October 16, 2007
The only thing I could do was cry. I remembered the rains, the winds, the way the sky looked before a hurricane spun closer. I remembered how the electricity always went out early, returning days later at times. In that same house, the one she had to be rescued from, we waited out innumerable storms. Sometimes we left. Other times money was scarce. Gas and hotel prices were tough for the poor, for us. But Katrina was different. There was no question of its path and I wondered why she hadn’t left. I could have been there with her, stranded as she was, witnessing everything she had ever known slowly recede. Her experience could have been mine. Her experience was mine.
I was in Baltimore when the storm hit, five years removed from New Orleans. The night before it made landfall, I watched The Weather Channel until the sun came up. I was a high school teacher then, and it was the first day of the year. I bubbled attendance sheets. I spoke of expectations. I filed student folders. I alphabetized emergency cards. I arranged books. I moved desks. I decorated the bulletin board. I swept the floor. I made copies. I kept my fears to myself.
I was also a student enrolled in a graduate-level advanced composition course, and my first class was the evening after the storm. The instructor and students knew nothing of my trauma as I sat there and heard little. What roused me was the assignment, a simple prompt: describe who you are. The result was a half-page-length list of single word descriptors—son, brother, friend, lover, thinker, dreamer, educator, iconoclast—all trumped by something more sincere: mourner.
I had been calling nonstop, almost on the hour, hoping to hear that familiar ring. But “towers are down,” the message droned. Eventually the calls went through. My parents and brother were fine I learned, but we were unsure about my grandmother. There was no word from my cousin and aunt either. For all I knew my family was dead, floating away in the Gulf of Mexico. I was in New Orleans the weekend before and had thought nothing of Katrina. Even when the storm was imminent, I wasn’t worried. We had endured many hurricanes that missed us. It was an annual ritual. But this time it was no drill. The images that were shown on television became the images of my family, my people. The story of loss that was being written before our eyes, I would soon learn, was my own. I should have been there, I should have done something, I should have made sure that everyone was out. But what could I really do. I was twenty-four with no savings, an ineffective teacher, and more than a thousand miles away. Nothing mattered. My thoughts and desires were of no consequence.
The story of her escape didn’t arrive until Christmas day. It was one of the more difficult holiday seasons that I can recall. Ordinarily, I would see my entire family on Christmas, both my father and mother’s relatives, but people were scattered everywhere—Georgia, Texas, Mississippi, Tennessee. The most precious gift that year was seeing each other. The other was the news of a journal she had written.
“I want you to do something with this,” she urged sincerely.
When it arrived a few months later, I was stunned. A cover sheet listed the dates of the experience, and in all, it totaled sixteen handwritten pages. Each school sheet was numbered at the bottom, and her penmanship was careful and deliberate. Only after my fourth or fifth reading did my tears cease. What did she want me to do with it? Why me? And then I remembered. She gave it to me for the same reason she gave me everything else. She gave it to me because she gave me words, words that encouraged me to create my own.
Her letters always started the same way written with her address atop the page. They were yellow legal sheets, wide-ruled notebook paper, scraps from notepads, and dollar-store stationary. Often they would come with a list that could read: fifty dollar check, ten-minute recipes, articles, wedding invitation, comic strip, books, obituary.
They first came when I left her two-bedroom shotgun. It was the summer of my nineteenth year and New Orleans and I were no more. Two years at the University of New Orleans only encouraged me to pursue my education elsewhere. My grandmother, I’m sure, sensed it. She was my first mother. Except for the years between eighth and twelfth grades, I was at her home everyday, having gone to elementary and junior high school a few blocks away. As a result, my knowledge of the world sprang from her, and the letters never let me forget.
She was proud when I said that I was transferring to Morehouse College. She didn’t share the apprehensions of others. She had seen me transform those last two years. She saw me become a reader. It was then that I first realized that she was one herself. The bible was her primary text, but her taste was vast: John Grisham, Danielle Steele, Stephen King, Oprah’s Book Club selections, anything that was popular. The Sunday Times Picayune was also a given. The ritual would span hours and yield countless coupons and something she thought I should read. When I told her I wanted to be writer, she responded by feeding me books.
