Chalmette is a small town in St. Bernard Parish, just below the Ninth Ward of New Orleans. You may have heard about St. Bernard on the news. If you watched CNN, you even saw pictures of it, just after the levees broke. Or rather, you saw pictures of the devastation that was St. Bernard. The "real" town is still rebuilding, even 10 years later.
I raised my daughters in Santa Fe, where your house might burn, but it wasn't going to be swept away by a hurricane. We moved to Louisiana in 2003. On August 29, we walked into our new home in Chalmette. Two years to the day later, that house would disappear under the waters of the levee flood.
At first, we underestimated Katrina
Have you ever prepped for a hurricane?
In the two years before Katrina, I never quite figured out how the neighbors decided when it was time to batten down the hatches for a hurricane party, and when it was time to get out. Maybe it's something you learn from living on the Gulf Coast long enough.
We'd had some massive rains at the end of the 2003 season, but nothing too serious. In 2004, conditions got a little worse. We worried about hurricanes Charley and Frances. By the time Hurricane Ivan made landfall in September 2004, I'd learned how to pound plywood over the windows and hunker down with Pop-Tarts and bottled water just like a real Louisianan.
By Matthew, in early October, I had the routine down pat.
Before the storm: Take the kids, go to the store, get disaster food, close up the house, get sandbags from the parish office, and wait.
After the storm: Take the plywood down, open up the house, clean up the mud, fix any damage, and wait for the electricity to come back on.
So long as we had dog food and Pop-Tarts, we'd be okay. Or so I thought.
Part of my preparedness plan was Crown Weather. There were a lot of online weather tracking maps, even 10 years ago, but they usually disagreed when projecting tracks for a storm, and Crown let me look at all the major reports at once, superimposed on a single map.
By mid-August, Crown had begun to track a new storm: Katrina. Even then, neighbors were talking about leaving town. But my husband was a security supervisor at one of the refineries in the parish. They had already asked for volunteers to stay until the last minute, so that the refinery could be locked down safely. So after just a short discussion, we agreed we'd stay, unless the parish went into mandatory evacuation. He would work as long as the refinery needed, I would work as long as there was electricity, and we would be ready to leave if we needed to — but of course, we wouldn't need to.
Around August 23, I noticed the projected storm paths on Crown converging. The only thing anyone still around town talked about was whether or not to go. We were still planning on staying, but we got the emergency bags ready, just in case. My youngest daughter packed a box of special stuff. My eldest clutched her boyfriend's leather jacket. I tucked our address book and our personal records down in a milk crate and laughed at everyone who was making plans to leave. We'd stayed for Ivan, after all. We'd be fine.
The paths on the map continued to converge.
An unexpected offer may have saved our lives
The life-changing event for us was not the hurricane. It was a call from a retired state police dispatcher up in Pollack, Louisiana, named Jray. Jray and I had "chatted" online, both of us part of a strong mutual support group on a popular local website, LA Legal. We were all close enough that Jray and his wife, Dorothy, not only picked up the phone and personally asked me to pack up the kids and come on down for a weekend of barbecue and Southern hospitality, but others in the group promised that they would drive out to Jray's place as well and we could all finally meet in person. We would have a great three or four days, they said, and go home after the storm was over. I can't, I said. Who would watch the dog, the cats, and the hamster? Bring them, Jray said.
Who could pass up an offer like that? I promised we would.
I look back on this one event, this insane offer to people that Jray only knew from the internet, and I know today that there are indeed angels in this world.
I didn't really want to leave. Even with everything arranged, I wanted to stay home. I watched the predicted storm paths converge on Crown Weather. It still looked like Katrina would hit somewhere in Mississippi near the eastern border — far enough away to be no worse than Ivan.
My husband came home. Then my teenage daughter. My husband's brother showed up shortly after — he had decided not to work in the French Quarter that night. Then two family friends, who just a short time before had been shocked to hear we were planning to leave, along with another friend, his kids, and his father, were all in front of our house in their vehicles.
