Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy survivors share stories of recovery

Survivors of two major storms describe their struggles and how to rebuild after tragedy strikes

Flooding in the West End of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Credit: Kingprince
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Communities are just beginning to rebuild after two large storms hit the Southern U.S. in recent weeks.

Recent hurricanes Harvey and Irma will likely cost between $150-$200 billion in damage, experts say. Harvey is the first major hurricane to hit landfall in the U.S. since Hurricane Wilma in 2005, according to the National Weather Service, a federal agency that tracks weather. It has displaced over 30,000 people in Texas, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey. Creative Commons. Credit: Jill Carlson

Beltway News spoke with victims of two other major storms who’ve already been through this recovery process. They share how they put their lives back together after facing such destruction.

We spoke with victims of Hurricane Katrina, the 2005 storm that killed 1,833 people and caused hundreds of billions of dollars in damage.

A Superstorm Sandy victim also shares how she helped rebuild her neighborhood after a storm that left hundreds of her neighbors without homes. The 2012 storm also led her to start a nonprofit that helps people during disasters like Sandy.

Hurricane Katrina, 2005

Adele Lyons, Biloxi, Mississippi

Credit: Adele Lyons

Aug. 29, 2005 is a significant date for Mississippian Adele Lyons for more than one reason.

Not only was it the Gulf Coast resident’s 41st birthday, but it was also the start of a year of over $70,000 in repairs to her Biloxi home by what the National Weather Service called the “most destructive hurricane to ever hit the U.S.”

Experts didn’t expect Hurricane Katrina to hit the Mississippi coast area hard. On Saturday, Aug. 27, Lyons was enjoying a boat ride to celebrate her upcoming birthday when she started getting an influx of calls. The storm had made a turn.

By Sunday, she was boarding up her windows and packing her bags.

Her parents, whose house had held up during Hurricane Camille in 1969, decided to stay put. She didn’t want to leave them, but she also didn’t want to be alone, she said. She headed to her friend Scott’s nearby house.

It was “blowing,” but it didn’t seem that bad, she said of the storm when she woke up Monday morning.

Eventually, winds of up to 140 mph slammed a 25- to 30-foot wall of water into the Louisiana/Mississippi Gulf Coast, according to a 2006 report from NASA, the government aerospace agency that also studies climate change.

Major flooding began and she said she knew her house wasn’t safe.

She said at one point she saw a big pile of debris in the road. “What’s that?” she asked Scott. It was an entire apartment complex.

Lyons went home. Her one-story, two-bedroom house was submerged in three feet of water, she said.

“There’s stuff that was in the bedroom in your living room,” Lyons said. “It was just enough to ruin everything.”

The damage inside Adele Lyons’ home following Hurricane Katrina caused her to get rid of all of her belongings. Credit: Adele Lyons

Lyons felt compelled to keep some water damaged photos despite their musty, moldy and “disgusting” smell, she said.

“It reminds you of it immediately,” said Lyons, now 53 and CEO of Mississippi Gulf Coast Chamber of Commerce. “I’m like, ‘no, no, no,’ as soon I smell it.”

Lyons said she was lucky she could stay with a friend while her house was rebuilt, but knows others weren’t so lucky. About 17,000 lived in FEMA trailers, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency charged with federal disaster relief coordination. Lyons said the trailers were “small and cramped” with “little teeny showers and sinks.”

A house with FEMA trailer in the Broadmoor neighborhood of New Orleans that flooded during Hurricane Katrina. Many FEMA trailers lacked utility hookups, according to an Associated Press report. Credit: Infrogmation

One year, a $40,000 federal loan and a $30,000 grant later, Lyons moved back home. She said she didn’t have flood insurance because she wasn’t living in a flood zone.

The wreckage caused by Hurricane Katrina outside Lyons’ Gulf Coast house. Credit: Adele Lyons

After Katrina, she said she saw unlicensed contractors do shoddy renovations on homes destroyed in the hurricane. She said she hopes this doesn’t happen to victims of hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

“You’re tired and you want your house fixed, so you become desperate,” said Lyons. “That’s where people will hire someone who take on jobs they’re just not qualified for.”

It’s essential victims get a city renovation permit, she said. This requires city inspectors to check that roofs, foundations, plumbing and other aspects of the house are correctly built.

Lyons still lives in her Biloxi home and said she has no plans to leave.

“It’s in my blood,” she said. “It’s my sense of place.”

That sense of community and home is evident when Lyons describes how her parents still host a “29th Party” every month on the day of the month Katrina hit. Katrina did bring the community together, she said.

“The most emotional thing was how everybody helped each other,” she said. “All of your disagreements from the past just went away.”

Superstorm Sandy, 2012

Theresa DePietto-Roesler, Babylon Village, Long Island, New York

Lifelong New Yorker Theresa DePietto-Roesler knew Superstorm Sandy would be huge when she heard it was visible from space.

It was “so huge and so random and so disruptive,” to parts of her Long Island suburb when it made landfall just before Halloween 2012, she said.

But DePietto-Roseler’s in Babylon Village was one of the few left mostly unscathed because of its position atop a hill. A mere 200 feet away was “complete and utter devastation,” she said.

A home in Babylon Village, New York caught fire after Superstorm Sandy. Credit: TJ McGurk, Babylon Fire Department

“You’re looking at a body floating down the street,” DePietto Roesler said. “Those images never leave your head.”

DePietto-Roesler, 47, also said she had something only two other houses in her 200 house neighborhood had: electricity. Her home is historic and hooked up to the fire department’s still functioning power system.

“My knee-jerk reaction was ‘I have to go. I have to help these people,’” she said.

You’re looking at a body floating down the street. Those images never leave your head.

So she said she did something she had never done before: she started organizing.

Soon she was using group texts and Facebook to connect with neighbors she only knew the names of before the storm.

She turned her home into a hub for cellphone charging, showering and even playing on her daughters’ outdoor playground to “just feel a little bit normal.” Some neighbors said they didn’t have power for 10 days.

Supplies collected for Superstorm Sandy victims in Long Island, New York. Credit: Theresa DePietto-Roesler

She took to the streets with neighbors to tear down the remnants of some homes and put Sheetrock back up. She cooked so her neighbors could eat. Her neighbor Brian Prince, 45, suited up in scuba diving gear once the streets began to flood. His 85-year-old neighbor stopped him and asked him to go retrieve her medications from her house.

Eventually, she helped neighbors navigate the “mountains” of grant paperwork for rebuilding.

In total, she says that she assisted about 350 neighbors. One of those neighbors, Tara Graham, 44, was impressed that DePietto-Roesler and other neighbors would spend their weekends distributing food and supplies.

“I wasn’t surprised Theresa and the group was there to help,” Graham said. “I am however surprised how long they stuck around. They were there to help in any way we needed until we moved.”

Graham and her family lived in an RV outside their 4-bedroom house before they moved out of the neighborhood 10 months after the storm.

The experience prompted DePietto-Roesler, a preschool teacher’s assistant, to start her own nonprofit, Hope Floats Long Island. Hope Floats donates money and other resources to people in need during difficult times, not specifically natural disasters.

Hope Floats volunteers are currently driving trucks of canned food, insect repellant and other supplies to victims hit by Hurricane Harvey in Texas.

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