As told to Kimberly Jacobs
Life was going very well before Hurricane Katrina. I was with my family preparing to go to Tuskegee University. Two weeks before Katrina hit, I was packing, getting everything together for my dorm room and for college. I was also getting my nieces ready for elementary school, taking them school shopping, and spending the last couple of days with my friends who were still in town.
I moved on campus seven days before Katrina hit; Aug. 22 was my freshman orientation.
You hear “hurricane” on the news all the time. My family would go to Baton Rouge or might make a mini vacation out of evacuating and go to Florida, Texas or a surrounding area. In my mind, I wasn’t thinking, “My family isn’t going to be able to go home after this.” I thought, “Oh, we’re going to evacuate just for precaution.”
I remember Aug. 25. I talked to my aunt who took care of me when my mom passed, and asked her, “So what’s going on? I heard there’s a hurricane. Where are you taking the family?” and my aunt was actually saying she was going to ride it out. She’s been in New Orleans all her life.
I think it was two days before Katrina hit that they finally evacuated to Florida. At that time, I didn’t know they had left New Orleans. So when Katrina actually hit, I had no clue if my family was safe. I was so wrapped up in being on a college campus, I didn’t even think to check in. None of my friends from New Orleans did. We felt bad because none of us thought to call. We were like, “Oh, it’s OK. It’ll be a little thunderstorm, and it will pass.”
We were wrong. I’ll never forget the day Hurricane Katrina hit. I was in bioethics. I had just lost my phone when my childhood best friend Katrina (the irony) called asking me about college. When she called my phone, she spoke to a girl named Elizabeth (Liz) from Slidell, right outside New Orleans. Liz tracked me down and gave me my phone and said, “Oh, you’re from New Orleans? How’s your family doing with the hurricane?”
I replied, “What hurricane? The tropical storm?”
She says, “No, didn’t you hear? The whole city flooded. It’s shut down.”
I ran to my dorm room, and my best friend is in her room turning on BET. We see live coverage of how bad the city is, and I still had a New Orleans phone number and area code, so my phone was out of whack. I could barely get a signal or get in contact with anyone. My aunt left her cell phone in New Orleans, so for about a week I had no contact with my family. I immediately thought the worst.
It gives me chills to even think about it now because I had already dealt with the loss of my mom and dad. My cousins and my aunt were like my parents. When I couldn’t find them, it was hard. I remember my best friend, her roommate and I sat in the room and cried every night because none of us could find our family. I was in shock. I finally got in touch with my sister on Sept. 1 or 2. She got in touch with the school which got in touch with me.
My sister finally got in touch with our cousin, and that’s how we found out my family made it to Florida. I actually didn’t get to speak with my aunt until about 10 days after Katrina. I got a message from a hotel number because none of our cell phones were working. I ran out to Family Dollar and bought a phone for the dorm line to try to call them. We were playing phone tag. They weren’t in their hotel room, and I wasn’t in my dorm room when they would try to call me. Finally, I called the hotel, and my aunt answered the phone. I cried on the phone with her and was overwhelmed.
My first month of school wasn’t what I had dreamed my first days of college would be. It was devastating, but the school’s Louisiana club was a big help that week after Katrina. My orientation teacher told me to take it easy, do what I need to do, and try to focus on me while I was still going to class. Those first 10 days to two weeks after Katrina, I didn’t go to class regularly. I went to turn in assignments, pick up assignments and make sure I was still communicating with the teacher.
We would sit in our room and watch every ounce of coverage on CNN, or whatever news channel we could get in the dorm room. We were all out of touch with life, and even though I had to keep going to class, it was hard to focus. I always kept my phone out in case someone called me.
The holidays were very different. I ended up spending Thanksgiving with my friend’s family in Montgomery, Ala., because the majority of our accounts were frozen after the hurricane. We didn’t have access to money, and my family couldn’t pay for me to get to Florida.
