By MYLO ERICKSON
As a Hurricane Katrina survivor relocated to Tucson, Jerome Hubbard likes to tell friends, “I came in the wind.”
Standing at 6 feet 2 inches, the 28-year-old known as “Hub” will soon receive his bachelor’s degree in culinary arts from the Art Institute of Tucson.
Six years ago he was with his family in a New Orleans suburb called Gentilly. As Katrina approached, family members watched television and listened to radio news.
His parents and grandma had been through Hurricane Betsy in 1965, so knew the routine. Soon, traffic began flowing in just one direction — inland.
“The oddest thing for me was packing my house,” Hubbard said. “That eerie feeling of looking around, man this might be the last time I’ll be in here.”
He joined his parents, grandmother and family friends to hole up at a battery store where his dad worked.
That night it started raining. Everyone was on edge because the news provided ever-changing reports about the hurricane’s path.
“I don’t know how to describe that feeling of when everybody around you is afraid,” Hubbard said.
Just before the storm hit, Hubbard stepped outside of the shelter and saw the surreal sight of the hurricane’s “outer bend.” It went straight up, and resembled a wall of darkness.
Their building, essentially a bomb shelter from the 1960s, seemed a perfect spot to wait out the storm.
“It had 2-foot thick walls that were steel reinforced and it had a generator that compares to the size of a Suburban,” Hubbard said.
He and his family watched the news and waited. Finally, Hubbard went upstairs to sleep.
A few hours later, his dad woke him to say they needed to move sandbags from the back of the building to the front.
During the first sandbag run, there was about an inch of water. During the second run, the water was up to their ankles.
As Hubbard rounded the corner on a third run, he heard his dad tell the family to evacuate. The water was 3 feet deep.
Hubbard froze for a second, then grabbed his survival bag. It held a hat, a book and a T-shirt.
Outlets popped, sending blue sparks flying, as Hubbard and his family tried to leave. Water flooding into the building pushed them back.
Switching directions, they held on to one another and struggled upstairs. Hubbard and his family saw lights flicker, then go dark, one neighborhood after another. Soon, only his building had electricity, thanks to the generator.
Peering through a window, Hubbard saw a man sitting inside a parked yellow car. The man appeared to panic as water rose over the car’s hood. Within minutes, the car filled with water.
“The car goes dark and that was it,” Hubbard said.
That moment made Hubbard think back to all the warnings he received in school about worst-case storm scenarios. He realizes now how unprepared he was.
Sounds from outside unnerved him.
“That was the first time it ever made sense when people told me about big storms,” he said. “They would say the winds blow so hard it sounds like someone screaming.”
He has heard the winds blew 145-150 mile an hour that night. From his window vantage, he saw a big oak tree uprooted.
Hubbard says the hurricane itself wasn’t the worst part. “Everything bad, in my opinion, happened after the storm.”
Once the winds died down, Hubbard and his family went to the rooftop. He was struck by the eerie silence. Looking to the dark sky, Hubbard could see stars and space dust trails—a rare sight for a city boy.
The moment was short-lived. As soon as people realized the storm was over, they began to scream about loved ones either missing or dead. They also cried out for help.
Other creepy sounds followed: a window breaking, a woman crying “no, no, no,” a gunshot.
Hubbard looked toward Interstate-10. It was completely black except for police, fire and ambulance lights, with occasional silhouettes.
Back inside the building, people on the radio sounded hysterical. Hubbard felt fortunate that his shelter was well fortified.
The next morning, after not getting any real sleep, he went back onto the rooftop. He saw water everywhere. The man who got trapped in his car had floated free. He was now bloated and resting on top of another car.
Hubbard freaked at his first sight of a dead body. He glanced at his grandma, and noticed the look on her face. It was not the first dead body she’d seen.
After collecting themselves, family members went back inside. They listened to the radio while his dad tried to reach people by phone.
Airlifts arrived Aug. 30, one day after the storm’s landfall. One took Hubbard’s grandma and an older man staying with them.
The following day, remaining family members passed time listening to the radio and trying to flag down any sort of help.
On Sept. 1, Hubbard noticed the bloated guy on the car had cooked and popped. “When he popped, his skin turned into a wind sock,” Hubbard said.
Later in the day, a couple of guys passing by began searching the dead man’s pockets. One of the men with Hubbard yelled to ask what they were doing. The guys yelled back that he wasn’t going to need it anymore, and took whatever he had.
Finally, a Red Cross helicopter made its way to their rooftop. The helicopter picked up Hubbard, his mother and the friends with them, but didn’t have room for his dad.
His mom lost control at this news, and tried to jump off the helicopter. Hubbard held her tightly, and looked at his dad. His father’s eyes told him goodbye and to watch out for his mom, as they might not see each other again.
The helicopter dropped them off at Causeway Overpass, between New Orleans and Metairie. His mother was still hysterical as the helicopter landed, and it took several men to remove her.
Hubbard glared at the pilot. “Dude you gotta go back and get my dad. I’m staying on!”
When the pilot informed him that he couldn’t, Hubbard continued to argue. Behind him, Hubbard heard a gun cock.
The pilot lifted his visor and promised to return for his dad. Hubbard doesn’t know whether he did, but the promise satisfied him enough to get off the helicopter.
When Hubbard found his mom, his main concern was getting her away from the chaos. He heard buses were coming to take people to Houston.
He decided to wait for his father, and came up with a plan to get his mom on the bus. His friends agreed to shield his mother’s view while she boarded the bus.
The plan worked. When his mother noticed Hubbard wasn’t getting on, she rushed to the closed bus doors, pounding on them and crying as the bus departed.
Once the bus was out of sight, Hubbard broke down and cried. After a few minutes, he gained his composure and looked around. There were hundreds of people near the overpass.
From about 30-40 feet away, he saw a man drop to the ground. When he moved closer, he saw the man writhing on the ground and clutching his chest. The man’s wife called out, seeking a response, at the man turned blue.
The woman screamed at two nearby paramedics for help, but the medics told her there was nothing they could do. They placed a sheet over his twitching body, and told her he was already dead.
After the crowd was informed that no more buses were coming that night, the military handed out MREs (meals, ready to eat) provisions.
They later stopped providing MREs because people were being picky, Hubbard said. They threw most of the food on the ground and only ate a small portion.
Hubbard hunkered down, and slept under the overpass.
To be continued….
Jerome tells a legend he heard about 1964’s Hurricane Betsy.