'Remember everything we've lost': 15th Katrina anniversary triggers memories as Laura looms

Daniella Medina
Lafayette Daily Advertiser
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It's been 15 years since Louisiana native Matthew Fields lost almost everything he owned.

Fifteen years since he's seen or spoken to some of his high school friends.

And 15 years since he was uprooted to a new town and new school during his senior year.

That's because in 2005, Hurricane Katrina ravaged Louisiana and left Fields with just two duffel bags of clothes, his MP3 player and a few comic books in the small town of La Vernia, Texas. 

Now, exactly 15 years later, on the week of the anniversary of the catastrophic storm, Hurricane Laura is brewing in the Gulf of Mexico. It's expected to make landfall in Louisiana and Texas as a Category 4 hurricane, bringing back strong memories of Hurricane Katrina for Fields.

"It definitely makes me a bit more cautious when it comes to hurricanes," he said, "like what's going on now with Hurricane Laura, even though it's technically gonna skirt where I'm at, I'm still extremely cautious about it."

Hurricane Laura:Laura will cause 'catastrophic' damage in Louisiana, 'unsurvivable storm surge'

'I just turned 18. I didn't care.'

The damage and aftermath of Louisiana native Matthew Fields' home after Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.

Katrina strengthened into a Category 5 hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico before making its second landfall in Louisiana and Mississippi on Aug. 29, 2005, as a Category 3. 

Timeline: Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath

The catastrophic storm set records as the costliest hurricane on record, but is now tied with Hurricane Harvey, which hit in 2017. Nearly 2,000 people died as a result of the storm and damage was reportedly $125 billion, according to the National Hurricane Center. 

"We've lost friends and family on this journey, but it's in their memory that we move on, become better and do everything in our power to better the world they left behind," Fields said.

Fields was 18 at the time and didn't think Katrina would be a big deal, he said. His family evacuated for Hurricane Ivan the year before and nothing happened. 

"We took everything. We took the pictures off the wall. Everybody took their own vehicle," he said. "I want to say we even packed my dad's motorcycle up and put it somewhere that would be safe." 

Fields and his family spent more time in the car driving to their destination than at the hotel, he said. By the time they arrived at a hotel in Texas, they got the green light to return home to Chalmette, Louisiana. 

But Katrina was a different story. 

"I didn't know anything about the hurricane coming until the day before we evacuated," Fields said. "I didn't pay attention to the news. I. just turned 18. I didn't care."

He'd made plans to see his friends at the Riverwalk in New Orleans ahead of Katrina's landfall, but his parents didn't let him go because it was time to evacuate. "We're leaving, you're coming with us," they said.

Fields said he doesn't remember exactly how long he had been away from Chalmette, but it was long enough to resume his senior year at a Texas high school. 

He would eventually move back to Louisiana and finish high school at Mandeville High. His original school, Andrew Jackson, was underwater. He was part of the last graduating class. It reopened as an elementary school, and is now a middle school. 

"I still to this day haven’t seen or spoken to, via phone or in person, a ton of my friends since Katrina. Some of us keep in touch over Facebook," Fields said. "It’s just weird to think about how I haven’t seen or spoken to some of the people who were a huge part of my life for so long." 

Hurricane Laura:What a Category 4 hurricane means for Louisiana: History, storm surge and damage

'Astounded': Going back home for the first time after Katrina

The damage and aftermath of Louisiana native Matthew Fields' home after Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.

Storm surge reached nearly 30 feet in some areas, causing one of the largest displacements of a population since the Great Depression, according to the National Weather Service. 

When Fields and his family got the OK from authorities to head back to Chalmette, he was astounded. 

Storm surge:‘Unsurvivable’: See latest Hurricane Laura Louisiana storm surge predictions

He remembers seeing inground swimming pools floating down the street and cars piled on top of each other after the floods died down. When he reached his driveway, he thought it was steeper than usual. It turns out he was standing on top of his car.

The damage and aftermath of Louisiana native Matthew Fields' home after Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.

His family spent weeks digging through the sludge in their house, looking for things left behind — jewelry, photos and anything of sentimental value. He discovered his CDs and DVDs remained intact, despite the water and oil damage from the storm.

"Seeing everything you’ve ever owned piled up on the side of the road awaiting a garbage truck is something that I don’t ever want to see again," Fields said. 

Flooding hotspots:See list of Lafayette Parish flood-prone roads to consider before driving

'If you are told to evacuate: Leave.'

Flooded neighborhoods can be seen as the Coast Guard conducts initial Hurricane Katrina damage assessment overflights August 29, 2005 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Others watch from below as the children are among many New Orleans citizens to be rescued from their rooftops due to flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina.

On the other hand, being displaced by Katrina was one of the best things to happen to Fields, he said. 

Without Katrina, he wouldn't have gone to college and earned two degrees in criminal justice.

Without Katrina, he wouldn't have gotten a job with the Department of Children and Family Services.

Without Katrina, he wouldn't have met his wife, Megan. 

Fields is more cautious of hurricanes and evacuations now more than ever. Hurricane Isaac in 2012 was the worst storm he weathered through in his home. 

"I was very privileged to have parents who were able to evacuate [Katrina]," he said. "There were a lot of people who didn't get to evacuate, either they didn't have the means to evacuate or they didn't want to or just couldn't."

The damage and aftermath of Louisiana native Matthew Fields' home after Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.

Louisiana evacuated about 1.5 million people ahead of Katrina's landfall. Nearly 200,000 people were left trapped, however, according to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies.

Ahead of Hurricane Laura's landfall, mandatory evacuation orders have been put in place for much of Louisiana. Fields urged residents to evacuate to a safe area.

Laura evacuations:These Louisiana parishes have issued evacuation orders ahead of Hurricane Laura

"If you are told to evacuate: leave," he said. "Maybe reach out to your neighbors. You never know if somebody just you know might not have the ability to evacuate. My neighbor is now deceased. Could I have prevented this by asking them if they wanted to evacuate with us?"

How others remember Hurricane Katrina on its 15th anniversary

Daniella Medina is a digital producer for the USA TODAY Network. You can reach her at dmedina@gannett.com or on Twitter @danimedinanews. 

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