In today’s world, news comes in a flash before we are all talking about the next major headline of the week, day, or hour. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the headlines of almost two months ago: Hurricane Ida Makes Landfall on the 16th Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
I instinctively pushed away all negative thoughts and memories of Hurricane Katrina as so many people on social media drew comparisons. After checking on my family and ensuring they were ok, I was struck by a Facebook notification reminding me of a photo I took with my friends, whom I evacuated with right before Katrina made landfall those many years ago. And immediately, I was taken back to that moment.
My friend Jenifer and I had just met up with Brittany and Donna at the Baton Rouge mall after Jenifer and I spent 6 hours getting from New Orleans to Baton Rouge (a drive that normally takes about 45 mins). The game plan was to meet there and follow Donna and her mom back to her campus apartment at LSU. I only had an overnight bag in my possession, thinking that I would only be there for one day.
Prior to this moment, I was spending my summer before my sophomore year of college at home in New Orleans, working as a hostess at a restaurant. The TV hovering over the bar announced that Thursday, a tropical storm named Katrina was brewing in the Gulf Of Mexico. I didn’t think much of it, because we had experienced a hurricane earlier that summer with zero damage and honestly hurricanes were just a way of life then. The only semi-scary storm I had ever experienced prior to that was Hurricane George back when I was a little girl. So, seeing a tropical storm brewing wasn’t anything to worry about, at that time.
My college friend, Jenifer, was visiting me from North Carolina and we had planned a whole weekend of Bourbon street, restaurant hopping, and streetcar riding. On that Thursday night, my mom and my five-year-old little brother, Jalen, were packing up to visit family in Mississippi, a normal weekend activity for us, but this time, Jenifer and I would stay back in New Orleans. I remember Jalen being the quintessential little brother with his lamenting about not being able to hang out with me and stay home to enjoy his brand new bunk beds.
By Friday, there was a little buzz about the tropical storm but still nothing to be worried about. As my mom and little brother drove away, Jenifer and I planned to get some DVDs from the local BlockBuster, just in case the rain were to literally wash away our plans. So, we grabbed Sin City and planned to check it out that weekend.
On Saturday, things seemed to get a little heightened. Jenifer’s mom, who’s Jamaican, kept calling to check on us, alerting us that the tropical storm was now a hurricane, and urged us to stay inside. She and her family knew all too well the dangers of hurricanes and wanted us to be as careful as possible. We heeded her warnings as I decided to call my neighbor, who just so happened to be Donna’s mom. I inquired about her plans and she explained to me that she was getting information from her son, who was in the National Guard. He told her that even if it’s not as serious as the news made it out to be, that we should be as cautious as possible because power outages give looters an opportunity to break into places. He also informed her that if things got out of hand, that the National Guard would be ordered to shoot on the spot.
Donna’s mom offered Jenifer and I to leave with her the following day to go up to Baton Rouge, which we took her up on. That Sunday, Jenifer and I packed our overnight bags and followed Donna’s mom from our New Orleans East Townhome, and traveled up to Baton Rouge. Hours later we were all united in the Baton Rouge mall, joking around, trying on clothes, trying to figure what fun touristy things we could show Jenifer while in Baton Rouge.
The drive took a lot out of us, so we ended up just hanging out at the campus apartment while Donna’s mom made us dinner. We all huddled around the TV to watch the VMA’s. My phone rang as Kanye was receiving his award for Best Video. It was my mom calling to make sure we were all ok. In the background, I could hear my five-year-old brother, Jalen, begging to talk to me. My mom gave him the phone as he excitedly asked me, “Are you watching the VMA’s, Ciera?” He went on to say how sad he was that T.I. didn’t win and how unfair it was that he couldn’t hang out with me and how much he missed me. His voice was so cute and innocent as he made me promise him that his new bunk beads would be ok and that I would sleep on the top bunk when we got back home. I promised, with 100% certainty, that his bunk beds would be just fine and that I’ll sleep in the top bunk.
And with that, I told my family I loved them and will talk to them the next day.
When we all woke up the next morning, Donna’s mom had the news playing on the TV. We could hear the winds beating against the building. Us girls went outside to playfully experience the strong winds. A tree branch had fallen and soon came Donna’s mom’s voice yelling at us to come back inside. That evening the power went out along with our cell phone signals. We kept getting busy signals on our phones and if we were able to dial out it was only to anyone in the local area.