I looked at Crown Weather again. The projections had shifted. Five of the seven paths now showed Katrina hitting St. Bernard Parish dead on. It was time to go.
One car would not carry us. Jray and his wife had invited our little nuclear family: two kids and two adults. Now there were seven adults, two teenagers, three kids, four dogs, a cockatiel, three cats, and a hamster on the way. Bring them, Jray told us.
So we did. Except for our cat Garfield. As we left, he jumped out the window, and it was too late to turn back. Deputies were going door to door, ordering people to evacuate. My daughters cried as Garfield disappeared, running as fast as he could.
I thought we'd be back in a couple of days. Then our town was destroyed.
About a quarter mile down the road, the sheriff stopped us. Time to go, he reminded us. Leave; don't look back. He knew my husband. He said they'd look after the house as much as they could while we were gone. In a moment of clarity, I asked my husband to pull over at the bank.
I used my card to empty out the bank account. I remember hearing Black Sabbath's "Paranoid" playing in my head.
The drive from Chalmette to Pollock, a small town in the northern part of the state, should have taken three hours. It took us more than 13. A few hours in, we were sitting on a bridge surrounded by hundreds of other cars when one of Katrina's leading edge winds hit. The shaking just from that wind convinced me clear down to my toes that leaving had been the right thing to do.
We pulled into Pollack at about 4 in the morning. Our host, tired and grumpy, pointed us toward the house we would be staying in and said, "See you in the morning." We tucked in as best we could: the teens on couches, kids on floor, and our Rottweiler staked out back.
The next day, August 28, we got acquainted with our hosts: Jray, his wife, his nephew, a neighbor or two, and some online friends who had driven down for the day. The adults crowded into Jray's living room to watch the storm in New Orleans. What a blessing, we all agreed. The storm and the wind were absolutely horrible, but Chalmette had seen worse. By the 29th, conditions seemed to be under control. We made plans to go home the next day, and that afternoon we went back to the guesthouse early to pack.
Around 6 pm, Jray's nephew knocked on the door.
He told us to leave the kids and come over now: It was an emergency. When I walked in the door, the telephone rang. It was for me, a call from a friend who had evacuated as well. He wanted to be sure I heard it from a friend first: Our town was gone.
Our parish was gone.
He emailed me a picture. I went to Jray's computer and stared while everyone else watched CNN, completely quiet. My brain filled in the silence with "Another One Bites the Dust."
Disaster brought out the best in people
How do you tell your children that everything they love is gone?
To the adults in Jray's living room, it was absolutely clear that the devastation would be total and permanent. Jray's phone went in and out, as the lines became overwhelmed. The internet worked sometimes. I got a one-minute call out to a friend who activated her "telephone tree" and contacted my family, most of whom didn't know if we had left or not.
Shock set in. But people stepped up.
The reverend from the church down the road stopped by. He had heard that Jray had visitors. He saw and understood the scope of need this storm would create while those of us in it were still just surviving the shock. He began an emergency mission. A lot of people who had not gotten cash before the hurricane struck didn't have access to their bank accounts. The reverend began arranging food, clothing, and money before the state was able to line up emergency workers.
My sister Laura's employer set up collections and shipped huge amounts of clothing, shoes, bedding, and other items to Jray's house. We took them up to Simms Wesleyan Church, where they set up a sorting brigade.
My sister Jean works for a government agency that does a lot of field work. I laughed as we opened the boxes her agency sent. Ever the practical one, Jean's organization collected "important" stuff: Benadryl, Band-Aids, diaper wipes, Neosporin.
Rubbermaid in Winchester, Virginia — where my cousin worked — came up with the fantastic idea to send thousands of empty containers. They loaded them onto 18-wheelers, and south they came. I don't know what made everyone feel better: receiving donations to put in boxes, or the boxes to put them in!
