At the time of Katrina, I was working at a print shop in Niles, Illinois, just north of Chicago. My parents, who lived in New Orleans East, pretty close to the Lower Ninth Ward, got out a day early, going to Baton Rouge with my grandmother to stay with my sister. They only took enough items for a two-day stay.
After I found out that the levees broke and they couldn’t leave Baton Rouge is when a life changing reality set in; my hometown was under water. My experience was a lot different than my parents and those who still lived in New Orleans. I had the guilt of not being with them and of my life not being turned upside down and the deep sadness of knowing that the home I grew up in was no longer.
My parents lived in the same house in New Orleans East since I was three. I moved out when I was eighteen and my grandmother moved into my old room. After I graduated from the University of New Orleans, I waited tables in the Quarter until I moved to Chicago for a job at twenty-six, about ten years before Katrina.
New Orleans East was a lower-middle class area that was mostly black, with some gangs, but overall, not the worst neighborhood to live in. There were shooting and robberies that you would hear of, but luckily, my parents were never involved in a crime statistic. After Katrina, my parent’s house, which was two blocks off Lake Pontchartrain, had about five feet of water and was totally ruined.
So, at this point, my parents and two grandmothers were staying in my sister’s cramped one bedroom apartment in Baton Rouge with her husband and child and they had no where else to go. I could only imagine the heartbreak and tension they were feeling, not knowing what their future held or what they had to go back to. They had no clothes and their medicine was all at back at the house.
The following weekend, I took off work and drove down to Baton Rouge. I don’t know why I did this to myself, but I listened to New Orleans and Mardi Gras music and I found myself crying at different moments during the thirteen hour drive. It became scary when I hit Jackson Mississippi, as every gas station off the interstate had long lines of cars waiting for gas. For a while I didn’t know if I’d have enough gas to make it, it was getting dark and there was no cell phone reception.
Along the way, I encountered many service vehicles, fire engines, and such heading down. There were campers and SUV’s with Katrina relief written on them. When I finally made it to the apartment complex, I ran up to my family and hugged them and cried, trying to tell them it would be okay, but here I was, feeling that guilt; feeling like an outsider, but this wasn’t about me, it was about my parents and my sister and the hell they were going through.
I stayed with them for few days. There was nothing for me to do but offer support. They told me I shouldn’t have come, but what could I do? I needed to be there with them, if nothing else, but to be a distraction. When I left, we hugged and cried again and I continued to cry on the way back to Chicago. The total shock of all of these events and the adjustment to a life to follow was going to take a huge toll on them. This was a long way from being over.