I have to admit, it’s getting better…

…it’s getting better all the time! (Thanks, Beatles!) 

Life here in Southeast Louisiana is beginning to resemble civilized society again.  Politics aside (they’re still unbearable), the people are waking from the long sleep.  We’re coming off of auto pilot and making conscious decisions about what to do to make our lives, and the lives of our loved ones and neighbors, better in this brave new world.  It IS a new world: the old has been washed away, the new has come on the sweating, breaking backs of the people who were brave enough to return and do the work.  I’ve never been prouder.

That’s not to say that there are not tragic stories: our most frequent social event post-Katrina is a wake/funeral.  Our second most frequent social activity is hospital visiting.  But happily, running a close third, our favorite social activity is attending the multitude of festivals we have in New Orleans and the surround areas.  Our mild weather makes festival going nearly a year-round event.  We have festivals for everything.  Shrimp, Oysters, Tomatoes, Strawberries, Alligator, Sauce Picante, the French Quarter Festival, the Fringe Festival, the Essence Festival, the Gay Pride Festival, the Indy Movie Festival, the Jazz Fest, the Voodoo Fest, The Crawfish Festival, the Cinco de Mayo Festival, The New Orleans Indy Film Festival, and the mother of all festivals, Carnival, a two-week long festival that culminates on Mardi Gras.  Even in-between the festivals, there is always something going on: Pyrate Week, Christmas in the Oaks, Christmas on Fulton Street, Free Music Wednesdays in Lafayette Square, concerts, theater, the best music you’ll find anywhere in our local nightclubs and taverns, and music in the streets at any given time.  Yes, we really do dance in the streets down here, and thinik of it as a birthright.

I’ve been crawling out of my hole (my personally owned ex-FEMA trailer) and joining the world of the living again.  I feel close to normal.  Okay, so I’ve never been even remotely “normal” in my life, but I’m feeling closer to Rhonda than I have been in a long time.  That’s a victory for me.

I want to get past the pain, but I never want to forget it. And, I hope that the rest of America never forgets, either.  The cavalry was not ready, but the people came in droves.  Our fellow Americans came from far and wide to work with us, shoulder to shoulder, to dig (literally) our way out of the refuse of our past lives.  We will be forever grateful, and I don’t ever want to forget the love and gratitude, the smiles and the tears that dominated those days when the volunteers hugged us, kissed us, and made the bo-bo on our hearts feel a little better.  It was during those times that I was TRULY proud to be an American.

I’m grateful for the wealthy who sent money to help: it really did help.  I’m even more grateful for the Brad Pitts and the Sandra Bullocks and the many other celebs who actually came down here, and came back, and came back, and who bought houses so they could stay longer to get the job done that they have started.  There are others, you know, who don’t get the news coverage because they don’t want it: they’re here, too, quietly helping where they can.

Thanks, also, to our team, the New Orleans Saints. Yeah, really.  That first game after Katrina in the Super Dome…I cry when I think of it.  It seems a silly and trivial thing, but the spirit of the team and the fans and of everyone in the region saw the victory as our victory, as a symbol that we would, one day, be okay again.  The team members have visited schools, donated shoes, clothes, anything they could to help local children.  Their charitable efforts has endeared them to their already insanely devoted fan base.  And, we’re having a pretty good year so far!

I can’t forget to thank my online friends.   All of you kept me sane when I thought I was going to lose it totally.  You were so gracious to read my very personal poems and come away from it understanding and befriending me. You were my therapists back then, you know?

I have to admit, it’s getting better.  We still have so very far to go, and I’ll post photos in the coming months to show you.  We’re in the fourth year PK (Post Katrina), and we should be safer, but we’re not.  But, that’s for another post. 

Love from down da road ~ Rhonda

 

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Promises Kept

New Orleans Jazz Fest, 2009

New Orleans Jazz Fest, 2009

Back in January, just after the holidays, I brought my mom to visit our aunt Eiola and then her cousin Al.  Al was special to me. My godmother’s son and big-brother figure, he, his sister Roselyn and my Uncle Carroll were the youngest of their generation and never forgot what it was to be a kid.  They were good to us and treated us like we were important, and we kids loved them.  

We were late leaving Aunt Eiola and when we got to Al’s, I was showing him some things on my laptop he’d wanted to see.  Suddenly, he started acting weird.  I called his daughter, also named Rhonda, and told her what was happening. I thought he was having a stroke or something.  She called 911 and came to Al’s apartment.  When the EMT’s got there, I looked through his meds, and saw diabetes meds.  I said, “We got here late and never had dinner yet, I think it’s his blood sugar!”  Sure enough, his blood sugar was only 45.  They gave him some glucose and he as flirting with the female EMT’s in no time.  None of us thought it was anything more than that.  Rhonda went to get him some pizza and mom and I went home.