Staying at a college campus had its benefits because we still had access to the internet. And so, that Tuesday morning, Donna was able to pull up news footage on her laptop. The first thing I saw was Biloxi Mississippi, where my mom and five-year-old brother were staying that weekend. Trying to reach my family kept leading to the “we’re sorry this number can’t be completed as dialed.” Tempering my worst fears, I decided to walk to the nearby 7- Eleven to use the payphone in hopes to reach my mom. Jenifer joined me and once we got there, we were surprised by the long line of people doing the same. People kept trying to call loved ones but to no avail. Some were offering their cellphones which seemed to have some promise in some cases but nothing in most.
I inquired about how to find out if anyone in Biloxi was hurt. One person instructed me to try to reach out to the Red Cross and put my family’s name on the missing person’s registry. It was a lot to take in.
When Jenifer and I got back to Donna’s, we had two new visitors who had just evacuated from New Orleans. Our friends Sam and John. They told us that it was really bad and that the whole East was flooded; leaving little hope for my home and Jalen’s bunk beds. I mentioned that I wasn’t able to get in touch with my family in Biloxi. They told me that they had heard of people being rescued and taken to the LSU Tiger Stadium, which was just five minutes away. So that was it, the next day I would go there to try to find my family or put them on a registry.
Wednesday morning, I put on my clothes that I had traveled in, up to Baton Rouge while Jenifer and I loaded into Donna’s Volkswagon Beetle. Donna had offered to drive us so that I could save my fuel since we had heard that all of the gas stations had run out of gas. She dropped us off at the Tiger Stadium and said she’ll be back in a few hours to meet her in that same spot, in case our phones still weren’t working.
Jenifer and I headed into the Tiger Stadium. It was complete chaos like one of those apocalyptic movies. People were being rushed in on stretchers with water markings up to their chests indicating the height of the water level they were submerged and rescued in. Some were wailing and crying. Others were just in pure shock. As I looked around, I noticed there were lines of people looking to volunteer. And so, I got in line with Jenifer as I noticed an official-looking woman explaining that one line was for people who could help pick up trash and distribute food while the other line was for people who had medical experience. Thinking back to those times when I would help clean my Aunt Kerry’s tumor womb, or how I knew the proper protocol to safely secure my dad for when he had an epileptic seizure, or how I was familiar with what to give my grandma Sarah when her diabetes acted up and caused her to pass out, I decided to head over to the medically experienced line. Just then a doctor rushed out and asked the official which line was which, she told him and he quickly made eye contact with me and pointed at me, saying, “You, med student?” Nodding my head yes, he called me over to him and told me to follow. Jenifer tailed behind as we were ushered into the back halls of the Tiger Stadium.
He took us into a room where four elderly people were lying on cots. He told Jenifer and me that they were rescued from a nursing home in New Orleans and were possibly on the brink of passing away due to their age. He instructed us to keep an eye on them, ensure that they were comfortable, and call out to him if anything seemed abnormal. He then rushed out. It was all so surreal.
There was one elderly woman who just kept staring up at the ceiling. Her eyes were gray and her hands were weathered. I checked her id bracelet to see that her name was Ethel; she was 94 years old. I held her hand and thought to myself, that we will get through this and see our families soon. Jenifer was silently sitting with one of the other women. We said nothing while listening to their faint breaths and all the chaos outside. A stoic silence fell over the room. I can’t remember how long we sat like this.
Breaking the long silence, we were interrupted by a representative from an organization who was registering names for missing persons. I suddenly noticed the tag on her chest with the Red Cross symbol. Hope took over my whole body. She inquired about the women on the cots and asked Jenifer and me to read off their information on their ID bracelets. As soon as we read off the 4th one, she was heading out the door down the hall. I had to run after her to quickly catch up with her. I told her my situation and asked if any Payton’s or Diaz’s were there at the stadium or on the list and if I could put my name on the list in case my family was looking for me. She searched through her binder and said no one with those last names was there. I then gave her my information. Before she left, she told me to just pray that my family is ok.
When I got back to the room, I could tell Ethel wasn’t doing too well. She seemed to be struggling to breathe, so I stepped back out to call out for the doctor. He came in and told me that Ethel had a breathing issue due to possible pneumonia and that she would need fluid suctioned out from her lungs. Unsure of what he was telling me, I asked, “How do we do that?” He informed me that I’d have to clear it out through her tracheostomy tube. He started pointing to the instruments nearby and told me he would instruct me on where to place the tube in order to clear out her fluid.
I wanted to be sure that Ethel wasn’t in any pain at all, so I did everything with the utmost care and ease. The doctor was very encouraging and walked me through each step. Once I was done, he told me I just performed my first tracheostomy. Ethel looked so relieved as she was breathing normally now. She turned her head over so slightly and placed her eyes on me, slowly blinking them in relief. I continued to sit by her and hold her hand.
