Suffering to Solidarity

Copyright of this book is the sole property of those who contributed to this effort; mainly, the Katrina survivors, or the people who assisted them in the recovery process, and The Evergreen State College students who interviewed them.  Interviewee’s last names were omitted for confidentiality reasons.  Survivors and assistants: Briceshanay, Dawn, Madison, Stephanie, Kevin and Katie, Terence and Julie, Becky, Emily, Elena, Karen, and Bruce.   Students:  Elizabeth Hendren, Dana Petersen, Will Saguil, Elisabeth Lindsey, Durriell Jones, and Nelson Majano.  To apply for permission to use any of the copyrighted material on this book, please contact:  Elizabeth Hendren:  elizabethh2012@yahoo.com

 

As part of our coursework in the class, “Reconstructing New Orleans: Class, Race, and the Ownership Society” we conducted a research project titled, “Suffering to Solidarity: Stories of Katrina Survivors.” The purpose of this project was to gather stories from displaced people, as well as those involved in the recovery effort that have had first-hand experiences helping displaced survivors.  Any evacuee from Hurricane Katrina, or ally, who helped in the reconstruction effort, qualified for the interview process, as long as he/she felt that what they had to say was meaningful and wanted to participate.  

We as a group wanted to put a human face on this calamity, in order to raise awareness about the impact that this disaster has had, and continues to have, on individual lives.  Participating survivors and their allies were found through churches, emergency entities, and word of mouth.  We interviewed survivors and their allies, making an audio recording of the interview, and later transcribed it.  Minimal editing was done for length and clarity, always with the intention of keeping the true voice of the person interviewed intact.  These are their stories: 

 

“My Faith was in God”

Briceshanay

Briceshanay was born and raised in New Orleans, and had just begun her Freshman year in college when Katrina hit.  She evacuated with her aunt and roommate, and later transferred to The Evergreen State College in Olympia.  She has written a musical about her experience, which will be performed at Evergreen on June 7th.

I’m from the Central city part- the Uptown area.  I’ve lived there my whole life, in the same part, the Central city area of New Orleans.  My whole family is down there.  They’ve never lived outside of New Orleans.  But the hurricane caused them to move outside of New Orleans and now my grandmother stays in Detroit, so I only have one other close sibling that stays in a place other than New Orleans.  So, it can be a good thing and a bad thing I guess.
I was in my dorm room, basically watching TV, and I turned on the news and I heard about (Katrina) from the news reporter.  I had just moved into my dorm room.  That was the first day, it wasn’t in New Orleans yet, it was just near the Gulf coast coming to us.  I brushed it off because I wasn’t really worried about it, because I’ve lived there my whole life and this has always happened.  Nobody ever worried about it, it was never a big deal.  We were staying in the room all day because we were just gonna watch TV all day because it was the weekend, and we decided to go down to the vending machine. 
On the wall of the elevator, they had a list saying that we had to get out by this time, and we had to leave.  ‘If you don’t have anywhere to evacuate, you have to catch a ride with this van going to some shelter.’  I was like ‘Oh my God, we have to leave,’ I was kind of mad because I didn’t think anything was gonna happen, so I was like ‘why are they doing this?  Nothing’s gonna happen!’  But then I was like ‘maybe, because it’s a school, you have to do this type of stuff.’  So I packed up some stuff. 
Me and my two roommates went to my aunt’s house and we stayed there.  When you have a hurricane, you just get together and eat canned food, you never really worry about it.  Of course you do pray, but we weren’t worried until the lights went off.  We just read books, prayed some more, and played games.  It was a routine for our family. 
One of my roommates was from Seattle, and the other one was from Pennsylvania, so they weren’t used to this, and I was trying to be strong for them.  They were so scared, but I was tellin them ‘you have nothing to worry about.’  I was wrong, they had a lot to worry about (laughs).  But at the time it was the right thing to do, not to be all crazy about it. 
When the lights went out, I really started to worry.  And I was like, ‘oh my God, it’s really coming!’  I was sleeping when I heard the wind- it sounded like a person howling, and I was like ‘oh my God, what’s gonna happen?!  Is the house gonna lift up?!’  I was just praying, ‘Lord, please be over this house like a glove on a hand.’  We had prayer circles before the lights went out.  At that point, I was just terrified.  ‘Lord, if I’m going to go, if I’m going to die tonight, just let me die because you’re trying to cleanse this city,’ because New Orleans did have a lot of sin.  ‘If I’m going to die for my city, then when it’s time for the city to come back, let all the people be of you.’  I was really ready to die at that point; I had kind of given up.  And then my aunt was like ‘Briceshanay, don’t worry about it.  God has us.’ And maybe she didn’t want me to be scared at that time, so she just gave me words of encouragement.  I guess we all fed off of each other to not go crazy in the house. 
The day after that the water came, and then we stayed one night with the water.  We left the next night.  We stayed four nights.  When we evacuated we walked through the water.  The part I lived in had a lot of water damage.  We walked to the other part where it had nothing but wind damage.  My grandfather lived in that part, so we evacuated with him to this one-night shelter, and they fed us.  Each family had their own room and beds. 
From there we went to New Iberia- we were like the first ones there.  They went to Walmart and bought us clothes.  You know how people say, ‘oh Red Cross did us so wrong,’ I felt like they did good by us.  Before all this, my other roommate (from Pennsylvania), her parents came and got her way before the hurricane even started.  Cousins from Texas came to New Orleans and got her.  The one from Seattle was with me the whole time, and when I came to Evergreen we were together here.  That’s how I heard about Evergreen, through her dad.
            We didn’t have any food, I mean we had canned food but we didn’t have any water, and my aunt always said ‘you can live without food, but you can never live without water.’  They turned the water off because the water came in and they didn’t want the water from the streets to get into the pipelines.  We left because we had nothing else to do.  We thought we were going to die.  They had helicopters over the house, and we’d think, ‘oh, they’re going to come save us,’ but they didn’t.  People would say, ‘I got saved by a helicopter,’ but we had people who had set their houses on fire down the street from us because they wanted to be saved, but the people never came, they were just videotaping them so that they could be on the news for whoever had power at that time, which no one did.  It was crazy. 
            We (the neighbors) all left together, and made it much better because it was kind of scary.  You could easily have stepped on a live wire and just shocked yourself then and there.  But they had a guy, a neighbor from way down the street, and he was guiding us through the water, saying, ‘don’t step here, don’t step there.’  We felt safe cause there was more than six people together.  But we had to break off from them once we got to land, cause we were by my grandfather’s house. 
They were going to the bridge on the news, where they had all the people standing on the bridge or by the Superdome or the Convention Center.  They were going to the bridge because they thought that helicopters were going to come pick them up and take them immediately to houses that they already had.  This one woman’s child was like, ‘oh I don’t have shoes,’ and she was like, ‘you’ll get all that when you get to Texas,’ like they were on this little high that they were gonna get everything when they got to Texas.  They had those people waiting out there for four to five days.  People before my neighbors were turned down to go to the Superdome, so they went to the bridge so that they would be picked up on the bridge, which didn’t make any sense because the people in the Superdome were there first, so they would be picked up first.  I guess they just played everybody off of each other. 
            And people say, ‘Why did they break into stores?’- I mean, they didn’t have anything!  They had to break into stores to get food.  So I feel like that was a part of survival.  And those people who were just taking tennies and all that type of stuff- I feel like it was just crazy.  It was just a shocking moment, and they didn’t know what else to do.  All they knew was material things, so that’s what they did. 
            I evacuated to Mississippi, a town ten miles from New Iberia, and that’s also in Mississippi.  Then we went to New Iberia.  Then from New Iberia we went to Atlanta.  We stayed in Atlanta a couple of months, and then we came here.  I was only in a shelter for a day and a half.  The first night I just count as a half a day, because that was at night.  And then I stayed at the one in New Iberia for a full day and a night.  And believe it or not, when we were in these shelters I was terrified because I was like, ‘Oh my God, I could easily catch something from all of these people.’  I’m more than sure they had a lot of viruses goin around. 
Then I started to feel a whole new face of everything, we became like a family.  And I’m not going to say everybody, but most people.  They had these little girls, and they would be like, ‘You want to come play with us,’ and I’d be like, ‘Yeah,’ because I like kids.  So I’d go play with them.  And they had talent shows in the shelter, and I was like, ‘Oh my God! This is way beyond what anybody would think it would be.’  They would give us clothes, and if it was too small for me, I would give it to the little girls, and they’d be like, “oh thank you!’ like it was really from me, like I’d bought it for them or somethin.  (laughs)  It was kind of sweet, and when I left, I was kind of sad because I was leaving them behind.  Then my aunt was like, ‘every where you go, people just love you,’ and I was like, ‘no, I just love people.’ 
            My aunt’s on this whole trip.  She doesn’t cash checks, so she just had three or four checks in her purse, and my uncle evacuated way before us.  All of my family was gone except for my aunt, me, and my grandmother.  My grandmother didn’t leave until so many weeks after the hurricane.  She was still in her house.  Nothing happened to her house, she had water outside of her house, she had food and everything.  Like I told you, the people of the neighborhood were breaking into these stores, so they were eating and had water.  It was like her own little community, and her own way of survival. 
So, my aunt called my uncle and was like, ‘I need to get out of here, because I can’t stay here.’  Her children had left during the night, way before the hurricane came, so she was feeling lost because she thought that something had happened to them- their phones weren’t working or anything like that.  So she had to get out of there, she at least wanted to be around more family.  So we evacuated to Atlanta.  That was in a hotel, and we stayed there for two or three months.  We all didn’t stay in one hotel room, they gave us our own room.  That became a routine thing also, because we would get up in a hotel, eat breakfast, get dressed, go somewhere.
 I think it’s sad because we didn’t have anything, but yet we had money and we would go shopping.  And I’m like, ‘hello- we just had a tragedy.’  But I guess it was because in that environment, everything is normal.  That’s something that you see all the time.  And you’re in a hotel- being in a hotel is not normal, so I figure that we wanted to go shopping all the time because it’s something that we saw on a regular basis.  It was a comfort zone- it seemed normal to us.  You saw regular people smiling, and eating and all this other stuff, so it was just an output to being closer to home, even though we were not closer to home. 
            Everybody was scared when I was coming to this school, ‘oh my God, it’s so far, and you’re just seventeen, what are you going to do?’  and I was just like, ‘God is going to help me.’ I had spent all of my Red Cross money, and I had no money, and they were like, ‘all you have is the money to buy your ticket, and where are you going to live?’  and I was like, ‘they’ll find somewhere for me to live,’ –it was just so naïve, the way I was thinking.  But at the same time, my faith was in God. I look back and I can think nothing but to thank God for the things I’ve been through. 
            My uncle got a house in Atlanta.  So he has a house in New Orleans, and a house in Atlanta now.  My aunt left before me and went to Texas to find her children because their grandmother is from El Paso and that’s where they live.  So she went to go and meet up with them.  My aunt is back in her house in New Orleans.  Nothing happened to it- people broke into it but they didn’t take much.  She got carpet damage from the people walking in and out when the water was there, but that’s about it.  So she was able to move into her house within a couple of weeks after she went to El Paso.  And that was our avenue to go back, because her house is like everybody’s house.  Once you have one relative in New Orleans who’s house is okay, then you have the opportunity to keep on going back.  And my granny, the one who never left from the hurricane, she had to be forced out of her house, because they said everybody needs to be out of New Orleans.  So she went all the way to Nashville, that’s just where they sent her.  She stayed there for two months and then came back.  People out there were really nice to her also.
            Of course I plan on returning, that’s my home.  I don’t know how soon, but I do know I plan to.  I’m just trying to milk the cow, and take everything that I can take, and enjoy life.  I feel that everything that happens to you happens for a reason.  Me comin here was not a mistake, this is, even though it’s not the more diverse school, it’s the best school for someone who has a plan and who understands how to work the system.  Until I begin to not like this school anymore, I’ll stay here until I graduate I suppose.  Or if next year I change my mind, I’ll be gone. 
            I’ve been back 6 or 7 times.  And each time I go back, I see progress, but it’s not fast enough.  The stoplights weren’t on until the fourth time I went back, so that’s kind of crazy.   What, do people expect us to kill each other drivin or somethin?
            The first time I went back I felt so empty, because it is a part of me.  I didn’t see anybody, and New Orleans is the most vibrant place you could ever go to, and you would see people walkin everywhere, any street you went down, someone was walkin on.  All I did was walk in New Orleans.  I tried to do that the first time I was there, and I was the only person walkin.  I walked thirteen blocks, and I was like the only person from my auntie’s house to my granny’s house.  I saw two or three people, of course you would see cars, but I just felt alone.  And that was one of my reasons for not wanting to go back there, because it wasn’t exactly New Orleans yet. 
            Mardi   Gras season it felt like I was home and nothing had happened.  But of course, the reality hits.  Most of the people weren’t back at home, they were just visiting.  About Mardi Gras, I hate how the media is the enemy to everything. The media portrayed us having Mardi Gras, ‘oh, it’s the city that never sleeps, we like to party all the time, nothing could stop Mardi Gras!’  Those were things that were said in the newspaper and on the news, and it’s not even about ‘it’s the city that never sleeps.’  It’s not about the ‘party hard city’ or nothin like that, it’s about they need to have Mardi Gras because that’s where the money was.  How are they going to rebuild with no money?  If FEMA isn’t giving them the money, their holding it because they’re tryin to see who’s going to be mayor, they have to have Mardi Gras to bring the money back into the city. 
            My brother under me, he never lived with us, he lived with his grandmother.  He was okay, but we just didn’t know where he was okay at.  Everybody would say, ‘oh we saw your brother,’ and we’d be like, ‘where did you see him?’ and they’d say, ‘oh he was in the mall.’  So we knew he was alive, we just didn’t know where.  We knew that he was in Texas, we just didn’t know where in Texas.  My mom stayed in one shelter in Houston, and he was in Dallas.  Some kind of way they gave his name and they called the other one and they got together.  He’s thirteen. 
            The media portrayed that the hurricane was going to be big, but there should be nothing to worry about.   That’s why my play says something like that.  They would say it was going to be a Category 3, but their face wouldn’t show it and they wouldn’t give advice.  Or maybe they did and I just never saw it.  But I feel like if they knew that it was going to be this horrible, they should have made a mandatory evacuation so many days before the hurricane even hit New Orleans, even hit the Gulf, even got near us.  Even before it was a Category 2 or 3, they should have made mandatory evacuations.  New Orleans has the most busses throughout any city in Louisiana, and they should have gotten all of the busses and loaded people up and started shippin them out.  But it didn’t happen, and we didn’t even have to go as far as Texas, we could have gone to our neighboring cities.  Texas is so far from us.  I think it was so sad that we had to go all the way to Texas.  Why did we have to go to Texas- because our president is from there?  Because he wants to make Texas look good? 
            They know that no one has cars, and I figure they think we’re not smart, or we’re not smart enough to buy a car with the FEMA money to come back.  They shipped some people as far as Tennessee- they shipped my grandmother all the way to Tennessee!  People tried to go closer, like just across the river they tried to go, and they had guns, dogs, and everythin, ‘no you can’t come over here.’  Sent them right back across the bridge. 
We counted almost a hundred cars that had been pulled over with no drivers license and all this other stuff.  We are tryin to evacuate and they’re pullin cars over. Half the time people stole the cars.  A man stole a bus so he could evacuate him and his family. They didn’t pull people over and put them in jail, they pulled them over and made them walk. We saw people on the road saying ‘pick me up’ and they were walkin everywhere they had to go. That’s how my mom got out of New Orleans.  That wasn’t on the news, the only stuff that was on the news was ‘oh they’re shooting at people who is trying help them.’ That’s not true, because the ARMY men were killin people for no reason. This guy got shot in the back of the head because he tried to go back and find his brother through the traffic of people. It was so crazy. You never really hear them talk about that. Cause what you see on the news is so depressing.
As far as my neighborhood, the stores are staying open later. More schools are opening up and more gyms for children, they have something more to do then just school and then sit at home. I can only speak for the Uptown area though. I know everything across the river is fine too. I don’t know if I wanna say fine but it’s better than New Orleans. They called that West Bank the ‘Best Bank.’ I guess they would be doin better than us.
Most people want to come back. A lot of people are commuting from Texas to New Orleans to look at homes so that when their FEMA contract is up they can buy a house. Some people say they felt like that is the best thing to happen to New Orleans.
My aunt’s house is a couple of blocks from Uptown. About seven or eight blocks but nothing happened to my aunt’s house but water damage. Her house is still standing but inside it looks like somebody tilt the house upside down and shook it all about. There is a bunch of loose papers. She is already in another house closer to Uptown.  I went back to my place and nothing was there, people had stolen all the stuff.
The school told me if I wanted to register the application fee would be free cause I used to go there. That is the only thing I heard of. They already had people who lived in my room cause they gutted it out and everything.  The high school system is trying push a whole year’s work in into so many weeks. The key is you should have been in school. You shouldn’t have withdrew from that school unless you were enrolled somewhere else. This teacher told my cousin ‘you wouldn’t get credits for coming to this school’ so she was blinded by that and she didn’t end up going to school for a while. Now she is trying to get enrolled in New Orleans. So she will be going to school for no credit, and she won’t graduate this year. She might have to take summer school. I don’t even know if that’s possible. So she is all messed up.
It either broke you or made you stronger.