A day or so later he called me and told me to call Mac, because he wanted some photos of my Uncle Carroll.  I called Mac Rebennack, a.k.a. Dr. John, to ask him about the photos.  He said that a book was being written to benefit the Musicians Relief Fund, and it would be about all the clubs our local musicians played back in the day.  My mother’s brother, Carroll, also known as Anna Mae Wong, was one of the drag queens Mac had met at the My-Oh-My Club, an all-male review that was popular with tourists and locals alike.  He met Anna Mae through Al.  Al and Mac had known each other since school days, and had remained friends through the years.  We discussed the photos and then he started telling me one of his “Sedillo stories”.  He and Al did some crazy things, and he loved to recall those days.  I love to listen.

When our conversation was coming to a close, I told him this: “I’ll see you at Jazz Fest, and I promise I’ll drag Al’s ass to see you this time, no excuses!”  Mac said, “Tell him he better come or I’ll come up to his place and bang up his wheelchair!”  That’s how they talked about each other.  Once when Mac put on some weight, he said Al told him, “I think I’ll call Goodyear and tell ’em I found their blimp!”  It was always like that when they were together.  Mac said, “I know Al’s vibe and he knows mine. We don’t even have to explain anything, we just understand.”

Years earlier, after Al had a stroke during a softball game and was confined to a wheelchair, he tried hard to get through his rehabilitation.  But then he got pneumonia and ended up in the hospital again.  He was ready to give up.  He said his life was over anyway.  I sent a message to Mac, who called me from back stage in Atlanta and talked to me for an hour.  The next day, he called Al and pulled him out of his funk.  I don’t know what they talked about, but Al’s spirits picked up, as did his health, and he never wanted to give up again.  After Hurricane Katrina, he ended up in Jefferson Parish, because the apartment he lived in near me was destroyed.  I didn’t get to see him as often, and when I asked him to go places, he’d usually say no because he knew it was getting harder and harder for me to pick up his wheelchair and help him in and out of the car.  Still, I kept asking him.  This time, I told him I promised Mac I’d bring him to Jazz Fest, and he was going to go no matter what.  He said, “Well, maybe I can hang out in his trailer, and it won’t be so hot”. So, it was settled.

Meanwhile, I got an invitation to my cousin Mary’s daughter’s wedding on May 2.  I was excited about that, too.  Mary and I were very close when we were younger, and I knew she was  very happy that her daughter Jennifer was getting married, so I was happy for her and I promised I’d be at the wedding.  Then, on January 25th, my cousin Tad called me.  “Hey cuz, one of our friends called to say there are paramedics at Al’s apartment. You might want to call him to see what’s going on. Call me back and let me know.”  I figured he’d had another spell.  I called the apartment.  A woman answered…it was his daughter Rhonda’s grandmother.  I said “Is Al okay? What happened?”  She asked who I was, and I told her, and she said, “Oh, Rhonda honey, he’s gone. I’m so sorry.”  I started crying uncontrollably.  She put Rhonda on the phone and Rhonda tried to explain to me what had happened through her sobs…it was her birthday and she wanted to be with her dad…he’d eaten so she didn’t understand why he seemed to be going into one of his spells…his blood sugar was very low, he said “I think I need to lay down”, and he did, and he just slipped away.  I felt the way I did when my eldest brother D.J. died: “What is this world going to be like without him in it??”  I just couldn’t imagine.

After we all calmed down, Rhonda called me back and we started talking about her dad. It didn’t take long for us to start laughing uncontrollably.  You cannot talk about Sedillo without laughing at some point.  He had told both of us that he wanted to be cremated when his time came. I remember him telling me to spread him around town, and not to forget St. Roch Playground.  He’d told Rhonda to sprinkle some of him at all the ball parks he’d played softball in, and then throw a party to celebrate.  He looked at death as the next step in life, and felt that the end of the earthbound life should be celebrated as a special occasion.  My cousin Carey added, “He needs to be scattered at Jazz Fest, too!”

I created “The Sedillo Send-off” in three phases. Phase I:  the memorial service.  Phase II: the scattering at the ball parks and the party.  Phase III: the scattering at Jazz Fest.  Phase I went well. I’d made a DVD of Al’s pictures with appropriate music, and instead of a preacher, I said what Al meant to me, and invited the guests to come up and tell their own Sedillo stories. And they did, and it was hilarious!  The funeral director said it was the best funeral he’d ever overseen! He was working the crowd to see if anyone needed tissue, and instead heard the funniest stories and heard laughter everywhere.  The food upstairs was left untouched, because we were having too much of a good time downstairs, remembering.