Hours went by as Jenifer and I stayed sitting with the elderly women as chaos in the hallways ensued. The doctor came in to check on us and told us we’d been there for about 12 hours and that we should take a break and get some rest. I had completely forgotten about Donna. We found a payphone to call Donna to pick us up. In another desperate attempt, I tried phoning my family in hopes that I could get through. Nothing.
Donna arrived to pick us up, just as Jenifer was informing me that her mom had worked out a plane ticket to get back to North Carolina from Baton Rouge. It was leaving the following day. Of course that whole time, I didn’t even register that Jenifer was stranded and being forced to endure everything while being on what would have been a really fun New Orleans vacation. I told her I completely understood and Donna agreed to take her to the airport the next morning.
As I walked Jenifer into the Baton Rouge airport it was a chaotic mess. There were TV’s highlighting all of the devastation and drama back in New Orleans and Mississippi showing how people at the Superdome and Convention Center were begging for help. Images of Mayor Nagin going on national TV sticking it to Bush popped up on every screen. It all just didn’t seem real.
When I hopped back into Donna’s Beetle, she declared that it was time for us to go somewhere and clear our minds; get a healthy distraction from it all. Sam was tagging along and suggested Juan’s Flying Burritos. For some reason Mexican food always makes everything better.
At Juan’s, the air felt lighter. Power was on, people were in good spirits, and lively music was playing on the restaurant speakers. I was able to take my mind off of my family and five-year-old brother just for a second, until T.I.’s What You Know About That began playing on the radio over the speakers. I remembered my last conversation with my little brother. I remembered how T.I. was his favorite rapper and how he would bounce up and down like a rapper while reciting his songs. Then… I just couldn’t eat another bite and all of a sudden all of the pent-up emotions I had…couldn’t be contained anymore. I let out a wail like I’ve never heard before and just began sobbing uncontrollably. Donna and Sam quickly came over to my sides to try to calm me down. I don’t quite remember what happened after that.
And so, days went by and there was nothing. Things just seemed to get worse from what we were watching on the news. At one point, Donna’s uncle came to stay with us. He was a nurse. The night he arrived, his scrubs were watermarked and he nearly collapsed to his knees once he put his bags down. Donna’s mom gave him red beans and rice as he cried about all that he had just seen. He kept talking about the elderly people and how “it ain’t right. They in there dying and nobody did anything.” The candles flickered on the walls and across his face as he finally ate and wiped his tears. All I could think about was Ethel and prayed that she made it through to be united with her family.
Power finally was restored and we all scrambled to our devices that we were desperately trying to reserve power on. Donna let me use her laptop to check my emails. To my discovery, my school’s secretary has sent a number of emails checking in on me, telling me she was instructed to help me get out of New Orleans and back to North Carolina. I quickly emailed her back providing all details requested. She told me that they will wire me money so that I could drive up to North Carolina and that housing was already set up for me.
However, I was conflicted; should I leave Baton Rouge and risk missing my family, should they be evacuated to the Tiger Stadium or should I stick around until things got better? Donna’s mom, in all her wisdom, told me that I could most likely get more done in North Carolina than sticking it out in Baton Rouge. I trusted her words as I had seen, first hand, her strength endure during that whole time.
So I packed up my little bag, took the food that Donna’s mom made for me, printed out my MapQuest instructions, and informed my school that I was on my way up to North Carolina. They deposited funds in my bank account and instructed me to call them whenever I made a stop at a gas station or rest stop.
Donna and I said our goodbyes. I hugged all of our visitors and promised Donna’s mom, I’d email or call, once I made it to North Carolina. Off I went.
My first stop was Wal-Mart. For some reason, I instinctively felt the need to buy an external gas tank and fill it up at the first gas station I stopped at. No one told me to do so, I just went with my gut. So I lugged this tank with me and filled it up at the first functioning gas station that I could find. After filling up my car’s tank, I headed on my way up to North Carolina.
One thing that stood out to me the most during that time was the heat. It was so hot. Remember how it beat my arms and face as I kept my windows down in order to preserve as much gasoline as I could. Getting to the interstate took forever due to all of the traffic. Once I got on the interstate highway, I was met with bumper-to-bumper traffic. I must have spent a few hours until I noticed that I was running low on gas.