 

“My first trip to New Orleans”

Dawn

Dawn is a student at Clover Park Technical College in Tacoma, WA. She is about 30 years old  and has an 11 year old daughter. She is connected to New Orleans, and Hurricane Katrina, as  her daughter is moving to New Orleans with her daughter’s father.

My daughter and I were going to New Orleans on an airplane because she was moving there. We heard about Katrina while we were on the airplane when we could use our cell phones again. This happened Saturday evening. Going from the airport to our house, many of the roads were blocked because people were already being evacuated. Saturday night we listened on the radio. Sunday morning mandatory evacuation took place so my daughter and I packed up the car. It was myself, my daughter, my daughter’s father, her step mom, her half brother who is two, her grandma, cat, and all of the luggage in a Ford Escape. This was my first trip to New Orleans and when we were evacuating we had no clue on where we were going. We headed north and they even made southbound highways into a northbound highway. I was amazed on how well the highway system was set up to evacuate. At that point it was very scary because we didn’t know what was going on because I have never been through an event like that before. It was pretty numbing. The hurricane hadn’t hit yet, but we were stuck in amazing amount of traffic. We saw whole families crammed in cars and what they could take. When we were packing up our car we saw a large black family watching us leave. They had no car to evacuate with so they went to the local hotel where the mother worked at. I think they ended up in the Superdome, and then to Houston. It has been over 8 months and we still have not heard from them.
It was stressful being crammed in a car and not knowing what was going on or where we were going. While we were driving we called someone from Washington to find us a hotel room. We found one in Birmingham, AL. It took us 12 hours to get there where it usually takes only 5. My daughter was pretty freaked out because this was where she was going to live and New Orleans wasn’t making a very good first impression. This was our first time in the South and we didn’t really understand the magnitude of the situation. Most people who had lived in New Orleans for their whole lives weren’t afraid and didn’t leave because they have been there before. It was amazing to me to know that it was a mandatory evacuation and some people still chose to stay.
We got the hotel Sunday night and we watched the hurricane hit Monday morning. It got windy and rainy in Birmingham and we were five hours away from New Orleans. There were many evacuees in the hotel. It was not until after the hurricane that I realized that most of the hotel residents were white.
We stayed at the Holiday Inn for the first week. Not knowing what had happened to our house was very uncomforting. Hearing stories from other evacuees, having them tell me that their houses were gone was very difficult to hear and made me concerned for our own house. I remember going into either hotel and going to the laundry room and meeting evacuees and exchanged stories. Many evacuees that I spoke with left to relatives’ houses across the country. We lived in the hotel with all of these evacuees for over three weeks. My daughter’s dad went back to the house to see what had happened and he actually experienced hurricane Rita. We had to put my daughter in a school in Birmingham because we wanted to get her back to school.
A week after the Hurricane we went to Jackson, MS, to pick up the dog. The dog was in a doggy daycare when the Hurricane hit. A man was with six dogs when he evacuated. We got a hold of him through cell phones, not knowing if him or our dog was dead or alive. When we went to Jackson we were almost out of gas and there was no gas available. We found a Wal-Mart where they had army guards and policeman protecting the gas station. We communicated to find out our house was okay was by people setting up a blog system and we checked online. Knowing that we were not allowed back in the city was pretty crazy. My daughter’s dad had to even tried to sneak in the city. We saw on the news that houses were getting looted and we were concerned that our moving van or house was being robbed.
In Birmingham the FEMA, Red Cross had a place set up where you put your name on the list, and they made you wait for three days before your name even got called. My family with kids just sat around and waited to be helped. There was no communication going on. Hotels gave discounts on hotel rooms, food, and gift certificates. We put my daughter in a private catholic school. They donated the uniforms and gave her gift bags and food. The school system was very well set up and Birmingham’s outpour of concern was amazing. Zoos and amusement parks were open for free to evacuees. The people and general public was more helpful and caring than FEMA and Red Cross. They were just a jumbled mess.
Not depending on the government and leaning on our friends, family and community was an amazing sight. There was a very good sense of the community in the hotels. In the laundry rooms we talked and swapped stories. We had a mutual concern for each other and our families affected. People who lost everything were still willing to help and that was pretty cool to see.
It was a very life changing experience especially being from Washington all of my life. I understand more now. I always watched the national disasters on the TV and I felt sorry but now I have more of an understanding of how much suffering there actually is.
From what I understand it is a sinking city and they are building the levees back to a level three. What if a level five hits again? My daughter lives there. I don’t even know if the levees are already built and it is hurricane season. I don’t know if they have a new plan if another hurricane hits- are they more prepared this year?