Phase II was great: it was like the picnics we used to have when our lives were still intact, before Katrina, and before our grandmother died.  We played cabbage ball, and gave autographed Al’s surf board, and wore headbands in his honor.  One of the best times of my life!  I called Mac and he said he wanted to be there with me but had to go to Baton Rouge to accept a Slim Harpo Blues Legend award.  I said, “I know I promised I’d drag Al’s ass to Jazz Fest this year to see you….”  He said, “Yeah, dawlin, I remember.”  I said, “Well, I can’t promise it’ll be his ass, but I’m bringing some of his ashes to you!”  He was delighted! He thought it was so great we’d thought of him.  How could I not?  He was Al’s friend.  He called Al almost every month just to talk.  He was the genuine deal.

Then came Phase III.  I realized that Dr. John played Jazz Fest on the same day that Jennifer was getting married in Hammond, La.  I had a dilemma.  I’d promised two people I’d be there for them.  After much hemming and hawing, my cousin Mary said, “Do both! It only takes an hour to get to Hammond. So go to Jazz Fest first, and then come to the wedding!”  Okay! It was a go!

My mother was coming to the wedding with me, and I told her she’d have to go to Jazz Fest because I was leaving straight from there to the wedding.  She said okay. She came Friday night before Jazz Fest to sleep at my house so we could get an early start.  If you know my family, or are IN my family, you know that we NEVER manage to get an early start.  We blame it on our Filipino heritage by saying, “Sorry, I’m on Island time!”  So, mom didn’t come at dinner as we thought she would. Ed put away the beef stew he’d made.  When she got here, she said, “I forgot the clothes I’m wearing to the wedding, so your Daddy will have to bring them in the morning.”  Okay.  I got a bad feeling, but, okay.

I was awake at 7:30 a.m.  For $50, I wanted to go early to see as many acts as I could.   Mom didn’t wake up until almost 9:00 a.m., and her clothes made it here at 9:00 a.m.  Meanwhile, I’m trying to see if my cousin Rhonda scored us back stage passes. Turns out she’s been sick for a few days and didn’t get to call anyone.  It was the day of Mac’s performance, and I know how he likes to get into “the zone” on a concert day.  I didn’t know whether to call him.  We started getting ready. Rhonda told me to go to his trailer and ask for Mina or Half to get back stage.  My Eddie asked us if we remembered to take our meds. Being in the sun all day, he wanted to be sure we took our blood pressure meds.  I took mine, and noticed mom rooting around her bags.  Finally she said, “SHIT!”  I knew what that meant.  LONG STORY SHORT: SHE AND MY SISTER HAD TO DRIVE ALL THE WAY BACK TO PICAYUNE MISSISSIPPI TO GET HER MEDICATIONS.  I asked my cousin Carey to take her box of Al’s ashes to the festival in case I didn’t make it.

I waited and waited; Carey and Rhonda and I were texting back and forth.  I texted Carey, “Whenever I DO get there, we’ll be scattering Al’s AND my mother’s ashes!!”  They finally got back, and Darla had a plan: Eddie and our daddy would drop us off, and she’d come pick us up and go to the wedding with us. That would save us walking and parking time. Great idea!

We finally got there and it took us a good 45 minutes to buy the tickets and go through the line.  By the time we got to the Acura stage, Dr. John’s concert was in full swing.  The NAZI’S at one of the gates looked at me with scorn and would not even tell me where the guest entrance was for back stage.  I finally figured it out myself.  Backstage, they were nicer, but still wouldn’t let me through or take Al’s ashes to Mac’s family for me.  I was determined to keep my promise!! I sprinkled some of Al in the sand back stage. (OOH! Jon Bon Jovi waved at me from the car! Yay!)   I went up front to watch some of the concert.  The man’s still got it! He was rocking that Noo Awlin’s funk all over the place! Then I went back to the guest entrance. A nice lady asked me what I was there for, and I explained to her. Mac’s concert ended and I saw them going to the trailer.  I asked the guard to find Mina or Half for me and tell them to tell Mac Rhonda is outside with Al’s ashes, and he would understand.

Instead, she told Mac’s daughter, and she said, “He’s on a high from his performance, he doesn’t need to be brought down!” I told the lady, “But he wants Al’s ashes!” She said she was sorry, but I couldn’t go in. So, I called Mac.  I told him I was outside and he said, “Okay, dawlin’, let me change clothes and cool down, and I’ll call you back!”  When the guards realized I had Mac’s cell phone number, they said I could wait there until he called for me.  A bit later, he stuck his head out the door and waved for me to come in.  He said, ‘Let’s go back here where it’s quieter!” And we went back to talk.  This photographer wanted to get some photos. Mac told him to wait, he needed to talk to me!

