A Year Ago Today...Life Changed Forever.
My family’s journey through Hurricane Katrina and her aftermath by Rhonda Lee Richoux August, 2006
On August 27, 2005, my sister Darla called. “Momma is taking too long to pack. We have to get out of here soon, before the traffic gets too bad! Call her and tell her we have to get out of here SOON!” I sighed and hung up the phone. This was, it seemed the traditional evacuation of my mother with all of my siblings who had children, whenever we were forty-eight ours out from the landfall of a major hurricane, and within the “cone of probability”. Hurricane Katrina was a Category 3 hurricane, which we had survived before. Historically, a Cat 3 out in the central Gulf of Mexico would be a Cat 2 or less by the time it pushed over our barrier islands and the shallower waters of our protective marshlands. Many of us had decided to stay. We figured there would be a little street flooding, but nothing major. I was concerned about the homes of my sisters Darla and Tracy, and my niece Shannon, who lived in areas that were farther from the Mississippi River, and so lower in elevation.
My mother’s home was a split-level home. The “upstairs” was actually just the original structure, made in the traditional southeastern Louisiana style, raised off the ground to allow for seasonal flooding. The lower floor was on a slab. When my mom and step-dad (my daddy since I was two years old) bought the home, there was only a kitchen/dining area and a two-car garage downstairs. They converted the garage into a large den, washroom, and an extra bedroom. Some years later, they added a back room where the patio had been, outside of the dining area. They also had a large above-ground pool with a nice deck. Our family spent a lot of time together. While all of us had grown up, moved away and had our own lives for awhile, we all returned to Chalmette as our parents grew older. My brother Wayne, who had left for college in Idaho back in 1969, ended up moving to Portland, Oregon, falling in love, and remains there with his family today. We were very close-knit. We enjoyed each other’s company, and continued the legacy of our children having their extended family as an important element in their lives and their learning. We were all very involved in each other’s lives.
Eddie and I had decided to stay. But because we lived in a mobile home, we decided we’d weather the storm at mom’s house. The brick exterior, upper level and attic would be a safe haven against the winds and any potential storm. We had gone through Cindy in the month of June, and she was later found to be a Cat 1 hurricane rather than a tropical storm, though I don’t know if they ever formally changed her classification after they got all of the data in. I didn’t want to go through that again...it was pretty scary in a mobile home, even though our home was tied down by a roof and porch. I called mom and told her not to worry about the house, Eddie and I would secure it on Sunday when we went there. I told her to be sure Daddy Mick left an axe in the attic, “just in case”. That request made her voice quiver. “Okay...I’ll see if he has something to leave up there.” She reluctantly left with my sister Darla and her family, my brother Todd and his family, and my brother Mickey and his family would follow later that evening. Mickey took my dad’s truck to pull his mother-in-law’s camper, in case there were no motel rooms. At least the kids would have a safe place to sleep. Darla’s husband Clayton refused to leave. We all knew that looting would be a problem, and it was hard for the men to just leave everything they had worked so hard for. I told Darla to tell him to join Eddie and me at mom’s house, because their house was a slab house, and he’d be miserable if any water got into the house. He decided to stay home.
I went to the local store to buy some supplies...not much. Usually things would be up and running within three days after a near-hit storm. Most hurricanes turned at the last minute and missed New Orleans. We in St. Bernard Parish, however, were more vulnerable, because we were completely surrounded by water. A mandatory evacuation had not been formally declared, so we thought we’d be okay. I met my aunt Joyce at the store. They lived not far from us, near the River, and planned on staying for the storm. We got the usual: lots of canned tuna and Vienna sausage, snacks, bread, batteries. There wasn’t a whole lot left, but as I said, we didn’t think we’d need a whole lot. We went home, and I stayed up until about 1:00 a.m., too tired to look at another minute of weather reports.
At 7:00 a.m., the phone rang. It was Tracy. She was calling from her summer home in Carriere, Mississippi, on the edge of Picayune. “It’s a Cat 5,” she said. I sat up in bed. “WHAT??? Since when,”, I asked. “I don’t know, she hit a hot spot and flared up overnight. What are you going to do?” I woke Eddie up, saying “It’s a Cat 5, Ed. Wake up. We can’t stay!” Eddie just said “Shit. Mutha Fucka!” I told Tracy I’d call her back. I asked her about Shannon and Josh. She said that their young son Tristen had left with Darla and Mom, but they were still home. I told Tracy I’d call her back. She said she’d call Shannon and Josh.
