[Today is the 6th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landing near the city of New Orleans. Here is my post about it from last year, including some clips from Spike Lee’s two documentaries. There is still so much recovery that needs to happen there, so much healing. Today, I am posting a story written by a good friend of mine who lived in New Orleans when Katrina struck. This is her story.]
I want you to know a true story about Hurricane Katrina.
But I must start with saying that I’m not from New Orleans. New Orleans holds a special place for me, because it is where I began a career that I am deeply passionate about—teaching. New Orleans is also the first place I lived away from my family; I left the city I grew up a year after college to find “an adventure.” In many ways, I feel that New Orleans helped mold me into the adult that I am today. I faced some of the hard the questions I needed to ask to grow up: can I make a difference in society? Why do racism, classism, and sexism exist? What is my relationship with money? Men? Drinking? I struggled with all of these questions during my time in New Orleans.
Have you ever noticed that New Orleans is more than a setting in a book? It’s almost like another character in literary work. Well, that’s how I felt about New Orleans too. It was like another person that was in my life. And I was fascinated by her. I wanted to be a New Orleanian.
There are notions that we hold true for New Orleans that everyone seems to agree on and accept. New Orleans is a place of indulgence. Good food and drinks are in abundance. Music fills the bars, streets, and restaurants. Celebrations are important and extravagant. These things are apparent to even the occasional traveler. But something I’m not sure the average person considers about New Orleans is how important history is to New Orleanians. Family history, neighborhood history, and traditions play a huge role in the lives of people from New Orleans. There is great pride in explaining how everyone is related or knows each other, and who has known who for how long. Where families come from in the city, and what schools they attended, are very important as well, even for the families that no longer live in the city proper. Nearly everyone has roots in the city, and they want you to know it.
It is this deep sense of history and tradition that brings me to sharing my story with you. As you read my account of Hurricane Katrina, I want you to keep in mind that I have limited roots in the city, and that my experiences differ greatly from those whose history with the city is deeper than my own. I can’t imagine losing every sense of home I ever had in one tragic moment. I feel as though it is also important to reveal that I am an educated, middle-class, Catholic, white woman from the Southwest. As you can imagine, these identities shaped the way in which I experienced Hurricane Katrina.
I also want to introduce you to one of my best friends, B. B and I were roommates the entire time I lived in New Orleans, and she is one of my favorite people in the whole world. I asked B to write about her experience for this blog as well, and she wanted to. But B just moved to San Francisco and is starting a new job this week, so her account of this is missing as of right now. Maybe we can get her to write about it someday soon.
I have decided to write two parts to my blog. I want to first share a narrative about life during and after Hurricane Katrina—that is my entry today. I am in the middle of writing a separate blog entry to discuss more in depth what it has been like coming to terms with a Post-Katrina existence.
I hope you will find yourself somewhere in my story.
It was Friday, and we just finished our first week of school. B’s birthday was Thursday, so we went out for sushi and sake bombs with a bunch of friends. One of the guys at dinner was just moving back to New Orleans from Miami. He mentioned that there was a hurricane that had just hit Florida, and it was heading our way. We gave a drunken toast to Hurricane Katrina, in hopes that it would give us an evacuation before the end of the weekend. (Before you judge this, consider that feeling you get when you think there may be a snow day right after you return to school from winter break. That’s what hoping for a ‘hurrication’ is like.)
The next morning around 9am, B called me (she had stayed at her boyfriend’s house that night) and said that Mayor Nagin was going on TV at 10am to announce a voluntary evacuation. This meant we had to get on the road before then—evacuation traffic was always a nightmare. I had just worn my best clothes that week, since it had been the first week of school, so I decided to pack just my dirty laundry—I’d wash it whenever I got to where I was going. Then came the hard part. What else should I take? If you’ve never imagined how you’d answer this question, you’re about as far into the process as I was. I had evacuated once, a year before, for Hurricane Ivan, and had taken way too much that time. I put anything I cared about in the trunk that time—it had taken time to both pack and unpack—and it had been such a waste of time. So I decided there were only two things I cared about—my car and my laptop. Everything else was replaceable. B and I had just moved into our apartment a few weeks before this, so I luckily had a box still packed which contained some of my journals and pictures. On a whim, I took that box too.
