Hurricane Katrina forces couple to move back to Rockford

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Husband and wife had been in New Orleans for three weeks before the storm forced them out

“I’m in shock. Leo and I are both in shock,” said 26-year-old Rockford-born Rachel Lynch on the dire situation left in the Gulf Coast region by Hurricane Katrina.

Lynch and her husband Leo Arce had recently relocated to New Orleans from Rockford in anticipation of fresh beginnings. They had moved into a first-floor apartment in the Garden District of New Orleans, close to Loyola University Law School, where Lynch planned to pursue her lifetime dream of becoming an attorney.

On Aug. 27, three weeks into the couple’s new pursuits and one week into the strenuous academic year, Hurricane Katrina appeared. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin declared a state of emergency, and urged residents in low-lying areas to evacuate.

Lynch and Arce packed belongings among the noise of people boarding up windows. They headed back to their previous home in Rockford to stay with family. Lynch said she felt confusion as they left.

“When we left, there was a lot of people in the streets,” Lynch said. She said many New Orleans residents were acting nonchalant about the coming hurricane, and she said some even threw “hurricane parties.”

As of Aug. 27, Hurricane Katrina was still considered a Category 3 hurricane, with wind levels reaching 115 mph, but with no land contact. The hurricane did, however, reach Category 5 status—the highest category possible—before being downgraded to a Category 4 hurricane when it finally made landfall in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama Aug. 29. Katrina brought with her wind gusts of 131 to 155 mph, dumping massive amounts of rain and carrying massive amounts of water into the Gulf Coast region. Some residents who survived the hurricane have reported waves of up to 20 feet in some locations. Thousands are believed to have been left dead by the storm, and the estimated cost of the hurricane is believed to be at least $100 billion, according to a Boston Globe article. More than 1 million people were left homeless and jobless.

New Orleans, much of which sits below sea level, appeared to have avoided major catastrophe shortly after the storm. But aging levees that protected the bowl-like city from the waters of Lake Pontchartrain gave way, flooding nearly 100 percent of the city, and stranding thousands of residents who decided to stay home and brave the storm.

Lynch described the journey out of New Orleans as “really, really weird.” Traffic in both lanes went in one direction, in this case away from New Orleans. Lynch said many gas stations were out of gas.

Local, state and federal government agencies have all come under attack in the aftermath of the hurricane as people try to determine who was responsible for what appeared to have been a major miscommunication of the true magnitude and threat of the storm.

“They should have had mandatory evacuation starting on Saturday [Aug. 27],” Lynch said. “They should have evacuated all of the people that were stuck in their houses. They had to take into account the fact that the city could flood so easily. So many people knew, it wasn’t like some secret.

“Those are our people down there,” Lynch said. “Why do we allow our cities to [have] large groups of poor people that are so much poorer than the rest of the city? Why? It’s so sad and disturbing, everything that’s happened to them.”

Lynch said she will have to postpone her schooling for a year while the cleanup effort takes effect in Louisiana. She is eligible to continue her schooling through another university, but said, “I would want to be at the top of my game [in school]…mentally I couldn’t be.”

Lynch had received her associate’s degree from Rock Valley College and went on to get a bachelor’s degree in history at Northern Illinois University before applying to law school. She received a partial academic scholarship to Loyola, where she planned to pursue her childhood dream of becoming an attorney, spurred by her love of the television show Matlock.

Lynch said she plans to go back to New Orleans when she is allowed to inventory her life and help in any way she can. Lynch said she has no idea what has become of her and her husband’s personal belongings still in New Orleans. Her one-year lease on the apartment is still in question; she has not had contact with her landlord.

“We’re alive [and] together,” Lynch said, referring to herself and her husband. “We have food to eat every day and water to drink, and plumbing, and electricity, and I have a job. So we’re fine.”

Lynch’s former Rockford employer, Borders Books, Music and Café, has supplied her with a job, helping her ease over the hurdle.

“Everybody [at Borders] called me right away and wanted to know if I was OK or not,” Lynch said. “We’ve just gotten a lot of help from everyone, and we’re really thankful.”

Lynch vehemently considers herself fortunate. After crying with her husband over the footage of Katrina, she can barely believe she has so much when others escaped with so little—or some not at all. This attitude is seen in her thoughts for the victims of Katrina. Lynch and Arce don’t want any donations.

“We both really feel, if everyone wants to help [us], then they could all make donations to Red Cross,” Lynch said. Lynch said she plans to make a donation to the Red Cross as soon as she receives her Sallie Mae personal student loan.

As to the future of New Orleans, Lynch said: “They should rebuild the city. It’s a great city. It would be unfortunate if they didn’t rebuild it…it could be a new beginning.”

Those wishing to help with disaster relief efforts can make donations to the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund by calling 800-HELP-NOW or 800-257-7575 (Spanish), or through a secure Internet site at The local Rock River Valley Chapter of the American Red Cross is also accepting volunteers and other donations at 727 N. Church St., Rockford, IL 61103, or phone at 963-8471. Checks sent to that address should be made out to American Red Cross with “Disaster Relief Fund” as the subject line.

From the Sept. 14-20, 2005, issue

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