We got into high gear. Not only did we have to pack and secure our own home, but I had to go to mom’s and secure her house. Daddy Mick was already at Tracy’s. He had lost patience waiting for Mickey and caught a ride with Tracy’s husband Rene to Mississippi. We had no idea where Mom and the rest of the family were at this point. They had headed toward Alexandria. If no rooms were available, they’d go to the hunting camp Todd knew about and hole up until it blew over. I started packing. Eddie said, “Just throw 3 pair of underwear and socks, and a couple of pairs of jeans in there for me.” But, something told me I needed to do more. I packed two bags, all of our underwear, shorts, jeans, T-shirts, and some of my work clothes, for when we got back home to find our mobile home had given in to the wind. I didn’t foresee water entering our home, being right next to the river, the highest point in the parish. I threw photo albums into the car. I sealed a plastic box full of old photos with duct tape and placed it up on a dresser. I covered my computer in plastic, hoping that would keep any rainwater from ruining it if a window broke. I cleaned the cat travel box for CoCo, my young cat. I called Tracy back. “I don’t know where we’re going, but we’re getting out.” “You can come here,” she said, “I have my Chalmette neighbor Mike and his family here, but we’ll make-do.” I thanked her and asked about Shannon and Josh. “Well,” she said, “I called them and they seemed to still be asleep. I told them they had to get out of there. She hasn’t called me back.”
I called Shannon and told her they had to get out. She woke Josh up and gave him the news. “I’m serious, Shannon. At least go to Aunt Tracy’s. It will get the wind, but we won’t drown.” She said there would be too many people there already. She didn’t know where to go. I said, “Shannon, this is no joke. Pack your truck and head west or north. Don’t stop until you run out of gas! Someone will direct you to a shelter or motel. Just get out!” She was concerned about her dad. I told her to call him, and I would, too, to try to convince him to leave or at least stay at mom’s house. I told her that she has a son; he needs his parents to stay alive.
Eddie and I went to mom’s house. The extra key was in the Dutch wooden shoe on the window ledge, where it always was, in case any of us needed to go in, for whatever reason, while they were not home. That house was our house, whenever we needed it. Eddie helped me move some heavy things close to the house to keep them from becoming projectiles. I moved plants under the covered patio closest to the house. Eddie took first the car, then the truck, to fill them with gas, and to get ice and Cokes. We had a case of bottled water to take with us.
Inside the house, I found that mom had left her two parakeets. I placed them upstairs with extra food and two large bowls of water. I thought they would be safe. I took her computer upstairs and put part of on the bed and the tower onto the cedar chest, full of family photos and very heavy. I brought as many of her clothes from the downstairs closet and placed them on her bed. I took as many of her doll collection and Gone With The Wind music boxes upstairs on another bed. I was worn out by the time I was done. I called Clayton. He didn’t answer. I left a message, “Clayton, please come to mom’s house. The key will be in the shoe. There’s lots of food and water here, and you’ll be safer.”
By the time we went home and loaded CoCo into my car, and Chanel, our almost thirteen year old Chinese Shar-Pei, into the truck, it was 2:30 p.m. The traffic on Paris Road was light, most people already gone. When we hit I-10 East, however, traffic came to a stand-still. We went, literally, a foot at a time. The 50 minute trip to Tracy’s house took us six hours, in the heat of August, with no air conditioning. I tried to feed CoCo water through a straw, but she missed most of it. I thought she’d die on the way to Mississippi. It was nearly dark when we pulled up into Tracy’s driveway. The air conditioning was blessedly cold. We spoke for a while, and all decided to get to bed early, as the winds would pick up early in the morning. I called Shannon. They were crossing Whiskey Bay, on their way to Lafayette. I felt better that they would be safe. We went to bed.
I was awakened at 5:00 a.m. by the wind. The eye of the storm was still hours away from us, but Katrina was so massive that the outer bands were upon us. I went downstairs and put on some coffee, trying not to wake anyone. It would be a long day for us, and stressful. But, Rene smelled the coffee and woke up. Eddie followed soon after. We drank the first pot of coffee, and Rene was about to start another pot when we lost electricity. I went upstairs with a flashlight to leave for my daddy, in case he woke up. He was awake, just laying in bed. “What are you doing?” he asked. “Leaving you a flashlight; the electricity is out already.” The windows had been boarded up, so there was no morning light to be seen in the room. He joined us downstairs.