 

Devastation from the Eyes of an Eleven Year Old

Madison

Dawn’s daughter.

We moved down here from Washington two days before the storm. And we didn’t have TVs or radios or anything.  But then we had to evacuate.  My Mom was here too, and my step mom and my dad and everybody.  So we evacuated- it was a long drive and we went to Birmingham and we were there for about a month.  Some of the bad things I saw were like looting and the flooding was pretty bad.  It was kind of hard to see the devastation in the 9th ward.  We live in Algiers across the river from New Orleans.  There was no flooding or anything.  There was one house two blocks down that fell down, besides that there wasn’t really that much damage.  I’ve gone to the 9th Ward a couple of times and taken pictures and stuff but the devastation was really bad.  It made me realize how good I have it to have my house and my family and everything.
My dog stayed during the hurricane.  Since we moved she was in a kennel.  They evacuated somewhere else and we went two separate ways.  We got her back about two weeks after the storm.  We called the person who had the dog and met her somewhere.
We stayed at a hotel but it wasn’t as good as my house.  There were a lot of evacuees there.  We bought food and water at the stores because in Birmingham stores were open, and we got a lot before we left in our car when we were driving over.
The school I went to was really nice.  It was the first time I was at a private school because I was at a public school in Washington. I went to another school in New Orleans. That school is nice too. The school opened October third and we came back a couple of days before that. There were new people and some of the old ones from New Orleans but some people didn’t come back. There were about five people that didn’t come back.
It was a good experience. It taught me a lot of things. It taught me to respect what you have and live your life because you don’t know what will happen the next day.
Since the hurricane season starts on June first, they will probably rebuild the levees. I think it will come back. I want to stay in New Orleans. I think it will come back and it will be almost normal.

 

 

 “We Moved Down and Got Here Two Days Before the Storm”

Stephanie

Madison’s step-mom.

We were extremely lucky in this situation. We moved down and got here two days before the storm, and literally locked up our moving van because we hadn’t moved into our house yet. Dawn was going to help her transition. We were here for about twelve hours, then we picked up and left. We left with my mother-in-law, my husband, my one-year-old son, Dawn, Madison, and a cat. Like Madison told you, the dog was evacuated and it was a crazy situation. Leaving the city was a mess.
If you looked at our neighborhood when you watched CNN “After the Storm,” we were the first zip code that they let people in.  There was that period of time between Katrina and Rita where they started to let people into the city and they evacuated people after that. We had a tree fall in the back of the house. We had a little bit of water damage but it is a 100 year old home. Literally where I was, where we lived, if you had a strong football arm you could hit the levee. We are at 157, which is the first block off of the levee. We were really, really close. But you didn’t see the devastation in our neighborhood.
The situation with Katrina didn’t just hit the poor. It didn’t just hit the destitute. It wasn’t just the people that didn’t evacuate because they couldn’t. There were a lot of people that didn’t evacuate because it’s like the boy who cried wolf. New Orleans had not been hit like this. If you look at the area called Lakeview, it’s right near Lake Pontchartrain where the canal was breached, you saw beautiful million-dollar homes that looked like you had been down to the 9th Ward. I think that that is really when you see that it’s not that the devastation was just in one group or class, because the media really puts it in that perspective. It affected everyone. If you walk into my office right now where I work, we have people in my office living with one another or with other people because homes were devastated.
When we evacuated to Birmingham, AL, we saw nothing but graciousness. The only time where we had huge challenges, when I was extremely frustrated and brought to tears, was when you walked into a situation like the Red Cross and they didn’t know what to do. They had no clue on what to do to help anybody. We had three days of clothes and got into our car with an overnight bag and we didn’t know it would be a month before we were able to get back into the city. We didn’t know we would have a month of hotel bills, or a month of food bills. That’s where the challenges were, but once everyone got their feet under them, we started to see that it wasn’t a big assistance of the government, but individuals. There was no police presence. There was a huge amount of looting. If you talk to the guys in our neighborhood, they all got together and they formed a militia where they sat up at night and watched over the neighborhood, and during the day they would patrol the houses and we would get on to e-mail sites and read about the neighborhood.
The timeline has been pretty quick, and there have been so many different experiences. Living in the south is a whole different ball of wax anyway because the culture is very different. So moving here from Washington and getting used to the culture was strange, and to turn around and have a hurricane.  It makes me wonder if it is a cultural thing or because of the hurricane that people are moving so slow, because that was the New Orleans culture. There is no sense of urgency. So part of it is because I live in New Orleans and there is no sense of urgency anyway, and a lot of it was because a lot of people weren’t prepared on what to do.
There is a lot of solidarity coming back to the city. There are a lot of different neighborhoods and people getting together and making the difference. It’s not the government agencies, it’s the churches and the small groups and the schools. It’s not FEMA and it’s not the city and the state government at all. They don’t know what to do. I got a letter from FEMA saying that I made too much money last year and I can’t get any assistance. I wasn’t planning on spending 5,000 dollars on housing my family. I wasn’t even allowed to come back to my city. My house wasn’t damaged at all- I didn’t want to come back without power or drinking water though. I think if you are going to see the positives of Katrina, it’s the people you are going to see the positives with.
My neighbor, who I’d known for fifteen minutes, looked at me and we traded stories.  She was a black woman, and she said, “Well sugar, if you need any help because you don’t have anywhere to go, just ask.” She worked at a hotel in the housecleaning department, and she said that she could rent a room for the family rate because her son had married a white woman, so ‘if y’all need to be family, you can.’  I’d known her for fifteen minutes. If we didn’t have a place to go, she was willing to help me, black, white, green, purple, it didn’t matter. It was the most generous, wonderful thing that I’ve ever seen. It turned out that we didn’t need the help, so we said that she should help others. That lady ended up in Houston and found help there.
There is this story of when we went in to this coffee shop (in Birmingham), and this woman looked at us and asked us where we were from. We told her we were from New Orleans and she told us that our money was no good there. She told us that we didn’t know what was going on to our homes, so we weren’t going to pay for our meal. She said to use her computer and tell our family that we are fine. She even brought my husband and kids more food and juice. She gave us a free meal and let us use her computer. That is where I saw the goodness of people. She wouldn’t take no for an answer, she wanted to help. Those are the stories that taught me something. It wasn’t the news, but the goodness of people that I grew from.
The situation was horrible and awful, but I think that you are given opportunities in life that define your life. These were defining moments. The frustrations are amazing- how I’ve seen the inequality of how people were treated down here and the inability to prepare.
 The thing is that for years and years people had said that this hurricane would be the big one, but they always came and went and moved on.  If you drove by the Superdome, you can see that there are tons of cars parked under the Superdome still to this day, and it’s been ten months since it happened. It’s because nobody thought it was a big deal.
There is devastation down here, but if you are here from the beginning you can see the positive moving forward. It’s been a crazy experience and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. It’s an incredible experience to be a part of the rebuilding process, to know that you are a part of history. It’s amazing to see people rebuild their houses. They are really proud to rebuild and I am one of them now. The commitment that many people, especially the ones who lived here all of their lives, have to the city is shocking.  You would figure they would go through a hurricane and leave, but they are staying and rebuilding. It’s a pretty incredible experience.
I watched my daughter say, ‘to appreciate the things around her and not take it for granted’ and it was one of the coolest things to see because that’s the point. I’ve grown from this experience, because you don’t take things for granted. It’s not about your stuff. It’s about wedding and baby pictures. I remember pulling away from our driveway with all of the people in my life that I care about. It allowed me to really get close to my family and the ones I love. You leave all the material things in your house and you can get new stuff but I can’t get a new kid or husband. It’s not about what I’m leaving behind, but who I am taking with me. You learn about yourself and those around you.
We made the decision to move down here and now we have to play with the cards dealt to us. It’s people that are important. It’s the people that made the most difference. I live in a cool place. I live in a neat community. Yes there is crime and difficulties, but here in New Orleans it’s a unique city. I’ve gained more experiencing it first hand. You really see who your true friends are and who is going to support you in your decisions. I don’t know where God is going to take me or why this happened two days after I came down here, but there is a reason that I am here, and my husband is here, and the experiences that Madison experienced. I think I gained a ton from this experience and there is a reason it happened. I got to see the true goodness of people.
I really think that the city is not going to die- the people down here are incredible. They really are a unique, spirited, group of individuals. They don’t always get along and they don’t always agree, but they do always find a common ground. I think that the city is going to be bigger and better. I hope that America doesn’t forget what kind of history this city has. We need tourists to come back to help revitalize the city. The city is getting clean. Don’t come down just to see the devastation, come down to enjoy the culture and experience the care-freeness of the city, the humor, the music, the culture. It’s fun and it truly is the melting pot of America, more than I’ve ever seen in my life.

