Katrina aftermath still felt five years later
by Matt Shinall
Sep 05, 2010 | 2333 views | 0 0 comments | 13 13 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Stephaine Hassinger, center behind book, poses with her family and some friends, left, Abby Hassinger, Megan Dillard, Drew Hassinger, Alex Hassinger, Stephanie Hassinger, Grace Hassinger, husband Kenny, Jenna Griffith and Mark Mangum. SKIP BUTLER/The Daily Tribune News
Stephaine Hassinger, center behind book, poses with her family and some friends, left, Abby Hassinger, Megan Dillard, Drew Hassinger, Alex Hassinger, Stephanie Hassinger, Grace Hassinger, husband Kenny, Jenna Griffith and Mark Mangum. SKIP BUTLER/The Daily Tribune News
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"You are always stronger than you think you are," was the message that resonates five years following the escape of Hurricane Katrina.

The words came from Stephanie Hassinger, Cartersville business owner and permanently relocated refugee of a storm that shook a nation and devastated an entire region.

On Aug. 28, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana, subsequently the levees broke flooding vast portions of the city of New Orleans, La., the Hassinger's hometown.

Less than a month later, Hurricane Rita made landfall in southwestern Louisiana on Sept. 24 striking terror in the heart of Cartersville businessman and Lake Charles, La., native Jeff Moreau.

Taking a look back at the aftermath and rebirth after five years, these Cartersville business leaders find joy and triumph in the wake of a catastrophic natural disaster.

"I almost hate the anniversary because for most of the year you can kind of forget." Hassinger said. "But so many good things have come out of it for us. ... It was the worst situation with which to move but we had the best outcome and best scenario. We couldn't have planned it better."

Hassinger, her husband and their then three children evacuated their home in New Orleans for a safer location eventually taking up residence in a Memphis, Tenn., hotel before relocating to Cartersville to be near friends after realizing that going home was not an option.

But even then the Hassingers never imagined they would not return to live in New Orleans.

"We never were considering moving because my husband and I were both born and raised in New Orleans and both of our families are still in New Orleans but the longer we were here without anybody, the kids really adapted," Hassinger said, adding that in the weeks that followed, their cash supply dwindled and access to their local bank was made impossible by the aftermath. "Everybody was so kind and so gracious and wanted to help. It was really hard though because usually I'm on that end of helping and not receiving it and it was really a difficult thing to do. We were getting this stuff and I felt guilty.

"The kids did beautifully adjusting here and everybody was so nice to us and we were unsure what was going to happen to his job on the port and so we just decided that we were going to stay. We thought that life here would be a lot less stressful than us trying to go back to New Orleans."

With their children enrolled in local schools, the Hassingers moved into their new home that December. During that time, they made week-long trips back home every other week carrying coolers of food and supplies to family members that had nowhere to purchase necessities.

In September 2005, Jeff Moreau was already living in Georgia when his hometown of Lake Charles was hit hard by Hurricane Rita. With permission from the local sheriff, Moreau immediately carried much-needed supplies and generators to Lake Charles even before residents were allowed back in. Accompanied by doctor and veterinarian Tracy Goen as well as a professional photographer, Moreau went to aid those left behind and lend a hand to first responders.

"We saw Rita coming in and we were scared with what had just happened with Katrina and Rita had the same punch. ... Rita just devastated the southwestern side of the state as Katrina did to New Orleans," Moreau said. "It was unbelievable, it looked like a nuclear bomb had gone off. You had to ride around with a bunch of Fix-A-Flat in your truck because roofing nails and nails from buildings were all over the road."

Today, things in Lake Charles have changed, said Moreau. Coming back Friday from a fishing trip at home, he and Goen remarked at how far the community had come, including the waters on which they fished. A private marsh of some 10,000 acres acted as their fishing hole which rebounded beautifully after suffering a massive fish kill as salt water overtook the levee protecting it and pervaded the marsh.

"Pre-Rita it was just an old overgrown marsh and now it's this thriving ecosystem," Moreau said. "Back when that happened, it seemed like the world was over and it was just the end of that but it has really come around. Maybe in a way it's kind of like a metaphor for the rest of that area too. They've rebuilt it and it looks great.

"It seems like a long time ago because it really has come back strong. ... They're building like crazy and the economy hasn't seemed to take the same hit like we've seen in other parts of the country. It's actually a really neat thing to see."

Since the initial devastation of Hurricane Rita, Moreau has founded Gumbo to Geaux, a Cartersville restaurant paying tribute to his Cajun roots, and is president of Encore Coatings, a coatings manufacturer.

For the Hassingers, returning home to pack up what remained of their belongings was no easy task and each trip back offers vivid reminders of what took place.

"It just takes your breath away. Pictures don't really do it justice," Hassinger said. "It probably wasn't until this summer that the neighborhoods that were really cleaned up don't have any visible signs left of Katrina and that's five years. There are still areas that are very much just like Katrina hit yesterday.

"It just still looks really pretty dirty even though it's been cleaned up. It's like the beating that Katrina left you can visibly see on the city itself."

Stephanie Hassinger is owner of Write on Main, a stationary and gift shop, as well as the new addition of Write on Main Too, a shop devoted to children's toys and embroidery specifically for the Christmas shopping season. The Hassingers have had a fourth child since moving to Cartersville and from the beginning made a conscious effort to become involved in their new hometown. In her first explorations, Stephanie Hassinger found the store that would become hers in summer 2008.

"Write on Main was one of the first shops that I went in on Main Street and I've always loved it," Hassinger said. "It amazes me how many people will come in and be so gracious. ... I feel that I have as many friends in this community as I did in the community that I grew up in and was there for 32 years. I don't miss New Orleans, I miss things from New Orleans, I miss family, I miss my grandmother."

For Moreau and Hassinger and the countless individuals impacted by the storms that ravaged the Gulf Coast, five years has brought a lot of change and for at least one family a new home.

"We weren't slighted in the least bit in this little town and even though we're not from here I feel like we're very much treated like a part of this community," Hassinger said.