Editor’s note: Since Fall 2009 Bert Montgomery, a native of New Orleans and the River Parishes, has been collecting stories from his childhood friends, classmates, neighbors and church family about their experiences during after Hurricane Katrina. FaithLab is working with Bert to produce a book (both traditional print and e-book formats) and an interactive website to honor his friends and their experiences. FaithLab is posting excerpts leading up to the book’s publication.
AJ Caruso and I met at John Curtis Christian School – probably when we were in the fifth grade (that’s when I started there). We sat close to each other in a lot of classes, doodled in our notebooks about our favorite rock bands when we should’ve been paying better attention, and we were always talking about music. After ninth grade, I transferred over to Destrehan, and I ran into AJ again – he was in the local heavy metal band “Rex” with my Destrehan friend Terry Gamble (and yes, AJ, too, wore the spandex).
Today, AJ works with a hospital-supplies company, and he is a free-lance musician (see links at end of interview for more info on AJ). In fact, he composed the soundtrack to a new independent movie based in New Orleans called My Friend, Oscar.
AJ was born in New Orleans and lived for thirty-two straight years either in New Orleans, Metairie, Kenner, or St. Rose. He’s lived outside of Louisiana for about ten years; the first two in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the last eight in Atlanta, Georgia. He was living in Atlanta when Katrina’s winds began to blow.
Tell me about the week leading up to Hurricane Katrina: what were you seeing/hearing on the news and from family/friends; and, what you were initial thoughts?
I remained very close to the news for Katrina, since it had become such a large and threatening storm. I was in close contact with family and friends, and I was beginning to survey who was planning to evacuate should the need arise and who was planning to remain in place. If I recall, it was still unknown if Katrina was going to take the “perfect turn” north towards Louisiana, but it was looking like the odds were increasing, and I believe voluntary evacuations were in order at this time.
Initially I was not that worried, since so many storms had come and gone over the past years. However, this storm was building in such intensity that I was actually beginning to worry about those that were persistent in not evacuating if necessary – this had all the signs of the “big one.”
Even as late as Thursday of that week, I was remaining optimistic, but I was very nervous by then. A few friends and family had already evacuated but the majority did not leave until the weekend when it began looking eminent. I distinctly remember leaving work on Friday (days before landfall), talking to coworkers on the way out, suggesting that this was looking very bad and that we may see individuals cutting themselves out of their attics if this one hits New Orleans directly (most individuals not from New Orleans had no idea what I was talking about).
Did you house any family/friends who had evacuated?
Yes! At the peak we had fourteen people, including me and my wife Angela – we also had a dog, cat, bird, and a ferret. Since most of them came from Chalmette, losing everything, they were with us for around 30-45 days in total, some off and on. This provided very interesting times for the family since my wife and I were the only ones working during this period, and maintaining a household of fourteen was not easy. Stress levels were already at their peaks, emotions were out of control as the family watched the news from afar, and it was not unusual for the environment to range from individuals crying at the devastation and loss to family members fighting over who let the trash pile up in the kitchen. Very tough and emotional times for sure, very chaotic.
When Katrina hit, and you watched from the distance, where were you and what was going on in your mind?
Unfortunately, my company was holding its annual national meeting that week, so I had to fly to Arizona on the Sunday morning of the night Katrina made landfall. By now, our house was filling up with evacuees with whom I had to leave my wife alone to handle. It was evident that it was going to make landfall by now so I was really nervous. My mother and step-father decided to remain home in St. Rose, but I talked with my mom encouraging her to make the trip to snatch my grandmother (her mom), who was remaining at her home in the Ninth Ward. She agreed. It took the entire day Sunday for my mother to retrieve her due to evacuation traffic, but luckily they made it back to St. Rose. The only other direct family that remained back was my other grandmother and grandfather, who were staying at their new house in Mandeville (which would hopefully be safe on the Northshore). In fact, they sold their life-long home in the Lakeview area on the Wednesday PRIOR TO THE STORM, moving to their new home in Mandeville less than five days before their Lakeview home was destroyed. I remember our entire family was so upset that they were selling the “family home,” and afterwards, we realized it was a miracle.
Were you able to maintain close contact with family/friends?
Those that evacuated remained in contact, thought for some it was a bit challenging since their whereabouts were unknown. Those that stayed back were out of reach due to all the cell phone outages.
Did you lose contact with anyone?
Yes! I went to sleep in my Arizona hotel room on Sunday night having seen the reports that Katrina had made a quick jog to the right – saving New Orleans from a direct hit. I awoke in the hotel on Monday morning seeing numerous broadcasts stating that the levees had broken and that massive flooding was occurring. I immediately began calling my mother (remember, she stayed back) to see if they were alright; I could not get through at all. I proceeded to contact those that evacuated, particularly my sister who had evacuated to Florida, to see if she had heard from our mom, but she hadn’t. Recognizing that my parents lived right along the levee in St. Rose, I was TERRIFIED!
I tried and tried for hours. I remained in my hotel room and ignored our company meeting until I finally got through just long enough to learn that they were OK … before our connection was lost. At least I knew they were all right.
