The Vandivers’ neighborhood after Katrina. The river levy is in the background. Before the hurricane, the area was covered with hibiscus trees, giant fountain grasses,
orange groves, and flowers.
When Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005, people throughout the Gulf Coast were left to face one of the worst natural disasters to strike the United States. For one military family, the experience was an important lesson on how to prepare for unforeseen disasters--and how to rebuild afterward.
Kelly Vandiver, her husband Brad, and their three children were living in Coast Guard housing in Buras, Louisiana, sixty miles south of New Orleans and where the eye of Hurricane Katrina made its strongest landfall. “There was only one road in and one road out of town,” Kelly recalls. “Our house was about 40 yards from the river, and the Gulf of Mexico Levy was about a quarter mile away.”
As Hurricane Katrina approached the Gulf Coast, the Vandivers planned to evacuate. But when the path of the storm changed they were forced to leave a day earlier than expected. Kelly and the children packed a few days of clothing, important records, their computer, and their dog into the car and headed to a relative’s home in northern Louisiana. They dropped Brad, who was still on duty with the Coast Guard, off at work and locked his car in their garage for safe keeping. “Each time you evacuate, you bring less and less. You just always expect to come back,” Kelly says.
Inside the Vandivers’ home after Katrina. The first floor of the home was missing completely.
The second story was found two blocks away
But the Vandivers weren’t allowed back for eight weeks after the storm. Although they had heard that their home had been destroyed, it wasn’t until they returned that they understood the extent of the damage. “Nothing was left,” Kelly says. “Where our house should have been was just a slab--nothing there at all except a toilet from the downstairs bathroom. Not a kitchen cabinet, piece of furniture, wall, door, or window--just the slab. About two blocks away, we found the top floor of our house sitting in a massive pile of rubble in the middle of the street. The roof was mostly gone and most of the outside walls were gone. Since that portion had been sitting on the ground, it had been under water for weeks. The few things we found in there were complete mush. We scoured the surrounding area and it was heartbreaking to see people's lives scattered in the mud--pictures, trophies, bikes. We salvaged a few glass pieces--I guess they were heavy enough to just sink, but really nothing else.”
Kelly’s advice will help you prepare for any unforeseen emergency.
“Always have a long-term plan.”
The Vandivers had a plan for short-term emergencies, assuming that they would eventually be able to come back home. But she and Brad had never planned for what she calls “the what-ifs.”
While Kelly and the children were in northern Louisiana, Brad was still on duty with the Coast Guard, helping with the areas hardest hit by the storm. Kelly wasn’t able to reach him for more than a week and was left to make important long-term decisions on her own. “After the hurricane Brad knew where we would be, but we didn’t know where he was. We had no contact,” Kelly says. “I was faced with having to relocate to another state and start the kids back in school without being able to talk to him.”
Kelly recommends talking to family and friends now, before anything happens, to see if you could live with them in an emergency. What will be the best place while you’re rebuilding? What will be the best location for your children? What are schools like?
Even though Kelly and the children eventually moved in with family in Missouri, Brad had one year left on his Coast Guard assignment in Louisiana. “He was working around the clock and under a lot of stress. I tried to make sure he didn’t have to worry about any of the home stuff,” Kelly says.
“Know in advance what you’re going to take.”
During their three years in Buras, the Vandivers had already evacuated five times for previous hurricanes. “Even though I was prepared this time, I had to leave faster than I thought,” Kelly says. The things Kelly was sure to bring with her: a waterproof/ fireproof safe that included her family’s birth certificates and immunization records (for children and pets), address book, baby books, and computer. Each child brought along enough clothes for four days. Despite the family’s preparations, Kelly was shocked to find that her 10-year-old didn’t bring any shoes at all.
“Don’t rely on cell phones, ATMs, banks, or the mail.”
After the hurricane, there was no phone service--both cell phones and landlines were down. Without telephones, people from all over Louisiana were posting on Internet message boards, searching for information about loved ones and their communities. Not knowing what had happened to friends was especially tough on the Vandivers. “We only knew their home and cell phone numbers, but we didn’t know where they had evacuated to or how to reach them,” Kelly says.