Her influence was hardly subtle. The first book she gave was The Color of Water, the story of a Jewish mother and her twelve bi-racial children living in the Red Hook Projects of New York City. How the 60s shaped their lives made me consider race in ways I had never imagined. White people were “crackers” according to my great-grandmother, and Jewish was a word I seldom heard. All I knew of race was black, white, and creole. I had never even had a conversation with a white peer until I was thirteen. But reading that book redefined what it meant to be labeled anything, especially black. With each book she gave, I sought that same experience. I wanted them to change me.
She started working at my university’s bookstore shortly thereafter. Because she was a retired secretary, collecting retirement and Social Security, she didn’t necessarily need the money. She loved the job nonetheless. Most days I would stop by and talk to her for awhile, and when she came home in the afternoons, she brought back bookmarks and pens and other cheap items on sale.
Another book was Black Poets, a comprehensive anthology of African American poets dating from the spirituals to the modern age. On the inside cover, she inscribed, “You Can Write!”
I cried when I read it. It was just the encouragement I needed to leave and find my way.
When I left New Orleans for Morehouse, I left a lot. A scholarship, a strained relationship with my father, a little brother, a mother who needed me as much as I needed her, friends I would never see again, a cousin who would be killed, a sub-standard education, her motivation. But when that first letter came, I realized that she was still there.
“Whenever I see something about Morehouse, I think about you,” she wrote.
I wonder if she knew how her words helped me get through.
Privilege and entitlement were things I never knew before I went to Morehouse, and they nearly suffocated me. My dad wasn’t an actor. My grandmother wasn’t a politician. My mom wasn’t a vice-president of a Fortune 500 company. I didn’t own a BMW. I was just a poor kid who thought words could propel him forward. But I was still a kid, alone in a city without support. It was hard sometimes missing her, missing home. But when I felt the lowest, I would turn to her. The shoebox that stored her letters is where I retreated. Reading them, I would remember who I was, everyone who shaped me, everything I could be. I was at Morehouse for a reason, one that was collective, one that incorporated all of her dreams.
“I love and miss you,” she wrote, “but I realize that you are a young man now and must make your own decisions.”
When I reflect on the power of her letters, words cannot adequately express the gratitude I feel for what she gave. She made me a writer by showing me that she was one herself. This is our story.
I finally finished. A lot is not included, but this gives a pretty good idea of what happened.
We are moving again. This time to Port Allen, LA.
The weekend started like any other. The church annual banquet was scheduled for Saturday, August, 27, 2005, and my mom came to visit for the weekend to be closer to church. Before leaving to go to the bus stop, she called a church member and learned that the banquet was cancelled.
I went to Harvey, Louisiana to pick up my future daughter-in-law and her children because I had tickets for all of us to attend “Wheel of Fortune.” The show was cancelled because of the weather.
The next day, August 28, 2005, was my son’s birthday in 1959. We planned to celebrate by having an inside treasure hunt, hiding his gifts around the house. He had to work so we did not celebrate together. His girlfriend told him where to find his presents, everyone wished him happy birthday.
The weather looked like it would storm even though it did not rain. After breakfast, I washed the dishes and cleaned the kitchen. We walked to a gas station convenience store to buy some snacks in case the weather got worse. When we returned, my step-daughter, her oldest daughter and her two small children, and her youngest daughter were at the house. We taped up windows, sat outside, and watched as neighbors on both sides of the street began leaving the area.
Early the next morning before dawn, I woke up hearing rain—a very hard blowing rain—shattering windows, howling winds, thunder and lighting. It was flooding outside. Cars were under water and some houses were covered to the roof. We climbed into the attic and my mom fell between two beams in the ceiling. Everyone helped each other to get in the attic. I brought food, drinks, and bedding for the babies. The first thing we did was pray. We ate and stayed in the attic for about three hours before coming down.
Two U.S. Coast Guard men came in a boat to the top of the porch and said that everyone had to evacuate. I gathered a change of clothes for me and my mom, told my step-daughter to go with her children first. I packed some snacks and got into the boat when it returned. It was small like a canoe. There were eleven of us, but they kept making trips until we were all picked up. The water was about six to eight feet then. It looked like a river all around us.
