|Rediff India Abroad Home | All the sections|
The Rediff Special/Monika Joshi in New York
'Guardian angels were looking after us'
September 21, 2005
He knew Katrina was due.
But he decided to wait it out in his two-floor home in Kenner, a small town near New Orleans, USA, with his ailing wife.
"I'll never do that again," says Arvind Shah, now safely ensconced in his son's house in Morristown, New Jersey. He reached New Jersey on the evening of September 7.
Shah, a senior citizen, remembers the rising water that lapped the doorstep of his pitch-dark home. And the wind growling through the windows. The booming sound as someone's roof blew off. And the mile-long line at the gas station, when he finally decided to leave the city.
The neighbourhood was deserted, except for a man who lived a few houses down. He joined them briefly to listen to their radio. As the water rose, Shah's garage was flooded, and the wind smashed fences on all sides.
"In the 60 mph wind, the rain water looked more like mist," he says.
The Shahs had a flashlight and had stocked up on five-gallon water bottles, food, a gas stove, and filled a 32-gallon tank with tap water to flush the toilet.
When the storm abated after 12 hours, Shah, a structural engineer with the federal government, went out to clear the drains on the street. He saw some teenagers loading stuff from a convenience store onto their boat. "But there was no extensive looting," he says.
As soon as the streets were dry, the husband and wife loaded their passports and other important documents, jewellery, water and foodstuff, and pillows and blankets into their van and drove out. Some 100 miles from home they ran out of gas. They were met with long lines at the gas stations and no-vacancy signs at motels.
They succeeded in contacting a friend in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and arrived there. "For 10 days, we lived (out of) a suitcase," he says. "Still, we were lucky. As they say here, guardian angels were looking after us."
Like Shah, Madhu Gilotra, a registered nurse at Kindred Hospital in uptown New Orleans, stayed back in Louisiana.
"I had an obligation to my patients," she says.
Upon her insistence, her family left for Houston on August 27. She and the other employees, including the head of the hospital, remained inside the hospital for five days, with doors bolted to ward off looters.
They heard the shooting on the streets and the wind beating at the windows.
There was no power. A generator lit up only one floor where Gilotra worked in the intensive care unit. In the absence of phone communication, though calls could be received, their only contact with the world was through a small radio.
"If we were scared, we did not show it (to the patients)," she says in a phone interview from an apartment she has rented in Clear Lake, near Houston.
Some patients were seriously ill; some were on oxygen, and tanks of oxygen were loaded on the buses for them. Some critically ill patients were airlifted. Medicines were also brought in by air.
September 1, four buses arrived to evacuate the hospital and move the patients. Gilotra, whose had parked her truck on the premises, drove with them and joined her family in Houston. Police cars accompanied them up to Baton Rouge.
After driving seven hours she arrived at the motel where her husband, children and two relatives, who happened to be visiting them from Pittsburgh, were staying.
It was a teary reunion.
"My older son was crying, I was told," she says. "He said, 'Everybody's mom is here. Why not mine?' "
Gilotra, whose husband Sudhir runs a pest control company in Louisiana, says he was worried about her. But she insisted they get out because her brother-in-law and his wife were visiting them from Pittsburgh and she was concerned for their safety.
Back home in Kenner, the suburb of New Orleans where they lived, they discovered that the hurricane bore a 4 inch by 6 inch hole in their roof. The floor was ruined. The fence was ripped away. All the palm trees had broken and snapped. "But we are very fortunate that the hospital is helping us with the finances," she says.
As soon as she arrived in Houston, Gilotra says, she got a call from the hospital telling her to collect $500 from Western Union for clothes and other necessities. She is drawing her salary and benefits, and plans to start work at the Kindred branch at Pasadena, Texas.
Her daughter Shivani has been admitted to Clearlake High School, at Clearlake; son Shakti has joined Falcon Pass Elementary School, and eldest Shivas, a pre-nursing student, is trying to secure admission to University of Houston.
College admission is the least of Sohini Desai's worries. She left her home in Kenner for Houston early August 28 with her family. Her son, Setul, 22, graduated this year.
Desai is concerned about the future. Her husband, an electrical designer, was laid off about 18 months ago. She is currently the sole breadwinner, working for a wholesaler. It's not easy to find another job, she says. She is also worried about finding a place to live in Houston. There are friends she can stay with, but prefers to rent an apartment.
Back in Kenner they have discovered that the landscape has changed much since the family left their home of eight years. The hurricane had uprooted trees all around; both their fences have gone, and the deck is destroyed.
"Across our house there was a 35-foot tree," she says. "You look at it, and you feel like crying." The garage was flooded, and the passenger seat of one of the two cars they had left behind was under six inches of water.
Desai says there have been hurricane warnings before. "Last year (when there was a warning), I did not leave, but stayed at a friend's motel. By god's grace nothing happened." This year when they were looking at the satellite data, it looked like the hurricane was going to hit. The family grabbed some clothes and drove to a friend's place in Woodridge, Houston, Texas.
"We left at 8 o'clock on Sunday morning, and there was no rain or wind," she says. But neighbours who left around 5 pm that day reported a lot of it.
It took them over 11 hours to traverse the 350 miles. "There was bumper-to-bumper traffic, and all number plates were from Louisiana."
Like most residents, the family was allowed to re-enter the hurricane-hit region on the morning of September 5 to gather their belongings. Because there was no power, they spent that night at a friend's place in St Charles Parish near Kenner. After wrapping up the cleaning the next day, they were planning to go back to their home again before heading back to Houston.
The Rediff Specials