I had a long commute home that day. I was doing research at a hospital two and a half hours southeast of us. When I came off the highway, I saw an ugly storm cloud over town, and a striking, beautiful sunset to accompany it. NPR reported that a tropical storm was going to make its way ashore overnight. Child’s play. We made it through Category 3s without shutting our windows.
I settled in for the night, made a graduate student dinner in the microwave, and watched television. An unremarkable evening at best. Then the rain started. The trees swayed and the wind blew. And the rain came down harder. It crept up my front stoop and pooled in the back patio. Still no cause for worry. I’d seen this before.
But then the rain picked up, and it didn’t stop. It moved up the tires of my car until it was almost to the doors. Despite my father’s 10th-grade warnings about driving a vehicle in standing water, I moved it to higher ground. When I got back to the apartment, the downpour had thickened. The collected water was almost coming through the cracks in my sliding glass doors in the back. I checked the front of the apartment. Same.
It was then that an instinctive need to protect those things important to me became overwhelming. I was in constant motion. With each step, my shoeprints appeared on the beige carpet. Only my feet were not wet. The water was coming up through the floors.
My pictures and every last photo album made their way into the sink, the only place I could think to hide them. I piled books and clothes and electronics onto my tables. Everything I could manage to get off of the floor I did. Minutes passed. The wind howled and lightning flashed. The loud tornado warnings began sounding on the television. In my frenzy I opened my front door without thinking. A two-foot tall rush of water invaded the house, bringing with it a flurry of branches and debris. I don’t think one can understand the power it takes to shut a door against the might of water. I can still remember throwing my entire body – more than once - against the door with all my power.
I had to get out. The water in my apartment was rising – even higher outside its walls – and the electricity was still on. So I took with me one item, the only one that any self-respecting, neurotic graduate student would: my thesis draft. I slung it in a backpack over my shoulder and climbed out a window into the water. My parking lot was a sea of brown. Cars were submerged. And I was struggling. I made it to the upstairs apartment where I was offered consolation and towels. I watched the newly-formed river below, swirling in all its misery. I stood shocked and imagined that we might be swept away, just like trees below.
The rain eventually stopped. The flood receded. And when I opened my front door, feet of water, debris and my belongings flooded into the street.
Six tornados touched down that night. Sixteen inches of rain fell in three hours. An elderly woman was rescued from her car just as the rising flood waters climbed up her neck. An 18-year-old freshman out for a McDonald’s run was sucked into a storm drain and found miles away from where he started.
Yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as PTSD, and its potential lives inside all of us.
I became unhinged. I protected what remained of my belongings in plastic containers. I attempted to sleep at night but only when the Weather Channel was on. I would get dressed and eat dinner to televised forecasts. I checked web sites obsessively to see what the projected rainfall was on any given day. And in the South in the summer, it rains. Everyday. I found myself at work, being calmed by a clinical psychologist – also my boss – who needed to convince me that I didn’t have to run home to protect my things and the people around me. It took months before I was able to walk away before a weather report was over, or before I could even sit still in the rain.
And I still can’t possibly imagine what people are going through in Katrina’s wake.