  

“The Happiest Katrina Evacuees You Can Find”

Kevin and Katie

Kevin and Katie, mid-twenties, grew up and met in Tennessee.  Katie moved to New Orleans for college and lived there for seven years, Kevin moved down to be with her and lived there for four years.  Both had always planned on eventually moving to the Northwest, and Katrina gave them the “kick in the butt” they needed to move to Portland, Oregon, in October, and buy a house in February.  Katie is part of the Rose City Rollers roller derby league in Portland, and both Katie and Kevin have been enjoying outdoor activities since they arrived in Portland.  On the evening I sat down to talk to them, they’d spent the day climbing Mt. Hood.  

KATIE: We lived in what was called Mid-City.  It was a nice little historic part of town that wasn’t as touristy, so it was one of the places affected by the levee break.  The hurricane came in and we were like ‘oh yeah we’re fine’ and then the levee broke and we were like ‘oh no, we’re not so fine.’ Right now it’s pretty much a ghost town. No power, no water, hardly anyone living there.  That area got hit pretty hard.
KEVIN: Watching the NOAA website for hurricane information was like an office pastime. I think every office in New Orleans, and certainly where we were, every day you’d go, ‘oh you see hurricane so and so is getting bigger.’  It’d say, ‘a little bit west, a little bit east’ you know?
KATIE: The sad thing was, Hurricane Katrina was going towards Florida, so no one was expecting it.  I worked Monday through Thursday, 14 hour days, and had Friday off, so I never even said goodbye to my co-workers because Thursday night we thought it was hitting Florida.  Then it was like ‘oh no! suddenly it’s coming to New Orleans!’  So, yeah, I didn’t even get to say goodbye to anyone.  It just came so suddenly.  But, we always evacuated. We liked the free vacation, you know- you don’t get snow days in New Orleans, but you get hurricane vacation days and we’d always drive home to Tennessee to visit our parents. 
KEVIN: Allright, Katrina obviously made a turn towards New Orleans.  So it’s one o’clock (Saturday) and we get back home and there’s this broadcast from the mayor saying ‘now, you know, legally for us to say you should evacuate has legal repercussions, we have to provide, so we’re not saying it yet, that you should evacuate, but if you’re smart, could you please get the heck out of town.’  So, around two o’clock, after watching the mayor say this, we said ‘Matt, Morgan (friends visiting from Houston), thanks for coming to New Orleans, we’ll see you when we see you next and-
KATIE: ‘You need to get out of here, and we’re going too’-
KEVIN: ‘Get back to Houston.  In one hour, we’re going to be packed and out of here.’ And at 3 o’clock we locked the door and that was the last we’ve been back.
KATIE: Yeah.  It’s kind of sad- we evacuated so much that we just stopped caring because it was never going to hit.  We’d always just be like ‘oh, you know, whatever.’  We threw, like, five days worth of clothes in a bag, the computers, the photo albums, you know, the bare minimum- just things that really matter, because we knew we were going to be back.  If I had known I wasn’t going to be coming back, I probably would have packed a lot more stuff.
(Both laugh)
KATIE: But we were just so complacent about it, ‘na, hurricane, whatever.’

KATIE: Our area got about six feet of water, which, since the houses are raised, we only had about a foot inside the apartment.  Which wouldn’t have been so bad, but then they didn’t let us come back for so long that the mold was on everything.
KEVIN: Yeah, the water was a foot high for days on end.  The drywall was just soaked, and was basically whiking water up into the wall, and then there’s mold everywhere.  Even if the water had only been in there for a day, that would have been bad enough, but it was there for weeks, and then we sat in our home town in Tennessee watching the news every day, ‘you can come back! Well, actually, don’t come back yet- but we’re going to start letting people in, except nobody can come back, okay, so don’t come back, unless you live here, actually no, you guys shouldn’t even come back either, but you guys-’ you know?  Every day, ‘are we going to be allowed to go get our stuff or not?”
KATIE: We didn’t want to drive eight hours to just be turned away from getting our stuff.  I was worried because we didn’t have anything that said that we lived there.  I had my old Tennessee drivers license and I’d forgotten my checkbook- we didn’t have anything that proved we lived at that residence.
KEVIN: I had a drivers license from when I’d lived at Uptown instead of Midcity.  They were checking people’s licenses when you were trying to come in, and we didn’t want to drive eight hours to be turned away from maybe getting to see whether or not our place was flooded.  I was trying to look at aerial photography and find my house, and eventually I could find it but a photograph straight down doesn’t tell you much- ‘I can see my roof’- that doesn’t help me find out how much water is in there.  ‘I can kind of see a car which looks like it’s under water so maybe the water is in the house,’ you know?  You’re looking at reports that say, ‘well I went to my old workplace cause I’m the owner’ -like seven blocks away- ‘and it was under eight feet of water.’  So you think, ‘there was a little bit of rise between here and there...’ You have no way to tell, and are you going to drive down there just to get turned away from finding out anyway?
KATIE: But my father-in-law wanted to help us out.  He and a friend took a trailer and went back after things were not as bad, so he salvaged our stuff.  We got the silverware, and the Christmas decorations in the attic.
KEVIN: If it was really high up, and if it was not porous, we got some of our things back.
KATIE: He rescued our TV! (laughs) Which is still in Tennessee because we have no way of bringing it over. And so we were able to rescue some stuff, but not everything, like the furniture.  And it seems like everything I liked was on the ground.(laughs)
KEVIN: Wine fridge, new guitar amps-
KATIE: (moans)
KEVIN: Bookcase- you know, stuff like that. Shoe collections- half your clothes are in the lower drawers of your dresser.  That stuff was immediately discounted.  Even stuff like pots and pans.  You get one pan weighed down by a couple other pans sitting in it full of water, when the water rises up it fills up the pan- when the water goes away, that’s still rancid.  The water was already rancid, then it had a couple weeks to cook down, sitting in your pot- you’re not going to cook with that.  So, it was little stuff like that. We got a couple things back, but it’s not much.  Not much compared to what we had.

KEVIN: People ask ‘well, did you have renters’ insurance?’ and I say ‘no,’ and they say ‘oh, well you definitely had flood insurance’ and, to the best of my knowledge- I didn’t do a lot of research on this- but flood insurance is separate from definitely renters’ insurance, and of course flood insurance in New Orleans is really costly.  We probably would have paid for our goods a couple times over if we had been insuring them the whole time that we were down there.  And, like she said, we pulled out the computers and the things you can’t replace easily.
KATIE:  That was pretty surprising, we let go of our stuff pretty easily.  I remember when I was looking at all the bookshelves of all our junk and thinking, ‘oh I want to move to Portland, but I have lots of  stuff to move, let’s see what I can get rid of- no I can’t get rid of that, no I can’t get rid of that, oh I need that!’ I would be moving a big truck full of stuff to Portland.  But then when we learned that all our stuff was gone, we were just like, ‘Okay.  Whatever.  Start over.’  We really weren’t that upset.  There were a couple things that were sentimental, but overall it really didn’t matter.  So many people lost their lives that you just can’t care about your stuff.  We’re lucky that we had the capability to get out, and that we had family in Tennessee.
KEVIN: No kids, no pets, one car.  So, we were in perfect condition to actually be able to leave quickly and with the important stuff.  The last thing we’re doing is crying about some stuff that we lost when a lot of people had it a lot harder than we did.

KATIE: We were always in touch with our friends.  Everybody evacuated, I guess that’s just our demographic. Evacuate. All our friends are young, white, they definitely can depend on their parents if they need help, they’re not making lots of money or anything but working their post-college, not very good job-
KEVIN: Poor, mid-twenties white people that could go home- those were our friends.
KATIE: Yeah, they all went back.  Most of them had only lived there a couple years, and I don’t know why they went back, but, even the people with flooded houses and flooded apartments went back.  But now they’ve started immigrating.
KEVIN: I’d seen a statistic that people 20-30, white, relatively affluent, were those that were least likely to return to New Orleans, which is us, and I thought ‘well that’s it, our friends are going to be scattered around the world.’  And I think one person went to Ohio, but everyone else went back.  It’s like ‘you kids don’t even have good jobs, you’re going to school for majors that you could do a lot of other places,’ one of my friends actually went to Cornell for a semester, and then went back to New Orleans to go to go to Tulane.  Everyone went back and we couldn’t understand- I actually ended up being kind of frustrated with people, it’s like ‘this is an opportunity for you, well it was one for us and I think it’s one for you, to go.  You’re free, go do whatever you want.’  I don’t know if they just haven’t been in New Orleans enough years to get frustrated or sick of it like we had or if we’re just different people.

KEVIN: When I first moved down there (to New Orleans) there was an article in the New York Times, I think it was 2002.  It had this beautiful full-page, full-color spread of what areas of New Orleans were going to be devastated by a major Category 5 or 4 hurricane that hit at just the right angle, and how the city was going to be destroyed.  That was my introduction to ‘well, I really am living under sea-level.’  When we got out and were watching everything happen on the news from the safety of my parents’ living room in Tennessee, they were showing people, ‘Oh God, we never thought this could happen’ and it was like ‘no, everybody knew.’  Everybody knew that this could happen to New Orleans.
KATIE: It was a doomsday scenario.  We didn’t think it would happen in our lifetime.
KEVIN: Even the hardcore, always lived there New Orleanians understood in the back of their minds that, ‘yeah, one day, maybe not in my lifetime or maybe it is, this whole place is going to be under water.’  And for everyone having known that, residents, management, and government, it strikes me as ludicrous that less effort was applied to getting those people out of there, less preparation was in place.  But, I’m not railing against the government because they screwed it all up, even though I do think they did, or they certainly under-performed, I feel like someone should have been because we all knew it was coming one day.  I guess the government had the same mindset as us, ‘we’ll be back, in a couple weeks, no problem.’

