Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from Bert’s upcoming book: Jungian Jambalaya: A Hurricane Katrina Oral History. If you like it, please show your support at the project’s Kickstarter page. The link is at the end of the article
I honestly don’t remember when I met first Darla or her family. I was ten years old – that much I know for sure because that’s how old I was when we moved to Destrehan, and when we started attending the First Baptist Church of Norco. Darla, her sisters, and her parents were active at FBC. Darla’s family and my family got along well; being some of the few Tulane Green Wave fans sprinkled among the throngs of LSU Tiger fans, we bonded together in our suffering (and our occasional celebrating). Long after my parents moved my sister and me to West Tennessee, we would bump into Darla’s parents at Tulane road games; even after I was married with kids of my own, there was Mr. Nick at the 1998 Liberty Bowl in Memphis cheering along with my parents, my son and me as Tulane went undefeated – a perfect 12-0.
Mr. Nick was 80 years old and still going strong when Katrina hit. He passed away three years later in 2008. Mrs. Myrt is still, in Darla’s words, “a power-house.” Darla, a middle school teacher in Luling, has lived in St. Charles Parish her entire life so far, with the exception of her college years spent at, well … LSU.
Tell me about the week leading up to Hurricane Katrina.
The week before Katrina, I was dealing with my husband (Michael) being asked to go to Florida to work – Katrina was about to hit the lower part of Florida before going into the Gulf…. He began working at the Emergency Response Center for the state of Florida where he received first-hand information about the hurricane track. He – who never evacuates for hurricanes – was telling me that we needed to evacuate.
As soon as I got the call from school on Friday stating that school would be canceled for Monday and Tuesday, I was ready to go. Saturday morning, around 5:00 a.m., I called my mom and told her to get ready to go to my sister Deena’s house (she lived in League City, Texas)…. Like Michael, she never wants to leave her home for hurricanes, but for some reason she knew that she had to go for this one. While the kids slept, I moved all of the patio furniture into the garage along with anything that I thought might get picked up by the wind.
I didn’t take any photos or any sentimental things with me. I packed very lightly, loaded up the kids and my twelve-year-old sheltie, picked up my parents in Norco, and headed for Houston, Texas. We had no problem getting to my sister’s house in League City – we left at the right time. My other sister, Donna, was coming to meet us with her family, but they got stuck in horrible traffic for hours. She stopped in Lafayette at her husband’s niece’s house where they would ride out the storm.
As you watched/heard news reports, what were you thinking/feeling?
As I watched the news, I can remember thinking that I was glad that I left. I didn’t like the fact that I couldn’t watch our news stations – it wasn’t familiar faces giving us the news. I became obsessed with getting information; waking up all hours of the night to see what was happening. It is hard to explain the feelings that I had – I had a feeling of relief because I knew that my house was OK, but also a feeling of panic and concern about all of the water, people on the roofs, crime, etc. It was hard not to cry when watching everything unfolding.
Did you lose contact with any “key” family/friends during the hurricane and days that followed? How long were you away from home?
I could not speak with anyone except my husband in Florida. He was the go-between person that could speak with everyone. Texting was the only way to contact anyone (texting wasn’t as common as it is now, but I learned really quickly!). I do remember that my principal was the only person that was able to get her call through to me. It was great to hear her voice.
My mother really wanted to go back home as soon as the storm passed, but I thought it was best to wait until the electricity was back on; and I finally convinced her of that. My in-laws returned home right after the storm. They checked out all of our houses, and cleaned out the refrigerator and freezers in all of the houses. They were able to save and cook some of the meats that were still frozen from our freezers. They lived for a few days with only a generator and gas stove.
When did you and your family return home? What was that like?
We were in the Houston area one week before the electricity was restored to my neighborhood; then we finally headed back home. We stocked up with groceries because we knew that no stores would be open.
As we headed back home we noticed a caravan of army hummers and jeeps – I think we counted over seventy of them! I am not sure where they came from but they were definitely headed to the New Orleans area. As we approached the St. Charles Parish line, traffic came to a stop. We had to show proof that we lived in the parish in order to get in. My sister, Donna, was heading our way to stay with our parents, only to be turned away at the parish line; she was very upset.
When we got home it was dark; I really couldn’t see what had happened until the next morning. It was quite devastating. My house had very minor damage, though there was lots of debris in the yard, with large tree branches down. Neighbors rallied together to help each other clean yards of debris. Large dumpsters were put in neighborhoods for all of the trash and refrigerator and freezer garbage. It was hard getting things back in order with Michael being gone, and it really drove him crazy not being able to come home.
Police and military were stationed all over the parish. I remember being really worried about safety. MRE’s and ice were available at the parks at the Mississippi River bridge. As you drove through the parish line, soldiers were there to help you. All you did was open your trunk, and they’d load it up.
All of the stores that opened had soldiers stationed by the front doors with guns, letting in only a few customers at a time. It was like something out of a movie; very scary – very surreal. I couldn’t believe it was like this, and I remember thinking, “When will things get back to normal?”
My school opened about a week-and-a-half after we returned home. Teachers went back a day before the students. My school was a brand new school, and the military was using it as a make-shift base. The gym was wall-to-wall cots for the soldiers to sleep on. Rooms were labeled “chapel,” “infirmary,” “general,” etc. When the school opened again, many students were absent, and some of those would never come back because they relocated to another area.
Being back to work/school helped us get a little normalcy back in our lives. St. Charles Parish did a great job getting the parish back up and running. We didn’t lose jobs, and income kept coming in for us. We were very, very fortunate. When Michael finished his job in Florida, he came home to work on the demolition of the houses in the Ninth Ward – that was such a hard-stricken area; so sad to see all of the devastation. It was sad seeing all of the surrounding areas going through terrible times. Everywhere we drove we saw help wanted signs, vacant houses, and houses with spray paint on them. We didn’t know how long it would take for New Orleans to “come back.”
Well, here we are in 2010 – hard to believe it has been five years. The city seems to be back better than ever, and the Saints won the Super Bowl!
I just hope we don’t ever have to go through anything like that again.
Bert has launched a kickstarter campaign to make his collection of Katrina stories into a book. Learn more about the JUNGIAN JAMBALAYA project, and how you can support it by clicking here.
Photo by Laura Grider Hansen