‘You Pay Attention’

7 years after Katrina, Greg Monroe keeps an eye on Isaac

Seven years to the day after stealing away from New Orleans in the predawn hours as Hurricane Katrina beat a relentless path to his hometown, Greg Monroe kept a watchful eye from afar as Tropical Storm Isaac threatened a similar fate for the people of the Gulf Coast.

Isaac, expected to reach hurricane status and make landfall on the August 29 anniversary of Katrina’s slamming of the Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama coastline, swung west of Florida’s gulf shore overnight and is now bearing down on a target eerily close to New Orleans.

“After going through Katrina and just having to pay attention to it your whole life, every time one starts to form and all the news stations start to track it, you pay attention,” Monroe said Monday morning. “It’s something that you have to worry about. But you try to stay calm and get as many facts as you can, get to a safe place if you need to.”

Monroe had just started his sophomore year of high school when the early exodus began on the Friday of Labor Day weekend in 2005. He was heading into a movie with friends, planning to attend a football jamboree later that night, when his sister called with the news that the family was getting out of town. Around 3 a.m. on Saturday, a Monroe caravan headed for Houston. They spent several days in a hotel before the reality of Katrina’s devastation led to another month or so in available apartment space.

Too many others stayed behind, of course, and more than 1,800 lost their lives in the flooding, which covered 80 percent of the city as levees long known to be in need of fortification to withstand major hurricanes were breached.

“People are more conscientious (now),” Monroe said. “People aren’t going to be – for lack of a better term – as hard-headed. They had a lot of people who just didn’t listen, who stuck it out with Katrina, and that made for more of a crisis. After experiencing that, a lot more people are going to leave. After going through something that big and that horrific, I think people will learn their lesson and understand how much can really happen during a hurricane.”

The extended Monroe family – Greg’s mother, sister, grandmother and nephew in one vehicle and the families of two uncles in others – will head to Lafayette, about 135 miles along Interstate 10, the heart of Cajun country, later today and wait out Isaac.

He’s more concerned with another cousin who attends college in Mobile, Ala., which forecast models as of late Sunday night and early Monday morning project as being a likely spot for Isaac to make landfall.

The Monroe family lives on the West Bank, just across the Mississippi River from the heart of New Orleans. Their home was largely spared by Katrina, suffering some wind damage but none of the flooding that devastated pockets of the city and resulted in population losses – nearly a third of the city, or more than 140,000 – that might never be regained.

“There’s not the huge difference there was when I went right back, finishing up those last couple of years of high school, but there’s still a difference,” Monroe said. “There’s a lot more going on and coming back. It’s back to the regular pace, as far as I can remember. Of course, there are still some places not back to the way it used to be, but the city is pretty much running. All the schools are back, the businesses are back and done with their remodeling and back to their regular routine. Most people will say it’s not all the way back and definitely there was population lost.”

Monroe visited his family in New Orleans over the weekend and they likely would have accompanied him back to Detroit, but his maternal grandmother doesn’t fly. So they stayed put and plotted their course for Lafayette. The hope is that it will be no more than a few days, that New Orleans will be spared and that history won’t group Isaac with Katrina for anyone along the long arc of the Gulf Coast.

And then it will be on to monitoring the next tropical depression – up next: Joyce, Kirk, Leslie – forming somewhere out over the Atlantic Ocean.