After losing four houses to four hurricanes, Melanie Martinez was arguably the US’ unluckiest woman. There was Betsy in 1965, Juan in 1985, George in 1998 and Katrina in 2005, ferocious storms that swept in from the Gulf of Mexico and wrecked each of Martinez’s homes. Such was the peril of living on a flood plain in Louisiana.
A few months ago the schoolbus driver’s luck changed. A reality TV show selected her not quite hideous, but admittedly ramshackle house in Braithwaite, a rural town just south of New Orleans, for a makeover.
The host, Eric Stromer, and his team spent a week and US$20,000 transforming the Martinez home with a new kitchen, new cupboards, new appliances, even creating a new room for Melanie’s passion, sewing.
If you were paying attention to the news last week you know where this story is going. On Wednesday last week — the seventh anniversary of Katrina — a category 1 hurricane named Isaac howled in from the Gulf and hit Mississippi and Louisiana. A US$14.5 billion federally funded bolstering of flood-control systems around New Orleans spared the city.
However, Braithwaite was sheltered only by an 2.4m levee built by Louisiana’s state government. Thus Martinez became — who could now argue? — the US’ unluckiest woman.
“There was a mandatory evacuation order and we were leaving, just like our neighbors,” she says. “We never stay for storms. I would never jeopardize my mom — she’s 74 and needs dialysis. But my truck broke down.”
Around 2am floodwaters “overtopped” the levee, sending a 3.6m surge through Braithwaite. The family sought refuge in the attic.
“We thought we were going to die in that house; the water was coming up so fast. My husband used a hammer to put a hole in the roof but it broke. We used our hands and feet to punch the hole,” she said.
A boat rescued them along with their five kittens and three dogs. Everything else was lost.
“Now I’ve lost five houses to five storms. Every time a wipe-out,” she said.
Martinez seems grateful to be alive, even perky, but knows tears will come once waters subside and she returns to a sodden wreck.