Hurricane Katrina: The Calm After the Storm

I took my trash out this morning. Nothing too odd about that. Most Americans who live in populated areas take their trash out at least twice a week. But, I haven’t had to take my trash out since Aug 25th. That was a Thursday. Trash days are Tuesdays and Thursdays in my neighborhood.

As I watched the news during that week I knew a storm was headed to my place of birth – New Orleans, Louisiana. A storm headed that way wasn’t unusual. Heck, I remembered fragments of Camille. Actually, I remembered my mother explaining to me that our car was not a pool and “No! You cannot swim in it.” In the eyes of a four year old, a big red convertible filled with water “Was too” a pool.

This storm was different. What struck me as odd was the fear I was hearing from my relatives who lived there. I called my aunt Marie to see how she and my Aunt Mary Helen were doing. I hadn’t talked with either in a while. I had just gotten their new numbers from a cousin who had spoken with Marie earlier that day. I asked if she would be leaving since the storm had been projected to be a category 5. “Naw baby”, she said in that well know Nawlin’s drawl. “I’m gonna stick it out.” I sit here writing this on this September 28th morning, still hoping to here from them. Their names have been added to the countless names of relatives and friends who either chose to stay or could not afford to leave – – still missing.

As the storm picked up momentum going from a CAT 2 to a CAT 3, I received a call from Lafayette Louisiana. It was my sister. “We’re headed your way.” That’s when I knew I needed to pay closer attention to the news; realizing this was no ordinary storm. My folks had ridden out Camille and Betsy; this was serious.

I didn’t know what to say, but, they were headed this way.

“How many are with you?” I asked. “47”, she giggled. My sisters and I have the strangest senses of human. “Can you handle that”, she laughed really hard.

“Come on!” was my response. “I love a challenge.”

With 47 people headed my way I knew I only had about 2 hours to freak out because they would be here within 7 hours. Having written over 30 processes and procures for a computer company I once worked for, I knew I had no time to sit idle. My first step was to email EVERYONE on my email list to ask for prayers.

I received a call from an old co-worker in Fort Worth (Wayne). He and his wife (Marti) had talked with their pastor who was willing to donate a 3 bedroom house for two weeks; a mission house in the heart of Arlington, TX owned by the Tate Springs Baptist Church. What a blessing! Many people emailed me back saying they would pray for me because they/I/we had no idea what Katrina was going to do.

My family arrived Aug 28th at 5 AM. I didn’t see them until noon because they didn’t want to disturb me. So, all of them went to hotel. I was actually mad. Not because I had rearranged furniture to accommodate all 47. But, I didn’t want them to spend money due too the unknown.

As the day progressed we sat watching the news and holding our breath as we watched Katrina cripple the place where we all were born. This wasn’t just another storm. This was a wrath no one had anticipated.

As we sat, staring at the TV my family was slowly realizing their lives were about to change. No one cried, no one spoke, no one moved. Our catatonic stares spoke volumes.

As the days went on with announcements about levee’s breaking, shootings and lootings, we were facing a different type of fear. My nephew, a New Orleans police officer, was still down there. The phone lines were down and the horror we were seeing was not to be believed. His wife and four children sat quite in the hotel room waiting for any word from what had become the frontline.

They stayed in the hotel for three days before moving in to the mission house. I had been on a new job for just 5 days. Trying to work my new sales position at a fitness gym and maneuver 47 people (17 under the age of 10) into a new living space was a challenge. But, again . . . I love a challenge.

Day 8 of my job and day 6 of the storm, finally, a word from my nephew. He was able to text message his brother; another New Orleans police officer who had been out on administrative leave. He was headed our way. Sighs of relief and tears of joy were suppressed . . . for the moment. Just like this storm. We weren’t believing it until we saw him!

My nephew arrived with his dad, another cop buddy and information that outraged us all. He had fled the city in boots and his underwear. Along the way someone gave him sweat pants and a T-shirt to wear. He and his buddy told us of cops, fire fighters, reporters and others being shot at. How areas were being abandoned. How mayhem and destruction was running rampant in this city. Our city. Our joy of seeing him turned to anger from the stories, then concern for those left, then outrage at the level of response.