KATIE: It’s been really nice having so many people help us out.  Kevin’s parents’ church gave us a couple thousand dollars.  They passed around a pot and said, ‘let’s give to the Katrina victims,’ and they gave most of it to other people, but they gave us a nice little chunk because they actually knew us.
KEVIN: The church did what pretty much every church in America did at that point, ‘let’s take up donations,’ and someone there was like ‘you know, Mike’s kid and his wife are in town, so we’re not even going to bother passing through the Red Cross.’  And then of course my parents’ friends, with another spontaneous pass the hat, ‘what do you mean Kevin and Katie are in town?! We’ve got to help them out!’  I personally had a lot of reluctance at first to accept help, because I’m sitting there going ‘we’re fine!  We brought our stuff out, we have people to live with. I kinda don’t feel like I deserve this,’ especially with regards to the FEMA money and all that.  Then my dad pointed out, ‘This isn’t a win-lose situation.  If you accept the monetary reimbursement from FEMA, that does not prohibit someone else from getting their monetary reimbursement.  There’s not a set amount of money to go around, there’s a set amount per person, and you are a person, you lost a bunch of stuff.’  He basically helped convince me that I should be accepting help because we did lose a bunch of stuff.  And when we came here (to Portland) we went to the Red Cross and said ‘we’re here to live in your town, is there anything you can do to help us?’ and they helped us out some.  It was hard for me to accept it- I felt like I didn’t need it as much as other people, but we did need it.
KATIE: I actually had a lot of help from the Roller Girls.  The LA Derby Dolls in LA sent me a hundred dollar gift card to Target.  And then I was like ‘yeah, I lost all of my clothes,’ and they sent me a box as big as this table full of clothes they had gathered, and same with the Rose City Rollers, they all bought me junk that I could use-
KEVIN: Like the toaster oven we used today- a Rose City Rollers donation-
KATIE: Yeah, it’s just so nice that all these people I don’t even know are going to help me out just because I’m a Roller Girl.  We’re just so thankful- if we didn’t have all of that help from everyone, it would have been so much harder.

KATIE: I know it’s bad to say, but Katrina was very good for us.  It was a kick in the butt.  We don’t really have anything bad to say.  I’m sure we’re the minority though.
KEVIN: We may very well be the happiest Katrina evacuees you can find.

  

 

A Family’s Struggle for Safety, Refuge, and New Beginnings

Terence and Julie

On May 20th, 2006, I had the pleasure of interviewing the Corley family.  Terence and Julie have been a couple for 19 years, and together they share one daughter, Jerika.  Between the two of them, they have six children.  They have both lived in New Orleans all of their lives prior to Hurricane Katrina.  Their older children are still spread throughout Louisiana and Texas, for they were not able to evacuate to California with Terence and Julie.  Currently, Terence, Julie, and their daughter Jerika are residing in Fresno, California. 

Terence

 

I had called Julie and told her the worst has happened.  My Mom calls, my grandmother’s having a heart attack.  So I stop over there, get grandma in an ambulance, and my Mom’s going with them and she asked me to go into the house.  By this time it was getting dark, the winds had picked up and I get back to the apartment, and there were 15 people who couldn’t leave the city.  Everybody was asking for help, and that was when I turned to Julie and said, “this is just the beginning.”  Everybody’s going to have to sit down in the living room and embrace everything as best as we can, we tried to salvage our vehicles.  There was no leaving then. 
One of the neighbors had a baby that needed formula desperately, and me and Julie went out into the flood waters and searched for miles looking for anybody.  There was nobody.  The only police officer that we saw was actually telling people to go and loot the store.  Unfortunately, the store had been pretty much looted.  He was in the same boat as us.
The heat was just unbearable.  My wife ran out of her diabetic medication and so her sugar level started getting totally out of whack.  I think it was on the third day, we tried to go to the hospital for two reasons.  One, we never did know what had happened to my grandma because there was no communication, and to try to get Julie some medication.  Because of Marshall Law, we were turned away at the parking lot, we were given the ultimatum to be shot or to turn around immediately, and of course we left.
Peoples’ roofs were being sucked up by the night sky, like some sci-fi movie.  They just lifted all up with the hundreds, along with other debris.  It looked like birds flying.  It’s just unbelievable.
It was like a war zone.  Just hoots, screeches, and moans all into the night.  And people on their balconies were shooting at the helicopters.  After three days of helicopters flying over us, I guess they were stressed out because you couldn’t sleep.  We tried flagging them down at night with a high- powered flashlight to let them know we were there, and they just passed us over.  I said to Julie, “something really bad has happened, there’s a reason why they’re not stopping.”  By nighttime, we have people actually down there shooting at them.  We quit even trying to flag them for their own safety.  If they come in close we’ve got at least two or three shooters right around us.  It was so bad that when I got here to Fresno, it was like the first or second night in the hotel room, I started a whole two-month with nightmares.  It rained that night, and there was some lightning outside, and because we were next to the airport there were helicopters flying around.  I woke up almost screaming in the middle of the night because I was having flashbacks that I was still there, still in the panic of being there for four days.  On the second day, there was nothing but thugs left in the street.  It was bad.  Still, you have flashbacks.
I thought it would be as easy as find a job, start paying bills, and find a place to live.  And it’s really just not that easy.  Both of us worked so hard at building up our job.  We had business contacts from Alabama to Louisiana, and a little into Texas with dealerships and wholesalers that we did business with.  Julie would do accounting for them and keep up with all of their bookwork, and I was handling titles.  We were doing really good, good reputations, and all that’s gone now.  You have to start all over again, there are no reputations here, they don’t know who you are.  
Whoever you are and wherever you are, thank God that you’ve got it.  Everyday thank God.  To have everything stripped away, you see everything more clear.  We’ll get new jobs, and new friendships.

Julie

I don’t think anybody thought that it was gonna take that jog and hit us the way it did.  We were just all expecting a really bad storm, as you know Louisiana and New Orleans it rains all the time, we’re used to it.  We, just all 15, 16, about 18 of us in our apartment, riding out the storm.
Like on the third day, we were standing out on the balcony, it was so hot that you can’t imagine.  A big truck with workers in the back, the military, maybe Civil Defense or somebody, but they were all dressed in the green, and everybody’s standing on the balcony yelling, ‘we need help, we need water, we need food.’  Everybody in the back of this truck just put their hands in the air and just said back to us, ‘we’re sorry, but there’s nothing we can do.’ 
The water receded enough to where we could walk to where we had the truck parked.  By this time, it was a really scary thing because everybody was trying to get out.  They were stealing cars, so it was really risky to even attempt to go get the truck.  So we went and got the truck, something that took five minutes ended up taking an hour.  We loaded up the girls, my mother, my two grandbabies, and we headed out towards Baton Rouge, just trying to get out of the city.  That took us, just to get into Gonzales, Louisiana, I’d say a good five hours, something that should have just taken us an hour. 
We found this little run down hotel, everything was full.  You couldn’t get gas, you couldn’t get anything.  We got the room and we stayed there for three weeks.  Terry’s mom had just sent us some money.  We had no money, nothing.  I had gotten sick along the way, that had taken the little bit of cash that we did have having to eat.  Because I’m a diabetic, that took money that maybe if I didn’t have to eat as often would have been put towards something else. 
We stayed at the hotel room for about three weeks, this room was so bad that they had holes in the mattresses, there were holes in the curtains, band-aids is what they had to cover the holes in the curtains.  We were being fed by the church, they would come out to the motel, because there were other Katrina people there, they would come out once a day and give us a meal, which was greatly appreciated.  We were taken in also by a Spanish church who fed us a couple of times.
On September 11th, my birthday, Terry was going to take the last five dollars we had and take me to Taco Bell to get a birthday meal.  And I’m sitting on the edge of the bed, I’m crying, ‘what are we gonna do, the money’s running out, where are we gonna go, we have no jobs.’  By this time the kids are in Houston with my sister, how are we gonna get them back you know, the cell phones are going to be cut off, we can’t pay the bill, where’s the communication gonna come from.  Gas, where are we gonna find gas.
Well, Terry was hugging me telling me, ‘Julie it’s gonna be okay, it’s gonna be okay.  Something will happen.  We’ll get a job.’  I was like, ‘yeah, yeah, yeah.’  There was a knock at the door.  When Terry answered the door, there was nobody there, but there was a white van pulling out of the parking lot.  And taped to our door was a green flyer.  And it said, ‘how would you like to relocate?’  And there were different places there.  One of them was Fresno, California, one was in Ohio, several different places.  So Terry and I talked about it for about two days, and finally Terry said, ‘what do we have to go back to?  We have no home, what could it hurt?’  So Terry called the number and in a couple of days later they called us back, and plans were made for us to be relocated to Fresno.  It was the First Baptist Church of Clovis, here in California that adopted us so to speak. 
So we packed up from the motel, and we drove down to Houston, which is where my children were at this point.  So I just picked up the 13 year-old and the 17 year-old at this time, and we stayed there over night to get some sleep.  The next morning at five o’clock, Terry dropped Jerika and I off at the Houston airport, and we hugged and kissed goodbye.  I cried because Terry and I have never been apart, overnight or anything.
It was just scary, I had never been on a plane before, Jerika had never been on a plane before.  I didn’t want to go and do it without him, it’s like I’m leaving my home, and I’m getting off somewhere I’ve never been, I don’t know these people, basically I’m walking into the arms of strangers, other than a voice on the telephone.  What is it gonna be when I get there?
Terry and my 17 year old son, they drove from Houston to Fresno, and it took them like three days, no sleep, I think they stopped like once on the way.  Terry wanted to get to me. 
When the plane landed at the airport, Jerika and I just looked at each other, we knew this was it.  Jerika and I walked up, there was these big huge signs that read, ‘Welcome Home Jerika and Julie.’  These people gave us the best hug I think I’ve ever had in my life.  They cried, I cried.  These people could not be better if they tried.  You hear of churches doing things all the time for people, you know.  You say, ‘yeah, yeah, yeah.’  You see these evangelists on TV, and yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s a big money thing, you know.  These people are not like that.  Their arms, and their hearts couldn’t have been outstretched more.  They gave us a car.   They put us up in a house for a year, utility and rent free, furnished our home, just made us feel like we were here.  These people could not have been better if they tried.
These are people, all you have to say is ‘I need help,’ and there’s somebody there to help you.  We were never asking for handouts, all we ever wanted was a hand back up. 
I miss home.  That will always be my home, forever in a day.  My mom is still there, my oldest daughter and two grandbabies are still there. There’s a lot of depression over that because my oldest daughter and two grandkids lived with us until Katrina.  I haven’t seen them or my mother, which I’m used to seeing them everyday, or Terry’s mother, in six months now.  There’s very few phone calls because we can’t afford to pay the long distance.  While we pay for nothing at the moment, we have very little money.
We lost everything, if you’re a material person, you need to drop it, because that’s not what it’s about.  It’s not about you.  We’re alive and we’re breathing.  Everybody in my family is alive and well.  We may have to start over from scratch, but you know what, we’re here, we’re kicking and screaming, and we’re here to do it another day.  That’s a blessing in itself.
A Former New Orleans Resident Goes Back to Help Sister

Becky

We had the honor of interviewing Becky Fouquir of The City Church, located in Kirkland, Washington.  Becky and her husband are both from Louisiana, and her sister was a victim of Hurricane Katrina.  Becky has been to New Orleans three times since Katrina, twice to volunteer, and once to visit.  She sees the “rebuilding” of New Orleans as an opportunity for the people that will return to start a new beginning.