Through it all, the church ladies sorted. As more and more donations arrived, so did more and more people. Those who stayed at home had now been evacuated. People who were in temporary shelters had to be counted, fed, taken care of.
People kept stepping up. They proved we all have a capacity for sacrifice and compassion beyond what we believe, that it takes a disaster to bring it out — but doesn't have to.
Average people with their own lives and little stake in New Orleans were donating time to help with charities, and to volunteer in clinics. Simms Wesleyan set up a bank of computers so that people could access websites set up to help them locate family members. Doctors saw people who weren't their patients, making sure that needed medications were available. The food stamp office stayed open 24 hours a day. Fast-food restaurants stayed open until they ran out of food. Ladies donated new, sexy underwear for demoralized women. I learned to never discount the effect that one pretty thing can have on someone who feels they have nothing at all.
The school system, horribly overloaded, provided each of the evacuee kids uniforms and backpacks. How they paid for them, I never knew. They placed every child and made them feel like a part of the community. This was especially important for my family: My younger daughter has Asperger's, and she needed to feel like she had a place to go and to be.
People opened their homes to strangers. Evacuees, for their part, were glad to live in garden sheds and tents while they waited for FEMA to figure out what it was doing. I happened to meet a FEMA worker in a grocery store. We talked. He warned me not to even consider a trailer. Instead, he suggested, live with friends, stay where we were, or ask to be put on the housing list.
Out in Santa Fe, Home Depot offered a job if we wanted to go back. Friends there offered to let us stay with them for a while. Another friend offered to allow us to live with her in Virginia while we got settled.
After a while, I decided to stay in northern Louisiana while my husband went to Virginia to check out work and the possibility of a new home. The company I did contract work for promised me that when I was ready, no matter where I was, I would have a job. That one promise — unimaginable from almost any company under almost any other circumstances — kept me going. It was so much more than so many people had.
In truth, I loved northern Louisiana. For a while, I thought I'd made up my mind to stay.
Then in September, Hurricane Rita came. It was clear Louisiana would be hit again. We couldn't live like this anymore: The girls, the dog, the cats, and Princess the Hamster were loaded into the car for a 17-hour-drive to Front Royal, Virginia.
Along the way, Princess died — too much travel for one little hamster's heart. She's buried along the road, outside a cemetery, under a popsicle stick cross — another victim of Hurricane Katrina.
The best (and worst) was yet to come
When we arrived in Virginia, our new host threw herself into finding us a house. But it was hard. We had no money, no "real" jobs, and it's difficult for independent contractors to secure mortgages. We also had nearly impossible needs: three or more bedrooms, a nice-size yard, a basement or attic, not inside a city — all for $68,000 or less. I told our host we would be gone by Christmas, long past when I felt we'd have overstayed our welcome. She promised to have us out by Thanksgiving — but it felt like a long shot.
Then the kindness of others surprised me again.
I'd gone to the Red Cross to get money for winter clothing. It was getting cold. Despite checks from family members, and the kindness of one stranger who pressed a $100 bill into my hand after making me nervous by asking if I was one of "those people," we didn't have what we needed to get by. The Red Cross worker had given me a card with cash on it and told me to come back in a month for a "review."
So a month later I came back. The review was simple: How were we doing, was everything okay, how did we spend the money on the card provided? Afterward, the lady handling our case shook my hand and told me that if there was anything she could do to just let her know.
I jokingly told her that if she could get us a mortgage with no money, no jobs, and a bunch of kids, that would be great.
She laughed and asked if we could wait a minute.
When she came back a few minutes later, she had an envelope with an address and a name on it. She told us to go the next day.
The address turned out to be a local bank; the name, a loan officer there. He told us that they were stunned at the devastation and had decided that if anyone came into their area from Katrina and needed a mortgage, they would try to help. The letter inside the envelope, written by the Red Cross worker, told him that we had spent the Red Cross money wisely. So the bank gave us a budget to work with on the sole condition that they have final approval before we made an offer on a home.