We did talk, but kept getting interrupted.  Mac is too polite to tell anybody “no” if they want a photo with him…including me!  We talked for quite a while, and I gave him a small decorative lipstick case with Al’s ashes. He said, “I can have this?” I told him I’d bought it especially for him.  He had his favorite walking stick with him with a gris-gris bag on it.  He said, “Open my bag for me and stick it in there!”  He said “I’m taking my buddy on tour with me!”  I was delighted!  We were interrupted again by Dave Bryan of Bon Jovi, who wanted to talk about collaborating with him on an album and maybe writing some songs together. A photographer was snapping pictures as they talked. I got out of the way, but Mac introduced me to David and we started talking about Community Coffee being the best in the world, and Mac told him some New Orleans secrets to the best brew (eggshells and a pinch of sea salt in the grounds).  Dave said he has to bring his own stash of Community Coffee on tour with him because he absolutely loves the stuff! You’d have thought we were any three people on the street, except that they were stars and the photographer never stopped getting shots! Then David had to leave for his set, and I had to leave to find my mom (who was somewhere with Carey and Dane), and we had to get to a wedding! 

Problem was, I couldn’t find them. And my phone could not call her phone. Finally I called my sister Darla, who called Carey. Carey told her we’d meet at the wheelchair return booth, and Darla called me to relay that.  After watching some of Bon Jovi’s set (what, you thought I would just LEAVE without gettin’ me some Bon Jovi vibes???), I headed for the wheel chair return booth.  They were holding my driver’s license hostage until I returned the wheel chair my mom was in.  I waited and waited and waited.  Listened to Cowboy Mouth singing. Heard some blues drifitng in from another stage. Felt my sunburn getting worse. Got dehydrated.  It was 5:35.  I called Darla again, who was lost. I gave her directions and she called Carey to tell her where I was; meanwhile, Carey tried to call me and left me a message: “I’m heading for the wheelchair booth. Meet us there!”

Finally, I see Carey running with the wheelchair toward me…hugs, kisses, yeah, we got to sprinkle some ashes, Darla’s outside waiting, thanks for taking care of mom, love you-bye!!!

Me, Jennifer and Mary

Me, Jennifer and Mary

And off to the wedding we went.  Mom changed clothes in the car while we were in the Causeway Bridge crossing the lake. I just changed from sandals to high heels and threw a shawl around my sundress. We refreshed our makeup in the car.  We got to the wedding 3 minutes late and were stopped at the gate.  I got out of the car and watched them get married over the fence, then hopped back in the car and went to the reception. A GREAT time was had by all, and I was able, by the hardest, to keep my promises to two people I love, and to honor my cousin Al, who is one of the many painters who created the mural of my extraordinary life.

Copyright 2009 Rhonda Lee Richoux

4/21/2009: Soon to be homeless

FEMA called today. That’s the Federal Emergency Management Agency.  They don’t know how to manage shit.  After allowing us to live in this little trailer for three years,  and after telling us we could buy it from them for $300 as temporary housing, they called me today to say that there is too much formaldehyde in the trailer and we are ineligible to buy it. 

Now, it was safe for us to live in it for three years, but it’s not safe enough to live in for a while longer until we can find another trailer that we can afford.  Our government makes  a lot of sense.  I figure that if it truly is unsafe, whatever I’m going to catch from the formaldehyde exposure is already caught. I just won’t know it until five or ten years from now when the cancer diagnosis comes. So, why the hell can’t they just let me have the thing?

On May 1, 2009, FEMA will come into this trailer park and evict us, lock, stock and barrel. We’ve had offers from so many wonderful people to come live with them, but the point of my objection is this: why should a working person have to be homeless in America??? Why is there no place affordable for me in my community? And what if all the teachers and classroom aides were in my position: who would teach the children? 

Things were not good before Katrina. I had been fighting with my estranged husband for a divorce, and for my share of the house. I’d been married to him for 12 years, helped care for his children (which I do NOT regret: I love them dearly), and took care of him when he had the bad luck to be involved in three accidents, none of which were his fault.  Did he pay off any of my bills when he got his accident settlements? Hell no.  So, I started my new life without him in debt and with no job.  I lived with my sister.  I finally got a job in the public school system and I loved it, though the pay wasn’t very good. It was a job I felt I was made for.

One of my dear friends and I fell in love, and I moved in with him. Life was good, I felt serene and so very happy. Then on August 29, 2005, everything came tumbling down.

Human kindness saved our lives after Katrina: hundreds of people fed us, clothed us, housed us until we could return home. When we did return home, it was to clean up the mess. We lived in a tent in the yard, had a generator and a microwave. We used the port-o-potties around town to relieve ourselves. We washed with cold water from the hose and had cup-o-soup and hot chocolate or tea for dinner. The Red Cross truck brought us our lunches.  We were determined to be a part of the clean up and recovery of our community. It was a hard life that first year, but we did what we had to do.

We applied for everything available, and qualified for very little. Then Eddie became ill and we found out there were many things wrong: he was in stage 3 kidney failure, he had a 75% blockage in his carotid artery, and he had a abdominal aortic aneurysm that is 4.5 cm large.  We’re told that they won’t operate on his aneurysm until it gets to 5 cm, because it RARELY dissects until it gets past 5 cm. If it should dissect, he probably would not make it to the hospital. So he had to quit work.  We officially dropped from a middle-class to a lower-class income household in a day. It’s been rough. And now, we don’t know where we will go on May 1.

