Since last fall (2009) Bert Montgomery, a native of New Orleans and the River Parishes, has been collecting stories from his childhood friends, high school classmates, neighbors and church family about their experiences during and after Hurricane Katrina. FaithLab is working with Bert to produce a book (in both traditional print and e-book formats) and an interactive website to honor his friends and their experiences.Throughout this fall – five years after Katrina – FaithLab will be posting excerpts leading up to the book’s publication. This is the first of several to come…
The first time I met Terry, I remember him telling me, “last name, ‘Gamble,’ like ….” and he pretended to roll and toss dice. Terry was a junior at Destrehan High when I started there as a sophomore; he was quite a good lead trumpet in the marching, jazz and concert bands. By the time he was graduating, he was also playing bass guitar in a heavy-metal band – big hair, spandex and the works.
Terry moved from Kenner to St. Rose when he was thirteen. He lived in and around the River Parishes and the New Orleans area all of his life, until Katrina hit. After Katrina, he lived in Missouri for two years; he now lives in Alabama.
Tell me about the week leading up to Hurricane Katrina: What were you hearing on the news and from neighbors? What were your initial thoughts? Did you initially plan to evacuate? Why or why not?
I worked at a printing company on Jefferson Highway in New Orleans. We watched the news that Friday, and Katrina was supposed to hit Pensacola. We did the usual thing before a storm: put stuff on top of our desks and got equipment off the ground in case we got a lot of rain and it flooded. We thought we’d just be back at work on Monday. We never evacuated for a storm, so it didn’t even cross my mind. Little did I know I would never go back there.
As Katrina approached, and evacuations became mandatory, what were you thinking and feeling, and how did you prepare to leave?
We didn’t leave until Sunday, the day before it hit. My wife was the manager of the Hilton downtown, and her boss wanted to her stay at the hotel for the storm. I didn’t want her to be down there. We fought about it; her family begged her not to go. All of the guests were out of the hotel by then so it didn’t make sense for her to be there. Her boss chewed her out and she cried, but we decided to leave and go to Florida. We left our cat there that we had for about 18 years. Figured we’d go to Florida, hang out on the beach with our two girls, and then be back for work on Monday.
Where did you go, and where did you stay?
We got caught in the traffic, and it took about sixteen hours to get to Jacksonville, Florida. No hotels had rooms until we got to the other side of Florida.
As you watched/heard news reports, what were you thinking/feeling?
Our house was in Slidell – we didn’t have flood insurance because we didn’t need it. We saw on the news that a hotel near our house had water on the second floor. We thought then that we lost everything . . . including our cat.
Were you able to maintain close contact with family/friends, and how long were you away from home?
My parents stayed in St. Rose; we were not able to make contact with them. Even the cell phones were out (after that, my dad’s company made it a policy for them to have cell phones with a 318 area code instead of 504 so they could keep in contact with each other). All the towers were down. We were not allowed to go home for two weeks. We went to my father-in-law’s house in Ozark, Missouri, and stayed there. Actually, we stayed at his neighbors’ house. My father-in-law had thirty (30!) people at his house staying with him from New Orleans. We finally got in touch with my parents, and they made it OK; except they didn’t have any power for a couple of weeks. My mother isn’t in great health, and the heat was not good for her. My brother and his family came with us to Missouri, also. He has two young children. If not for our kids, none of would have left.
In Missouri, we picked up a generator and some food and water to take back to my dad’s . . . there weren’t any generators anywhere around Louisiana. We also got some large fuel containers.
When did you and your family get to return? What was it like driving home?
When we went back to Louisiana, we were really nervous about what we would find; we figured a dead cat for sure. We left the kids at my father in-laws house in Missouri.
There wasn’t ANY gas to be found in northern Louisiana, and we were getting very nervous – so many cars were on the side of the road; probably just ran out of gas. Huge lines at gas stations. We got lucky and found a gas station in LaPlace with one pump that was working – probably because a lot of police and rescue people were staying in some hotels in LaPlace.
My parents in St. Rose were fine. Their house didn’t flood. They even had electricity when we got there. When we went to our house the next day it was strange – like living in a different country. Nothing looked the same; on the way to Slidell there were debris, tree limbs, and cars toppled over everywhere. New Orleans East was unbelievable.
We got to Slidell and the National Guard was there with machine guns checking our IDs. Scary. We had to dodge junk in the streets to get to our house. A cemetery is located a mile or so from our house – there were caskets on side of the street. I suppose they floated away from the cemetery during the storm.
What was the condition of your house when you got there?
You couldn’t even see our house with all the trees down. I left my truck there, and it was fine, no damage at all. Our house didn’t flood; our neighbors, though, had four-feet in their house. We just happened to be situated on a little ridge high enough to avoid the water.
We had trees down, a broken window, and a fence down from a tree falling on it. Other than that, the house was fine. Unbelievable. Our cat was still alive too! I guess she just drank toilet water for two weeks.
What was your work status upon your return?
The company I worked for got flooded really bad. The roof over my office flew off and everything in it was destroyed. My boss was living in Houston and decided to stay there. No telling how long if ever the business would reopen.
The Hilton where my wife worked was looted and damaged. Someone broke into her office, spray painted stuff on the walls, and even took a dump in there.
We looked at the situation, and with two small girls, decided it was best for them to stay in Missouri. We both found jobs there. Everyone there was great and very helpful. The neighbor we stayed with in Missouri let us live there for another six months until we got jobs and found a house to buy. We were able to sell our house in Slidell.
Missouri was nice at first but it wasn’t home. My wife got a job offer in Alabama, so we moved there. At least we were only five hours away from home instead of twelve! The girls managed changing schools and homes remarkably. They miss home, too. They don’t understand why they have to go to school on Mardi Gras and why there aren’t any parades.
© Bert Montgomery, 2010