Satellite view of “The Big One”

Yesterday afternoon I was waiting for an appointment in an office, and a woman who was sitting next to me was complaining to her friend: “I am so sick of hearing about Katrina. All those people who are still trying to get into their houses should have moved back by now. They got their Road Home money!” A little too-righteous indignation on her part. I wonder if she lost her house, her job, any member of her family to Katrina or its aftermath.

And here’s a real good one: A few weeks ago when I was on a cruise with my family, a fellow came up to me, started chatting me up and asked me where I was from. “New Orleans,” I said. “Oh, well I know that you all can’t be blaming all that happened on President Bush,” said he (why this came up in his brain, I don’t know). I was dumbfounded and started to feel my blood pressure rising and my Mojo Mouth getting ready to explode…and then he said (seriously, too): “Yes, we had a bit of a problem after Katrina where we live in Colorado. The humidity went way up.”

Can you believe this?? I walked away—quickly, before I could punch him.

This guy was obviously an insensitive idiot, but try as many people might, I don’t think anyone who wasn’t touched by Katrina personally can understand what we went through; what we are still going through.

Five years ago, things at OffBeat were going pretty well, and we were just sending the September issue to press at our printer, Dixie Web, located in Metairie. The street date was Monday, August 29. We had a magazine release party planned at d.b.a., down Frenchmen Street.

Post-ship date, we always take a deep breath around here, after the stress of production week. We knew there was a tropical depression, but didn’t think anything of it. In fact, I personally pretty much ignored it. My daughter Meredith called me on Saturday morning at home and asked me if I knew that there was a Category 5 hurricane heading straight for New Orleans. Hell’s bell’s—the news really took me by surprise, set off the alarm bells, but when I told Joseph, he said, “Let’s wait to see what will happen tomorrow…it will probably turn like they always do.” To be safe, we schlepped down to the office and battened down the hatches (moved computers, cleared desks, etc.). And, on pins and needles on Saturday night, we went to bed just knowing that the storm would turn.

It didn’t.

So Sunday morning, we packed up a couple of suitcases, and jumped in the car at about 10:30 a.m., figuring we’d be gone a couple of days. We took the back way out of town and went down old Highway 90 and passed a lot of camps. I remember thinking, if this is as bad as they say it will be, all of this could be gone in a couple of days. Bye-bye. We headed northeast to Slidell and figured we’d get onto Highway 59 North to Mississippi. Wrong. Traffic was being diverted west. My sister Jill and her husband Newt had invited us to stay at their house in Baton Rouge, but we hated to impose, and figured we could get a motel room somewhere in Mississippi. The further along we got in the car, the worse the traffic got. The more calls I made on my cell, the more sure I was that we’d probably be sleeping in our car somewhere because there were absolutely no hotel rooms available in the entire Southeast, unless you could drive through to Missouri. Luckily, my daughter and granddaughter had found a motel room outside of Jackson, Mississippi, and I knew they were safe. We just stayed in traffic and tried to get out. Anywhere.

At about 5:30 p.m., we were in totally stopped traffic about 30 miles south of Natchez, Mississippi. It was getting dark and you could feel the storm in the air. I called my sister in Baton Rouge, and she told us to come on back, we were welcome. So we did a 180 and headed back south to Baton Rouge. We got there about 7 p.m., exhausted, and worried. My brother Joe and sister-in-law Janet live in Long Beach, Mississippi.

Slidell, post-Katrina

My other sister Gretchen, her husband John and their four kids live in Lacombe. My mother, who lived in Slidell and had just been diagnosed with endocarditis, was at Gretchen’s home. The hospital that had been treating her CLOSED and sent her home with my sister, who is an R.N., to administer the intravenous antibiotics she had to have administered.

I learned how to text using my cell phone to check on my daughter and granddaughter, since my cell didn’t work.

We all went to bed, hoping for the best.

I woke up at about 5 a.m. to a lot of rain and wind, and checked the hurricane’s progress on my cell phone.  I couldn’t believe how huge the storm was and it was headed right for New Orleans. The Big One.