Eddie went to a trailer auction today to try to get us a trailer to live in. He just got the call: he was out bid. 

Here in St. Bernard Parish, we may as well be in the Third World. The rich got richer and the middle class disappeared altogether. This is America. How could this happen to working class people? I’ve never needed or particularly wanted a lot of things or money; I’m a woman of simple needs.  A roof over my head, food and a job, plus the company of people I love are all I’ve ever needed. Experiences were more important than earnings, and the journey was always more important than the destination. Happiness, to me, is not someplace I’m trying to get to, it’s my mode of travel. I don’t need much. All I want right now is this little FEMA trailer to buy as temporary housing. I want to not live in a tent again. I want Eddie to not fall apart and kill himself, or die of a stroke or heart attack. I want to be here in this parish to continue contributing to the renewal of my community and my beloved New Orleans.  This is America, why can’t I do that?

This is America. This is America. This is America.

How the hell is this happening?


My Archives: A year after Katrina

A Year Ago Today...Life Changed Forever.

My family’s journey through Hurricane Katrina and her aftermath by Rhonda Lee Richoux August, 2006

 

On August 27, 2005, my sister Darla called.  “Momma is taking too long to pack. We have to get out of here soon, before the traffic gets too bad! Call her and tell her we have to get out of here SOON!”  I sighed and hung up the phone.  This was, it seemed the traditional evacuation of my mother with all of my siblings who had children, whenever we were forty-eight ours out from the landfall of a major hurricane, and within the “cone of probability”.  Hurricane Katrina was a Category 3 hurricane, which we had survived before.  Historically, a Cat 3 out in the central Gulf of Mexico would be a Cat 2 or less by the time it pushed over our barrier islands and the shallower waters of our protective marshlands. Many of us had decided to stay. We figured there would be a little street flooding, but nothing major.  I was concerned about the homes of my sisters Darla and Tracy, and my niece Shannon, who lived in areas that were farther from the Mississippi River, and so lower in elevation.

 

My mother’s home was a split-level home.  The “upstairs” was actually just the original structure, made in the traditional southeastern Louisiana style, raised off the ground to allow for seasonal flooding.  The lower floor was on a slab. When my mom and step-dad (my daddy since I was two years old) bought the home, there was only a kitchen/dining area and a two-car garage downstairs.  They converted the garage into a large den, washroom, and an extra bedroom. Some years later, they added a back room where the patio had been, outside of the dining area.  They also had a large above-ground pool with a nice deck.  Our family spent a lot of time together. While all of us had grown up, moved away and had our own lives for awhile, we all returned to Chalmette as our parents grew older.  My brother Wayne, who had left for college in Idaho back in 1969, ended up moving to Portland, Oregon, falling in love, and remains there with his family today.  We were very close-knit. We enjoyed each other’s company, and continued the legacy of our children having their extended family as an important element in their lives and their learning.  We were all very involved in each other’s lives.

 

Eddie and I had decided to stay.  But because we lived in a mobile home, we decided we’d weather the storm at mom’s house. The brick exterior, upper level and attic would be a safe haven against the winds and any potential storm. We had gone through Cindy in the month of June, and she was later found to be a Cat 1 hurricane rather than a tropical storm, though I don’t know if they ever formally changed her classification after they got all of the data in. I didn’t want to go through that again...it was pretty scary in a mobile home, even though our home was tied down by a roof and porch.  I called mom and told her not to worry about the house, Eddie and I would secure it on Sunday when we went there. I told her to be sure Daddy Mick left an axe in the attic, “just in case”.  That request made her voice quiver.  “Okay...I’ll see if he has something to leave up there.”  She reluctantly left with my sister Darla and her family, my brother Todd and his family, and my brother Mickey and his family would follow later that evening.  Mickey took my dad’s truck to pull his mother-in-law’s camper, in case there were no motel rooms.  At least the kids would have a safe place to sleep.  Darla’s husband Clayton refused to leave.  We all knew that looting would be a problem, and it was hard for the men to just leave everything they had worked so hard for.  I told Darla to tell him to join Eddie and me at mom’s house, because their house was a slab house, and he’d be miserable if any water got into the house.  He decided to stay home.

 

I went to the local store to buy some supplies...not much. Usually things would be up and running within three days after a near-hit storm.  Most hurricanes turned at the last minute and missed New Orleans.  We in St. Bernard Parish, however, were more vulnerable, because we were completely surrounded by water.  A mandatory evacuation had not been formally declared, so we thought we’d be okay.  I met my aunt Joyce at the store.  They lived not far from us, near the River, and planned on staying for the storm.  We got the usual: lots of canned tuna and Vienna sausage, snacks, bread, batteries.  There wasn’t a whole lot left, but as I said, we didn’t think we’d need a whole lot.  We went home, and I stayed up until about 1:00 a.m., too tired to look at another minute of weather reports.

