Tuesday, August 15, 2006
Nothing is forgotten
What some Katrina survivors taught us through their faith, resilience
They were strangers to us, just stories to be told.
They had lost everything in Hurricane Katrina — shelter and shoes, electricity and air conditioning, running water and working toilets. And there we were, asking for something more.
We had been dispatched — Allen to New Orleans, Vicki to Mississippi — to collect the stories of people as they waited in line for food and rooted through piles of cast-off clothing for something that would fit, trying not to feel ashamed.
Many of Katrina’s victims had been too poor or too stubborn to flee when the monster storm closed in. Most had no idea how they would start over. Some wanted to die, and some we feared might.
They’ve haunted us — because brief as our time together was, it was enough for a real exchange.
They gave us much more than quotes to fill a story. What did we give? Not much, it seemed. Pop-Tarts for children running barefoot in the Mississippi mud, the chance to make a cell phone call from the hell of the New Orleans convention center to tell a loved one they were still alive.
We wondered what became of them. Did they give up? Or, when tested, did they discover in themselves something they didn’t know they had?
We went back to find out.
In 18 years as a journalist, I’d never felt so helpless.
“Tell someone to come get me, please,” the man begged over the crackling phone connection as the wind howled outside. “I want to live.”
And then he added: “Pray for me.”
From the darkened hallway of my French Quarter hotel, Katrina had seemed until then just another near-miss hurricane, like Ivan had the year before. Then I heard Chris Robinson’s panicked voice.
The water in the ranch-style house Robinson’s parents had built in the Lower Ninth Ward was almost to the ceiling. He grabbed some bottled water, canned sausage, an ax, hammer and crowbar, and climbed into the cramped attic.
I felt like a vulture, using up this man’s precious cell phone battery to get a few quotes. But as far as I knew, Robinson’s anguished pleas were the first confirmation that Katrina wasn’t just another glancing blow — that it might be “the big one” we’d all been fearing.
After Robinson hung up, I called 911. The dispatcher said there was nothing she could do.
He’d asked me to pray for him. But if the police and fire departments couldn’t help, I thought, what good were my prayers?
Recently, I dug out my wrinkled, water-stained notebook and called that same New Orleans cell phone number. I was a little surprised when Robinson answered.
“Alive and breathing!” he said in a voice that seemed too jolly for someone who’d been through what he’d suffered. No longer worried about using up his battery, I asked Robinson about his ordeal.
The 47-year-old father of two told how he’d watched through a louvered opening in the eaves as water pouring from a gap in the Industrial Canal levee snapped the spine of his neighbor’s house. He talked of fish swimming around the attic with him, and how he finally punched a hole in the roof and climbed out.
Sitting on his roof, Robinson talked on his cell phone until the circuits got overloaded and the battery ran out.
Then he talked to God.
On July 30, he moved his family back to New Orleans from Houston.
He has used the tools that were his salvation to gut his parents’ home, which was battered but intact, in preparation for rebuilding.
Answered prayers, he’s sure.
Margaret Pertuit could see the sunshine from her bare mattress in the flooded-out motel room in Bay St. Louis, Miss. The elderly widow could hear the National Guard offering food and water. But all she could smell was mud and mold.
All she wanted, she told me, was to die.
“My mind is OK, but my body won’t let me do anything,” she said. “I get so depressed.”
I recognized the deep purple bruises on her arms, the kind caused by blood-thinning drugs. I’d seen them before, on the arms of someone I’d loved and lost.
I asked her if she had her medicines, and she said she’d stopped taking them. She was hoping for a clot that would kill her quickly.
She had survived Katrina’s flood, thanks to younger, stronger people. But the days passed slowly after the water receded. She had grown weary of the desperate life she was barely living, trapped in a room with no running water, no working toilets, no air conditioning.
I told her she wouldn’t be stuck here much longer — hoping it was true.
“Keep taking your medicine,” I said. “You’ve got more living to do.”
I kept wondering about her. Worrying. But a week later, when I returned to the motel to check on her, she had vanished. People who’d noticed the ambulance thought maybe she’d had a heart attack, but no one knew for sure.
