Monday, November 14, 2011

A Visit with Three Hurricane Katrina Survivors

Hurricane Katrina has been much on our minds at the Loyola Intensive English Program (LIEP), as all three LIEP reading classes are reading the book ZEITOUN by Dave Eggers.

ZEITOUN tells the true and captivating story of the Zeitoun family of New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina. Two days before the hurricane, Mrs. Zeitoun and the Zeitoun children evacuated to Baton Rouge, while Mr. Zeitoun, owner of a house painting business, stayed in the city to oversee his own property and that of his clients. A week after the hurricane, Mr. Zeitoun was arrested and imprisoned for "looking suspicious." He fell into a "black hole" in the prison system. His wife and children, away from the city, knew only that his daily phone calls at noon suddenly stopped.

ZEITOUN by Dave Eggers

To help us understand better what it was like in New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina, we invited three Hurricane Katrina survivors to speak as a panel with our three LIEP reading classes. Each panelist had a unique experience:

  • One panelist was isolated with her ill husband in an uptown home surrounded with flood waters
  • Another panelist found herself on a rooftop with her two beloved dogs
  • Our third panelist remained in the city to be with her hospitalized mother and was taken by helicopter to the New Orleans Convention Center, where people were crowded to await help without basic necessities
Each panelist spoke in turn, sometimes with emotion and tears, about her experience of Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent flood. Here are some of the most striking points in the panelists' stories:
  • Reasons for remaining in the city: Each panelist personalized some of the frequently heard reasons for not evacuating: the huge difficulty (or impossibility) of transporting an ill loved one for hours in bumper-to-bumper traffic, the devotion to beloved animals for whom there were no evacuation facilities, the trust in decades-old houses that had withstood many hurricanes, the experience of having lived through hurricanes in the past.
  • The flood: Seeing the flood water rise so swiftly when the levees gave way on the day AFTER the hurricane was a great shock. One panelist spoke of the "visceral feeling" of watching the water rush up her driveway, and another told us that there was no water in her house after the hurricane but that the flood waters rose 12 feet -- up to the gutter of the roof -- on the next day.
  • Complete lack of certainty and information: All three panelists said that they were isolated from information sources. One panelist spoke of "the real uncertainty about what would happen from day to day," and another told us that her only source of information was her mother, who was watching the news reports in Virginia.
  • MREs, or Meals Ready to Eat: One panelist brought items from an MRE, or Meal Ready to Eat, to show us. Some New Orleanians received MREs from the military after the hurricane.
  • Destruction: One panelist made the destruction of the flood real to us by showing vivid photographs of her flooded home.
  • Help from friends and neighbors: All three panelists insisted that help came, not from government agencies, but from friends helping friends and neighbors helping neighbors. One panelist and her ill husband were eventually rescued from their flood-surrounded home by friends. Another panelist banded together with neighbors for help. Our third panelist found that customers of her father's neighborhood store recognized her and took her under their wing at the Convention Center.
  • Animals: One panelist said that it was "very painful to see elderly people forced to get into rescue boats but leave their animals behind to die." This panelist is pleased to have been part of the post-Hurricane Katrina lobbying group that has resulted in a Louisiana law requiring side-by-side evacuation of people and their animals.
  • Deaths: The panelists spoke of their sadness whenever they thought of family members, friends, and neighbors who died not long after Hurricane Katrina because of the physical and emotional toll taken by the high level of stress.
  • Preparedness: All three panelists spoke of the need for to be ready for an emergency. One panelist told us, "Save money. Be educated. Be prepared."
Hearing these intense personal stories by three people who lived through the days and weeks after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans made the storm and its aftermath very real to us.

A huge thank-you to our three panelists for sharing these personal experiences with us.

Our next post will tell you about a visit with Dr. Bethany Brown of Loyola's Criminal Justice Department. Dr. Brown will speak with us about the sociological aspects of Hurricane Katrina to help us understand how people respond in crisis situations.