Lorraine Finch stares nervously at the blue tarpaulin covering her 85-year-old mother’s roof. It’s not raining today in southeastern Florida, but as winter sets in, nighttime temperatures are dropping into the low 20s, and the worn plastic does little to shield the home from the elements. It took less than a week in August for Tropical Storm Fay to take 36 lives and leave $180 million damage throughout the state, but recovery is moving far more slowly, frustrating both residents and the organizations trying to help.
One by one, the names were called, amid a backdrop of noise and confusion Monday afternoon in the Sylmar High School gymnasium, where survivors sought shelter following four weekend wildfires, which blackened more than 42,000 acres in southwestern California. It was a seemingly endless roster, tinged with both hope and despair as families waited to learn which van would take them on a 10-minute tour of Oakridge Mobile Home Park in Los Angeles County — the white vans, for residents whose homes were left standing; or the black vans, for those who had lost everything. The black vans stayed busy.
The rental trailer wasn’t in great condition before the muddy rivers spilled their banks in Columbus, Ind., but it provided a home for the family of five. The parents worked in the fields and their baby played happily on the kitchen floor in the evenings, surrounded by the chatter of the two elder siblings doing homework and the smells of supper being prepared. Then summer came, and with it came flooding rains — 11 inches within seven hours. Levees broke. Dams failed. Much of the Midwest was left underwater, with places in Indiana seeing the worst flooding the state had experienced in more than a century.
Contreras hadn’t gotten the phone call from her supervisor yet, but she didn’t care. She looked out the window again. Television reports indicated her area was out of danger, and though many roads were closed, she could make it to San Fernando High School, one of four shelters opened by the American Red Cross. Frantically, she ticked items from her list one by one. Play-Doh. Check. Coloring books. Check. Watercolors. Check. Puzzles. Check. For the hundredth time, she was grateful she always kept the blue suitcase packed with her Kit of Comfort. It made it easier to get to disaster scenes quickly.
Jim Pollard, public information officer for neighboring Harrison County, says he remembers a chilling moment during Katrina when officials at Hancock County’s Emergency Operation Center — believed to be on safe ground — called him on the phone and told him the building was rapidly filling with water. “They all wrote numbers on their arms with indelible ink, then listed their names and numbers on a sheet of paper, put it in a Ziploc bag, and tacked it to the roof,” Pollard says. “We were taping final messages from them to their families.”
Only a few lonely cars were heading west Sunday morning beneath a canopy of gnarled oaks along Scenic Highway 90 in coastal Mississippi. To their right, stark reminders of Hurricane Katrina — bare slabs where homes once stood, damaged streets which once led to vibrant downtowns, trees still festooned with insulation and tarpoleons meant to protect buildings that no longer exist. To their left, a steady snarl of traffic snaked its way eastward as residents from Louisiana and Mississippi fled the wrath of Hurricane Gustav, expected to make landfall as a Category 3 hurricane Monday morning southeast of Louisiana in Plaquemines Parish.