Survivor Stories: Readers Recall Fleeing Hurricane Katrina

Disaster victims begin the process of healing by sharing their experiences.

Simon and Kristina Zippert are supposed to be celebrating. The two were wed August 13 and just moved into a new house. They lived there for just five days, however, before evacuating. It's now under 12 feet of water.

"I've lost everything," Simon, a 33-year-old engineer for Shell Oil in New Orleans, said over the weekend. "We lost all the wedding gifts, including china and appliances. We may never get the video or the official pictures that were in the process of development."

"I did manage to grab the scrapbook that I made over the one and a half years of my engagement and the wedding photos taken by family friends," added 26-year-old Kristina, who also snagged three tank tops, two pairs of shorts and some flip-flops as she rushed out of her house at 2 a.m. on August 28. "I don't consider myself materialistic, but I have a lot of myself in some of the things that we lost. I have no baby pictures to show my kids, no yearbooks to pull out and reminisce [with]. But I am one of the luckiest [because] I know every member of my family is safe and sound."

In the catastrophic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (see "Officials Worried About Disease As Thousands Refuse To Evacuate New Orleans"), counting your blessings is more difficult than it's ever been for families like the Zipperts. Millions have been directly affected by the flooding, and behind each number is a heart-tugging story of tragedy and survival. Here are a few of them:

  • Author Lovely T. Brown, 22, lives in Gulfport, Mississippi, but also inherited the home where she grew up in Plaquemine Parish, Louisiana. Early on the morning of August 28, as New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin was issuing a mandatory evacuation statement, Brown was at the House of Blues watching rapper B.G. When she heard about the evacuation, she tried to convince her friends to leave, but they ignored her.

    "My parents always told me when waters are going to rise, never stay in New Orleans because it is already below sea level and the levees will not hold up," she said.

    Brown left at 3 a.m., picked up her three younger brothers and headed east on Interstate 10. In nine hours, the family made it 240 miles to Pensacola, Florida, where they found a motel with an available room.

    On Tuesday (August 30), she returned to Gulfport and found that only her chimney had blown off. Wednesday's trip to Plaquemine Parish, however, was a different story. There was no sign of the house whatsoever, and even worse was what she saw on the voyage.

    "I saw dead bodies lying around in Mississippi and floating past me in New Orleans," she said. "Babies screaming because they were hungry. People breaking in stores to get food to eat and clothes to put on their backs. This will be with me forever. Seeing girls running from the Superdome with their clothes barely hanging on, because they had tried to go to the bathroom and got sexually assaulted. You just can't imagine it unless you actually see it. People dead lying next to people who are still alive, barely. Piles of rubble and destroyed communities that I visited, many times. I found it hard to decipher what was what. It was just chaotic. Too much."

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    There were some encouraging signs (boat owners making volunteer rescues, for one), and Brown herself did her part, donating all the food in her Gulfport home. But overall, she felt numb from the experience and is now fearing for the life of her 76-year-old grandfather, who is living in a makeshift tent hospital.

    "I was slipping into depression today until I saw on TV military amphibian vehicles driving through the waters around the New Orleans Civic Center with supplies for those citizens who were barely living," she said. "People in any region should be educated on what their towns can and cannot withstand. When people are told to evacuate and they refuse, arrest them. Trust me, I lost many friends and some family who would be grateful to be in police custody right now."

  • Mary Reynolds and Toni Arnona, 21-year-old roommates at Tulane University, had just started their senior year when the hurricane hit. Now they have no idea what they will do or what happened to their belongings.

    "This is the worst part," Reynolds said. "We just don't know. We think our apartment was able to survive the storm, according to the rumors, but what about the criminals? Even if our house is safe, who is going to stop it from being looted? It is sad that we are asked to evacuate and we can't even be promised our stuff will be safe."

    Reynolds and Arnona got out of town well before the storm, avoiding the traffic and gas tribulations that plagued others. They drove to Nashville, where they watched the aftermath on TV with their friends and relatives.

    "It's both embarrassing and disgusting," Arnona said. "We keep wondering how the city was not prepared for the levee breaks, and why it took five whole days to get help into the city, even when a category five hurricane had been forecasted days before. Why wasn't help already waiting with both the magnitude of the hurricane and with the knowledge that New Orleans was not equipped to handle the water? And it's strange there are not the same problems of looting and crime in Mississippi and Alabama."

    The friends were happy to hear that other colleges have volunteered to take in students, yet they have not been able to find details, and classes are in session around the country.

    "It's so frustrating to not know what the next day is going to bring, and sitting here wondering if we will have anything to go back to when that day finally comes," Reynolds said. "We are only college kids and basically left our lives in our apartment."

  • Simon and Kristina Zippert left before the storm for Baton Rouge, where eight of their relatives are living in a small apartment, following the aftermath via the media.

    "The gas station five blocks from my house was shown on the news, and all you could see was the top of the roof and the sign," said Kristina, a 26-year-old bank branch manager. "The next day, the levee broke."

    The newlyweds, whose home was insured, have since tried to stay positive. "I told my wife that from now on when she mentions the stuff that was left behind in the storm, she must end each statement with 'Oh well,' " Simon said.

    What's frustrating the couple, however, is the government. They feel the president should have done more sooner.

    "There have been many programs that have aired on New Orleans television that told of the eminent disaster that would follow a direct hit from a large hurricane, and everything they said would happen has happened," Simon said. "It also seems to be very coincidental that the race of the majority of people that are in dire conditions in New Orleans coincides with the lack of response that the president has provided. Notice that he visited the Republican governor of Mississippi first in his trip Friday. If more of the stranded and dying were white people, then more aid, troops and water would have been there faster. It is a shame that all Americans are not treated equal."

    "We will probably never see the true heroes in this situation," he wife added. "There are some police officers, a few government officials and regular citizens of New Orleans who have been there dealing with this tragedy head on with little or no help from our government."

  • In Jackson, Mississippi, where 20-year-old Sarah, a junior at Mississippi State University, lives with her family, the flooding was not as widespread, but much of the city is without power. "The burning heat is almost too much to bear," she said.

    Sarah, who did not give her last name, has seen some fighting and looting in Jackson, but is mostly proud of the calmness her neighbors have shown. Her biggest disappointments have been with the media and the government.

    "Quit covering only New Orleans, CNN and FOX," she said. "We got hit too!"

    She wondered why there's not more food, water, gas and security from the government.

    "I am very disappointed with the rest of this country," she said. "This is a catastrophe that compares to 9/11, but nobody seems to care. I think it is because the people throughout the country think we are a bunch of Mississippi rednecks and don't see the need to help out, don't realize the economic support New Orleans did give to the country, and, most importantly, don't have that 'I could be next' attitude that the terrorists gave them in 2001."

  • Sarah Slater, a 19-year-old student at University of New Orleans and waitress at a pizzeria in her hometown of Metairie, Louisiana, evacuated at 4 a.m. on August 28, driving to Destin, Florida. Once her family found a hotel, they turned on the TV and watched the wreckage.

    "It was the most sorrowful moment of my life, as the city that was once our home had been destroyed," Slater said.

    She is currently going to a college in the area, while the housekeepers at her hotel collect clothes and other items and bring them to their room. At some point this week, her father will return to New Orleans to survey their home.

    "They are only allowing one person to go in and it must be a male because it's just too dangerous with all the mayhem that has broken out," Slater said. "Although more needs to be done, everyone who is working for relief in New Orleans is doing an amazing job."

Be sure to watch "MTV News Special: After the Storm," which premieres Saturday, September 10 at 7:30 p.m. ET.

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