The plan was to go to Lafayette, LA, which was two hours away. B’s boyfriend was in medical school at Tulane; his parents lived in Lafayette and invited anyone who needed a place to stay room and board. We ended up in their big house Saturday afternoon with over a dozen medical students. We had a party that night, with piano playing, singing, and dancing. I had a blast.
I don’t remember Sunday at all, but Monday was the day that Katrina hit. We were expecting to lose power—I guess that’s normal for a hurricane hitting so close to Lafayette—and I elected to go bowling that afternoon. (Now is a good time to mention that I ended up evacuating without any socks, and with only one pair of flip flops. The socks I got from the bowling ally ended up being the only pair of socks I had for over a month.) After bowling, we stopped by Target to get some more booze for the house. Now, it’s probably pretty normal for people in situations like ours (facing a possible evening without power) to want batteries, flashlights, etc., but in Lafayette, it must also be kosher to stockpile alcohol. When I say that there were only two bottles of wine left on the shelf in an otherwise fully stocked Target, I am not exaggerating. We bought those two bottles.
We got back to F’s house (F is B’s boyfriend), and others reported that the electricity had already gone out and come back on. Score! We watched the news all evening, and were grateful that it seemed NOLA had ‘dodged a bullet’ since the eye of the storm ended up hitting east of New Orleans, and the most powerful winds of a hurricane are on the right side of the eye wall. About half of us had gone to bed, thinking we’d return to New Orleans on Tuesday or Wednesday, depending on work.
I was still up watching CNN when the news reported something that didn’t make sense—for some reason, New Orleans was starting to fill with water. It was 1 o’clock am, and those of us still up just looked at each other, puzzled. I went to bed that night with a really bad feeling.
The next day, the news being reported was bleak. Water was pouring into houses and people were standing on their rooftops. Everyone in F’s house began to make plans—most of the people staying with us were going to drive or fly to wherever they were from. Flights were quickly filling up heading out of Lafayette; it was a small airport with hundreds of other evacuated families trying to get somewhere more permanent. B decided to buy a ticket to fly home from Houston—the closest large airport. But B had left her car in NOLA and needed a ride. I had a college friend in Houston, and her parents said I could stay with them for as long as I’d like; going to Houston was the next logical step.
People I hadn’t heard from in years called and emailed me to find out if I was okay. It was really hard to tell so many friends/family that I had little idea of what was going on or what I was going to do. Everyone seemed to want to make sense of the situation, and talking about it was exhausting. It was also completely unsettling to explain that I was heading to Houston and then planning to figure more out later. I felt irresponsible for not having a better plan and confused about what I should be doing.
I really wanted to thank F’s parents for letting us stay with them and for feeding us; but I as I would come to experience many times in the next few weeks, words and money can do no justice to the gratitude you feel when other people put themselves out just to help you. I wrote them a thank you on the back of a take-out menu.
The following day B and I drove to Houston. On this day, things had gotten really bad. B and I listened to the news on the radio the entire three hour drive to Houston. We were numb from the reports—citizens being raped and dying in the Superdome, shots fired at rescue planes, fires, looting—and I don’t think we cried. We didn’t even talk on that drive. The world didn’t make sense.
I got B to the airport and came inside with her. We were in an elevator and met some very kind women. They were in the airport working for the Red Cross, getting supplies ready for New Orleans. My memory of this is fuzzy, but I think they took us to a part of the airport that was serving the volunteers food, and B and I ate there. We talked about how weird all this was. During that lunch, I kept wishing she wouldn’t leave because I didn’t want to go through any of this alone. But the time did come to say goodbye to B; I didn’t know when the next time I would see her would be.
I spent a few days in Houston with my friend and her family. Houston did some pretty amazing things for evacuated New Orleanians during this time. First, any car with a Louisiana state license plate could forego paying for parking anywhere in the city. Several major Houston attractions were offering free entrance to Louisiana state citizens too, and I visited the NASA Space Center for the first time. I even got a discount at the gift shop, where I bought postcards and pens for a bargain. I wrote to friends and family telling them about all the fun I was having in Houston.
