Reflections on Katrina

Story highlights

  • Hurricane Katrina took the lives of 1,833 people
  • CNN associate producer Melodi Smith shares her family's story of loss and survival

Melodi Smith is an associate producer with the CNN.com homepage team.

(CNN)Hurricane Katrina: The mention of those two words still triggers a twinge of fear in my body, enough to make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

Nearly 10 years have passed since Katrina made landfall, but for those who lived along the Gulf Coast and experienced the storm firsthand, a decade at times feels like days.
It's a story thousands of us lived through together. We all saw how life can change in an instant. Here is my Katrina story:
    Two months before Katrina hit, my family relocated to Mississippi from central Florida. We had taken countless family vacations to the Gulf Coast and we all fell in love with the people, the food and the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
    Programming Note

    Watch "Katrina: The Storm that Never Stopped" Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET/PT.

    There was something about the smell of salt in the air and Southern accents in our ears. Mississippi was going to be a new start full of adventure and fun. I started my sophomore year of high school in Long Beach, Mississippi. Long Beach is a small community nestled between Gulfport and Pass Christian.
    Long Beach embodies Southern charm. New school, friends and life experiences awaited us. We had just settled into our home life and new routine as Mississippi residents. We had many neighbors who spoke about Hurricane Camille, which struck the Gulf in August 1969. For the two months we lived on the Gulf the running joke in our neighborhood was, "If meteorologist Jim Cantore comes to town, this is serious." The joke would later be on us. Cantore made it to the Mississippi Gulf Coast as Katrina approached, and the storm was much worse than we thought.
    Two days before the storm my father and I left for a quick trip to Florida, leaving behind my little brother and mother. "It will be OK, we will see you soon," I remember saying. "We will drive to Florida and come back to return to normal life." I wish we would have all been together to weather the storm.
    However, I am certain if we did stay my dad would have stayed inside and died from the 18-foot storm surge that leveled our two-story home. He would have never stayed at the storm shelter; he would have put us first and roughed it alone. Thankfully, my older sister did not relocate to Mississippi with us; she was safe in Florida.
    When Katrina hit the Gulf, I had the worst feeling: a combination of nerves and nausea. My mother and brother were in a storm shelter for area residents, but we did not know the condition of the shelter that would be keeping them safe. No telephone calls made to them or any local or federal agency would connect.
    Silence.
    National television coverage was wall-to-wall, showing the houses torn down, trees strewn about and downed power lines. Everything I had seen a few days before while driving out of my neighborhood was gone. The only glimpse of my former life was on Oprah Winfrey. She showed before and after photos of the Gulf. This pristine area looked like a war zone. Completely incomprehensible to me.
    "We just started over here. This cannot be happening," I thought.
    We did not know until two days after Katrina made landfall in Mississippi whether my mom and brother were alive or dead. Forty-eight hours seems like a lifetime when you are waiting for a call to find out about your loved ones. The optimist in me wanted to believe my family was alive, but the pessimist at times took over.
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    A teenage girl needed her mother for all the things mothers provide: comfort, reassurance and strength. A teenage girl also needed a little brother she would learn would be wiser than she could imagine. A husband needed the wife he started a family with and a son whom he raised to be a man.
    There was no sweeter moment than when my mom called and told us, "I'm OK. I used the GPS in the roof truck to navigate to Florida. I'll be home soon."
    We did not anticipate losing almost everything we owned. We did not anticipate going back to a life in Florida and restarting, again.
    The new promise of the Gulf Coast was gone, but all these years later we still know we have one thing: family. I did not have to bury my mother or my brother at 15 years old. I was indeed one of the lucky ones. My family has been able to share in all my celebrations and triumphs over the past 10 years. And I in theirs.
    The thing about natural disasters is they do not discriminate based on race, gender or religion. They come to an area and leave disarray everywhere. The common thread that ties people together in every natural disaster is you are a survivor. You survived the thing that most people could not begin to comprehend. You shed many tears in fighting the battle to put your life back together and you won. You conquered it. Ten years ago, my life forever changed because of Hurricane Katrina, and it made me a better me.