My Katrina Days

{see also :: New Orleans is Sending Houston LOVE}

My Katrina Days :: An Anniversary Reflection

We decided to stay. We had just evacuated for the previous storm, spent hours in traffic, and came home to a few leaves on the ground. My dad worked (works) for Allstate insurance, often part of the CAT(astrophy) team. He said he wasn’t leaving again, my mom either. We wanted to be home so that in case we did suffer any damage, we would be here to begin repairs immediately. I canceled my plans to be out of town for work. My younger brother waved goodbye to his girlfriend, even though she pleaded with him to evacuate with her. We made the decision to stay together and if our parents were staying, so were we; that is just what you do in NOLA.

A Storm Named Katrina

The night before Katrina, I went with two friends to Bourbon Street, just to see; it was fairly deserted and bars were literally closing up their doors. That’s when I started to worry; Bourbon Street does not shut down. We left Bourbon Street and headed to our regular place, Mick’s in Mid-City. It was our “Cheers bar,” and it was packed full of locals, all of whom were somewhere between unfazed and mildly nervous, nothing a few beers couldn’t fix.

Sunday was a boring day, quite sunny and calm, in fact. The news coverage was getting a little more intense, and my parents were definitely nervous. While we talked about leaving, seeing the evacuation traffic at a standstill led us to stick it out. Sunday evening was okay; winds started picking up, but it really was NOT bad. We woke up Monday morning very early, and my brother and I were running around outside, dodging a few roof shingles. By 8:00am the storm had passed, and we were doing tequila shots, celebrating how “not bad” it had been. One of the pine trees had come down through our attic and into my bedroom. We expected that to happen, and while that wasn’t good news, we thought “at least we don’t have to wait to get back into the city to start repairs!”

I took a nap, as it had been a restless night waiting for the big event and when I woke up a short time later I found a literal river flowing down the street as if a gate had been opened. We lived on the Gentilly ridge, one of the highest points in this fishbowl we call New Orleans. But the water kept coming and rising, throughout the entire day. We watched for a while, my parents visibly shaken. The hurricane had passed, the skies had cleared, where was all this water coming from? It hadn’t even rained that hard during the hurricane. We thought maybe it had stalled just past us and was dumping water, but the skies were so clear.

The Floodwaters Rose

We swam back down to our home. Yes, you read that correctly: we swam down our street. We needed to save what we could save as we had no idea when the water would stop, or when it would leave. The water was 7 ½ feet on the street, and 3 feet high in our house. Everything was floating in black water: the couch, our beds, the refrigerator. I went into my room and lost it. I don’t remember what, if anything, I tried to save, except for my favorite heels. That’s the level of shock I was in, that shoes seemed worth saving. I felt like my brain was shutting down, going into protection mode. This was bad, but there were no guidelines of what to do, what to prepare for. I put my favorite SHOES up high. Ridiculous. But who knew? My pictures of high school were already in a rubber crate. I grabbed a pair of shorts and a shirt, and walked out.

Leaving the house that day is a bit of a blur; it was too scary to process. One other neighbor had stayed; his wife and dog had evacuated, but he stayed behind to watch the house, with their other dog. We, too, had our dog with us; our neighbor had a second story, with manageable roof access, and a small fishing boat. We used his generator and all crammed into a second story room; the water was already half-way up his stairs. Gentilly was a predominately elderly neighborhood, and we could hear the cries for help ringing out in the night. It was heartbreaking. So my dad and our neighbor took the boat and went to our closest elderly neighbor, as we knew she had stayed and was alone. They brought her back to the house.

We climbed out on to the roof that night, as darkness fell. It got quiet. Scary quiet. So quiet you could still hear neighbors from blocks over pleading for help. It was too dark to do anything else.

We each got on our phones. Messaged everyone in them. “We have made a terrible mistake. We never should have stayed. We are still in Gentilly, on a roof. There is no way out, but we have supplies, a generator. We love you all, please please pray for us.”

Our service went out a short while later, and we were on our own.

On Our Own in New Orleans

The water was like glass the next morning, everything submerged underneath and completely still. We could still hear neighbors crying for help, and we needed to find a way out. My dad and neighbor took our elderly neighbor and her dog, and left on the small fishing boat. My mom made us say “final goodbyes” to my dad. We had heard gunshots throughout the night, and that was beyond terrifying. Saying goodbye to your family is brutal, the fear of the unknown crippling. We could do nothing but watch Governor Kathleen Blanco cry on TV. She just kept saying “GET OUT” but offered no advice on how to do so. She simply kept crying…

The helicopter showed up that afternoon, and we watched them plucking neighbors off the roof. It would be getting to us soon but my dad hadn’t returned. Mom made us write quick goodbye notes, but we couldn’t. My brother and I adamantly refused to get on that helicopter. We couldn’t take our dog, and we didn’t have our dad. My mom was crying, we were crying, but we were not going. Not without dad. The helicopter guys said good luck and left.

Dad returned a short while later, on the boat, with our neighbor. They had been taking elderly out of their homes, and bringing them to the first dry land they found, on Elysian Fields, near Brother Martin. They told them to make their way to the interstate. They didn’t know what else to tell them, how could we.