I was able to avoid my emotions for a few days, until I watched a news report in which I saw the Jefferson Parish president lose his shit on camera. He was crying and telling a story about his friend’s mother dying in a hospital (they waited over five days for rescue.) He said FEMA wouldn’t let Wal-Mart deliver water into the city. Mayor Nagin was also shown on the broadcast, and he was predicting the deaths to be in the thousands. Both of them shared a desperation that was overwhelming to me. Here were two, well-known people who I looked up to, talking about mass death and carrying around their shit in a plastic bag so as to not contaminate water, and I was in Houston using free parking! I will never forget how terrifying those public appearances were to me or how disturbing the images on TV were at that time.
I called my mom. There is something about talking to my mother which makes things truer than they were before I spoke with her. I was really confused about what I was supposed to be doing, and I was sad. She had been pushing me to leave Texas and come home, and I said I would. But I wanted to stop in Austin first.
I left Houston the next day, with a postcard thank you left on my friend’s table. I drove to Austin and listened to The Garden State soundtrack the entire trip. I cannot, to this day, listen to that album again. My Austin trip is even more of a blur to me than my Houston trip. I remember a few things: I went to eat at Freddie’s on South 1st, and the entire front room was enveloped in a massive pile of clothing, shoes, food, water, etc. for Hurricane Katrina victims. I remember attending Bat Fest on the Congress Street Bridge. I went to Paggi House for a Hurricane Katrina benefit, and they made me pay at the door to get in, even after I explained that I was homeless and the benefit was for evacuees like me. I was in Austin when B called to tell me that we had lost our jobs. Both Jefferson and Orleans parish schools suffered damage, and they were to be closed until at least January 2006. We needed to file for unemployment.
I finally made my way back to the Southwest, and stayed with my parents indefinitely. If my memories of Houston and Austin were foggy, the weeks that followed at home were a dense haze. I filed for unemployment. I asked for FEMA emergency aid and Red Cross benefits at a local shelter. I wrote a column for the college newspaper. I attended a swearing in of new lawyers who had passed the state bar, for I had several friends who had just completed law school. I went to parties and visited with friends and family. Everyone wanted to talk about the hurricane.
Many of my friends and their parents gave me cash. One friend’s mother collected over $500 from teachers at her school. I was pretty overwhelmed receiving money from both friends and strangers, but the effort was powerful. There were so many people who wanted to help me. I wasn’t sure how to be graceful during this time; it was completely new to me to be needy. I consciously wanted to show a strong face. As I wrote thank yous, I promised I would pay forward their kindness.
My obsession with looking at real-time satellite footage of New Orleans on the internet grew. I found our apartment on this website and discovered that there were black splotches on our roof. I called B. B swore that these were shadows from clouds, but we both knew, deep down, that this was evidence that parts of the roof had come off. B got confirmation from our landlord shortly after that the apartment was ruined. The landlord said we needed to move our stuff out of there as soon as possible.
The situation in New Orleans was complicated. They were letting people from certain zip codes in, but not others. No one was supposed to stay in the city over night, but if you did, there was a curfew mandated by the military. There was little electricity and gas, and tap water was unsafe to drink. Mostly, people returned during the day to work on cleanup and left in the evenings.
The good news for me was that I ended up keeping my job. I worked for Jefferson Parish, and they were opening most of those schools up in October. They asked teachers to report back for duty on September 21st. I was torn about coming back, and I didn’t know when I should come back if I did. No one had any guidance on this matter, so I called my principal. She was very understanding of my indecision, and told me not to come back until after this new hurricane, Hurricane Rita, passed. She said they were probably going to evacuate in the next couple of days, and it didn’t make any sense for me to come back just to evacuate again. So I waited awhile longer.
The day to return to work came and went, and I was still in my hometown, unsure what to do. I called a teacher friend of mine to find out what work was like, and she said they were registering students all week. The district had no idea how many of our kids would return and what the flux from other non-operating districts, like Orleans Parish, would be. She said they really needed me, and she’d give me and B a place to stay if we needed it. I didn’t feel right living with someone who had been little more than a coworker, but she assured me that she and her husband had decided they were giving the extra bedroom to someone who needed it, and it might as well be me. I told her I’d think about it.