For Christmas, I went to Baton Rouge to be with my sister because my friend from the Louisiana club was taking a road trip. There were about six of us packed into the car. My family wasn’t able to make it back home, and we weren’t able to make it to Florida, so my sister and I spent Christmas together. We were in the house watching movies, talking to our family all day on the phone, and they were still in a hotel.
During the spring semester, my family surprised me and came to Montgomery. My friends kept saying, “Let’s go to the mall.” When we got there, my family was there. I just remember I cried that entire trip because it was my first time seeing my family since I left New Orleans for college. It was around March when they came to visit me, and they took a long road trip from Florida.
I cried for the majority of the day. It was even worse when they had to go because I didn’t want to leave and not see them again. I cherished them so much more.
During the school year, the Louisiana group became like family—especially during my first semester when we would all eat lunch together and be on the yard. Then we all parted ways and went to our next point because a lot of their families hadn’t returned to New Orleans yet or Louisiana. When we started school, we thought we’d join the Louisiana club, get to know each other and hang out during the summer. But because of the hurricane’s devastation, you had people going to Seattle, Georgia, California and places where their families were starting over and not coming back.
In 2006, my family bought a house and moved to Slidell, La. We originally lived in eastern New Orleans, so maybe like 20 minutes outside of the city. It was real close to our old house. They were supposed to move back a couple of months before they actually did because people were trying to get back into the city, get FEMA trailers, and temporary housing. It was just kind of hard with relying on the government and state.
We were fortunate my uncle worked in construction and lifted our house a couple years before the storm. There was a lot of water, but it was minimal compared to other homes. They completed a thorough check for mold because all the water receded and dried out. And we got a FEMA trailer outside of the house until it was safe to move in.
My first time going back to New Orleans was very overwhelming and fulfilling at the same time. It was like part of me was sad to see it because it didn’t look like my city. It was like a ghost town. There were a lot of abandoned houses with Xs and numbers marked in orange spray paint. I remember my cousin telling me that the numbers were how many bodies they found in the house and if a pet was found, too. There were a lot of abandoned homes, and you could still see the watermarks on the houses.
I was overjoyed at first to be going home. Then when I finally got into the city it was like “this is not home.” I don’t know what I was expecting, but I should’ve known that it wasn’t going to be the same. We were still on curfew in the city for several weeks after the storm. I remember I was in the trailer with my aunt and my sister came down, and my friends wanted to go out and do something. I wanted to leave, too, but my aunt said it was too dark to leave. It was unfamiliar to be that confined while at home. I’ve never been told that I couldn’t go to the store. The 24-hour store was closed. We had one Winn Dixie when I came back, and we didn’t have Wal-Mart for several years after Katrina. If you didn’t get stuff before a certain time, you didn’t get anything.
The FEMA trailer was crowded and cramped. I had two aunts, one of whom was blind, and we ended up getting a trailer that was made for handicapped residents. It was more spacious, so I can’t imagine people who had the regular trailer. There was a pull-out table for the kitchen, and when you pulled it up, it became two bunk beds. The bathroom was a little spacious. It had a little couch part to it with a little box television—no cable or anything. We had a DVD player and would watch movies when there was nothing to do. There was a little refrigerator, but you couldn’t really stock too much food in it.
I was really worried when I went back to school for my sophomore year because that was still in hurricane season territory. Every time we heard tropical storm, my best friend and I were on the phone with our families like, “Are y’all leaving? What’s the plan?” We just felt as a family we should have a plan.
Also, my aunt is so conditioned to going out any time of night around the corner to the gas station because we lived in a nice neighborhood where everyone knew each other. That wasn’t the case anymore. A lot of people on our street didn’t come back and let other family members move in.
My aunt would complain about loud music in her neighborhood. I was just worried because she’d go to the store late at night to get snacks. I’d tell her, “You can’t run out the house at night just to beat the 9 p.m. curfew. It’s not safe for you to be out that late by yourself.” I really worried about how it was affecting her because she wasn’t registering that everything in the city had changed.
