Leann, Hurricane Katrina survivor and our guide

Leann, survivor and our guide through the Lower Ninth Ward

It was supposed to be a day of kayaking and bird-watching in New Orleans, but Mother Nature had another idea. Rains started at dusk the night before and I woke early to learn that our tour, launching from the lip of the Bayou in the Lower 9th Ward, was cancelled for safety reasons.

A more profound adventure of a completely different kind unfolded as the tour driver suggested she drive us around the landfall epi-center of Hurricane Katrina. Leann was one of the lucky ones and escaped the storm in New Orleans but Hurricane Katrina changed her life.

Before Hurricane Katrina hit

“We rode out storms all the time and assumed on Friday that we’d see each other on Monday.”

Leann worked at a radio station when the storm warnings came in. She fled New Orleans at the last minute, finding refuge in a Texas hotel until she was allowed to return. There wasn’t much to return to as her station was closed due to water damage. With severance pay she moved onto to work at a TV station in Baton Rouge until the glass ceiling had her looking for another job. Moving back to New Orleans, closer to family, made sense.

As I looked out over the bridge into the lower 9th ward, my heart sank. Leann paused the car in the middle of the deserted bridge for me to see the levee walls. It was clear that the 9th Ward was built well below the water line.

Bridge view - Lower 9th Ward on the right

Bridge view – Lower 9th Ward on the right

Now, weedy green overflows vacant lots where homes full of families lived. Celebrities and government agencies have rebuilt some streets. President Obama visited when the new Andrew P. Sanchez & Copelin-Byrd Multi Service Center opened. Actor Brad Pitt founded the Make It Right Foundation to create 150, flood-proof, environmentally-sound homes. Other homeowners returned with insurance money to rebuild but many did so in the same style as before. I imagine they’ll be vulnerable to devastation the next time flood waters breech. The contrast was startling.

Fixer upper post Hurricane Katrina

Help welcome.

A chance encounter

Leann showed us her last packet of rations passed out by FEMA after Hurricane Katrina. She carries it as a reminder in her cab. On one street she pulled the taxi over. “Hey baby,” she softly spoke to a man walking the sidewalk. I thought they were friends, but it’s a  familiar NOLA greeting. Her easy call brought Wendall over and the questions began.

Here’s the video of the encounter:

As Wendell finished recounting his rescue and rebuilding traumas, Leann asked if he’d accept a donation and he nodded yes, with a slight smile. She passed him the packet of rations and some cash we’d collected. Blessings were exchanged and we drove on to see the Musicians Village across the bridge.

New home, post Hurricane Katrina, living space still built below the flood line.

New home, post Hurricane Katrina, living space still built below the flood line.

One of the raised houses that Brad Pitt's organization has helped construct post Hurricane Katrina

One of the raised houses that Brad Pitt’s organization has helped construct

I’ve waited a year to tell this story. There have been scores of reporters and gawkers wandering through the 9th Ward. The ten year anniversary passed in 2015 with reviews and photo journalists’ galleries full of what’s left of the neighborhood. I didn’t plan to join them but it’s important to remember, especially as new life-changing floods have returned to Louisiana. That encounter continues to impact how I travel.

“Nothing else we could ever describe would allow us to meet any other way.”

 

~ Leann

Just Getting Through

A pair of girls in jeans and t-shirts pulled their hoodies close as we drove past. I imagine them growing up after the storm tore through. They have to walk out of the house every day, past empty lots and houses still waiting for demolition. Whether they stay in the ward or join the diaspora, the daily routine midst the scars of Hurricane Katrina remain. As Leann knows well, it takes energy to keep on, “Just getting through.”

Hope house in the Lower 9th Ward

Hope house in the Lower 9th Ward, 2015

I offer this as a remembrance and a request for those of us more fortunate to take action, to help when we can. My words are my means.

Boxing club in the Lower 9th Ward

Boxing club in the Lower 9th Ward

How to make a difference in the Lower 9th Ward

Five years ago David Young came to the Lower 9th Ward to volunteer. He felt a calling to stay and has founded Capstone Gardens on more than 25 vacant and blighted lots. The fruits and vegetables grown there are given to organizations serving the hungry.

As the area is considered a ‘food desert,’ where locals need to take several buses to buy fresh produce, David has begun selling his harvests at a local convenience store, Galvez Goodies. If you can’t visit to help in the garden, check out his honey. His bee hives are helping the plants and trees flourish.

Ready to adopt a beehive and help Hurricane Katrina survivors?

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Tales from Hurricane Katrina