B wanted to return to the city to check things out. She was feeling more adventurous than I was; I really just wanted to make a plan so my reality could shift from living in limbo. I had decided I needed to go back to New Orleans to figure it out. My short-term plan was to pick B up, stay with my coworker, and see if I had any belongings worth keeping. After that, I didn’t know what was next.
B had been staying with her family, which was about a three hour drive from my hometown. It took B and me two days to drive back. We stayed with the same family in Lafayette, and we got up early to drive into the city on the third day. I was really nervous. My head was filled with what horrors I would find in the apartment. I was really trying to mentally prepare myself for the worst; I had no idea what ‘the worst’ really meant though.
The two hour drive into New Orleans that morning was eerie. We had heard the traffic would be bad. It wasn’t. There were cars parked alongside I-10, and we were puzzled why. Somehow we made the connection that cars were parked near closed exits and realized what was going on. People who had evacuated for Rita were returning to check on their homes. If the exit was closed, they’d park on the side of the road and just walk into their neighborhood. Another creepy moment was realizing that many of the trees in the swamp had turned brown. The hurricane must have changed some balance in the water, or killed important animals or bacteria, because the trees seemed to be dead or dying.
We had heard there would be a check point when we got to the city, and we’d have to prove that we lived in a zip code okay to visit. We were uncertain if they were letting our zip code in. Luckily, we never found out: the check points were staged around I-10. We came in on River Road, which took us straight to St. Charles. There were branches down everywhere, and we had to maneuver the car around large pieces still on the road. None of the lights were working, which didn’t matter much since no one seemed to be driving around.
We got to our apartment, and I wasn’t ready to go in. I was terrified. I had imagined this moment over and over the past five weeks; I couldn’t believe the time had come to actually find out what had happened to us. B and I have never gone to church together, but I told her we had to pray. We held hands and asked God to keep us safe in the apartment. After some silent moments in the car, we got out, put on our boots and facemasks, and headed upstairs.
Two things hit me coming into the apartment. First, everything was covered in plaster bits or sheets of plaster that had fallen from the ceiling. Second, it smelled really, really bad, like nothing I know how to describe. I was relieved to see that the floor was sound, and we wouldn’t have any problem walking around. I was also relieved that things hadn’t shifted much. In fact, the dining room, kitchen, and my bedroom all looked mostly the same, minus the plaster and mold.
I never knew mold took so many different shapes and colors. The mold in the toilet was green. The mold on the couch and clothes were black. The mold on my dining room table was powdery white. The mold on my dresser was dark brown. B’s room was a disaster. Nearly all of her ceiling had fallen. She had the grossest mold of all in her closet. She clearly lost everything.
I had lost the couch and dining room table. Plaster had gotten on my grandmother’s silk picture from India. My bed had water stains. My closet was also full of mold. But despite losing some of these things (things I had never thought of as sentimental until now), it was good to finally know. I took out my camera and started filming everything I saw, narrating what was damaged and what wasn’t. I didn’t know what kind of proof I’d need to give FEMA or my insurance. I took pictures too:
Keep in mind that anything with spots in these pictures is mold. While homes with flooding had their furniture broken and turned over, we had mold that attached itself to nearly everything. Because our apartment’s damaged was caused by really strong winds or tornadoes that damaged the roof, moisture came in and ruined things with mold. There is a misconception that homes without flooding were safe or at least better off than homes in neighborhoods with feet of water. While this is true in regards to the process of rebuilding the home—flooded houses were structurally much worse off—it is not safe to assume that possessions in the non-flooded houses were in much better condition. Also, you can see that there is still quite a bit of damage to our home.
The smell and the heat drove B and me outside the apartment rather quickly. We met up with some friends of ours who were also assessing damage. We went to a diner close by; it was one of the only businesses open at this time. Because the city’s water was not safe, they operated using bottled water for cooking and cleaning. Their menu consisted of cheese burgers, cheese burgers, or cheese burgers. Even though I didn’t eat meat, I at a cheese burger… and loved it.
Our discussion at lunch turned to the possibilities before us. New Orleans needed to rebuild. We had an opportunity to do some real good in this community. The whole nation was talking about NOLA, and we now had a platform from which to talk about racism and classism in the city. I started thinking that maybe I should stay.