As I began figuring out how I was going to safely pull over to replenish my gas, I looked up in my rearview mirror and saw flashes of hundreds of lights followed by the blazing sounds of sirens in the background. Cars started pulling onto the side of the freeway. A panic set in as I pulled over. However, I figured this was the perfect time to replenish the gasoline from my travel tank. As I began to do so, I noticed all of the commotion was from a fleet of maybe a hundred Army/National Guard Humvees being led by highway patrol cars. It looked like a scene from one of those war documentaries. I quickly replenished my fuel and hopped back in my car and continued watching as the Humvees raced by.
After the last Humvee zoomed by, it was like traffic decided to flow. I picked up speed and followed the signs towards Jackson, Mississippi which was only a few miles away. All of a sudden, my cellphone started buzzing and dinging. My service had been restored! Hundreds of texts came flooding in, along with voicemails. Before I could think of doing anything else, I quickly called my mom’s cell. NOTHING. I called again. NOTHING. I called another time, and finally my Aunt Paulette picked up saying, “Ce, call the house phone sweetie, she’s here in Picayune, at grandma’s house.”
Quickly dialing the number, I was so relieved to hear my mom’s voice pick up and hear Jalen’s voice in the background joyously saying, “Ciera!!!!” I could hear my mom’s somber tone underneath her relief knowing I was safe. “Can I speak to grandma?” I asked. I could hear the hesitation in my mom’s voice as she explained to me that they were still out of power there in Picayune, Mississippi and that she and Paulette had to walk to the stores to grab ice to help to keep grandma’s medicine cool. “But yea you can talk to her.” My mom said before handing over the phone.
“Grandma! How are you?” I said, with apprehensive relief. She was slow to answer as I could hear the discomfort in her breathing which echoed what I had just seen in Ethel at the Tiger Stadium. Grandma Sarah always tried to be so strong, it was her nature. She mustered up a “Hey sweetie,” as I told her that I was ok and heading back to North Carolina. All to which she faintly replied, “Ok Gina, thank you.” Then the phone seemingly fell as my mom quickly picked it up.
“She’s just tired, Ciera, don’t worry.” My mom explained. I then talked to Jalen who told me all about the exciting and scary adventure they had while evacuating Biloxi, Mississippi.
“The roof blew off, Ciera! It was scary! You think my bunkbeds are ok,” he asked. I told him that I didn’t think they were, but I was sure that we could buy him some more. Even though I sense his five-year-old disappointment, his old soul wisdom appreciated my honesty.
Speaking back with my mom, I told her where I was and that I’d call as soon as I made it to North Carolina.
The rest of the trip is a blur, honestly. I can’t remember if I stopped anywhere to nap or if I just powered through the 13-hour drive all by myself. I do remember playing lots of gospel music and then switching it up to Kanye and Ludacris at times. Even arriving at UNCSA is a blur. I felt like it was late evening when I finally made it there.
What I do remember is arriving at a nearly empty campus, since school hadn’t started yet. I was greeted by Sarah Turner, an administrator for UNCSA. When she unlocked the door to my newly assigned dorm, I was instantly filled with so much love. She showed me the new toothbrushes, bedding, clothes, towels, food, toiletries, and laptop that had all been donated and provided to me thanks to the school.
She also told me that a number of community members had volunteered to take me to go grocery shopping along with trips to Target for anything else I needed. I was so overwhelmed by it all. I just wanted to wrap my arms around Sarah because she looked like my dad’s mom (my nana) and had the same name as my mom’s mom (grandma Sarah). But I felt so dirty and sweaty from my drive that I couldn’t move myself to do so. She must have felt my instinct and suddenly she gave me a big warm hug! It was the first time I took a real breath and felt at ease. She left her number with me and told me to call her if I needed anything and then she left.
The following days were filled with meeting community members who were filled with so much generosity and love. They were truly Godsent. Anne Guill opened up her home to me and allowed me to sleep over and have dinner with her family. Anne’s cousin took me shopping at Target and told me to get anything I wanted. Of course, I didn’t want to take advantage, I think I only reached for a pair of underwear, while she started picking out cute outfits for me and makeup and fun things just to have to make me feel better.
Jenifer’s mom, who was a real estate agent, helped to make arrangements to get my mom and brother in North Carolina, once they were able to do so.
St. Paul First United Methodist Church and John and Gloria Allen furnished me with so many prayers, food, financial gifts, and just overall love and support.
The whole school of Drama, Dean Freeman, Assistant Dean Beseda, and Mary Jane, along with the entire faculty all ensured that I was ok and getting whatever I needed. They also set up therapy sessions for me, my first time ever going to therapy. Something I’ll share more about in a later post.
That phrase, it takes a village, truly played out in that time and I’m forever grateful to them who all came together to help.