We went the end of October, beginning of November for the first time. The New Orleans area, the whole metropolitan, East New Orleans, and the Lower 9th Ward. We stayed a whole week. We brought a team down there on Sunday and stayed seven days. There was 13 of us from the church, and we worked at distribution sites with items such as food, clothing, water, baby stuff, and batteries, because when we went there was still no electricity in the area. We worked with the National Guard, they were working along with us. It was a church sponsored distribution site.
The greatest thing was diapers and wipes, and when you run out you pray for more and the next thing you knew a truckload would come that day. It was just amazing to watch. So we decided to go back again. We went back three weeks later to help again.
So, we were able to help with their Christmas party.  At Christmas time, there was a sense of loss. I had the job of organizing the toy area. People would donate thousands and thousands of toys, nice stuff such as bikes and scooters. There was a line from the tent all the way out to the street, which was like two blocks. It got a little hairy because they were stealing more than they were supposed to take. I would tell them ‘that is between you and God.’ They would come saying ‘my cousin needs a scooter, my so and so is in the hospital.’ It was so amazing because I am not very good at being mean, and you lost everything. So finally, I said, ‘it’s between you and God. I see you taking it but I can’t stop you.’ Praise Jesus.
My sister didn't evacuate. I called her on Sunday and told her to get out.  She wasn't going to leave because it was such a hassle getting out of town.  Everybody is going at once on Sunday, and the hurricane hit Monday. She got out at 3:00 pm, but she only got 50 miles outside of the city because it took so long. She had eight feet of water and her home was completely destroyed. She lost her car to vandals. She had parked downtown in a parking garage, and when she got there her car was completely vandalized by looters, so she lost her car too.  Her neighbor actually drowned. Her neighbor was an older woman.
My sister is a single mom. She would be considered middle class. She actually drove through the projects to get to her house. She lived in the nicer part. It was amazing to see the change from the projects as it got worse and worse.
My sister can’t rebuild because the levees still aren’t fixed. I think it is such a Catch 22 because if you do try and rebuild, and if you don't build it right you will have to tear it down. So everyone is in limbo. My sister still doesn't have a place to live. She is just living with a friend. She doesn't want to move anywhere else. She has no place to live unless she gets a trailer and she doesn’t want that.
You know what was amazing is how many trailers were empty. You should see all the trailers with nobody living in them. I don't know where the people are staying. Maybe with family and friends? I just got back last week. I didn't go there to work, I went to see my family, my sisters and stuff. Anyway, there were a lot of trailers. They paid my hometown millions of dollars to be able to house these trailers. I was thinking, ‘well my sister doesn’t want a trailer, so who would want to live in one?’ It was just amazing. It’s weird to see.
In Louisiana, it’s a very corrupt government. Growing up, I remember Governor Edwin Edwards got thrown in jail. He served as our governor for years. It was just a very corrupt government. They were just backwards.
I think, from just talking to friends who live in Louisiana, there was a feud between Governor Blanco and Mayor Nagin. He actually was endorsing the Republican to beat her, and he was a Democrat. He was supporting another candidate, and she got mad so she didn't want to associate with Mayor Nagin. So there was a conflict because she didn't want him to outdo her, and vice-versa.
If there was an election today, she wouldn't win. She has the lowest approval rating. In fairness to her, she didn't have any experience. She had just gotten elected. I heard the reason they voted for her was because her son had just died. It was for sympathy that she became governor, and she is in way over her head. So that's just the story behind the story.
I want to see the poor get better education because the education system is horrible in Louisiana. And they need to fix that. So they get stuck in this rut, and sometimes out of your devastation you can make a new start, ‘what’s my life about? How do I want to live my life?’ See for my sister, it's a chance to start over.
When 9-11 hit, it brought America together, and here it’s division. If we continue down this road, we are going to destroy our nation from the inside out. We won’t need terrorists to destroy us, we will fall by ourselves.
            I think before people make judgments, they should go see it for themselves. We should all take a trip and go down there.

 

 

 Working with the Common Ground Collective

Emily

Emily is a student at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA. She is in her late teens and associated with New Orleans through the Common Ground Collective.

I heard about the work that was going on in New Orleans with the Common Ground Collective just by fluke really.  I was actually pretty unaware of the whole “reconstruction” situation in the area after Katrina had hit.  Like many people, I thought that the storm had happened, there had been chaos, people had died, been stranded and neglected by the government but then after a month or so things had gotten better.  I thought, because I hadn’t heard very much about the storm after November or so, that the wrongs that had happened were being righted quickly and with support from the government. So, I got an email about a group of students going to New Orleans from Brad Bishop, a student here.  I was interested but didn’t consider it a reality to go, so I stashed the email and forgot about it.  From that point on it was like my awareness was raised to a new level on the issue of Hurricane Katrina.  It was all I could think about and at that point I knew that I had to go.  I went to a meeting, I was coming in late in the game but I talked with Brad, the student coordinator and I spent my tax return money on the ticket to go down with the group.
I didn’t know anyone, I had NO IDEA what to expect and I didn’t really tell anyone.  I think I didn’t disclose that I was going to many people because I knew that I didn’t want  people to think that I was bragging about going on some humanitarian mission to ‘save’ New Orleans.  Although I knew the mission of Common Ground was ‘Solidarity, Not Charity,’ I still feared that I was going to become an accomplice in a movement of student workers that may or may not have a positive impact in the communities hit by the storm.
            We left on March 22nd and I flew with a group of people that I had only briefly talked to a few times.  I can’t stress this enough, but I had no idea what to expect.  I still had pictures of flooded neighborhoods in my head when we landed in the balmy New Orleans airport.  My first experience with the corruption of New Orleans was when our ride didn't show up to pick us up to take us to Common Ground because he was arrested and detained by the police because of taking a quick nap on a bench while waiting for a ferry to take him back to the clinic that he had been working at.  We later learned he had to post a 400 dollar bail for public drunkenness when the police hadn’t given him a breathalyzer.  It was a money- making scheme. 
            One of the most vivid memories I have from the entire trip is driving through the 9th Ward- one of the hardest hit areas, on our way to Common Ground.  On each house was a spray painted X with information from when rescue workers had gone through the neighborhood.  The X told who checked the house, if there was toxic flood water inside, if there were any pets inside and whether or not there were any bodies inside.  When I saw the checks on the houses which signified that there were bodies inside- that’s when I realized that we were stepping into a situation that was so much more intense than I had imagined. We were coming into a shocked, lost and grieving community. 
            With this in mind, this is where I saw a lot of the negative aspects of our stay down in Louisiana.  Even though there was reminders everywhere of the death and destruction that had happened to this community, I found that all too often people were quick to forget the sensitivity of the situation.  With so many college students coming into a community, many of them not totally educated on the situation, it seemed that some peoples’ main focus was tourist activities-going to Bourbon Street, eating crawfish, etc.  Peoples’ lack of sensitivity ranged from not being fully educated on the situation in New Orleans, to throwing trash in people’s lawns, taking people’s things as souvenirs, etc.
            Another very scary thing that all of us noticed when we were in poorer communities of color, was the lack of help when it came to opening up their community centers such as churches and schools.  Often these were the hubs of activity that sustained the community before the storm and when they remained unopened months after the storm, people were lost.  These places are key to community involvement and also a deciding factor in whether or not people return to their neighborhoods.  If someone’s church and congregation aren’t up and running, then they may have no family to come back to. Only about 20 public schools are open in New Orleans at the moment. Communities are slowly working to get their schools and churches reopened but with little or no help from the government.
            When I came back, it was hard for me to tell about the experience, I felt like people wanted me to sensationalize the experience.  I did see destruction but I also saw a lot of community involvement and support.  I didn’t know what to say to people who I felt wanted specific answers. I was confused by my experience because I felt that although I was glad to have gone; in a perfect world, thousands of college students wouldn’t have had to come.  In a perfect world, the communities of color would have been given the support and resources to be able to do this on their own.  They would have been able to take time off work and help clean up the community instead of having to work constantly to help make up for the lack of insurance money they were getting.  Poorer communities wouldn’t have to fight against bureaucratic procedures and unhelpful government  organizations to come back home.
For many people there is no support.  There  is no encouragement.  Many outsiders don’t feel that people in these areas should come back to their homes because they will only be flooded again. But in my mind, the right to return isn’t necessarily the largest issue.  The big deal is that if these people want to return they should be able to, they should be given back the agency over their lives.  They should not be told how to live in their own communities.
I look forward to the future in New Orleans.  I know that although the community will not be the same and that there will always be scars.  However, there is a vitality and life in the people that I met in the Lower 9th Ward which is unlike anything I have ever seen.  There is also a sense of connectedness and collective responsibility and caring which is rare in other parts of the United States.  Although I don’t know whether people should move back to their devastated homes or not, I do know that they will be okay.  I feel that although all the support that outsiders have given to the area, the community members will be the ones who sustain New Orleans in the future.