The next day, I went down to the high school I taught at. There was a big potluck, and everyone wanted to hear about my story. The teachers and staff were eager to share their experiences with me too. It may seem odd for everyone to want to talk about damage, loss, and disaster all the time, but this seemed to be a way to cope. “I’m fine. I have a lot to do, but I’m fine,” seemed to be the sentiment. I guess if you keep telling yourself that you’re fine, you help yourself believe it? Everyone wanted to offer help: help me move my stuff, help me store it, help me find a place to live. They were desperate to have me stay. Many teachers weren’t coming back to school, and some they hadn’t heard from period. The district had a hiring freeze, so my school was grateful to have any teacher come back.
I knew then that I had to stay.
I lived with the teacher-friend for two months. Not many things happened during that time—I moved my stuff out of my apartment and stored it in someone’s garage. I taught my kids everyday and loved the normalcy school provided. I sprained my ankle really, really bad doing laundry (the stuff I saved had a horrific smell, so I washed it 2 or three times in a row) and missed a week of work. I had dinner with B nearly every night in the city, often going to the same five places that were open in Uptown. I also picked out three grad programs, all far from NOLA, to apply to.
During that first month or two back in the city, I learned a lot about the good in people. Folks I didn’t know helped me in nearly every way. Coworkers helped each other rebuild after school. I was given new furniture for free from teachers I never met. I had a friend living out in East St. John housing over eight teachers in her two bedroom house. Universities all over the country were taking in those Tulane student-friends I had. Two of my good friends ended up at Harvard.
B was on the fence about what she wanted to do. I was waiting on her to decide if she was staying—if she stayed, I wanted us to find a place to live together. If she didn’t stay, I would need to start looking for someone wanted a roommate. B was staying with a bunch of different places at this time. Our friends at Harvard mailed us keys to their apartments and told us we could stay there until the electricity was turned off. I was creeped out at the thought of staying in the city by myself, but since B didn’t have a car, staying in the city was more convenient for her.
In late October, B got a job working for a Disaster Relief Center (DRC). These were set up by FEMA (I think) and housed representatives from FEMA, the Better Business Bureau, Red Cross, etc. They were open 7am-7pm, and people would start lining up early in the morning to talk to representatives for “support.” The only thing B was authorized to do was look up the status of someone’s FEMA application for assistance online. I don’t want to tell B’s experience for her, but it was clear that this line of work proved very emotionally demanding.
With B working, we decided to look for a place to live. Since there was such a shortage of housing (so much property damaged/so many people looking for temporary or new living arrangements), rent prices soared. After a week of looking, B and I found a two bedroom apartment with no central air or heat for more than we were paying three months earlier. We moved in about 10 days before Thanksgiving, and we were excited that life was about to return to “normal” for us.
The time between Thanksgiving and Christmas were the darkest days I have ever had. Returning to “normal” proved to be anything but. Most of our friends had not come back. Without working schools (public, private, or universities), there were not many women or families living in New Orleans. B and I went out every night to dinner, and we drank at least two glasses of wine every evening. It was the only time in my life that I drank every day. We had become friends with some guys B worked with at the DRC; they were older and they claimed to be single. B and I knew most of them had wives and families back at home, but we pretended we didn’t. We drank, gambled, and danced. I tried to have fun, but I was left feeling empty.
I thought a lot about death during this time. I wondered what would happen if I were dead, how life would change. Would anyone miss me? Did anything I do matter? I told B about my thoughts, and she told me I was having suicidal thoughts. I told her I didn’t think that was true, that I wasn’t planning to kill myself. I just didn’t feel like living meant anything. I didn’t think my life mattered to anyone. There wasn’t any purpose to life. I cried every night before falling asleep.
B was having nightmares about tornadoes and her bed falling out of the apartment. She also worked 14 hour days, and wasn’t getting paid the right amount from the DRC. This put us in quite a financial bind, because our rent was more than we could really afford and it seemed that just about everything cost more. We also had incredible bills from our last apartment because the electricity company wouldn’t shut off the electricity there, even though we hadn’t used it since August. B didn’t have the money to buy a car, so she was getting a ride to work with a coworker and I was picking her up every night. Life was really hard for both of us.
