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Ripples from Hurricane Katrina hit South Whidbey

Heather 0’Maonaigh -
Heather 0’Maonaigh
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From rising gas prices to anxious family members, ripples from Hurricane Katrina have reached Whidbey Island.

Hurricane Katrina slammed onto the Gulf Coast Monday with winds up to 145 mph. It was the worst natural disaster to hit the United States in recent memory, wiping out entire communities in its path. New Orleans survived the intense winds, but was devastated by floods when levees broke, submerging 80 percent of the city in water. Thousands remain homeless, and the death count continues to rise.

On Whidbey Island, much like the rest of the country, family and friends waited to hear from their loved ones who were living in the devastating hurricane’s path.

Freeland attorney Ken O’Mhuan worried about his daughter Heather O’Maonaigh, who evacuated from New Orleans mid-morning Sunday.

O’Mhuan said he had a few tense hours agonizing over his daughter’s safety.

At first, she had decided to stay in town.

But after the storm was upgraded, she and her partner chose to leave the city via Interstate 10 with thousands of other people.

“I am thankful they decided not to tough it out,” O’Mhuan said.

The pair ended up in a Best Western motel in Pearland, Texas.

On Thursday during a telephone interview, O’Maonaigh recounted her journey out of their city before Katrina swept ashore.

She said they had originally planned to stay in New Orleans through the storm, in a hotel built in 1861.

“The historic building had survived a lot of storms, so we figured we would be safe there,” O’Maonaigh said.

On Saturday evening they headed out to a “hurricane” party. Katrina was a Category 3 then.

A friend woke them up early Sunday morning with the news it had been upgraded to a Category 4 hurricane.

“Then I knew we had to leave,” she said.

O’Maonaigh earned a master’s degree in public health from Tulane University and her partner, Michael Wosloski, had his own computer business in a building along the shores of Lake Pontchartrain. They gathered a few belongings and loaded their two cats in carriers and left New Orleans, the city they had grown to love, behind them.

Taking two cars, they inched along the highway as black clouds were building over the city behind them.

“It was scary to look back at the black clouds forming. At that point we didn’t know if we would make it out in time,” she said.

“The highway was like a parking lot. It took us six hours to travel 60 miles; 17 hours for the 350-mile trip to a suburb near Houston,” O’Maonaigh recalled.

Then one car ran out of gas.

“We had to park it and leave it behind,” she said.

They stopped at an ATM before leaving town, but as of Thursday night their New Orleans bank was offline.

Soon their journey became longer. Signs were posted along the way that all hotel and motel rooms were filled in Houston. And the signs told evacuees to keep going to Dallas.

Fortunately, they were able to find a motel room in Pearland. Now safe, the pair know they are more fortunate than some of their friends.

They left people behind, including their elderly landlady who had become a dear friend. They haven’t heard if she lived through Katrina.

“She had survived other hurricanes, so she was going to stick it out. We’ve been in touch with friends who got out, but none of those who are still there,” she said.

“I have moments of acute anxiety and a sense that I should have stayed behind to help,” O’Maonaigh said.

“I know there is nothing we can do now, we’ve heard it will be weeks, maybe months, before people are allowed back to our apartment.”

O’Maonaigh said she doesn’t know yet if they will ever move back to New Orleans.

“We really loved New Orleans for its character and charm; part of that character was its precariousness. Everyone knew it could happen but no one believed it.”

For now, the couple plans to move to Virginia.

“I have hope for New Orleans, but it won’t be the same,” she said.

Another South Whidbey family is thankful their son is safe.

Susan and Mark Bigger of Langley say they have been receiving dozens of calls from friends and neighbors about their son Eric.

Eric Bigger, a 1999 graduate of South Whidbey High School, has been living in New Orleans for six years. He and several friends left the city early Sunday morning, much to his parents’ relief.

Eric Bigger is a musician and plays trombone in a band.

“Eric called us Saturday night to let us know he would evacuate, but not before his gig was finished,” Sue Bigger said.

“Fortunately, Eric has friends with cars so they all drove out,” she said.

Many families across the nation are still waiting to hear from loved ones.

Six days after the storm, the death toll is expected to easily reach the thousands.

While the bulk of the population evacuated before Katrina hit; but tens of thousands were left behind. Some survived by climbing into second-story attics and chopping holes through roof tops.

The killer storm slammed hard into three states; from New Orleans, along the Louisiana coast to Mississippi, Alabama and western Florida. Officials predict that Katrina will be the costliest disaster in U.S. history.

Heather O’Maonaigh know they are fortunate to have had the means to leave the area before the storm hit.

Now she, like the rest of the nation, watches reports on the devastation on CNN, and waits to hear from friends who stayed behind.

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