The winds became fierce and noisy. There were 21 southern pines surrounding Tracy’s house. One uprooted and hit Eddie’s truck. Tracy called mom. They had left the hunting camp because it was miserable, and were heading farther north. The call was dropped. That was the last we heard from them until after the storm. Our cell phones didn’t work any more, and neither did the land lines.
The men were out on the porch that was away from the direction of the wind, watching one tree after another uproot and fall on our cars, trucks, and about every home in the neighborhood. Tracy and I had stocked the closet under the stairwell and the bathroom across from it with flashlights, bedding, water and snacks, incase of tornadoes. Tracy and Eddie had just come in with the dogs when a large tree hit the edge of the house over the kitchen...the ceiling cracked, the door bent, and rain started coming in. We got buckets and towels to try to keep the water from reaching the carpets. The noise of the wind was frightening. It beat against the boarded windows as though an army was outside trying to hammer its way in. I thought there were tornadoes beating at the house...a common occurrence within the bands of a hurricane. But no one would get into the closet or the bathroom. We heard on the radio that the southern edge of the storm had lost some of its power, which made us feel a little better. After the eye passed, it wouldn’t be as windy.
As the eye passed over us, we all went out for some fresh air and to assess the damage. Everything was damaged, and we realized that when it was all over, we would have to cut our way out. Pine trees were blocking us in, in every direction. The winds picked up again, from the opposite direction, but they were nothing like the initial impact of the northern edge of the storm. We spent the rest of the day in shock. We wondered if our family was far enough north. We wondered if Clayton had gone to my mom’s house. We wondered if Aunt Joyce and her family got out. The next two days were the most agonizing days of my life, because as the reports started coming in, we realized the levees had failed after the storm. And all of the parishes had reported in except our parish, St. Bernard. It was under 15-22 feet of water, depending on what part of the parish you were looking at. Tracy and I just looked at each other. I know we were both thinking the same thing: “Is everyone in St. Bernard Parish dead?”
We spent eight days in Picayune, sitting in lines two miles long for water and a half-melted bag of ice. There was no gas until maybe the fourth day. We rationed water, and most of us just nibbled on Vienna sausage, a small can of Tuna, or a Slim Fast bar. Tracy was pushing the Slim Fast bars because they had vitamins. It was 3:00 a.m. on the third day that our daddy came inside and woke us all up. It was so hot inside that he slept on a cot on the porch, and Eddie slept in his truck. “Everybody wake up!!! I have a signal on my cell phone!!!” We woke up and turned on our phones...it took a few minutes, but a signal came on. However, all we could do was listen to our voicemail at first. We couldn’t make any outgoing calls.
My niece Shannon, my brother Mickey, and Mom left numerous messages, each one sounding more desperate. I cried to hear the worry in their voices. My friend Marquette, the mother of my step children, left as many messages as my mom. She was worried to death about me. My brother Wayne, in Oregon, was always the designated message center for hurricanes. I was able to call Marquette and Wayne, but no one in Louisiana. Marquette was so relieved to hear from me! She said they were all so worried about me. I called my brother...he was also happy to hear we were alive, but said he hadn’t heard from mom since they left the hunting camp, and didn’t know where they were, or if they had heard from Clayton. He said he tried to call her, but couldn’t get through.
Then Tracy said, “What about text messaging??” We were able to get a message to Shannon’s phone. We let her know we were okay. We got a response: “Thank God!” We started crying. We got another message: no word from Clayton. Uncle Rumio, Larry and Rumio were also missing. Aunt Joyce had met up with the rest of the family, but they had stayed behind.
When WalMart started up generators and opened to sell off canned goods and water, Eddie, Rene and I went. We stood in line for seven and a half hours, in the blazing sun, before we got inside. The generators had failed by the time we got in. They only let three people go in at a time, as there were no registers working, and they used flashlights to guide us around to gather supplies. There was a hose on outside for us to cool off with, and many of us took drinks from the unsafe water because we weren’t sweating any more...we were dehydrated. WalMart employees passed out crackers and Slim Jims to sustain us. A Red Cross truck came bye and gave us each a cup of frozen applesauce. I’d never tasted anything better!
Over the next several days, we waited in lines two miles long for gas. Twice, we were turned away because they ran out. We had siphoned some gas from our vehicles to keep the old generator going, to run the refrigerator for an hour at a time, and to use a large fan to keep us from dying of heat exhaustion. I realized that not only was I not sweating, I had also stopped urinating. I lost a lot of weight in those eight days. My clothes were falling off me. I had no appetite. Eddie helped Rene tarp the roof, and cut away most of the trees. It was a long, slow, grueling process. The animals were miserable, but too weak to complain.