A few things happened in January that started to turn things around for us. B’s cousin moved from Michigan to be a third roommate to us. She breathed new life into our apartment, and once she had a job, she helped us pay our bills. The universities and private schools opened back up, along with a handful of public charter schools. This meant that college kids and families were coming back. B got a job at a charter school, so she quit the DRC. Some of our friends returned (like those ones from Harvard!), and we reconnected to a shared vision of restoring NOLA. Loyola University had a series of panels for the community on the devastation and rebuilding of New Orleans, and I attended every single one.
In February, I started hearing back from grad schools, and I felt like I could finally start thinking about the future. Mardi Gras was a huge morale booster at the end of the month, and with the standardized testing on hold for the year, work was pleasant and productive. I had decided on a grad program by March, and felt as though I was enjoying the city as much as I could before leaving.
Despite the return of optimism and hope, there continued to be struggles. I had just registered my car in Louisiana two weeks before Katrina, and my application was lost. I had done it in a kiosk at a mall that had caught on fire right after the hurricane and my records were destroyed. Every time I went down to the DMV to fix the problem, they did nothing to help me—without a prior registration, they wouldn’t issue me a new one. My car was unregistered for seven months. I also entered into a disagreement with my gym, The New Orleans Athletic Club, which continues to this day. (They are an awful business, taking advantage of a lot of good people in New Orleans. Spread the word!) And with the many changes taking place at this time with businesses moving, closing down, reopening, or changing phone numbers or hours, it was difficult to get anything done. Everyday tasks, like finding a laundromat open, proved to be difficult.
When the time came for me to move away from New Orleans, I was stricken with guilt. Here was a city full of people who had gone out of their way to help me, and I was abandoning them. The nation had abandoned them time and time again, and here I was abandoning them too. What’s worse, I had the means to stay, while so many did not, and I was choosing to leave!
I had to say goodbye to B, her cousin J, and all the friends and coworkers whom I had gone through this experience with. I wasn’t prepared to leave the community that had become so important to me, and I didn’t want to become a member of that other category of people—the people who left. It very appropriately poured on July 2nd, 2006 as I moved away from NOLA.
It has remained hard for me to accept that I live an easier life away from New Orleans. It doesn’t seem fair that there are so many citizens still far from family and neighbors they grew up with. There are jobs that never returned and parts of the city that haven’t been rebuilt. Crime skyrocketed in 2006 and has remained high for a city its size. Meanwhile, I now live in a city that functions rather effectively, and I can actually register my car in one day. I also pay lower rent now than I did in the apartment I shared with B before the hurricane.
I live a good life, but I carry Hurricane Katrina with me. When I hear the word “refugee,” I am reminded of all the displaced evacuees still living away from their homes. When I read lighthearted Facebook statuses from my friends in the NE about Hurricane Irene, I think about Orleans and Jefferson Parish. I still hate being woken up in the middle of the night by a thunderstorm, and tornadoes scare the shit out of me. I promise you that I will never live somewhere with a threat of hurricanes again.
I travel to New Orleans every year for Mardi Gras and many of my friends go back too. If you’ve never been, I urge you to go. It’s a festival like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. People of all races and classes party together in the streets. Parades represent schools from all over the city, both public and private, and krewes throw millions of beads to locals and tourists alike. Mardi Gras is about living in the moment, and this approach to life is the quintessential New Orleanian strength.
When I tell people that I lived in New Orleans during the time that Hurricane Katrina, they always want to know if I evacuated. I hope that my account here has shown you just how hard it is for me to answer this question in passing. Yes, I evacuated, but that part of the story has a lot to it. Also, acknowledging that I evacuated without giving any additional information on all the things that happened after feels like a massive hole in my story. I had hoped that as I wrote my account out here for this blog, I could come to a way to summarize my experience, but I am finding that I simply can’t. In fact, there are many, many important details that are absent from this blog.
Sharing my story is incredible personal, and so I thank you for listening to it. I apologize in advance for the time it will take me to write the next portion of my story (I’d like to share what it is like living without a home, living with anxiety and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, and having survivor’s guilt), but I hope it can come soon.