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Rita: The Forgotten Storm

A word from Curt

It’s less than ten days until the official tenth anniversary on Hurricane Rita.

We move today from stories about Katrina to her bad twin sister, Rita.

Rita: “The Forgotten Storm”

 

 

Saturday, September 24, 2005

 

They are calling Hurricane Rita “The forgotten storm.”

You’ll have a hard time convincing any of us in Southwestern Louisiana and Southeastern Texas that there is anything forgettable about Rita’s arrival on Saturday, September 24, and the days and weeks afterward.

Rita is dubbed as the forgotten storm because she has not kept the headlines hogged by her older sister Katrina.

The tragic loss of life along the Mississippi Gulf Coast and the unspeakable scenes from New Orleans in the days after Katrina are seared on our national consciousness, including those of us who later were in Rita’s path.

We understand that the heavy loss of life—over one thousand and counting in Louisiana alone—makes Katrina more noticeable. The delayed breaching of the levees, the sad human drama of victims waiting in vain for help, and the mind-numbing stories out of the Superdome and Convention Center make Katrina a name to be remembered.

But don’t forget about our storm. Her name was Rita. And she affected and changed our area drastically also:

 

  • From Cameron to Orange
  • Johnson Bayou to Newton
  • Calcasieu Parish and Jefferson County.
  • All along the Sabine River.
  • In the larger cities of Lake Charles and Beaumont.
  • As well as small coastal hamlets like Holly Beach and High Island.
  • Even 80-100 miles inland, Rita packed a punch that left homes and communities powerless for weeks.

 

Now that some time has passed, I think we have a better handle on why Rita is a forgotten storm for much of our country and the media. It is also because so much went right. There were only two confirmed deaths in the areas hit by the storm. Cameron Parish, along the extreme western coast of Louisiana, had a 100% evacuation rate. The larger cities of Beaumont, Texas, and Lake Charles, Louisiana, had mandatory evacuations that although not problem-free, went extremely well. Southwest Louisiana, mainly a rural area, banded together and worked as a unit. Law enforcement, elected officials, and government agencies worked hand-in-hand for the best interests of their citizens. In fairness, much had been learned from Katrina’s devastation a month earlier. The events surrounding Katrina served as warnings and examples for study.

Most of all, huge groups of volunteers banded together. Southern Baptists cooking food handed out by Red Cross volunteers. Firefighters, national guardsmen. We saw it all. And much of what we saw revealed the goodness in people. Let their stories be remembered. Let their stories be told, not forgotten. In our part of the country where Rita will not be forgotten. Not just because of the destruction and hardships it created, but because of the good people who came forth and helped after the forgotten storm.

 

Audrey

 

The September 2005 night that Hurricane Rita struck southwest Louisiana will be forever etched in the minds of everyone who rode it out. Since that Friday night, nearly everyone who stayed to ride out the storm has commented, “Next time I won’t make that mistake again. I’ll go north with the smart people.”

At the camp we decided to hunker down and stay. By Friday evening we had over 350 evacuees with us. Most were from Katrina with about another one-third having just arrived from Cameron Parish. Our only option would have been to turn everyone loose and send them north on their own. There were no lodging options north anywhere until you reached Arkansas. So we stayed.

It seems so often that hurricanes arrive in the darkness of night. I think that makes it even scarier. Several of the old-timers with us were veterans of Hurricane Audrey, which destroyed Cameron in June 1957. In our part of the state all hurricanes are still measured by Audrey, which killed over 425 people in Cameron Parish. Included in this death toll were 154 children.

Audrey occurred in a time when weather forecasting, especially on hurricanes, was much more primitive. This storm developed quickly in the Gulf, south of Cameron, which caught everyone off guard. On the evening of Wednesday, June 24, Cameron and Southwest Louisiana residents were warned of Audrey’s approach. Forecasters expected the storm to hit the next day. Residents were warned to be ready to evacuate by morning. But during the night the storm increased in both northward speed and destructive wind speed as it approached Cameron Parish. Residents who checked during the night were horrified to find the roads out were already underwater as the storm approached.

The brave stories of these survivors and their great loss of families are told very well in Nola Mae Whittler Ross’ excellent book, Hurricane Audrey. Ross addresses the benchmark that Audrey has served for Cameron Parish in this way: “And ever since that day, the people of Cameron have gauged every big event in their lives as occurring ‘Before Audrey,’ or ‘After Audrey.’ ’’

I was only one-year-old when Audrey came ashore so I have no memory of it. Being far enough from the Gulf lessened the direct impact it had on our area. However, it was an event burned into my consciousness from boyhood on.

Many Cameron Parish survivors of Audrey purchased land in the Dry Creek or Bundick Lake area. This gave them a place to come when evacuation orders were given. Over the years many moved to our area year round. From many of them I’ve heard the stories of Audrey.

Once again a nighttime storm approached Cameron. This one named Rita was much stronger than Audrey was. Fortunately, all of Cameron and most of Calcasieu was evacuated. The terrible loss of life from Audrey was not repeated on this storm. In spite of the great material losses suffered, fathers and mothers did not have to go to funeral homes and temporary morgues to identify a child.

That is something to be thankful about.

Back on a day in March, our group traveled along the tsunami-ravaged coast of Sumatra. Our medical team stopped in to visit a woman in labor. She waited in the back room of a store. While our doctors talked with the local midwife, several of us wandered throughout the store. On a crude bulletin board were pictures from the tsunami. Most showed the usual scenes of boats stranded far from the ocean and flattened houses and scattered debris.

But in the corner of the board was a series of pictures that gripped my heart and have yet to have been removed from my mind. Several were of a mass burial service on the beach. It was at night and torches lined the area. Men lowered wrapped bodies into the sandy grave.

But one picture touched me like no other. It showed a nice rug laid out on the grass. On the rug were the bodies of two beautiful small girls. They looked to be five or six years old. In the picture they were laid there with their eyes closed and expressionless faces. It was hard to believe that they weren’t simply taking a nap. There were no cuts or injuries on their tanned faces. Their hands were folded neatly on their chests.

It broke my heart. I nearly wanted to yell for them to get up and go play. But they would never play again. Their short lives had been ended by the giant wave.

Katrina and Rita brought back the memories of Audrey in our area. Old interviews and news stories were resurrected. I got my copy of Hurricane Audrey out and re-read many of the stories told by the survivors. Once again the stories of little children ripped from their parents’ arms by the waves broke my heart.

Far be it from me to soft-pedal the terrible hardship Rita has inflicted on southwest Louisiana. Its effects will be felt for years. But for every parent that has lost so much, none will have to bury a child this time.

Rita will probably replace Audrey as the storm future hurricanes are measured against. But thankfully the human death toll that made Audrey the name to remember for generations of our residents was not repeated this time. This was due to God’s grace, wise planning, leadership by our authorities, and good decisions by our residents.

Yes, Rita caused destruction and devastation. But there is nothing she took that cannot be replaced. May that be so of any future storms we face. May there never be another Audrey in SW Louisiana.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About Curt Iles

I write to have influence and impact through well-told stories of my Louisiana and African sojourn.

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