That evening we were hearing stories on the news about cops abandoning their posts and the word “traitors” was spoken. My nephew and his friends continued to text message each other to see who else had left and what were the conditions when they got out. He received a text of one of his buddies having committed suicide in front of his dad the evening my nephew, his dad and friend left. The next morning he got word of another co-worker who had committed suicide when he left his post to go home and check on his family; only to find them all dead. These men were not traitors. These men and women who chose to dedicate themselves to this city were facing major adversity with limited resources. No, they are not traitors. They are survivors.

My nephew wanted to go back that same evening to get more of his friends out. We would not allow it. He was here, safe and alive. Having worked law enforcement in the military and understanding commitment to duty and fellow officers, I could see . . . almost feel his pain. That pain you have knowing you can’t, shouldn’t leave your buddies behind. My heart sank.

One week later he did return to his job with no condemnation from his superiors. But, I have insisted he go into counseling once this thing settles. Hearing his account of seeing bodies floating in the water, “All of that water” and his resolve to help the rest of his “buddies” let’s me know there is more to his story. Our family and others have rallied around him to support him during this time. His dedication to service is inspiring.

Although I was born in New Orleans, my mother moved me my brother and sister out when I was just 8 years old. We would visit at least twice a year, but my memories of New Orleans are just that; memories. I remember when the Super Dome was just half way done. I remember the Rosenburg commercial jingle, “1825 Tulane”. I remember when the Bunny Bread plant sat in a field alone. I remember Blue Plate mayonnaise . . . I remember.

My visits and my childhood are stories I speak of. Their memories are very fresh. My older sister talks of the clothes she had in her closet for her newest grandbaby. My niece, a kindergarten teacher, spoke of her students’ homework. My nephew’s wife was wondering if she needed to complete the work she had brought on the road and if so, how did she get it to her manager. My oldest sister talks of the computer she has in layaway (luckily, Wal-Mart will honor that obligation while she is here). Also, how she wanted to plant more flowers in her garden when she went back “home” (her insurance agent has informed her that all of the grass and foliage on her property is dead).
No, I have no right to be outraged on their level. My duty at this time was to maintain peace and order for them. My purpose, for this time, is to provide a safe haven.

As they transitioned from hotel to house, I was dedicated to making sure everyone was okay mentally and physically. I wasn’t as concerned with myself which is what led to me leaving my new job. Not the brightest decision seeing I have worked sporadically since I was downsized in 2002. But, my concern for the care of my family was more important. My co-workers and managers didn’t seem to grasp the depth of destruction that had taken place. When I explained to them I would not neglect my duties I was told, “It’s time for you to meet quota. You need to get people in here and signed up for gym memberships.” Yes, that is what I was hired to do. But, I really didn’t see the urgency of a good workout at that time knowing my family was now homeless.

I didn’t tell anyone I was no longer working. I just focused on getting them settled and into a “normal” routine.
3 of the kids and 5 of the adults came to my home. I was getting constant apologies from them. “We’re sorry to take your space.” “We know you’re not use to this much company.” “We’re sorry to put you out.” What they didn’t know is weeks prior to the storm I was praying for company. I have been single and pretty much a loner for the majority of my adult life. Having been in the military and around the world, I am use to sharing my space with strangers. These were not strangers. This was blood and I was honored to have them as guest; for as long as they needed to be here.

My two sisters and two brothers and I are linked through our father’s blood along with another sister (who lives in Houston). But, we grew up knowing we were siblings. My mother allowed me, my sister and brother to visit them often. These were not strangers and our mothers would be turning in their graves had we responded to each other with indifference.

As the days went on I was not allowed to cook, clean or buy anything! My sister’s, in-laws and family friends were not hearing it. They wanted to pay me for my time, utilities and the food they had eaten. I was not hearing it! They arrived in town with 3 days worth of clothes and enough cash to hold them over until their trip back home. They did not know their ATM cards would not work. They did not know they would need more clothes. They did not know they would not have money to eat, entertain the kids or pay their bills. They . . . we just didn’t know.

Thanks to an email to all of my email buddies, clothes, toys, toiletries and shoes started to arrive. Thanks to Tate Springs Baptist church and Assistant Pastor Bobby Hancock, church members first met my family. Then, realizing how “real” this matter was, they started dropping off food, household goods, diapers, clothes . . . the list was endless. One of my email buddies sent my email to all on her list; then another, then another . . . pretty soon, FedEx and UPS were showing up daily with clothes and shoes for the KATRINA EVACUEES. I now know them as Beau and Matthew. Not the FedEx or UPS guys.