 

At 7:00 a.m., the phone rang.  It was Tracy.  She was calling from her summer home in Carriere, Mississippi, on the edge of Picayune.  “It’s a Cat 5,” she said.  I sat up in bed.  “WHAT??? Since when,”, I asked.  “I don’t know, she hit a hot spot and flared up overnight. What are you going to do?”  I woke Eddie up, saying “It’s a Cat 5, Ed. Wake up. We can’t stay!”  Eddie just said “Shit. Mutha Fucka!”  I told Tracy I’d call her back.  I asked her about Shannon and Josh.  She said that their young son Tristen had left with Darla and Mom, but they were still home.  I told Tracy I’d call her back.  She said she’d call Shannon and Josh.

 

We got into high gear. Not only did we have to pack and secure our own home, but I had to go to mom’s and secure her house.  Daddy Mick was already at Tracy’s.  He had lost patience waiting for Mickey and caught a ride with Tracy’s husband Rene to Mississippi.  We had no idea where Mom and the rest of the family were at this point.  They had headed toward Alexandria.  If no rooms were available, they’d go to the hunting camp Todd knew about and hole up until it blew over. I started packing. Eddie said, “Just throw 3 pair of underwear and socks, and a couple of pairs of jeans in there for me.”  But, something told me I needed to do more.  I packed two bags, all of our underwear, shorts, jeans, T-shirts, and some of my work clothes, for when we got back home to find our mobile home had given in to the wind.  I didn’t foresee water entering our home, being right next to the river, the highest point in the parish.  I threw photo albums into the car.  I sealed a plastic box full of old photos with duct tape and placed it up on a dresser.  I covered my computer in plastic, hoping that would keep any rainwater from ruining it if a window broke.  I cleaned the cat travel box for CoCo, my young cat. I called Tracy back. “I don’t know where we’re going, but we’re getting out.”  “You can come here,” she said, “I have my Chalmette neighbor Mike and his family here, but we’ll make-do.”  I thanked her and asked about Shannon and Josh.  “Well,” she said, “I called them and they seemed to still be asleep. I told them they had to get out of there.  She hasn’t called me back.”

 

I called Shannon and told her they had to get out.  She woke Josh up and gave him the news.  “I’m serious, Shannon. At least go to Aunt Tracy’s. It will get the wind, but we won’t drown.”  She said there would be too many people there already.  She didn’t know where to go.  I said, “Shannon, this is no joke. Pack your truck and head west or north.  Don’t stop until you run out of gas!  Someone will direct you to a shelter or motel. Just get out!”  She was concerned about her dad.  I told her to call him, and I would, too, to try to convince him to leave or at least stay at mom’s house.  I told her that she has a son; he needs his parents to stay alive.

 

Eddie and I went to mom’s house.  The extra key was in the Dutch wooden shoe on the window ledge, where it always was, in case any of us needed to go in, for whatever reason, while they were not home.  That house was our house, whenever we needed it.  Eddie helped me move some heavy things close to the house to keep them from becoming projectiles.  I moved plants under the covered patio closest to the house.  Eddie took first the car, then the truck, to fill them with gas, and to get ice and Cokes.  We had a case of bottled water to take with us.

 

Inside the house, I found that mom had left her two parakeets.  I placed them upstairs with extra food and two large bowls of water.  I thought they would be safe.  I took her computer upstairs and put part of on the bed and the tower onto the cedar chest, full of family photos and very heavy.  I brought as many of her clothes from the downstairs closet and placed them on her bed.  I took as many of her doll collection and Gone With The Wind music boxes upstairs on another bed.  I was worn out by the time I was done.  I called Clayton.  He didn’t answer.  I left a message, “Clayton, please come to mom’s house.  The key will be in the shoe.  There’s lots of food and water here, and you’ll be safer.”

 

By the time we went home and loaded CoCo into my car, and Chanel, our almost thirteen year old Chinese Shar-Pei, into the truck, it was 2:30 p.m.  The traffic on Paris Road was light, most people already gone.   When we hit I-10 East, however, traffic came to a stand-still.  We went, literally, a foot at a time.  The 50 minute trip to Tracy’s house took us six hours, in the heat of August, with no air conditioning.  I tried to feed CoCo water through a straw, but she missed most of it.  I thought she’d die on the way to Mississippi.  It was nearly dark when we pulled up into Tracy’s driveway.  The air conditioning was blessedly cold.  We spoke for a while, and all decided to get to bed early, as the winds would pick up early in the morning.  I called Shannon.  They were crossing Whiskey Bay, on their way to Lafayette.  I felt better that they would be safe.  We went to bed.