When Rene made a run to Hattiesburg to get some gas and fill up gas cans, Daddy Mick went with him. He borrowed some man’s phone and called my brothers. They were at the Jimmy Davis State Park up in Chatham, Louisiana. They found it by taking a wrong turn looking for a campground, and a nice lady directed them there. There are no wrong turns when God is giving the directions. FEMA had designated all of the parks as shelters. They were all in air conditioned dorm rooms, and being fed three meals a day by the local churches. Unknown to us, Daddy Mick told Todd and Mickey to come get him immediately. He was in bad shape. Both he and Eddie were going crazy, and even talked about killing each other, but figured one of them would have to kill himself, and they didn’t think they could do that. He needed to leave.
Mickey and Todd showed up, and Daddy Mick had his stuff ready, flew past us and said, “Come on, let’s get out of here!!” He didn’t even give them time to talk to us or rest from the long drive. They did tell us that Clayton was safe, as was Uncle Rumio and our cousins. They had all been rescued and sent to Lafayette. Darla found out where Clayton was by going online. Someone she knew had seen him there, and gave her the name of the motel where they had been housed. Clayton thought Josh and Shannon were still in Lafayette, so he chose to stay there instead of going on to Houston. We hugged our brothers harder than we ever had before, and they left. Mickey told us we should all come up there. I told him that as soon as more gas stations opened, and as soon as Eddie finished helping Rene, we’d come up.
It was the eighth day. We were finally able to get gas for our vehicles. Eddie’s rack and bed were smashed, as was one headlight. The force of four trees had blown the air out of his tires, but they blew up fine. The hood of the old Caddy took a tree, and it wasn’t running well. With black smoke trailing behind me, and a bunch of bottles of oil in my car, we headed northwest toward Chatham. We could only go 50 miles an hour. I didn’t think I’d make it over the Mississippi River Bridge in Baton Rouge, but I made it. It took us about eight hours to get there, but when we found the park, I was so happy.
I don’t ever want to forget two things: how I felt when I didn’t know who was dead or alive in our family, and how I felt the first time I was able to see their faces again for the first time after hurricane Katrina. It will forever temper my reaction to any differences we might have in the future. I will always appreciate them, love them, and look at them as heroes as long as I breathe. We have lost so much, but gained so much more. We have strength of character. We have our survival instincts back. Our priorities have been set in their proper order. We have life, and understand what a wonderful thing that is. Though we all survived the storm, some of us did not survive the aftermath. The physical hardship took from us our family elder, my 99 year old uncle, Irvin Martinez. My brother in law Rene nearly died from an infection, probably contracted when the was trying to save things in his moldy, contaminated home in Chalmette. He has Thallesemia, and the infection caused complications that almost killed him. We have all lost friends, some to illness, some to suicide, some to the floods. My family has settled in various places, and we no longer share the same community or the closeness it afforded us. Not only my immediate family, but my cousins, aunts and uncles lived in St. Bernard Parish. Only my Aunt Joyce and her family, Eddie and I chose to stay here. My brother Todd and his family were recently given a FEMA trailer to live in down here, and I’m glad I at least see them once in awhile.
My beloved school, St. Bernard High School, was not reopened. I was not able to get a job at the High School that reopened, but was given a job as an aide in the Pre-K program at Andrew Jackson Elementary, formerly Andrew Jackson High. I don’t like Andrew Jackson (forget the Battle of New Orleans...he signed the Indian Removal Act and was responsible for taking the country away from the Original Nations that populated it.) But, I love being around children. Children give me hope, and make me feel that my community will return...perhaps in 10 years...to a thriving community, if politics stays out of it and leaves it up to the people.
Tomorrow we will remember the event, and honor our dead. We still live in Third World conditions in St. Bernard Parish, but we are strong and courageous and stubborn, and we will do what we must to rebuild. I ask only that none of you forgets that in our darkest hour, our government failed us, but ordinary Americans answered the call and donated, volunteered, and encouraged us to never give up hope. I thank my countrymen, from the depth of my heart and my soul. I will never forget the moment in my life when I felt that we were a united people, taking care of our own.
Peace to all, and my prayers to everyone who may experience the destructive power of our beautiful mother, Nature. ~ Rhonda