When I finally got around to opening my new laptop, provided by Phillip Hanes (owner of Hanes Brands) I was able to finally see the totality of what Hurricane Katrina did. I was sick to my stomach seeing people’s comments on how taxpayers don’t want to pay for the damage and how others were trying their best to politicize a disaster that affected so many people. I couldn’t tune in anymore.
Some weeks later, after school had started, just as I started to feel like I could find some ease a little, I had gotten a call from my mom that my grandma Sarah had died. Our family matriarch had passed away. The call came just as my next class was starting. I didn’t know what to say, I just knew that it was best that I didn’t cry, because I didn’t want to upset my mom any further. So I hung up the phone, bottled up any emotions I had, and headed into my acting class with Matt Bullock.
I guess the shock of the news was painted on my face as I was suddenly snapped out of my shellshockedness, when Matt asked, “Ciera, what’s wrong with you?” I couldn’t keep up the front anymore. The classroom was dark and I could see the blur of my classmates, Wesley Taylor, Quin Gordon, and Jon Odom looking at me.
I sat up in my chair, took a deep breath as I knew the tears would be falling as soon as I said, “My grandma just died.” The emotional flood followed. My classmates hugged me as Matt said, “Oh Ciera, I’m so sorry.” Once I was able to steady myself, Matt told me that it was ok for me to leave the class, if I needed to. I did so and went back to my dorm and cried maybe for the rest of the day.
The funeral was about a month later, I wasn’t able to go as my family encouraged me to stay in North Carolina and save any money I had.
In November, the officials finally opened up the city which allowed residents to go back to their homes to assess damages. It was near Thanksgiving time and so I knew that I needed to get down to New Orleans to see my family. I was able to get a plane ticket, thanks to my Uncle Tony. My mom and brother picked me up from the airport and brought me to my grandma’s house in Picayune, Mississippi where she and Jalen had been staying. It was so different being there and not hearing Grandma’s voice or her humming to her gospel tunes on the radio.
“We’re going to drive up to New Orleans tomorrow,” my mom told me. I said ok as I played tickle tackle with Jalen. We delighted in some Popeyes Chicken and soon drifted off to sleep.
The next day, we made our way back to New Orleans. It looked like a war zone as we arrived at our Townhome in New Orleans East. My mom began reaching for her hazmat suit in the backseat as we took in the sight of the watermarks and spray paint markings on our home. The backyard shed area had been blown away. The front door was intact but debris blocked our entryway.
When we got inside, mold filled the air. The water line made its ominous mark about 5 feet high all throughout the first floor. The mixture of sitting water, heat, and humidity over that time before the waters subsided caused not only the most nauseating smell but also a mold growth like I’d never seen before. The whole downstairs and stairways were covered in mold.
“Oh, Ciera I don’t think we can salvage anything here,” my mom said as she then remembered the outside shed, with all of our important documents. She left the house as I continued to explore upstairs.
“Can I come inside now!” Jalen yelled as he was protesting my mom’s orders of him to stay in the car while she and I inspected everything.
Determining that it was safe, I yelled out “Come on up, Jalen,” as I sat in my bedroom upstairs. The walls were damp as mold had already started forming along with them on the second floor. Some joy was sparked as I was so happy to see that some of my photo albums and jewelry boxes were still intact. Jalen’s little feet pitter-pattered up the stairs.
He ran past my bedroom. All of a sudden I heard a big, “YESSSSS!!!!!! My bunk beds are ok!” He called out for me to check it out for myself. And sure enough, his bunk beds were just fine. No mold, nothing. Just as new as they were the day we bought them months ago. His celebration was like a ray of light amongst the overcast day.
Back outside, my mom was discovering that all of our birth certificates, baby photos, and important documents had all been missing or destroyed, “It’s all gone,” she said with hopelessness in her voice. I too felt that same despair as I searched for something comforting to say.
Before I could let any word out, Jalen rushed outside to declare, “But my bunkbeds are ok, Mama!” My mom let an honest smile come across her face as Jalen celebrated, holding his arms up in the air like a boxer winning a match. It was then that I knew we were all going to be ok.
Looking back at that moment in my life, 16 years ago, I am so thankful that we made it through. I’ll always appreciate Jalen’s five-year-old innocence and all who helped us during that time. Now, every time I see a natural disaster happen, I’m reminded of that time. And It makes me appreciate humanity’s compassion and the strength of humankind. With every clean-up and rebuilding effort, it’s so beautiful to see just how resilient the human condition can be.
No matter the weather, we all have something in us that can allow us to shine through it all and possibly find reasons to celebrate.
Thank you for reading. XOXO – Ciera
Disclaimer: Names have been changed in order to protect my friends’ privacy.