Banking was also a problem. “The local banks were completely shut down. Our friends who used them weren’t able to access their accounts,” Kelly says. Even ATMs from larger bank chains weren’t working; there weren’t enough armored cars and fuel to reload them with cash. Because the Vandivers banked with a larger bank, Kelly was able to access their account when she relocated.
In addition, the postal system was disrupted, creating problems for those expecting checks and medications. “If something catastrophic happens, you’re not going to get your mail for a very long time. In fact, two and a half weeks of our mail was just lost,” Kelly says.
“Understand your insurance policy.”
When the Vandivers were allowed to return to their home--eight weeks after the hurricane--they discovered that everything was a total loss. Their house had been under water for weeks. Kelly spent months working with the insurance company and says she learned a lot of lessons the hard way. Her tips:
Have (the right) insurance!
Even though the Vandivers were living in Coast Guard housing, they still had a renter’s insurance policy with a flood insurance rider. “I’m so grateful we spent that extra money for the flood insurance rider,” Kelly says.“We didn’t have to fight with the insurance company over whether the damage had been caused by the hurricane or the flooding.” Others Kelly knew, who didn’t have the flood insurance rider, were forced to settle with their insurance companies for only a fraction of the value of their belongings--or it took much longer for their claims to be settled.
Know what kind of insurance you have and how it works.
Does your insurance policy cover the replacement value (the cost to replace your home and belongings with materials of similar kind and quality) or the actual cash value (the depreciated value) of items? The Vandivers’ policy only covered the depreciated value of their belongings. “If you have this kind of policy, know the cost of everything will be depreciated by about half,” Kelly says.
Know what your insurance company will require.
Kelly had always assumed that if their home was completely destroyed, the insurance company would just pay them the amount their policy was for. But her insurer required a complete inventory of everything that had been in their home. “They needed to know everything that was in the house, when it was purchased, and its value--especially for major appliances,” Kelly says. “We went room by room and tried to remember and list everything.” More than a year later, Kelly still thinks of items she didn’t include on the inventory she gave her insurance company. “As we’ve started replacing things we’re just keeping a list. If we make a major purchase I make sure I write that down now--model numbers, brand, price paid.”
Be as professional as possible.
Dealing with an insurance company is a business transaction. Kelly made sure the inventory that she provided was typed, neat, and organized. She made copies of anything she sent the insurance company (some of it was lost in the mail), and sent everything return receipt requested. She believes that the attention to detail was an important part of being able to settle her claim quickly.
“Everything’s going to be okay. You’re going to get through it.”
Despite all the changes in their lives, Kelly wanted to be sure her children were in a stable environment. She made the difficult choice to move in with her in-laws instead of her parents because she thought the schools in Missouri would be a better place for the children. The children ended up missing only two weeks of school. “You have to do whatever you can to make the transitions easier for your kids,” she says.
Because the children were already expecting to move when Brad’s tour in Louisiana was over, Kelly says the relocation wasn’t too hard on them. “They were just changing schools a year earlier than they thought they would,” she says. Plus, the kindness of the people around them--including complete strangers--helped. “These things bring out the best in people,” Kelly says. “We were so supported. The schools in Missouri bent over backward to make sure the transition was easy. The Missouri Red Cross called to ask what they could do. A lot of help came from a lot of places.”
In the end, Kelly says, you just have to plow through. Things can be replaced, (she says, “I didn’t like my furniture anyway!”) and you and your family will bounce back. “Just take it one step at a time.”
This summer, the Vandivers moved to Brad’s next duty station in Illinois. Once again, the family is together, and all three children are doing well in their new schools. Mitchell, who is 16, is extremely active in church youth group and has already developed great friendships. He is a member of the state champion marching band and is also continuing his piano---one thing the Vandivers had to replace right away. Adam, 11 years old, is a member of championship-winning baseball and football teams and is doing very well in school. Molly, 7 years old, is a cheerleader all the way. Her teacher called her a great student, very smart, but a very, very social butterfly---which Kelly thinks is a nice way of saying she talks too much in class!
Editor’s note: After Hurricane Katrina, Elva Resa Publishing set aside a portion of profits from a special edition of Surviving Deployment: A guide for military families to help military families affected by Katrina. The Vandivers are one of those families.