HOUSTON — It has been five years since Hurricane Katrina tore across the Gulf coast causing destruction and devastation to homes and businesses and causing mass evacuations from the area; many never returned. Who would have thought that one storm could affect so many changes, not just along the Gulf Coast and New Orleans but also in the life of a former teacher and university administrator who lived in Knoxville, Tenn.?
Like most Americans, I viewed the devastation of Hurricane Katrina from the comfort of my own home. Just days later the Hurricane that caused problems as far north as Ohio, displaced hundreds of thousands along the Gulf coast and demolished many small towns and cities visited me once again — in the form of a new family at my daughter’s school.
This family of four evacuated from the New Orleans area with nothing but two suitcases filled with whatever they could throw in. Thirty-two hours later, they took refuge at their mother’s home in Knoxville. Their story of the evacuation, the damage and destruction and their fears from the future touched my life in so many ways. I know that when our family evacuated from Houston with the approach of Hurricane Ike just three years later, I thought of them as I wondered what meant the most to me and would be in those two suitcases I packed as my family left for a safer place far from the storm.
One year later, my husband received a job offer in Houston and we moved. As I researched the different areas where our family could live I found that many evacuees from New Orleans had made their home in Houston. I found myself again learning firsthand about the destruction of Katrina, and also about the human ability to recover from my new neighbors and friends. I had just begun my new career in freelance writing and had published one such story on Associated Content in an effort to combat the constant “bad news” that we continued to hear about after Katrina. I was approached by a new publishing company, Red Owl Publishing, in the hopes that I would like to contribute some chapters as well as conduct research on more similar personal interest stories about the efforts of others rebuilding their lives, homes and community after Katrina. Maybe the stories I could share would gather in strength, hopefully strong enough to dispel some of the storm of misconceptions about the survivors of Hurricane Katrina. The book was titled Katrina: A Freight Train Screamin.’
I first met James, just weeks after he used his vacation time to volunteer in St. Bernard Parish working with the St. Bernard Project. The mission of this project was to “remove barriers for families who wish to move back into their homes in St. Bernard Parish.” Many of the residents would work or be looking for work all day, only to return and work until after dark completing whatever repairs that they could do by themselves to their homes. I was so impressed with his story that I am sure it influenced my own actions during Hurricane Ike. After Hurricane Ike, many of our grocery stores were empty. Bringing supplies back from Dallas, I checked in on my neighbors to find that they had extra family members staying with them so I decided to bring over a couple of bags of groceries to help them make it through the next few days. My family also “adopted” the Monroes, a family with two children, two parents and an elderly grandmother who had lost everything from their home in the Galveston area. I began a donation drive that brought in donations of clothing, tools and toys from more than 500 people.
While researching about the environmental impact of Katrina, I discovered two things. Nature is not the only form of destruction out there when it comes to the environment. Sure, I had been recycling and living a greener lifestyle than many it was mainly due to the fact that these changes in my life helped me financially, not through any real understanding of the environment and the changes that it is going through. I came across the book Bayou Farewell, The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana’s Cajun Coast, a book that involves a journalist, who just like me, stumbled upon a story that he felt just needed to be shared and one which changed his life. Since then, I have become more involved in environmental issues through education, leading by example, donations and even teaching a “recycling course” in my community.
The United Houma Nation, prior to Katrina, was a thriving growing community involved in the preservation of its history, culture, community building, job training, youth, rehabilitation and education. Through many of these programs it shared a rich and vibrant history with the US. Post Katrina, they were stretched thin by homelessness and limited resources. The Nation, led by Principal Chief Brenda Dardar Robichaux, decided to hold one of their most important cultural events, the Elder’s Festival regardless of the effects of Katrina. Held in the front yard of the Principal Chief’s home, members gathered to celebrate their heritage, acknowledge the gifts and sacrifices of the elderly and create an opportunity to begin the healing process. My experience with this incredible nation and its leaders helped me also to realize that certain celebrations can also be a form of healing. Every year my daughter’s birthday brought with it a feeling of sadness as well as joy, as we had also lost a child just the year before during the same month. It also encouraged me to learn more about my own Native American heritage more thoroughly and now have some wonderful information that I can share with my children.
Next weekend will be a sad one as we remember the destruction of the storm, but for those of us working with Red Owl Publishing, as well as for many others that have changed their lives after the storm it will be a time for celebration. The book will debut at the St. Bernard Community Center Friday night, August 27, 2010 in New Orleans and is currently available for pre-release sales online at Red Owl Publishing. I know that through my experience with this special project I am even more determined to continue my professional efforts writing and hope to one day have a book, not just a few chapters, with my name on it.
During my research for the book, Katrina: A Freight Train Screamin’, I met Andrew Brotts, of Brottworks LLC, “The Art of Glass,” who said, “Hurricane Katrina is one of the most defining moments of who I am as a person. It is the event that I will measure my life by from now on.” I too now measure my life in different terms. Within all of us lies the ability for ordinary people to accomplish extraordinary things; and “one person can make a difference” is not a cliché but a reality.