The boat took us to the Elysian Fields overpass, where we spent the night waiting for an army truck to pick us up. It was hot; we were thirsty; babies were crying, probably from hunger. Each time an army truck passed, everyone would wave and holler for it to stop and pick us up, but trucks kept passing without acknowledging that we were there. That night it was really dark and there was only a small group of men with flashlights to protect us. When morning came, one man had died and lay on the overpass with his wife watching over him.
We saw a lot of people coming from New Orleans East, walking on the other side of the overpass with babies and small children trying to get to the Superdome for shelter. Finally, a U.S. Army truck stopped and gave us some bottled water. One of them said that someone would pick us up later. As far as you could see, we were lined up on the overpass like ants. A couple of men went to the Circle Food Store and brought back snacks and water which they shared with everyone. We formed a circle, sang, and prayed for help to come. Each time a truck passed, we hoped that it would come back for us. When a truck did stop it was at the bottom of the overpass. We walked to that end and another truck stopped where we were before. My mom was 84 years-old at the time, but she kept walking until a truck stopped for us. Many people were crippled and had other handicaps. Medications were forgotten at home. We stayed together and watched for the next truck to come. Trucks kept passing us by. The next time we saw a truck, we ran to where it was. Before boarding the truck, an officer told us to throw our belongings away. The truck was for people ONLY. We were told that whatever we needed would be provided when we got to our destination. The truck was already overcrowded with people standing and sitting wherever they could. Seniors, I mean really elderly were allowed to sit around the sides of the truck. I was sitting on the floor in the middle of the truck, but very happy to finally be going someplace. We passed a lot of people who were with us on the overpass, still waiting to be picked up, who left to walk to the Superdome. The truck brought us around the Galleria in Metarie. There were about a thousand buses waiting to carry us out of the city. At that time the destination was unknown. We stood in line for food that looked like rations for soldiers during wartime.
The area did not have restrooms. You either relieved yourself behind bushes on the side of building with someone hiding you or suffered the consequences. A time was not set for us to leave, but we hoped that we did not have to sleep there. The ground was wet, muddy, and very slippery. It was so crowded that people began shoving and pushing because they were afraid that they would not be able to board a bus. I found a spot where all of us could board the bus together. My mom was afraid for me to leave her side, and when I left to check on the bus loading, she fell on the ground before I could return. She said that she was not hurt but I had to throw her stockings away because she stepped in red ants, then we boarded the bus.
The bus arrived in Houston, TX along with about a thousand others. It was dark when they let us out at the Astrodome. Everything was total chaos. Cots were everywhere. Cots were so close you could touch the person next to you or across from you. I was happy just to lie down. My mom could not lie down; there was so much confusion with everyone trying to get settled. I left the others on their cots and went upstairs in the rafters with her. I called my sister and brother-in-law, who lived in Houston to come and get her and take her to their house. I saw their names on the big screen that listed the names of relatives looking for their family members and brought my mom to them.
I went back to my cot and dozed off. A fight between two women woke me up. Another woman caught her husband with another and set the woman’s baby on fire. Police and people were running everywhere. The woman went out with the police. There was not enough security to protect us. Fights broke out all night.
My future daughter-in-law talked to a social worker who arranged for her to go home to her family in Wisconsin. It took her three days to get home. I was sorry to see her go, but I knew that she and her children would be taken care of better with her own family. We all joined hands to pray for her safe journey and thanked God for our daily blessings. I went back to my area and thought of the next step in my situation.
I made the cot from top to bottom because there was no room to move between cots. I put a couple of bottles of water and pastries on my cot, then I went to clean myself in the restroom. On my way upstairs, my stepdaughter told me that my daughter and grandson were looking for me. When I saw them, I hugged my stepdaughter and her children, found out where they were going, then left as I was. My hair was not combed since I left New Orleans. I looked tired and sick like the refugee I was. It’s hard to be strong and hold your emotions in. The tears just came. I was unaware that I was crying.
Food and drinks (water, juice, tea, coffee, cokes, etc.) were plentiful on the third floor. There were lines for the restrooms to shower and wash clothes. The Red Cross, Salvation Army, churches and other volunteers issued clothes, blankets, toys, baby clothes, toothpaste, toothbrushes, new T-shirts and other necessities. Telephones, computers and FEMA were set up on the second floor to help locate family or friends. Shuttle busses took us to the Reliant Center for medical attention.