It turns out she ended up at a hospital in Pascagoula, where she slept in a chair until one of her daughters found her through a Red Cross registry. Her heart was fine. It was anxiety that had overcome her.
She rented a room in Gonzales, La., then used half her life’s savings to buy a three-bedroom house in an older subdivision.
She’s been back to Bay St. Louis twice but will never live there again. Her garden washed away, and her house broke apart. About all she could recover was her grandmother’s century-old crystal punch bowl.
Now 86, Pertuit tires easily. She thinks about going out to eat, then wonders if it’s worth it.
But to her, depression is weakness. She’d rather not remember that day at the motel, and she tries not to think about the things she’s lost.
She’s learning to start over.
With New Orleans descending into chaos, we were hearing reports of carjackings — even boatjackings of rescue workers. In fear that we would lose our car, our food stores or the precious cans of gasoline we’d hoarded since before the storm, photographer Eric Gay and I zigzagged around refugees. We avoided some neighborhoods altogether.
But something in Evelyn Turner’s face made us stop.
She had been waiting hours for someone to take away the body of the man she loved, her companion of 15 years, who had died when his oxygen ran out. She needed a ride to the police station.
Gay and I watched as she pleaded in vain with the police. “Oh Lordy!” she cried when they told her they were too busy with the living to worry about the dead.
We offered her a ride back. When we arrived at the spot on St. Claude Avenue, we came upon a scene that stunned us.
There on the median was the body of 57-year-old truck driver Xavier Bowie — wrapped in bedsheets, lying on the improvised raft of two-by-fours and plywood that Turner had used to float him out of their flooded neighborhood.
It was the first time I’d seen a corpse outside of a funeral home.
Turner went to the raft, weeping into a dirty rag — and Gay’s photo of her captured the extent to which civilization had collapsed.
When we last saw Turner, she was sitting beside Bowie’s body in the back of a flatbed truck on her way to the morgue at Charity Hospital. But her ordeal was just beginning, I learned when I contacted her recently.
Turned away from the flooded hospital, she asked the driver to take her to city hall, where she lay Bowie’s body on a grassy median. She stayed with him another eight hours before National Guard troops loaded the Navy veteran’s body into a military dump truck.
It wasn’t until October that she learned his body had been claimed by his wife and children.
He was buried in Florida. The death notice said they were unable to track Turner down.
Turner, 55, welcomed me into the three-bedroom rental home she now shares with four relatives in Shreveport, La. In the living room sits the overstuffed chair in which Bowie died. She keeps it, not for sentimental reasons, but because she cannot afford a new one.
At the kitchen table, Turner pulls a piece of paper from her wallet and unfolds it. It’s a copy of Gay’s photo.
For months, it was the only picture she had of Bowie.
Hurricane Katrina was the first time I felt I had to make a choice between doing my job and being human. I can’t forget the people we passed by.
Evelyn Turner reminded me that you have to be human to do the job.
I could tell from looking at him that Gary Turner was the kind of man who had moved through the world without attracting much attention. Skinny and shy, with weathered skin and downcast eyes, the 52-year-old carpenter had sometimes silently wondered what good he could possibly be to anyone in a crisis.
After Hurricane Katrina, he found out.
In the storm’s aftermath, he was one of hundreds who sought refuge in an unofficial shelter at a high school in Bay St. Louis, Miss.
Like everyone else, Turner could smell the stench of human waste wafting from the school’s auditorium. He could hear the pitiful moans of elderly people lying alone and in misery, unable to walk.
Unlike almost everyone else, he decided to help.
He followed a woman’s sobs into the darkness, where an arthritic hand latched onto his with all the strength the swollen knuckles could muster. Darlene Casanova had been asking God to send her someone.
“I think you’re my guardian angel,” she told Turner.
He and several strangers formed a rescue team, helping the frail and forgotten onto potty chairs, then into fresh air. They gathered food and water. They talked and they listened.
By the time I found him, his work was done. Hours earlier, ambulances had carried Darlene and the others away — where, he never learned.
Turner was exhausted and angry, but he shared the story. The suffering was horrific, the scrap of cardboard bearing Darlene’s shakily scrawled name heartbreaking.
