Just three weeks after Hurricane Katrina tore through Louisiana in August 2005, Jets nose tackle Damon Harrison’s life was turned upside down by another storm that didn’t receive as much attention, but caused plenty of devastation.
At the time, Harrison was just starting his sophomore year in high school and his family was living with his uncle in New Iberia. Living on the Gulf Coast, hurricane preparation is part of the routine in August and September. So with news of Katrina coming, it was common sense for Harrison to help his uncle board up the house and evacuate. Thankfully, Katrina didn’t hit Iberia Parish as hard as it did New Orleans and Harrison returned to a home relatively unscathed.
Then in mid-September, three weeks after Katrina had blown through, reports of Hurricane Rita began to surface. Katrina was an inconvenience to Harrison and a glitch in his teenage life. Rita would shake it up entirely.
“You see the pictures and the videos of Katrina and Rita, it was something that I wouldn’t want anyone to go through. The pictures don’t do it justice,” Harrison told Metro. “Katrina, we boarded up the house, but got mainly rain and wind. We did evacuate, but it was more of a safety type of a thing. Katrina hit us hard but not as bad as Rita. Whatever Katrina didn’t damage, Rita did.”
Unlike Katrina, the path of Rita was to the southwestern part of Louisiana, placing Harrison’s home dead in its path. With winds at landfall of 120 mph, a mandatory evacuation was in place.
The family went up U.S. Route 90 West to Interstate 49 North to the town of Bunkie, La. where there was a shelter set up. But even an hour away from his home, Rita was cutting a destructive path and the Coast Guard came to Bunkie to evacuate families there. Harrison would go on to spend two weeks living in a high school gymnasium and eating Army rations.
His mother slept on the gym floor and Harrison, who as a sophomore in high school was already 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds, tried to find some space in the bleachers to lay down.
For the second time in a span of two months, Harrison would return to his uncle’s house, not knowing what lay ahead.
“Just the smell after a hurricane is terrible. The food is rotting in the house. You can smell it when you’re outside. My uncle’s house suffered a lot of damage,” Harrison said. “The watermarks were three feet high. He literally had to get rid of everything in the house. The carpet was ruined, had to be ripped up. There was damage all over the place. For us, it was worse than Katrina.”
He is happy to report that his family is safe from the latest storm, Hurricane Isaac. His family has moved to Lake Charles since Rita, a location near Texas less likely to be hit by a hurricane. He has been regularly calling his family to check in and he was relieved to hear that someone had driven a little more than an hour east to pick up his grandfather and bring him back to Lake Charles where he is now safe.
For a player eyeing Thursday night’s preseason finale in Philadelphia as an opportunity to make the Jets, Harrison also carries the extra burden of wanting to make it to the NFL to help his family.
“I’d like to move them clear away from the state of Louisiana after all we’ve been through,” Harrison said. “I’d love it if they were somewhat near me right now.”
Follow Jets beat writer Kristian Dyer on Twitter @KristianRDyer.