Early that day, we tried to get through to Joe and Janet, and Gretchen and John, and couldn’t. The word was that St. Tammany Parish had been totally inundated by water. The worst of it was, there was nothing we could do but sit and wait, and hope until we finally heard something. They were all okay, and on Tuesday night Gretchen, my mom and the kids drove to Baton Rouge…

Of course, this story could continue for a very long time, but suffice it to say, I will never, ever forget that day, and what came after it. The profound worry about my family’s well-being. What had happened to our house and the office. Wondering what had happened to all my friends and business associates. How everyone was coping. If everyone was all right. Seeing the devastation on Tuesday via a small black and white TV we had set up on a generator. Almost feeling like someone had punched me in the stomach when I saw the Hyatt. And this was before the levees failed.

I for one will have every memory of Katrina—both before and after—etched in my brain forever.  Our family was one of the lucky ones: we all survived. Thanks to our subscribers and supporters, OffBeat is still alive and well. We all have our jobs and our homes, except for my poor mother—who lost everything while at the same time trying to survive a life-threatening illness. She’s now living in Baton Rouge. Everything she had needed to be replaced. Our family photos and memories represented by physical things are lost forever.

But so many more weren’t as relatively unscathed as we were.

As I watched Spike Lee’s documentaries, as I see videos of rescues, photos of destroyed homes, YouTube videos of horrific flooding and people crying for rescue; photos and films of people who were left to suffer and some to die in the city before Mr. Bush got off his political ass to send us help…it all comes back to me, vividly. I mentioned in a previous blog that seeing the images in Spike Lee’s new documentary brought tears to my eyes.  They will always, always make me cry. We’ve been so lucky, and others have not. But they are fighting to regain their lives, and to come back to their city.

A little humidity from Katrina bothered you?

What an asshole.

  • Sandra Dartus

    I wasn't there, as you know, but I went thru every step of the evacuation emotionally with my family and friends, who I frantically tried to keep in touch with from afar. People will never know how painful that was! And I stood helpless as my entire family – daughter, parents, siblings and their grown children – lost their homes and businesses. No one went “home”. They've all relocated and the dynamics of our family, like so many others, has changed. My Dad will never be the same and I think there are a lot of people with yet undiscovered demons as a result of the experience. I run into insensitive people every day who just don't get it and sadly, they never will. Thanks for sharing.

  • Plthd

    Very moving piece, Jan. Well done.

  • People who have never been in the situation always seem to be quick to offer an opinion. I cannot even speak to the idiot from Colorado. The bottom line is that if the whole country does not remember this, we risk not only repeating it here or somewhere else but also risk the apathy of thinking that everything is fixed and everybody is fine now. That is obviously not the case. I did not live here then. Yet I watched on TV from Atlanta and saw a city I loved–somewhere I had always wanted to live and people I loved– warm, welcoming, and real–utterly destroyed. I cried at every image I saw. It did not even seem like it was the United States anymore. How could the idiots in charge say this was the best they could do? Now I finally live here, and I appreciate everything wonderful this city has to offer. I watch the anniversary programs and I cry all over again. Now I see places I go everyday rendered unrecognizable and it hits even harder. No I was not a part of it, but I will never forget, and anyone who is “sick of hearing about it” just does not get why it is so important to remember. Oh well, forget THEM.

  • Toni Wright

    Dear Jan,
    I live in a small town in Ontario Canada called Wiarton. My family and I watched the terrifying, horrific news reports of Katrina and we were deeply worried for the safety and well-being of all of you who were affected by the hurricane. Just over a year after Katrina devastated the lives of so many, a friend and I drove to New Orleans with our sleeping bags and tools and joined Habitat for Humanity to help build the Musician's Village. It was an experience that I will never ever forget. When we couldn't rent a hotel room, eat a meal, buy a cup of coffee or gas for the car without hearing the stories of terrible loss or fortunate survival it was so evident to me the magnitude of trauma and suffering that folks were dealing with – continue to deal with. Keep on telling your stories. They need to be told. Forget the ignorant, insensitive jerks. There are so many more of us around the globe that continue to care about your well-being and want to stay in touch with how you are doing.
    With very best wishes,
    Toni Wright

  • Jazzetc

    BET also had an hour long special on Katrina but the best one was by the National Geographic channel which was mostly real-time video from various locations. On the other hand Spike Lee did the best job of explaining the BP disaster and what the future holds for people and businesses along the gulf.