 

 A Heart Divided

Elena

            We met Elena Chiwkert at a Starbucks Café in Olympia.  She wore a casual blue and black business suit with a black blouse underneath and gold jewelry to compliment it.   Elena had a strong presence with a friendly demeanor that was warm and inviting.  After a short chat, we noticed that she is a very strong woman, one who has a good sense of what she wants to accomplish in life.  There is no doubt that this small Guatemalan woman is very proud of who she is and of her heritage.  Elena has a husband, Alejandro Pinion, who still resides in New Orleans, and a daughter, Alejandra, whom she brought up to Washington State with her.

            I first moved to the United States in 1970 and chose New Orleans as the place I wanted to live in, but a year or so later my family decided to relocate to Houston, Texas, where we stayed for many years.  Eventually, we moved back to the place we missed most and have been staying in New Orleans a year or so before Katrina hit. I was the director of sales at my brother-in-law’s radio station centralized in New Orleans. My husband, Alejandro, was an auto mechanic in the New Orleans area, and my daughter, Alejandra, who was about to become a freshman in high school, attended ‘DeLasalle,’ a private school.  My family and I lived in a small community six miles outside of New Orleans called Metairie, midway between Lake Ponchartrain and the Mississippi River.
            I am very proud of the accomplishments of my brother-in-law, Ernesto’s, Hispanic radio station. The radio station was the last to close with important up-to-the-minute evacuation information about Katrina; when the storm passed, it was the first one to reopen with new information on where to go or what to do if your house was destroyed. The radio station also gave critical information about FEMA and other organizations that were there to help, including their location in case you needed medical assistance. Ernesto and other family members made this radio station a temporary place for receiving and giving up-to-date information on a 24/7 schedule about Hurricane Katrina’s relief campaign. Ernesto received an award from the NCLR Organization for best radio information in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. NCLR stands for National Council of la RAZA.  It is an organization that works for civil rights on behalf of the Latino communities and its focus is on reducing poverty and discrimination, and improving opportunities for Hispanics.  The term, RAZA, stands for all Spanish-speaking people of the Americas.
            My family and I had already evacuated three times before Katrina finally hit. By the time the fourth evacuation came, my family and I were already tired of moving back and forth.  For awhile my family contemplated not even leaving at all, but at the last minute, I decided that we should go anyways. So, just in case it flooded, we moved all of the furniture up to the second floor of our house and began the journey to stay with some friends in Houston, Texas. The drive to Houston normally takes around 4 hours, but in this case, because of all the traffic, it took a total of seventeen grueling, bumper-to-bumper, traffic hours.
My family and I were accepted with open arms into our friend’s home, and for about 1 week everything was going fine. But towards the second week, the family we were staying with became cold and the love and support we once felt in that home was gone and a feeling of abandonment set in.  Not only did I not feel at home with my friends but I had to watch as Hurricane Katrina swept New Orleans away and flooded our once beautiful home. We stayed with our friends for a total of two weeks before deciding to move up to Washington to be with our sister-in-law, Kathy Wilson.
My daughter and I left for Washington, leaving behind Alejandro who had to stay behind to work until July of 2006. We also left behind our brother-in-law and many other family members and friends.  FEMA allocated 2000 dollars for us to get on our feet again, with additional funds coming from the Red Cross totaling 2600 dollars. I deeply appreciate the help and support, including the number of additional items such as hygiene, food, and medical supplies for me and Alejandra that I received from the Red Cross. Along with financial help, we also received help from our sister-in-law Kathy Wilson, and my brother who helped us out with furniture.  He set us up with a place to stay.  Soon after, I got a job as customer service representative for Banks.  Alejandra got enrolled into a local high school. The school received her very well, welcoming her even though they were completely full.  They let her into the classes she needed, giving her enough school supplies to make it last two weeks.
I have found a good fit with Olympia and would like to stay here permanently, because not only are the schools better, but there are more job opportunities for both my husband and I.  Yet, my heart is divided because I am giving up a city that I have called home for quite some time, as well as adopting a completely new way of life.  I am slowly coming to terms with making the decision to start a new life in Olympia.  My husband, Alejandro, feels very different about the situation and does not want to live in Olympia, instead he wishes to start a completely new life in New Orleans. So this is yet another obstacle my family will have to overcome. 
Things have changed much in New Orleans.  Some places are like ghost towns and others are slowly coming back.  Most business are forced to close early to prevent acts of delinquency from happening similar to what we see on the news. For example, Wal-Mart used to stay open late but now closes around 6pm. Also, since so few restaurants are open, the wait in line is tremendous. Normally people used to go and wait a few minutes to be served; now they wait in long lines that lead to hours of waiting.  What makes matters worse is that there are only two choices as oppose to a full menu,   ‘You either want what they have or you don’t.  That’s it.’  Normally, what people will do is go home for an hour, call the restaurant to find out how close they are to being next in line, and then go back to the restaurant. 
            I am very proud of one of my husband’s friends who has been helping in the reconstruction effort by providing low price meals in the areas where there is construction going on.  Alejandro’s friend would wake up at 5pm to make several lunch plates for the many workers and then sell them at $6 a plate. The reason why he gets so much business doing this is because the workers only get 30 minuets for lunch so they cannot be standing in line for hours waiting to be seated for lunch, so this offers a much more convenient lunch alternative.  Soon though, some other local business people caught on to the idea and started cooking meals and selling them for a much higher price and he had to back out of it because now it was too competitive. 
            What I missed the most about New Orleans is the food. I specifically like Cajun crawfish or small lobster looking creatures that are so tasty. I miss the crawfish tradition in Louisiana where it was a tradition to eat crawfish in months that ended in “R” such as October, or November, because they taste better then. This tradition passed on over several hundred years by the fishermen there. I find much pleasure in telling you that it was Louisiana’s law that states that every restaurant must serve red beans and rice on Monday.  I also find much joy when I eat Jambalaya, a dish traditionally served with rice and sausage.  I miss the sandwiches called Po Boys or ‘Poor Boys,’ they are a large sandwich that has lots of different meats and chesses heated up in the toaster oven.
            I feel that the government’s response to the Katrina catastrophe was appropriate considering the conditions in which they had to work. Specifically, the plan to respond was there, but they did not know how to bring it to the people of New Orleans. Also, the reason why the Superdome was so horrific was because the mass majority who were packed into that crowded dome had such little education and did not know how to conduct themselves. I was so disappointed at all the theft going on in New Orleans and how it brought such a bad light to this great city.  Let’s all hope that this experience is one that we can all learn from and will never make the same mistakes again.

 

 A Caseworker’s Tale of Katrina Victims

Karen

Karen is a caseworker at the Tacoma Housing Authourity.  She has worked for Pierce County for over twenty years.  Her job at T.H.A. in September was to help New Orleans evacuees find housing.

The first thing for me was disbelief, and I wanted to do something.  At the time it had happened, I had just left the City of Tacoma, and I was out on terminal vacation leave.  I had contacted the Red Cross, because I wanted to go to New Orleans and help.
I thought about my background as a social worker, I thought, ‘okay, I can deal with all of the systems; the Veteran’s Administration, the State Department of Social and Health Services, Social Security, the municipal government, I could go help them do something.  I can help issue social security cards, checks, plan for the future, I can help them with housing,’ for I had worked with so many organizations.  I knew that I had an expertise.  I waited and waited for a call, and I didn’t get a call until after I came to work here.
When this employment opportunity became available, I jumped at the opportunity.  And I don’t regret it one moment.  I can honestly say that this is the most rewarding experience that I have had in my career.  I feel like I was part of history because I have helped people recover.  I’ve helped them to be optimistic again.
Initially, we thought that about 600 people would actually come to the Tacoma area, and that included Seattle, and we actually ended up having 6000 people come to the Puget Sound region, but we only had 107 people apply to the Tacoma Housing Authority.  A number of the people that came here didn’t realize demographically where they were going.  Some people get the state of Washington confused with Washington D.C., and I had very few people that knew exactly where they were going.  The only thing they knew was that they were escaping the trauma of the hurricane, and the stories were endless.  Many people talked about treading in water for three to four days, many talked about the trauma of getting through the water and passing dead bodies and animals, and they were starting to have nightmares.  Part of my assessment was actually getting people connected with counseling services in the community.
            Processing included a criminal background check, and it usually could take anywhere from five to ten days before that criminal background check came back to the Tacoma Housing Authority, so there was some delay.  It was timely, because a number of the applicants had never, ever lived in public housing, they were actually new to the program and to the system.  Most of the people that came to our organization were homeowners, their homes were passed down from family members, and so what you found was they took a lot of pride in their families, and their families were tight, they had very, very tight-nit relationships with their extended family members.                                                                                          
Out of the 107 people that came to us, only 40 people had received checks from FEMA.  The ones who received their checks from FEMA got a flat 2,300 dollars, that was it.  So we had people that had absolutely no financial resources available.
FEMA was an extremely difficult agency to work with because the volume of people that were affected was so tremendous that I would have people come in here and I would allow them to access my phone, because we could access FEMA from their 1-800 number, and they would wait for 30 minutes before they would speak to a representative.
In California, employees of American Red Cross were writing checks off of the money that was needed for hurricane victims, so once that happened Red Cross was pretty much cut out of the picture.  There was a lot of fraud that went on.  They would phone in fraudulent claims, and what we found was that they were from people that worked for the agency.  I would check the FEMA website everyday, and I can’t tell you how many updates they would give about fraud.  FEMA didn’t really give clear guidelines as to what the agencies were going to do.  I had people reporting that FEMA offered them 20,000 dollars for property that sat on five acres of land that families have owned for years and years. 
Many people talked about the number of family members that they left behind and that were scattered throughout the U.S.  There were many days that I spent hours with clients that were coming in back-to-back to see my computer, going on the website, and they would give the first and last name, and the approximate age of the family member that they were looking for.  FEMA had established a missing persons’ website, so I was on that website frequently. 
I had a number of people that evacuated here that were with an unborn child.  In December, I had three clients that gave birth consecutively three days in a row.  I found that there were a number of young men and women that had many children.  They had not practiced safe sex, didn’t know a lot about sexuality.  The only thing they knew was they were a young parent.  Young men, they were saying, ‘this is an opportunity for me to start my life over again.’
I admired how brutally honest they were.  We are now being exposed to another type of life that we had never seen.  Many told me that they didn’t know that life could be so good, because they were living in an area that was pretty much depressed, had minimal jobs, and they were just basically getting by.  And since they’ve been here, we’ve worked a lot with the Long Shoreman’s Hall to help young men get placed, because they came here and they didn’t have any skills.  The only thing that they were able to do was physical labor.  So they were able to go down and meet with the union hall reps, go to work at the tide flats, and go to work at the Port of Tacoma.
One day a man came in and said, ‘I would like to work for United Postal Services.’  So we went online and found out about it.  He submitted his application, and they were extremely impressed, he was savvy.  He was always so upbeat.  He was the only one here, all of his family evacuated to Texas.  He’s like, ‘Oh no, I’m not going to Texas, I’m going to Washington.’  He goes to United Postal Service, the woman called me and said, ‘he has such a wonderful personality.’  When you are in the customer service business, that’s what you want.  Well, he wanted to drive a forklift.  So, I’m like, ‘okay.’  He went through the training, he passed everything, and he’s doing great.  He started off making $15.00 an hour. 
I heard, ‘Karen, thank you so much, I’m making more now than I ever anticipated I would in my life.’
The good thing is, they lived through it, they’re in a new place now, they’re going to obtain new skills, housing is a possibility for them, permanent housing is a possibility again, financial opportunities will come.  That’s what I concentrate on when I’m working with them individually.  I concentrate on the good things that have happened.  ‘Okay, this is where you were when you came eight or nine months ago, this is where you are now, where do you want to be six months from now.’  There is life again, and it’s not all over.
I’m hoping that they continue to do well, which I know they will.
A Pastor’s Life-Changing Experience