The most humbling experience was for the men in my family. My nephews and family friend had never had to receive food stamps or government assistance a day in their life. They were put off with the idea of having to feed their children with food stamps. I explained that there is no shame in receiving assistance; when it is needed. Heck, I had to tell them that my groceries were bought with food stamps; due to sporadic employment.

As FEMA and Red Cross came in to soothe their financial woes, they began to find housing. The time spent in the mission house was a godsend and a learning experience. Even the best relationships will be tested when people are put in close quarters.

No, it wasn’t daisies and roses. No, everyone didn’t see eye to eye. But, we put a process in place on day one that made it very easy for everyone to communicate. So, when the “see you later and have a great day” were said, there was no bad blood, hard feelings or emotional outburst.

As I traveled and heard other stories of people taking in families from New Orleans, I had many thank me for being so kind to these “unfortunate” people. I said, “This is my family. This is blood.” Then I explained that I knew my family would be with me during this time because I am not the type to wait until a disaster to be in contact with them. If you won’t house your own relatives, how could you feel right housing strangers?

While picking up maps and attraction information for everyone at the Grand Prairie visitor’s center, the customer service lady told me how outraged she was when a family came in looking for information the day after the storm. They needed a place to stay because they had no money. But, they had relatives in Fort Worth – – just 20 minutes up the road. Management allowed them to stay in the conference room until they could find a shelter to go to.

My family is now getting settled. The kids are in school, the adults are gearing up for jobs and collectively, are getting ready to go back “home” to see what is left. They are trying to wrap their minds around relocating and the fact that all they once knew no longer exists.

They are the lucky ones. Many people are sitting around have heated discussions on how “stupid/ignorant/dumb” it was of “those people” not to leave when they first heard about the storm. Many people didn’t have a way out due to economic status. Not to mention the fact that New Orleans has one of the best transit systems in the country. Most people didn’t own cars. It isn’t necessary to own a car in most Metropolitan cities.

Many will comment on the mental lucidity of those who stayed. What I saw in the shelters we have visited are people who are really scared and confused; people who no longer have home or knowledge of the condition of their home. People who had a set life style that will forever be changed and forever be told to future generations.

The New Orleans we knew as children will begin to spin off many urban legends by those who just visited. Those who lived there the entirety of their lives need to stay lucid in order to verify and correct those who are going to begin to try and profit from their lost.

Many of those displaced by Katrina had never left their side of town let alone the state. Who will tell their stories? Who will counsel them during this bizarre transition? Having traveled the world I cannot begin to comprehend what is going through their minds.

While we sit and point fingers and blame and complain about the bureaucracy of what happened in New Orleans; I have gained an advantage over the average person. The average person who either knows New Orleans from going there and staying in the French Quarter’s/Bourbon Street/Garden District, other people’s travels or what they have seen on TV does not know the complete human element of the city. A city of great history, mystery and pride. A city where if the side walks could talk trillions of stories would be told. Some would be naughty. Some would be nice. But all would be the stories of people who know how to survive during all sorts of storms; literal and metaphorical.

Even those who were economically challenged and arrived in this area with my relatives were comfortable knowing they would not be abandoned or turned away. This has given them hope with beginning their new lives.

Oh, I also got a call from that gym I use to work for. They wanted to offer my family a hurricane Katrina discount membership. I explained that since they were homeless and unemployed that this may not be the best time for them to except that offer.

As the days go by we still wait to hear about those left behind. My sister’s and brother had to claim the body of their step-dad. He was moved from a veteran’s nursing home and immediately began seizing. He died a week after the storm. My father’s older sister was transported from her cared facility while on a ventilator. None of the patient’s were sent with their papers so she was missing for days. Her daughter finally received a call last Thursday to come to Baton Rogue to identify a body that “could be” her moms. Unfortunately since my cousin relocated to Houston after Katrina, Hurricane Rita halted that process. We are still waiting to know if this is indeed my aunt.

While others sit and point fingers, blame and try to shame people into explaining what happened (why there were no processes, procedures or obvious contingency plans to get those people out) we are taking it one day at a time. Thanking all who have helped. Helping all who need it and staying ahead of those who are cooking up scams as I type this story.

Yep, I took my trash out today. I’ll mow the lawn Friday and plan the bar-b-que for Saturday. We’re from New Orleans. It’s in our blood. In the midst of the storm we will rise again. But, until then, Laissez Les Temps Rouler

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