  • Alice Connorton

    You don't have to live here to have been outraged by so many stupid things said by ignorant people in the aftermath of the storm; in those days, if I mentioned to strangers that I am a frequent visitor to New Orleans, many of them would instantly say the city was “finished.” It didn't take long for me to start asking them to please stop speaking about the city unless they went there to see for themselves what an incredible place they were dismissing. We all know that many people came to help, possibly some of those who at first brushed the whole issue aside. I also got into the habit of pointing out it took San Francisco twenty years to really recover from the 1906 earthquake, for those who forgot that disasters have happened before. You know far better than I do how long and hard the road to recovery is; those who don't understand, won't, unless it happens to them, which none of us want to see. Those of us who love New Orleans, wherever we actually live, can and should remind these idiots politely that disasters can happen to anyone, but also try to step away, as you did, before the situation gets too intense. Being the voice of reason carries more weight than losing your temper, however hard that is and however justified it may be.You never know who might be listening–and thinking what a fool that other person is. Maybe even someone who never thought about it before. As for me, I love New Orleans, I continue to visit it regularly, and I am thinking about everyone I know there on the eve of this anniversary.

  • Kaytronic

    You were on a cruise with that guy? Why didn't you just say, “Oops! The railing broke,” and shove him overboard?

  • barbhoberg

    Jan, I've wondered you and Joe and your family' circumstances surrounding that horrible experience. Thank you for sharing it w' the 5 yr. 'anniversary'. Heard a clip on another documentary, only showing for one day at theatres, that Friday titled, “The Big Uneasy”. You've probably heard of it. It breaks my heart to rethink of the vivid memories the media planted in my head the weeks that followed. Am thankful for the power of survival and perseverence, and humbled for the greatness of loss so many had to endure. Carry on girl!! barb hoberg elkhorn wisc.

  • Aphdesigns

    I share in your disappointment of the human race. Why can't people have more compassion? It's not like a little compassion would cost them anything. I am not fro NOLA but consider it a second home. I have returned to rebuild in St Bernard any number of times. The people of the area have included me in their family and I get so much more than I give! It is true I really cannot imagine what the actual residents went through. But I have heard the stories and seen the effects. Someone should drop this guy into Chalmette and let him see the spaces where the homes used to be.
    My heart will always by with New Orleans!

  • Jazzevangelist

    I think a big part of the problem and misconceptions about what happened in New Orleans during Katrina is due to one major cable news network that basically blamed those that stayed for any problems they endured. As other networks were focused on the plight of those left to die, Fox anchors shrugged their collective shoulders and rolled their eyes.

    Anytime Katrina is brought up I usually hear someone make the sarcastic comment about blaming Bush, or it all being Bush's fault – because this was the mantra the RNC put forth to distract people from the actual crisis.

    The best way to feel no sense of guilt, compassion or mercy is to dehumanize the victims, and make them out to be the perpetrators – and Fox has done this for five years.

  • Emmy

    Way over here in Cali,and it hurt us so much. Still does.Good friends gone forever and some I still don't know about….Hugs and love, Emmy

  • My husband and I stayed here in Kenner through the storm and its aftermath. We were lucky out here, at least on our side of the I 10. On the north, it was different, flooded out and wrecked homes and apartments. Buildings torn apart by the wind, air conditioners rolled up in the flat roofs. Trees crashed onto everything, disaster. I have talked to women whose husbands died during the storm. I’ll never forget the poor woman whose husband died the first day, they didn’t break into her attic and find them until eight days later. She is still wild-eyed when she tells the story.
    By the way, are you the former Sandra James, with an older sister named Libby, who used to live in Parkchester Apts.back in the 50s or early 60s? If so, I have seen you on the news a couple of times as head of a French Quarter Festival. I used to live near you. We all were crazy about horses back then. You are a year or two older than I am.