The following days at our company meeting involved creating a “war-room” to help with proactive logistics planning to support the effort that was ahead. My company is a very large hospital supplies company, and I was a logistics manager at the time. This team immediately put together elaborate plans for servicing the Gulf region, given all the challenges that lie ahead. This was a rewarding effort for me, since I knew I was making a difference early on in the first few days. We later learned that we were one of the only hospital suppliers entering the area for the weeks that followed, which again made me very proud.
Did Katrina change anything for you – as someone who no longer lives in the region?
As a non-resident during Katrina, it was extremely hard to witness 80% of our friends and families losing their entire worldly possessions. We wanted to help everyone monetarily, but there was simply not enough to go around. This was the most helpless feeling I have ever had. I have always donated to charities and relief efforts over the years, but this time it hit home! Helping was the only option. My wife and I spent weeks going home and helping friends and families go through their homes, wading in hip-boots through knee-high mud, trying to help them salvage anything possible. I have always been a high-strung person, and I distinctly recall a moment when some family members were arguing over whether or not they should go look for some small trinket. I calmly walked up to them and asked what room it was last in and proceeded to walk into the hot, ravaged house and went digging for it without hesitation, leaving them rummaging through articles outside. It seemed so insignificant in light of all the other things that were lost, but at that moment, I felt I could at least help ease the pain if I could just locate it … I did.
Overall, Katrina gave me an entirely new perspective on life and on our material possessions. My wife and I proceeded to do things for family and friends for the months to follow. We did things such as recreating photo albums, archiving salvaged 8mm films that were rescued to DVD, making copies of lost music, etc. Every little thing was worth the effort, even if it seemed insignificant, just to give them back any part of the thousands of personal affects or memories that were lost in the storm. So what did Katrina change? It changed a lot, and I will never forget that day.
Is it possible to talk about the Saints of the last five years (especially winning the Super Bowl this year) without talking about Katrina? Why or why not? What did the Saints’ Super Bowl season mean to you?
To begin, I have been a New Orleans Saints fan since birth. I distinctly remember years and years of literally tear-shedding hysterics as a youngster, watching the Saints falter every season. Flash forward to 2005. Personally, the year following Katrina was the most significant as it relates to the Saints.
I will never forget watching the homecoming game from our home in Atlanta, when the Saints returned to New Orleans . . . and lo and behold, playing the Atlanta Falcons at that! I clearly remember the tears shed that evening watching the dramatic unveiling of the renovated Superdome. This at the time was “our Superbowl.” As we all remember, not only did the Saints win that game, but went on to the NFC Championship that year. I, as well as thousands of others, just knew the Saints were going to make it that year. It was too perfect, too symbolic, coming off of the Katrina catastrophe; just like when the New England Patriots went following 9/11, right?
I remember watching the Saints play the Chicago Bears in that soon-to-be-historic game . . . and then the first snowflake fell. I knew in my heart at that moment, that we would not be going to the Superbowl. That season, and that game in my opinion, was the most symbolic as it relates to the Saints connection with Katrina. While I (as well as all Saints fans) were so proud of the incredible comeback made that year – which truly was a feat of incredible proportions given all the team had to go through – at the end of the day it personally gave me that unlucky feeling of “always coming up an inch short” as it related to the Saints. That to me was the year the city needed it most coming off of Katrina, but it again drifted away like dust in the wind. That season, the tie between the Saints, the fans, and Katrina were one in the same. They (the Saints) became a symbol of the city’s climb to normalcy, that still provided hope, having at least made it farther than the team ever had, despite the Superbowl miss. Up to this point, it was hard to talk about the Saints without some correlation to Katrina.
This last season however, was different. I know I am not alone when I speak of what this season and the Superbowl win meant to myself and any New Orleanian. Personally, I do not correlate this past season with Katrina as much, despite what this means to the region in terms of the rebuilding effort and the come-back of the city overall. The interest it has (re)generated for the city of New Orleans has been fantastic, and no doubt will help with the continuing effort of restoring life to normal across the region. While no doubt important to the effort, I feel that the Katrina reference may have been used a little too much this season. I know that the news media and others used this to capitalize on the events, but in my opinion, what the season and Superbowl win meant to the region and all Saints fans would have been just as dramatic and exciting regardless.
The “story” behind the 30 year journey to the Superbowl and more importantly the win, provided hope for a region that has always felt suppressed, even despite Katrina. I think it made everyone (including myself), feel like “someone” for the first time in the Saints history, and Katrina only added to the equation. To me, the season and Superbowl win (sorry to repeat, I love the sound of that) symbolizes the end of one era and the beginning of a new one – one from the perspective of the Saints and the fan’s journey to finally achieving the ultimate victory, and one that can hopefully close the door on the Katrina chapter.
While this catastrophe should always be in our minds and hearts, I feel that the Saints Superbowl victory provided a “cleansing” of some sort. While there continues to be regions that are still returning to normal, and while the population and economy are still regaining strength and continue to get better, I feel the Superbowl win symbolizes that the region HAS made it through the catastrophe, HAS made it through unbelievable adversity, HAS overcome astronomical odds, and that it shows the resilience of a region, a people, and their beloved sports team that is unfounded and of which I am so proud to call home. WHO DAT, TWO DAT!