Bruce

             I had the pleasure of interviewing Pastor Bruce Sullenger of Calvary Assembly of God, a congregation located in Centralia, Washington.  Pastor Bruce left for Escatawpa, Mississippi in just less than a week after Katrina hit.  He and a team went down to help the pastor of Escatawpa Assembly of God rebuild his home and church building.  In the week following Katrina, Pastor Bruce was able to raise 25 thousand dollars to finance his church’s trip.  He spent 11 days in Mississippi, in which he shared his experiences with me.

            We went to help the pastor because we had a personal relationship with him there. I think Katrina happened on Tuesday, and so it took me a few days to get a hold of the pastor partly because the phone lines were all down, and the only way of communication was cell phones, and the cell phone towers during the daytime were jammed. So I finally got through and left a message with one of his kids, who lived in Florida, and he finally got back to me on Friday.  I asked, ‘so how did you guys do?’  He responded, ‘the church is ruined, my house is ruined, along with all of our stuff in the house.’ I said, ‘would it be okay if I came down to help?’  He started crying on the phone, which told me everything.
 I started Friday afternoon, and by Sunday afternoon I had raised 25 thousand dollars, which was incredible. To do this, I called pastors at home, which was incredible because pastors usually don’t like to be bothered at home. I got one pastor up in Poulsbo, Washington, he was out mowing.  I told his wife what was going on, so she made him stop mowing the lawn and come in and listen to me, they gave a couple grand and he contacted several other churches and they gave money. Some of the churches were not able to respond because they were already doing something to help, but we had one guy who donated ten thousand, this guy who doesn’t go to our church, and has no connection through us. Apparently, he heard somehow through the grapevine about what we were doing, so he pulled ten thousand from his foundation and gave five thousand to the pastor for him personally, and five to the church. It was an awesome thing, getting to take that money down to the people, because they were so grateful and they hugged us and thanked us at least a thousand times.
 I had two other guys down with me that were contractors who had teams coming in who said, ‘here we are, we got muscles but we don’t know what we are going to do.’ So I brought the brains down and turned the two guys loose and they got into teams and were able to strip the church and some homes, and they went out into the community and were able to help, and this was not just for church people but for everybody because everybody needed the same help.


            There are many elderly people down there that really didn’t have family anymore. And these people are sitting with devastation like this, and it’s all gone. What do you do with the mess, how do you clean it up when you’re 90 years-old and you can’t get around? So we did a lot of going in and saying ‘hey, can we help,’ and they just love you for it, they’re so grateful.
            There was a fish place up somewhere in Alabama that heard what we were doing, so they got this truckload of catfish and brought it down.  We got these big bats of oil started, and we put out a sign ‘free hot food and catfish!’ I thought no one was going to stop, it was really hooky and it wasn’t gourmet style stuff, but within three minutes we had a line down the road a mile and a half long, and there were people driving Lexus’s, Mercedes, and upper class Lincoln Continentals, I mean there were people from the upper crest next to people in old pintos that were clearly lower- class. All of the sudden, within three days, there is no food. Even if you have food, how are you going to cook it? Some people that stopped hadn’t eaten in three to four days, and they were so grateful, they stood there with tears in their eyes, and you were thinking, ‘lady, this is three pieces of catfish, a piece of white bread, and two cookies and that’s dinner.’ I mean, it was not a gourmet meal but people were like ‘wow,’ like we just handed them something from one of the most elegant restaurants in town. That, I have to say, touched me.
            You know, up here stuff is so valuable to us, it’s what makes you. You think, ‘I have to have the better house, the better car.’ After Katrina, I saw a shift in saying ‘you know what, stuff is not what makes you.’ I had to come home and do a lot of soul searching, and realize that a lot of this stuff that I have been trying to accumulate is just stuff, it’s not that important. What’s important is people building relationships, because we were there for 11 days and that was the longest 11 days of my life. I’ve gone on mission trips around the and world saw the hopelessness, saw the devastation, but it wasn’t anything like this, I was touched by this.  I was changed by the tragedy that people went through, and in this kind of situation you have to separate yourself from these people, separate yourself from the tragedy or it will consume you.
 There were one hundred and fifty-year-old mansions, just gone. We went by Trent Lott’s house, and he was surrounded by state troopers, so we waved at him but he didn’t care too much to wave back at us. 
 There was a pile, like 15 feet high, full of items from the church all along the road. The garbage trucks would eventually come by and take it, and we found one place that was on the way to Biloxi that was probably 200 acres or more. The pile was already 60 feet tall after two days. So after it got so tall, they’d build a road to get to the next level, and the trucks would just keep piling higher.  I said, ‘how high are they going to go?’ They said, ‘well, all the garbage has to go somewhere from the three states because they have to get it away from people because it’s so toxic.’ 
            I was doing good until the Sunday before we left and the pastor stood up and they introduced us and people were standing there crying and hugging us.  We had to fight our emotions, and it’s like ‘I don’t want to become a part of this, I have to stay focused on what my mission is.’
            Then they told the story of one of the couples in the church. I think she was 94, and she was totally chair-bound .  The husband was very frail, he was not able to get her out of that chair by himself, and when the water came in everybody was every man for himself, and they totally forgot about this couple. Then the husband realized that the water was going to come up higher than what they realized. So the husband would start building a platform of books and rolling her onto that and he built up a platform until he got her up off the ground by about two feet. Then he realized that the water was coming in so fast, there was no way. So at one point he just kind of gave up because he didn’t have the strength to do it anymore.  He finally went and got a chair and sat next to her and sat on a chair as the water came up to her neck. She kept saying, ‘just go, you know I’m old,’ and he said, ‘well I’m old too, I’m not leaving you.’  He sat there resigned to the fact that they were both going to die because they didn’t know how high the water was going to get. Well, the water got right up to her neck, and he was holding her neck out of the water, and they sat there for four hours that way, until the water started receding.  They realized at one point that the water had reached a peak, and the water was not going to get any higher. They were just so happy to be alive.
            After that, I broke down and started bawling like a baby. The desperation of the husband sitting there, knowing that he’s not going to be able to save his wife, and so at the last moment he sat there in the chair next to her and said, ‘you know what, I’m going with you.’


            My perspective changed tremendously when I came back.  I realized that the stuff I thought was important wasn’t, and I realized that what was important were my boys. Since then, we hit a deer and it wiped out the front of my rig and normally that would not have set well with me, but now I’m like ‘you know, its just  a car it an be fixed, it’s just stuff.’ I have now lost my interest in stuff.  I had to reevaluate my life, and I have given a lot of my stuff away to people who need it because I don’t need it. And that’s what Katrina really did for me, it made me realize how much stuff I really have, and how little value it now holds for me. When you look at people and see how much they’ve lost, totally devastated houses just gone, and they would look at you and they would say ‘you know what, we have each other, and we can go on.’ It makes you stop, and reevaluate where you’re at, and what you’re doing, and what your life values are. You know, even as a pastor my objective is to help people not acquire great wealth, and it’s knowing that you’re helping people and you’re changing.

 

Final Thoughts

 

“I look back and I can think nothing but to thank God for the things I’ve been through.”
-Briceshanay

“I always watched national disasters on the TV and I felt sorry, but now I have more of an understanding of how much suffering there really is.”
-Dawn

“It taught me to respect what you have and live your life because you don’t know what will happen the next day.”
-Madison

“Don’t come down just to see the devastation, come down to enjoy the culture and experience the care-freeness of the city, the humor, the music, the culture.”
-Stephanie

“The last thing we’re doing is crying about some stuff that we lost when a lot of people had it a lot harder than we did.”
-Kevin

“We’re just so thankful- if we didn’t have all of that help from everyone, it would have been so much harder.”
-Katie

“Whoever you are and wherever you are, thank God that you’ve got it.”
-Terence

“We were never asking for handouts, all we ever wanted was a hand back up.”
-Julie

 

“If we continue down this road, we are going to destroy our nation from the inside out.  We won’t need terrorists to destroy us, we will fall by ourselves.”
-Becky

 

“The community members will be the ones who sustain New Orleans in the future.”
-Emily

“Let’s all hope that this experience is one that we can all learn from and will never make the same mistakes again.”
-Elena

“I can honestly say that this is the most rewarding experience that I have had in my career.  I feel like a part of history because I have helped people recover.”
-Karen

 

“I’ve gone on mission trips around the world and saw the hopelessness, saw the devastation, but it wasn’t anything like this. I was touched by this.”
-Bruce

 

We would like to thank Briceshanay, Dawn, Madison, Stephanie, Kevin and Katie, Terence and Julie, Becky, Emily, Elena, Karen, and Bruce for all the time and energy they spent giving us their stories.

We would also like to thank the Women’s Resource Center at Evergreen for donating their time and copy materials.