But what Turner and a handful of others had done gave me hope that someday, Mississippi would recover.
As I walked back to my car, I saw that debris on the road had punched a hole in a tire. I turned back to the school, where Turner was already on his feet.
He and another man removed the flat and mounted the spare. I offered money or food, something to feel I wasn’t just taking.
Turner said I’d already given him something. I’d made him feel useful again.
In the steaming mass of humanity at the New Orleans convention center, she stood out. Sitting in the rain on a hard folding chair, her tiny face poking forlornly from the folds of an American flag blanket, Milvirtha Hendricks seemed to say it all without uttering a word.
I looked at the frail 85-year-old woman and saw my own mother-in-law. They were the same age.
I wondered what I would do to get her out of this hell hole. I wondered if she could have survived out here in the searing sun and the filth.
Seeing Hendricks, wrapped in that star-spangled coverlet, also made me wonder about my country. How could this be happening in one of America’s great cities? Angry young men raged around her that they were being treated like Third World citizens, but there sat Hendricks, wrapped in the flag, as if to say: This is happening right here.
Blessedly, the now 86-year-old widow remembers almost none of this.
“Everybody tells me it’s better that I couldn’t remember the water or nothing,” she said recently from the apartment she and her eldest daughter share in Houston.
Hendricks lived with her daughter on Tennessee Avenue in the Lower Ninth Ward, just a few blocks from the Industrial Canal levee. As Katrina approached, she packed a suitcase and left the home she and her late husband bought in 1970 — the only one she had ever owned.
When water forced her to evacuate to her son’s home in New Orleans East, she boarded a rescue boat and lost the few belongings she’d managed to take with her.
The next days and weeks are a fog.
“They tell me I went to Arkansas and stayed there two or three days,” says the woman who bore 10 children and fed them on her laborer husband’s salary.
Hendricks is surprised to learn that director Spike Lee wanted to use the convention center photo in documentary. She had no idea it had been used in newspaper ad campaigns to raise money for storm victims.
A framed copy of the photograph sits on the dresser in her bedroom.
She often stares at it, trying to remember what many of us wish we could forget.
After a week on the Mississippi coast, the sheer number of stories around me came crashing down. Feeling overwhelmed, I called my best friend. How could I see this, day after day, and do nothing to help?
Just do what you’re doing, she told me. “You’re doing God’s work now.”
I’m not exactly the churchgoing type. So for me to believe that seemed arrogant.
Then, a week later, I got an e-mail from a woman in Georgia. She had read one of my stories and decided she would open her home to a family of strangers. She used almost the same words my friend had.
A week later, I heard the message again.
It came from the Rev. Thomas Ruffin Jr. in a church in Biloxi. During a eulogy for a family member, Ruffin asked God to bless and watch over me in my work.
But not just me or photographer Darron Cummings. It was a prayer for all the journalists who had converged on the Gulf. He thanked us for coming, for doing what we were paid to do, for sharing their stories with the world.
I’d covered many funerals. At some, I’d even wept. But never in 18 years had I been thanked.
Main Street Baptist Church, where Ruffin is assistant pastor, has changed since then. During a recent trip, I visited the new sanctuary, built by strangers from another city with more than $100,000 in donations.
Half the original congregation has left, their homes gutted or gone. But the pews are nearly full every week, mainly with volunteers who are helping rebuild. They come month after month.
“God is showing us through others this is the way it should be — everyone helping each other,” Ruffin says.
His godmother had a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized over the summer. Ruffin himself listens to the public service announcements on the radio offering counseling and wonders if he should call.
Instead, he keeps busy.
As a contractor, he rebuilds. As comforter-in-chief to a congregation, he soothes frazzled nerves with a gold-toothed smile and the words of Scripture.
It’s hard to imagine Ruffin’s heart wasn’t always as big as the man around it. But he insists that by sending Katrina, God gave him more compassion.
I still don’t go to church. I don’t read a Bible. But my heart feels somehow bigger, too. And more than once, I have given thanks for being sent to Mississippi.
EDITOR’S NOTE — Allen G. Breed is a national writer, based in Raleigh, N.C.; Vicki Smith is the AP’s correspondent in Morgantown, W.Va.