grandma was the one who tied us together. Without her, we'll increasingly go our separate ways, we'll have fewer reunions. Some cousins whose homes were destroyed by Katrina or Rita are talking of moving farther away. My mother and her siblings are preparing to put my grandmother's house and property up for sale.
As I left my grandmother's house for what I'm sure will be the final time, I noticed the Bradford pear tree near the old well house covered in snowy white flowers. In an incongruous display of resilience, fruit trees across town that had been stripped of their leaves were blooming in an attempt to regenerate.
A few days ago, my mother moved back into our house. She still has no telephone service. But the electricity is reconnected and lime-green buds are poking out the splintered ends of the oak trees, luminescent in the fall sun.