We had a mold issue in the living room ceiling and the garage, and they had to fix a couple of pipes that were messed up. They cleaned out the bottom floor; we threw away most clothes and shoes that were upstairs. We kept pictures, memorabilia and stuff like that we thought we could salvage. It took a long time because the workers were so inconsistent at the time. They were also working on several other houses.
From the end of 2006 until her house was ready, my aunt stayed with her daughter in Slidell. She was a little paranoid and didn’t really feel safe in the trailer by herself. The slightest piece of wind would shake the trailer. Also, at the time, the crime rate was steadily creeping back up in New Orleans.
My aunt was finally back in her house in January 2007. She had to buy a new stove, washer, dryer, sofa, television, bedroom set, mattress, and she never put furniture back in the living room. She remodeled the den and basically everything had to be refurbished like all the furniture, rugs and kitchen cabinets. She bought a new refrigerator, new cabinets, sink, countertops and kitchen appliances. She had to redo the blinds, the big glass door to the patio and a bought a brand-new front door. She replaced all the wood floors. Lowe’s and Home Depot were like her best friends, and they made a lot of money off of her.
I lost everything that I treasured from my mom, who passed away in 1998. I took a big photo of my mom and sister. I took some of their wedding pictures: of my mom and my dad, my mom and my grandma, my dad and his groomsmen, and my mom and her bridesmaids. Those five pictures are all I had. Everything else I left at home, including my mom’s favorite nightgown, baby pictures of my sister and I and my mom’s old-school stereo.
It wasn’t until I started getting a much better relationship with my sister losing those pictures and old things didn’t matter. For a while, we were like oil and vinegar, but now that we are able to talk about our memories it makes it much better. We print old pictures that my mom’s best friend tags us in on Facebook—and talk about framing and putting up the pictures in our future homes. It’s still hard when I think about the past. But it’s great knowing that our memories live on through us.
New Orleans can kind of have a hold on you. I’m pretty sure everyone feels this way about their hometown, but I especially feel like this when you grow up in New Orleans. I stayed in Alabama for a while, but I lost my job and was torn between going back home or moving to Texas. And although I love my city, I decided to move.
Katrina gave several people the opportunity to go somewhere and do something bigger than what they would’ve done in New Orleans. I know a lot of my friends who didn’t go to college after high school, but because of Katrina and being dislocated, a lot of schools offered them free education and tuition. In my freshman year, I got a nice stipend to cover the rest of my tuition that scholarships and financial aid didn’t cover.
I know for a fact had it not been for my city changing the way it did I probably never would’ve left. I was fighting to stay and go to school in New Orleans before getting accepted to Tuskegee and decided to go seven days before Katrina.
Katrina put me in a real funk to where I almost felt like I was in an identity crisis. I really didn’t know who I was. When I entered college, I went into a fake it ‘til I make it mentality at first. But then you have to stop faking at some point. Hurricane Katrina gave me the drive to go harder for what I wanted because you’re not promised tomorrow. It made me value hard work because those people that moved back to rebuild worked hard.
The last time I was in New Orleans, my blog PlzStayDope, was at Essence Festival. There are always festivals in New Orleans, but Essence is definitely one of the biggest draws. I kept saying I want to cover something in New Orleans, so I got in contact with Essence magazine and applied to work at the festival. I waited and waited, bit all my acrylic nails off, and then finally found out I got it.
New Orleans finally started to feel like home again. I met a lot of celebrities that really loved the city. I actually got to go to a charity event for bringing back more schools to New Orleans. They wanted to build another school, and there were all these kids showcasing their mini businesses. I was so intrigued by these young kids with business plans that explained why we need better school systems in New Orleans. I was impressed.
It’s the spirit of Louisiana that makes Louisiana home. Essence Festival felt as close as I’m going to get to anything in New Orleans before Katrina. I had beignets at Café Du Monde. I walked through packed Bourbon Street. It was hot, people were everywhere, and there was even a wedding in the middle of Jackson Square. I told a friend that was with me, “This is how I remember my city.” And this is how I hope to always remember it.