We packed less things, a spare t-shirt, music, phone chargers. Mom had rescued all of our birth certificates, receipts for big item purchases, insurance and such. We decided to leave, but first, we were going to go rescue my neighbor’s’ uncle, who lived one street over, and three blocks down.

So we all piled in the boat, with our little bags of stuff, and the two dogs, and boated out over the cars in our driveways. Completely surreal. We make the turn and start heading down the street and a lady is sitting on her porch. Mind you, the water is up to her steps and she is yelling at us. She is yelling at us because of the TRASH in the water. Literal trash, screaming at us to not throw any more trash in the water. The situation was so surreal that people just did not know how to act or what to do; so they coped by dealing with the insignificant thing, like trash on the street, floating down …

I begged to keep going, but no one knew how to get out of the city. The news had no solid answers; everything was blocked and underwater. So we stayed put for two more days. 48 very long hours. We had food, water, a generator, and booze. My parents felt we were safe there as we had everything we needed to survive and a dry place to sleep, as well as a generator to keep the TV going and watch the news. But I was cracking. With each scream that we could hear, with each gunshot, I was falling apart on the inside, nearly catatonic on the outside. I remember sitting outside on the porch by myself, just praying for a swift end.

The water was not moving, the silence was deafening, punctuated only by the occasional cries for help and gunshots. We heard rumors through the news that looters were close, raiding the shopping center at Gentilly and Elysian Fields. We could hear it happening, faintly. The sporadic gunshots were getting closer, and you can’t do anything but worry. Were these looters working their way through the neighborhood to steal and kill? That’s what we thought.

On Leaving New Orleans With the Clothes on Our Back

On Friday, a full five days after Katrina hit, we took the clothes on our back, our paperwork and got in the boat. We took it down to UNO, got out at the levee, said goodbye to my neighbor’s uncle (he insisted on staying), and started walking towards Metairie, along the lake levee. We walked all morning and afternoon. Our dog, who was old at the time, suffered a heat stroke. We were watching him die, sobbing and screaming; my dad brought him into the flood water, hoping to get his body temperature back down. It worked, but he was in bad shape, so my dad had to carry our nearly 50-pound dog the rest of the way.

We peeked in the neighborhoods along the levee, but they were mostly empty. A truck was driving along the lakefront, and they stopped to pick us up. They wanted to bring us to the Lakefront Arena, but we had heard it was just like the Superdome situation and declined the ride. They brought us to the end of the lake, by Robert E Lee, close to the 17th Street Canal. Houses were on fire there, and the Coast Guard had evacuated that station. We were told, “Get to Causeway, you will be rescued and given a meal and put on a bus out of here.” We walked right by the 17th Street Canal breach, with the barge pushed into it, and kept going.

The situation at Causeway and the interstate was MADNESS.

Imagine the National Guard everywhere, helicopters dropping people off, MREs, water, and people upon people. We got food, water and were told to get behind the incredibly long line of barricades and wait for a bus, with no idea of where that bus was going. It was a mistake. It was all a big mistake, really. We were being screamed at by everyone around us, standing among people who had literal racks of brand new clothing, shoes, electronics, all freshly looted out of stores. We were among dozens of boxes of new tennis shoes, even flat screen TVs.

We waited for a while, tried to keep quiet and stay small; buses were coming regularly for a bit, and we just kept praying we could get on one. Meanwhile, the crowd was getting angrier and more aggressive. They turned to us and said, “if you and your family get on that bus, you are not getting off of it alive.” They told my dad they would kill us all. It’s dusk now on Friday, and the bus brigade is slowing down and National Guard and police were beginning to leave the area. We had made it to the front of the barricade by now, and we were pleading with this National Guard member who was just a kid himself really. “Please help us, they are going to kill us, literally.” He opened that barricade, ushered us out, and with the saddest eyes said “Please find a place to go, to hide. I cannot protect you all anymore.” And he let us into the wild, which is exactly what it was.

A broken city, on the run, angry and scared and no longer behaving like civilized people.

It was terrifying; we had fought so hard to get out of the water and now our own fellow New Orleans citizens were threatening our lives. Our phones were starting to work, so we were texting everyone, “please help us get out of here.” We had family/friends trying to get into the city to get us, but they were not allowed into the city. We started racing to a family friend’s house, to break in and at least stay safe until morning. Our people on the outside were organizing a boat rescue from the lake for us since no one was allowed to drive into the city. We got picked up by a group of angels in a truck, true angels. It was turning dark, and it was not safe on the street anymore. They brought us to West Jeff hospital, as it was staffed, it had power, and more importantly, it had National Guard protecting its entrances. They dropped us off on the lawn, and we walked up to the emergency entrance and the National Guard REFUSED to let us in. It was past curfew (we had no idea), and they could not let us in.

My mom and I fell to our knees, sobbing, begging, “please just let us in to use the bathroom, and charge our dying phones.” A doctor saw us, and rushed past the National Guard and ushered us inside. They would not let us sleep in the hospital because of the curfew, but they let us stay long enough to get our phones charged and gave us water, snacks. We slept on the hospital lawn, beneath the National Guards’ feet.