Once I left the Astrodome, my grandson and his mother brought me to his girlfriend’s aunt house. Amy welcomed us and tried to feed us, although I was unable to eat, and gave us a tour of the house. All I wanted to do was take my shoes off and take a bath. My feet were blistered and hurting. The shoes were wet, muddy and sticking to my feet. I didn’t have any socks or stockings on. Three other families were living there with their children. The first thing I noticed was a bright, pink fluorescent sign on the wall as you walked in the house with FEMA, Salvation Army, hot-line telephone numbers for aid on it. Amy gave us her daughter’s room. She took us shopping at the Salvation Army where everything was free. She got her friends involved and everyone was anxious to help. A friend of hers took me to a shoe store and told me to get what I needed. I was concerned about the price but she said not to worry about it. The shoes were very, very, comfortable to wear. They helped my feet to heal and feel so good. I regret that I cannot remember her name to send her a proper thank you.
The hospitality was great, but I felt that with so many in the house, it was a burden on the family. I asked her to help us find a place. After work, she took us to several apartment complexes that we could afford. One place told us that someone got killed there, so they were unable to rent an apartment at that time. We found an apartment near hers in a different complex and moved as soon as it was available. The same day we moved in at 12 am.
That night, Amy and everyone else in her house, except the dog, left her house in three car loads and came to pick us up because of Hurricane Rita. We had to evacuate.
Running away from Hurricane Rita, the lead car had an accident. Glass was everywhere. My daughter and other passengers had to be taken to the hospital. With only one ambulance available, policemen from surrounding areas were called to escort the hurt passengers to the hospital and the rest of us to De Ridder, LA to a gymnasium that opened because of the hurricane emergency. We registered in the gymnasium and waited for the injured to be released from the hospital. The call came at 5:45 am and someone went to pick them up. We went to another shelter before arriving at the Quality Inn in Bossier City, LA. The next day, the electric power, except for a night-light, went off in the room. The power was restored early the next morning. A group went to K-MART, bought flashlights, supplies and snacks. We were there a week. I received the FEMA money by direct deposit. I went to the ATM and put my bank card in the wrong slot. The bank receptionist talked to someone in the office and the ATM had to be opened from inside the bank to get my card.
That evening I took my daughter to dinner at Outback which was across the street from the hotel. Ordinarily, I would not spend so much, opting to cook for much less. Someone rented a car which everyone in the group paid for to return to Houston.
The first thing I did was to thank God for ensuring that we arrived safely. Other than experiencing a traumatic encounter, we could settle down into a routine of daily living, a time to make the best of the situation. I went to the mall with my daughter, asking bus drivers directions to get there. We transferred to three buses. I went to Wal-Mart and bought a kitchen table, chairs, air mattresses and other necessities. The cooking saved money by not going to fast food restaurants. On the way home, I lost one of the bags that I really could not afford to lose. The Dollar Store was in walking distance, twelve blocks, so I bought pots, pans, paper towels, face towels, etc. The church is about the same distance. Sometimes I walk even though they have a van service. Everything is on the highway without bus service. Since I could now travel by bus, I made an appointment with the doctor to get a prescription for my medication. I lost fifteen pounds. My daughter and mom had their eyes tested and bought eyeglasses.
Glory to God, great in His faithfulness. Thank God for His mercy and loving kindness. We (family) all made it through the storm. Thanks to the city of Houston, the many agencies and volunteers that embraced evacuees. It’s truly a blessing to know that God rescued us from New Orleans, is with us now and will continue to protect us as we move to Port Allen, LA making us conquerors of the storm. I was taught to “trust God and don’t worry. He will meet your needs or provide.” (Luke 12:27-28)
Years before I even thought of Morehouse, I won a Black History contest for something I wrote about Dr. King. I was in the third grade and my school honored me at an assembly. I remember snaking through my classmates towards the stage, thinking of her. I remember sitting on her bed, sharing my thoughts, scribbling in a notepad, rereading what I had written. I remember the banquet where I was recognized with the other winners, and I can still see her smile. She has the newspaper clipping, I know, and some day, I hope she sends it to me with a letter.