 

I was awakened at 5:00 a.m. by the wind.  The eye of the storm was still hours away from us, but Katrina was so massive that the outer bands were upon us.  I went downstairs and put on some coffee, trying not to wake anyone.  It would be a long day for us, and stressful.  But, Rene smelled the coffee and woke up.  Eddie followed soon after.  We drank the first pot of coffee, and Rene was about to start another pot when we lost electricity.  I went upstairs with a flashlight to leave for my daddy, in case he woke up.  He was awake, just laying in bed.  “What are you doing?” he asked.  “Leaving you a flashlight; the electricity is out already.”  The windows had been boarded up, so there was no morning light to be seen in the room.  He joined us downstairs.

 

The winds became fierce and noisy.  There were 21 southern pines surrounding Tracy’s house.  One uprooted and hit Eddie’s truck.  Tracy called mom.  They had left the hunting camp because it was miserable, and were heading farther north.  The call was dropped.  That was the last we heard from them until after the storm.  Our cell phones didn’t work any more, and neither did the land lines. 

 

The men were out on the porch that was away from the direction of the wind, watching one tree after another uproot and fall on our cars, trucks, and about every home in the neighborhood.  Tracy and I had stocked the closet under the stairwell and the bathroom across from it with flashlights, bedding, water and snacks, incase of tornadoes.  Tracy and Eddie had just come in with the dogs when a large tree hit the edge of the house over the kitchen...the ceiling cracked, the door bent, and rain started coming in.  We got buckets and towels to try to keep the water from reaching the carpets.  The noise of the wind was frightening.  It beat against the boarded windows as though an army was outside trying to hammer its way in.  I thought there were tornadoes beating at the house...a common occurrence within the bands of a hurricane.  But no one would get into the closet or the bathroom.  We heard on the radio that the southern edge of the storm had lost some of its power, which made us feel a little better.  After the eye passed, it wouldn’t be as windy.

 

As the eye passed over us, we all went out for some fresh air and to assess the damage.  Everything was damaged, and we realized that when it was all over, we would have to cut our way out.  Pine trees were blocking us in, in every direction.  The winds picked up again, from the opposite direction, but they were nothing like the initial impact of the northern edge of the storm.  We spent the rest of the day in shock.  We wondered if our family was far enough north.  We wondered if Clayton had gone to my mom’s house.  We wondered if Aunt Joyce and her family got out.  The next two days were the most agonizing days of my life, because as the reports started coming in, we realized the levees had failed after the storm.  And all of the parishes had reported in except our parish, St. Bernard.  It was under 15-22 feet of water, depending on what part of the parish you were looking at.  Tracy and I just looked at each other.  I know we were both thinking the same thing: “Is everyone in St. Bernard Parish dead?”

 

We spent eight days in Picayune, sitting in lines two miles long for water and a half-melted bag of ice.  There was no gas until maybe the fourth day.  We rationed water, and most of us just nibbled on Vienna sausage, a small can of Tuna, or a Slim Fast bar.  Tracy was pushing the Slim Fast bars because they had vitamins.  It was 3:00 a.m. on the third day that our daddy came inside and woke us all up.  It was so hot inside that he slept on a cot on the porch, and Eddie slept in his truck.  “Everybody wake up!!! I have a signal on my cell phone!!!”  We woke up and turned on our phones...it took a few minutes, but a signal came on.  However, all we could do was listen to our voicemail at first.  We couldn’t make any outgoing calls.

 

My niece Shannon, my brother Mickey, and Mom left numerous messages, each one sounding more desperate.  I cried to hear the worry in their voices.  My friend Marquette, the mother of my step children, left as many messages as my mom.  She was worried to death about me.  My brother Wayne, in Oregon, was always the designated message center for hurricanes.  I was able to call Marquette and Wayne, but no one in Louisiana.  Marquette was so relieved to hear from me!  She said they were all so worried about me.  I called my brother...he was also happy to hear we were alive, but said he hadn’t heard from mom since they left the hunting camp, and didn’t know where they were, or if they had heard from Clayton.  He said he tried to call her, but couldn’t get through.

 

Then Tracy said, “What about text messaging??”  We were able to get a message to Shannon’s phone.  We let her know we were okay.  We got a response: “Thank God!”  We started crying. We got another message: no word from Clayton. Uncle Rumio, Larry and Rumio were also missing.  Aunt Joyce had met up with the rest of the family, but they had stayed behind.

 

When WalMart started up generators and opened to sell off canned goods and water, Eddie, Rene and I went.  We stood in line for seven and a half hours, in the blazing sun, before we got inside.  The generators had failed by the time we got in. They only let three people go in at a time, as there were no registers working, and they used flashlights to guide us around to gather supplies.  There was a hose on outside for us to cool off with, and many of us took drinks from the unsafe water because we weren’t sweating any more...we were dehydrated.  WalMart employees passed out crackers and Slim Jims to sustain us.  A Red Cross truck came bye and gave us each a cup of frozen applesauce.  I’d never tasted anything better!