After a few false starts, we found one. It was two stories, with a walkup attic and a basement, and a nice-size yard. The owner accepted an offer of $45,000. The bank approved.
I asked what the chances were that we would be in our new home by Christmas. The loan officer told me to plan a turkey dinner; we'd be in by Thanksgiving. On November 8, two and a half months after we saw our house in New Orleans for the last time, we closed on a new home. We moved in that weekend.
The woman who sold us the home included some furniture. My sister also gave us furniture. The day we moved in, our former hosts said they had a surprise for us. One wall of the dining room was stacked with boxes, floor to ceiling. They and their friends had provided everything needed for a kitchen, as well as bedroom linens and other knickknacks. Words could not express how we felt about this amazing show of generosity. We had survived.
After a while, people stop being so compassionate
Of course the kindness couldn't last forever. People come together after a catastrophe. Although many victims of Katrina weren't as fortunate as we were — losing more or having less, being caught up in FEMA's horrific response to the hurricane — everyone saw at least a little of the generosity that springs forth in the wake of a disaster. But after a while it fades. People go back to their ordinary lives. They get busy again. They want to move on with their lives, even if the victims aren't yet able to move on with theirs.
The night we moved into our new home, we were exhausted. Our friends had left, and we realized the one thing we didn't have: groceries. We went to a nearby store and picked out a week's worth.
When we got to the counter, we handed over our Louisiana food stamp card — the thing many victims of Hurricane Katrina relied on after they lost everything. The cashier looked at it and said, "We don't take cards from you people."
I argued the legality of rejecting our food stamps, but my daughter had begun to cry. Then I started to cry. In the end, we used our last $10 in cash to order off the McDonald's dollar menu.
I started to notice other failures of compassion. One doctor in Front Royal, a potential pediatrician for my daughter, told me I was neglectful because I had not stopped during the evacuation to secure a copy of her medical records. I managed not to say more than, "Did you even watch CNN?" as I left.
The local school was no better. They said they couldn't enroll my daughter without the proper paperwork. They wanted a green card.
My daughter was born in New Mexico.
I didn't even argue: I requested the paperwork to homeschool her. But the district wouldn't allow that either — I needed a high school diploma to prove I was qualified. Trouble was that my high school diploma was underwater, or maybe floating down the Mississippi River somewhere. They didn't care: Either produce my diploma, or provide my daughter's green card and enroll her; otherwise she'd be considered a truant. After a great deal of effort, I was able to get my high school transcript. They begrudgingly accepted that.
This became more and more the norm: As the initial burst of kindness receded, selfishness took its place. People stopped feeling compassion for the victims and started feeling annoyed. We became "them people," and were often told we should have stayed "back there."
Time has passed. It's difficult to start over from scratch, but we've managed. We still struggle. My husband and I got divorced. Of the big group that set out from Chalmette to Pollock as Katrina bore down, two are in prison. Two have died. Two settled in the Pacific Northwest for a while until their marriage fell apart. My eldest daughter never got over the loss of the city she loved, and two years ago I lost her to drugs, as much a victim of Katrina as those who died in the flooding. My youngest moved to Alaska. Of all of us, she seems to have adapted the best: Having lost so many things in and after Katrina, she can travel light quite happily.
I'm still in Virginia, a writer and a member of a volunteer pay-it-forward group. There are about 1,300 of us, and we try to share the excess in our lives whenever possible. It keeps us grateful. It keeps us remembering that there are others even less fortunate than us; that it is only by the grace of God or chance that we are not in that position. When we don't have money, we contribute time.
Sometimes a story about Katrina comes up in the news. That's when I hear comments about "them people" again. I hear how all of us should "get over it."
None of us "got over it." How could we?
Instead, I stay ready. You never know when disaster will strike. I think about Jray and all the others who helped me along the way. I think of how unbelievably kind they were; how kind so many ordinary people proved they could be. I think how we can all be like them all the time, if we want to be.
Nita Ostroff-Tyson is a writer living in West Virginia.