By MICHAEL WHITE
ETSU Associate AD for Communications
Hurricane Katrina spread massive devastation and became a storm of the century as it made landfall in Louisiana during August of 2005.
Amid that tragedy, a 10-year-old Isaac Banks found himself trapped in the second floor of his paternal grandmother’s home on the east side of New Orleans, helplessly bearing witness as the world he knew was swept away in the tide.
“I was usually staying with my grandmother on my mom’s side of the family, but that weekend my grandmother on my dad’s side wanted me to help her because she bought a new house and was moving. I went to help her move and that’s when the storm hit, and my grandma said I needed to stay at her place because it wasn’t safe to go back home,” said Banks, who today is a college freshman and plays forward for the East Tennessee State University men’s basketball team in Johnson City, Tenn.
While the storm itself passed over, it was the floods that followed which truly defined the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. In all, it was the costliest natural disaster and fifth deadliest hurricane in U.S. history, as 1,833 people lost their lives from the storm and the ensuing floods.
Banks remembers the flood vividly as the waters rose to six feet and invaded his grandmother’s home, ultimately forcing the family to the second floor of the structure. They stayed there for the first six days of the event, but were finally evacuated when authorities arrived and informed the family that the waters would be surging to as high as 10 to 12 feet.
They were moved to the University of New Orleans’ Lakefront Arena, which was the main shelter for people on the east side of the city. Meanwhile, the rest of Banks’ family from uptown New Orleans – including his maternal grandmother – was huddled inside the Superdome, the city’s famous, monolithic sports complex.
“We were at the arena for two nights, and it wasn’t good,” Banks said. “There was no place to go to the bathroom, people were committing crimes, and there were even some homicides. It was a lot like the stories from the Superdome. We were glad to finally get out of there, but all we had was the clothes on our backs.”
Banks described the departure from the arena like “being refugees,” as he and others were lined up outside the structure to await helicopters which were dispatched to bring people to the nearest airport. After waiting seven hours, Banks said he and his family made it to the airport and were finally informed once they loaded the plane that they were headed to San Antonio, Texas.
The family stayed in San Antonio for two weeks before deciding to move on. Without a home to return to in New Orleans, they made the decision to move to California, where Banks would spend the next three years going to school and playing middle school basketball.
Banks – who also lost a brother to a homicide just months before Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast – admits it was a hard time.
“I was younger, and I had been through two major traumas with the loss of my brother and then Katrina,” Banks said. “I got into a lot of trouble. I had a bad temper and would get in a lot of fights and stuff. I’m glad I finally grew up.”
Banks says he remembers the excitement when he and his family decided to return to New Orleans in 2009, just in time for him to begin high school back in his hometown. As the family drove the entire cross-country trek, Banks said he thought he had things figured out.
“I was already playing basketball in middle school, and thought that I would just walk into playing time in high school,” Banks said. “I realized pretty quick as a freshman that I was going to have to work hard. There were a lot better players than me on the team.”
That hard work resulted in a high school career that grabbed the attention of college recruiters, which offered Banks yet another opportunity to move on. While he was forced to leave New Orleans back in 2005, this time Banks made a change on his terms.
“I could have stayed at home or in Louisiana to go to college, but I wanted this chance to get away and concentrate on school and basketball,” Banks said. “That’s what I liked about Johnson City. It is different than the other places I’ve lived. It’s a slower pace, but that’s a good thing. Not having those distractions makes it easier.”
Having gone through so much, Banks said the experiences of Hurricane Katrina left one major impression on his young life.
“I’m blessed to be alive after going through devastation like that … I’m lucky.”