 

Over the next several days, we waited in lines two miles long for gas.  Twice, we were turned away because they ran out.  We had siphoned some gas from our vehicles to keep the old generator going, to run the refrigerator for an hour at a time, and to use a large fan to keep us from dying of heat exhaustion.  I realized that not only was I not sweating, I had also stopped urinating.  I lost a lot of weight in those eight days.  My clothes were falling off me.  I had no appetite.  Eddie helped Rene tarp the roof, and cut away most of the trees.  It was a long, slow, grueling process.  The animals were miserable, but too weak to complain.

 

When Rene made a run to Hattiesburg to get some gas and fill up gas cans, Daddy Mick went with him.  He borrowed some man’s phone and called my brothers.  They were at the Jimmy Davis State Park up in Chatham, Louisiana. They found it by taking a wrong turn looking for a campground, and a nice lady directed them there.  There are no wrong turns when God is giving the directions.  FEMA had designated all of the parks as shelters. They were all in air conditioned dorm rooms, and being fed three meals a day by the local churches.  Unknown to us, Daddy Mick told Todd and Mickey to come get him immediately.  He was in bad shape. Both he and Eddie were going crazy, and even talked about killing each other, but figured one of them would have to kill himself, and they didn’t think they could do that.  He needed to leave.

 

Mickey and Todd showed up, and Daddy Mick had his stuff ready, flew past us and said, “Come on, let’s get out of here!!”  He didn’t even give them time to talk to us or rest from the long drive.  They did tell us that Clayton was safe, as was Uncle Rumio and our cousins. They had all been rescued and sent to Lafayette.  Darla found out where Clayton was by going online.  Someone she knew had seen him there, and gave her the name of the motel where they had been housed.  Clayton thought Josh and Shannon were still in Lafayette, so he chose to stay there instead of going on to Houston.  We hugged  our brothers harder than we ever had before, and they left.  Mickey told us we should all come up there.  I told him that as soon as more gas stations opened, and as soon as Eddie finished helping Rene, we’d come up.

 

It was the eighth day.  We were finally able to get gas for our vehicles.  Eddie’s rack and bed were smashed, as was one headlight. The force of four trees had blown the air out of his tires, but they blew up fine. The hood of the old Caddy took a tree, and it wasn’t running well.  With black smoke trailing behind me, and a bunch of bottles of oil in my car, we headed northwest toward Chatham.  We could only go 50 miles an hour.  I didn’t think I’d make it over the Mississippi River Bridge in Baton Rouge, but I made it.  It took us about eight hours to get there, but when we found the park, I was so happy.

 

I don’t ever want to forget two things: how I felt when I didn’t know who was dead or alive in our family, and how I felt the first time I was able to see their faces again for the first time after hurricane Katrina.  It will forever temper my reaction to any differences we might have in the future.  I will always appreciate them, love them, and look at them as heroes as long as I breathe.  We have lost so much, but gained so much more.  We have strength of character.  We have our survival instincts back.  Our priorities have been set in their proper order.  We have life, and understand what a wonderful thing that is.  Though we all survived the storm, some of us did not survive the aftermath.  The physical hardship took from us our family elder, my 99 year old uncle, Irvin Martinez.  My brother in law Rene nearly died from an infection, probably contracted when the was trying to save things in his moldy, contaminated home in Chalmette.  He has Thallesemia, and the infection caused complications that almost killed him.  We have all lost friends, some to illness, some to suicide, some to the floods.  My family has settled in various places, and we no longer share the same community or the closeness it afforded us.  Not only my immediate family, but my cousins, aunts and uncles lived in St. Bernard Parish.  Only my Aunt Joyce and her family, Eddie and I chose to stay here.  My brother Todd and his family were recently given a FEMA trailer to live in down here, and I’m glad I at least see them once in awhile.

 

My beloved school, St. Bernard High School, was not reopened.  I was not able to get a job at the High School that reopened, but was given a job as an aide in the Pre-K program at Andrew Jackson Elementary, formerly Andrew Jackson High.  I don’t like Andrew Jackson (forget the Battle of New Orleans...he signed the Indian Removal Act and was responsible for taking the country away from the Original Nations that populated it.)  But, I love being around children.  Children give me hope, and make me feel that my community will return...perhaps in 10 years...to a thriving community, if politics stays out of it and leaves it up to the people.

 

Tomorrow we will remember the event, and honor our dead.  We still live in Third World conditions in St. Bernard Parish, but we are strong and courageous and stubborn, and we will do what we must to rebuild.  I ask only that none of you forgets that in our darkest hour, our government failed us, but ordinary Americans answered the call and donated, volunteered, and encouraged us to never give up hope.  I thank my countrymen, from the depth of my heart and my soul.  I will never forget the moment in my life when I felt that we were a united people, taking care of our own.

 

Peace to all, and my prayers to everyone who may experience the destructive power of our beautiful mother, Nature. ~ Rhonda