Many people know what it’s like to live through a natural disaster. Growing up in California may allow someone to know what an earthquake is like while someone in the Midwest may be more familiar with tornados. But most of the natural disasters that have occurred in the United States in recent years pale in comparison to the devastation and damage caused by Hurricane Katrina. Having to persevere through it while getting ready to serve your country is an ordeal one Airman was willing to share.
Staff Sgt. Ronald Brooks, 56th Logistics Readiness Squadron vehicle operations craftsman, remembers the time leading up to Katrina.
“It was the week of the warning for Hurricane Katrina,” Brooks said. “I wasn’t in yet, but I’d already signed up to join the Air Force in January of 2005. I was in the delayed entry program, waiting for my chance to leave. I’d moved out of my apartment and moved everything into my mom’s house.”
Growing up in New Orleans Brooks was accustomed to an occasional hurricane. His original plan was to ride out Katrina. His family had already heeded the weather warnings and left town. As time passed, the storm got closer.
“My sister came back and tried to get me to evacuate. I was determined to ride it out,” he said.
It was Aug. 27, 2005, the day before Katrina reached its peak, strengthening rapidly in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico and swelling to a devastating Category 5 hurricane. Katrina had already passed over Florida as a meager Category 1.
“All of my immediate family was out of town,” he said. “It was just me.”
On the morning of the 28th, Brooks, working as a bus driver for a motor coach company, was contacted to assist in getting the American Airlines employees back to the airport.
“At this point, I’m still not heeding the warnings,” Brooks said. “I had family calling, telling me I needed to get out. I told them I’d be all right, I know how to swim, I’ll be okay. The extent of the hurricane dawned on me when I got downtown trying to get these folks back to the airport. There was gridlock traffic. I thought, ‘wow, people are really getting out of Dodge.’
Normally it takes 15 to 20 minutes to get from downtown to the airport. But this time it took more than an hour.”
Brooks decided to take the bus back and see about getting out of the city. City officials had already reported that the interstates leading out of the city would be shutting down at a certain time.
“Anyone who knows New Orleans will tell you it’s like an island; surrounded by water,” Brooks said. “Any way you go, you have to go over some form of bridge. But after a certain time, for security and safety, they shut down the bridges. So if you hadn’t left by then, you were stuck in the city. I got out at the last possible moment.”
Brooks met with people from his church, and they evacuated to Jackson, Miss. The trip, normally taking about three and a half hours, took closer to 10 due to the number of people on the road. By the time they arrived, they could feel the hurricane coming. Rain was pelting them and power-outages were abundant. They managed to find one open hotel.
“Between the 30 of us, we could only find two rooms,” Brooks said. “We put our money together and left the rooms to the children and women. That first night in Jackson, I slept in my car.”
Others found a hotel, but when they checked in, the area was feeling the effects of Katrina. The hotel roof started to come off. Packing everyone into the vehicles again, they found another hotel that offered better protection from the weather.
“I could feel it,” he said. “The car was rocking. It was just horrible.”
After the first night and with no money for hotel rooms, the convoy contacted a local police officer, telling them they were from New Orleans and had no idea what to do. The police led them to a shelter. They were only able to spend one night there. Since the shelter was being prepared for some elderly individuals, they were asked to leave and find another shelter. The group found another shelter, but it was still being set up. Brooks ended up staying in his car another night and the next two nights were spent in another shelter.
“I didn’t know how any of my family was doing,” he said. “Cell phones weren’t working, towers were down. I had to get to my family. I knew they were in Lake Charles, La. I told my church family I had to hit the road.”
Even through all of this, Brooks remembered his commitment to the military. He attempted to return to New Orleans, only to find he was too late.
“I wasn’t able to get to my house because the flood water had started getting too deep for my car,” Brooks said. “I knew where my house was, but it was underwater. I lost everything. There was devastation in every direction, and no one was there to help.”
Brooks turned around and went to his family in Lake Charles. Unfortunately, upon reaching his family, everyone had to evacuate due to Hurricane Rita.
“We evacuated to a family member’s house farther into Louisiana,” he said. “There were close to 40 of us in a two-bedroom house. I had to sleep in the hallway. Some people had to sleep in the car. I thought, ‘I slept in the car twice and three shelters. I’m sleeping in a house.’”
He had lost all contact with recruiters in the turmoil. Having already sworn in, Brooks knew he had to report to basic training soon. He found a recruiter in Shreveport. They looked him up since he had no paperwork. When his parents dropped him off at the military entrance processing station and he departed for Basic Military Training at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, all Brooks had was a pair of shorts and two T-shirts.
“I reported in and it was tough,” Brooks said. “I didn’t know how to speak out. It was hurtful. I couldn’t describe my thoughts. I didn’t know the circumstances of my family since I hadn’t talked to them. I had problems sleeping. I was falling asleep when I wasn’t supposed to and not able to sleep at night. I ended up being recycled twice.”
After graduating from basic training, Brooks finally heard from his family. They had made it safely back to Lake Charles and since then had made it to the house in New Orleans. They told him it was a total loss. Everything was gone.
“I had just moved all my stuff into my mother’s house. Half the house was submerged in water. Everything was ruined,” Brooks said. “When you go down that low in life, it’s rock bottom. Nothing worse can happen after that.”
But Brooks bounced back along with the people in New Orleans. He drew energy and inspiration from the news of their resilience while he was in technical school, and the Katrina ordeal instilled in Brooks a spirit of service.
“Every time I see a natural disaster, I want to help in some way,” he said. “Since I wasn’t able to then, I always try and help others now. The things I learned that got me through Katrina can help me get through anything in life.”