Jeff Fox (pictured) recalled his experiences when we spoke at the Mississippi Valley Fair. He was in town to assist his brother Bob, the fair manager, during the annual event.
Katrina arrived on Monday, August 29, 2005. A handyman by trade, Fox had been putting plywood over other people’s windows, then his own, for days before Katrina hit.
The Foxes got late notice about a mandatory New Orleans evacuation. But any thought they had of leaving vanished when they turned on the television and saw clogged highways.
“So we just stayed there,” said Jeff. “Historically people had stayed during hurricanes, and you can live through them. But it wasn’t the hurricane that got the area of New Orleans. It was the flooding afterwards.”
Lake Pontchartrain’s levees broke right after the storm, allowing it to empty into New Orleans. Crews used sandbags to try to fill the breaches but were unsuccessful.
Fox said he heard someone on the radio reporting that the levee had broken and nothing could be done, that people would just have to wait until the water level in the city and the water level in the lake equalized.
While New Orleans was flooded, Fox said it was the area east of the city that received the brunt of the hurricane.
“They had 30-foot tidal surges.”
After Katrina hit, Jeff Fox went outside and saw that there was about a foot of water in the street in front his house. He figured it was from the rain and moved his vehicles to a higher elevation.
But then he started to see ripples in the water on the street, and that was frightening. It meant the water level was quickly rising.
“I’ve seen that before,” Fox said. “Usually you’ve got a fishing pole in your hands when you see that.”
He paused to gain control of his emotions. “I have trouble talking about it,” he admitted.
Soon there was 5 feet of water inside and outside the Fox house. “Closer to the lake, they had 12 feet of water. The water was actually above the gutters there.”
The couple were stranded on their second floor for about a week with access to the outside only via a second-floor deck. Civilians came by in motorboats, Fox said, but they only picked up people they knew.
Helicopters later flew overhead, and Fox put some Day-Glo color staff T-shirts from past Mississippi Valley Fairs on his deck and painted messages on them like, “Hotel Rwanda” and “Beam me up, Scotty.” But they did not result in a rescue.
“It was the Friday after the storm that the Coast Guard was coming through on their inflatable rafts, honking loud horns,” said Fox. “That’s when they came by and got us.”
One concern was the couple had to leave their young cat, Ching, behind. But they had filled the bathtub full of water and left plenty of food for him.
When rescued, the Foxes were taken to a dry place and dropped off. Then they were escorted to the back of a windowless panel truck, which was driven around for three or four hours.
“They took us to the airport,” Fox said. “It had been turned into a triage center. They wouldn’t let us stay there. So finally after another hour or so, they dropped us off on the interstate.”
Already there were people who had been evacuated a couple days prior from the flooded St. Bernard Parish, which, said Fox, is low in elevation and close to the Gulf.
“People had been sitting there (on the interstate) for days. There were dead bodies.”
The Foxes stayed there overnight and wondered what would become of them. The next morning, Saturday, some buses arrived, “and they didn’t tell us where they were taking us until we got on the bus. That’s when they told us they were taking us to Houston.”
Those on the bus heard a harsh message. Someone announced: “You’ll not be able to get off this bus in the state of Louisiana; you are now considered refugees.”
In downtown Houston the bus went to the Stennis Center, where its passengers were to be processed. Fox said someone who may have been a sheriff got on the bus, looked down the aisle and said, “I just want to tell you people, I know what a criminal looks like.” The man then carefully looked everybody over.
As people were leaving the bus to be processed Fox told the driver he didn’t want to be there. The bus driver said, “I’ll tell you what. When you get off the bus, you turn right and don’t look back.”
The Foxes did just that and kept on walking. They were a block away before they looked back, and they felt a sense of freedom.
Some relatives of Bob Fox’s wife, Carol, drove Jeff and Kathy Fox back to Louisiana the next morning, “and we stayed with them for about a week in Lake Charles. Then they got hit by Hurricane Rita.”
Worried about Ching, the Foxes had called and asked the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to rescue their cat. But would-be rescuers apparently were noisy, and the cat hid from them. When the rescuers left, they left the house’s front door open, and Ching had gotten out.
Jeff Fox worked for a few days at an animal rescue facility in Baton Rouge, hoping he’d come across Ching. But he didn’t.
Fox wanted to return home to look for the cat but only the media and animal rescuers were permitted to enter New Orleans.
But I had a plan to help him. I was working fulltime at WOC Radio News back then, and Fox had allowed me to interview him in the weeks prior for some news stories about Katrina.
So I decided to, you might say, make him part of the news team so he could get back home. I created a photo identification card that said he was a WOC correspondent, which, in reality he was at the time.
With his news media ID in hand, Fox was ready to re-enter New Orleans and look for Ching. But it turns out he did not need it. He had affixed a large pet rescuer sign on the front of his rental car and was permitted back into the city with no problem.
The story has a happy ending. Jeff Fox got back to his house and one night around midnight Ching returned, “kind of in a state of shock.”
Ching, now age 12, is well. And he is a survivor. Fox notes that the feline survived not one but two hurricanes because the tail end of Hurricane Rita tagged New Orleans a couple weeks after Katrina had hit.
And remember those colorful T-shirts Jeff Fox had displayed in hopes they would lead to a quicker rescue? The T-shirts were shown by CNN’s Anderson Cooper in one of his reports from New Orleans. Fox recognized them while watching TV.
He could tell where the reports had originated, later drove to that spot and found the T-shirts on the ground.
Copyright 2015 by Phil Roberts, CreatIive Enterprises. This piece ran as a column in The North Scott Press, Eldridge, Iowa.