Late in the night, we were awakened; we were ELATED. Finally, we were getting out! We hopped in the back of the truck and left the drowning city behind. We drove past buses, other people. Everyone just looked so scared, so broken.

Baton Rouge, Houston and In Between

We arrived in Baton Rouge late. It was dark. A friend of a friend of a friend came and picked my whole family up, dog and all, and brought us to her own small home. They had already taken in their family, but they made room for us and gave us clothes, cots, food, and, most importantly, love. They could see we were broken and all too willing to share with us whatever they had.

We started trying to regroup at this point. We bounced around Louisiana for a couple of days, among friends of friends, and finally decided to head to Texas. We ended up in Houston at my aunt and uncle’s with my cousin and her small children. We stayed there for awhile while looking for an apartment and eventually rented a two bedroom apartment on the third floor. Scared of rising water much?

My brother was a senior in high school at the time, so my parents put him in a school nearby. It was really difficult for him; he had been at Brother Martin and was now riding out his senior year in a co-ed public school, in a brand new city. I wasn’t left alone for a few months, ever. I couldn’t sleep, the quiet was too much. My dad resumed work for Allstate in Houston, while my mom was trying to keep the family together and figure out how and when we could go home. We were given furniture, money, clothing, and food by family and friends of family. My aunt in San Antonio started a fund for us, and the donations poured in. When Rita was coming to Houston, we packed everything we had into two walk in closets. We mean everything, furniture, too. We didn’t know whether to laugh or cry that every possession we had fit into two closets. We did both.

The water sat for 18 full days inside our home. It destroyed everything. What the physical water didn’t get, the mold did. Once we were allowed back into the city we made regular trips back, staying with friends in Metairie while we put our whole life out on the front lawn, trying to see what we could save. I wasn’t well during those times. I had physical reactions to being inside the house. Emotionally the completely gray city wore on me. There were no birds. No color of any kind. Just gray and death.

New Beginnings

I got a decent job in Houston. My dad needed to get back to New Orleans; being in insurance, clearly he had a ton of work to do. My mom owned her own business and needed to get it back off the ground as well. Brother Martin was going to reopen, and my brother wanted to finish out his school year with his friends. My parents and I had lots of chats. While I desperately wanted to be back home, there was nothing for me there; my jobs were gone. They encouraged me to stay in Houston and start a new life with this new job; they did not think I could emotionally handle the state of New Orleans. I reluctantly agreed. The three of them moved back, and they lived in the rental shotgun double in the Marigny my parents had purchased in 2004 that we had renovated as a family together, the year prior to Katrina. They lived in one side with my brother while they worked steadily to rebuild their home. We had been in our Gentilly home since I was six and my brother was born. My parents had it elevated, and then they rebuilt it themselves. It is more beautiful than ever.

I did well in Houston. I was grateful for what Houston gave me; they took us in with welcoming arms, and I began to build a new life. Houston is where I met life-long friends, including my future husband. I was in Houston nearly 5 years when we got pregnant with our first child. While I was living in Houston, I often felt empty. And now I had new life, this new joy and the only place to begin our new family was in New Orleans. I told my husband it was time to go home. He didn’t understand; we had just purchased our first home, in Houston. I wasn’t wavering. My babies were to be raised as NOLA kids, just as I had been. There was no other way for me. It took some convincing, and a month before I was due, my husband flew to New Orleans to close on our new home in Mid-City. On December 18th, 2010 with our then 6 week old baby girl, Madelynn, we pulled into our driveway. We were home. He told me “Happy early Christmas, my love.”

That kind of sadness sticks with you. Before Katrina I had left for college at Louisiana Tech and only stayed a year. I hated living there; I already knew I wanted to live in New Orleans forever. I’m a “NOLA till ya die” kind of girl. So to be forced out was brutal. Even 12 years later, those days are so vivid, forever in my head.

New Orleans is a soul, and if you are lucky, it becomes one with your own.

It was, has and will always be a part of me.

5 Responses to My Katrina Days

  1. Jessie August 29, 2017 at 7:28 am #

    ⚜️💜💚💛⚜️

  2. Andrea August 29, 2017 at 1:58 pm #

    Such a moving story. I have to say that reading it makes me angry a bit….I hate that so many people had to endure this and the help was so late arriving in New Orleans. Thankfully, we learned from it and I am so happy that the response to Harvey seems to have been swift and hopefully less people will suffer because of what was learned in Katrina.

  3. Karen August 29, 2017 at 4:28 pm #

    I had chills reading your story, Jessica. You and your family perfectly embody the city of New Orleans’ strength and resilience.

  4. Melissa August 29, 2017 at 5:26 pm #

    My cousin wrote a book about his experiences during Katrina. It’s called “Can Everybody Swim?” It’s a really interested look into his journey from Gentilly to the Superdome and beyond!

  5. Jackie Mack September 13, 2017 at 10:48 am #

    Wow – thank you so much for sharing your story. What a horrifying experience. I’m so glad that your family stuck together through it all and came out whole. Best wishes!

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