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Still Struggling, Katrina's Victims Tell Stories of Survival

Adrianne Appel in Baton Rouge, Louisiana
for National Geographic News
September 27, 2005
 
Even before Hurricane Rita dealt a second blow to the Gulf region, the victims of Hurricane Katrina continued to struggle to reclaim their lives from the water and rubble.

For some, it is as if Katrina hit only yesterday. Many people still do not have clean drinking water or electricity, and their houses are too dangerous to live in. About 89,400 Katrina evacuees are still being housed in shelters nationwide, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

The stories these evacuees tell are all different—tales of survival, charity, violence, and in at least one case, newfound love. Together they provide a glimpse into the lives of the hundreds of thousands who remain displaced by Katrina.

On a recent Saturday—more than two weeks after Katrina struck and one week before Rita—Gayle Bryan and her sister, Carolyn Crowell, sat on the bumper of their car in Louisiana's rural Plaquemines Parish. From their perch they looked out at Bryan's house about a hundred feet (30 meters) away. The house was up to the windows in water.

"It's so close, but I can't get to it,'' Bryan said, tearing up.

Plaquemines is a peninsula south of New Orleans. Its southernmost half was still under more than five feet (one and a half meters) of water. Bryan and Crowell were on the last patch of dry road before it disappeared into the floodwaters.

At their feet, bloated oranges bobbed in the brown water, the only evidence that a month ago the region was thick with orange groves. It was 4 p.m., and the pair had been there since noon, hoping someone with a boat would give them a ride to her house.

"We just want to know if anything is there," Gayle said. "For closure.''

"There's Nothing Left"

People in Plaquemines are used to floods, but Katrina's 30-foot (9-meter) tidal surge, which tumbled houses and drowned cattle, was like nothing residents here had ever seen.

"There's nothing left,'' said Jeffrey Treadway, sitting underneath a white tarp in front of what used to be the Myrtle Grove Bar and Restaurant in the Plaquemines town of Myrtle Grove.

He spoke between bites of a FEMA-issued Meal Ready to Eat. "No one has a home," he said. "There's no Red Cross here.''

During the hurricane, the one-story bar was swamped by the tidal surge. The building still stands, but the roof was severely damaged, and the bar had no electricity or plumbing.

Bar owners Sylvia and Steve Breaux had set up the tarp and were giving away bottles of cold water. Nearly all of the dozen waterlogged chairs were taken.

"Even though my business is destroyed, I can still be a good neighbor,'' Sylvia Breaux said.

"The Water Was Up to My Chin"

Cassandra Brown, 45, of New Orleans, went through much of the storm's aftermath alone.

Now reunited with her daughter, Rashonda Johnson, 31, Brown was living with about a thousand other people at the River Center, the convention center in Baton Rouge where the Red Cross had set up a shelter.

The Sunday that Katrina struck, Brown and her family took shelter at their church in New Orleans. They planned to leave the city together the next day.

"My son picked me up at the church and he dropped me off at my apartment,'' she said. Her son couldn't make it back to pick her up; neither could her daughter.

"I got stuck there until Wednesday morning,'' Brown said. She had no food, electricity, or water.

"I took the time to fast and pray,'' she said.

In time a man with a boat came to take people out of the apartment complex, but he left Brown and several others behind. "He made just three trips,'' she said.

"By Wednesday, the water was up to my chin,'' Brown said. "[But] I made up my mind to walk to safety."

She found a bus that took her to New Orleans' convention center. But there she found little comfort.

"I saw people dropping dead, people getting beat up. I saw it all. I saw it all," she said. "I stayed on the sidewalk of the convention center so I could be in the open.''

Eventually Brown took a bus to a Howard Johnson's motel in Shreveport, where she called her daughter, who was at the River Center shelter. Brown took a bus to the shelter to be with her.

"From this point on, where she goes, I go,'' Brown said.

A Match Made by Katrina

Monique Cavasher, 20, and Raymond Montgomery, 28, say Hurricane Katrina brought them together.

"We're just starting a relationship,'' Cavasher said. The two stood outside the center in front of the security checkpoint. They had been kissing wildly. "We met behind the shelter two days ago,'' she said.

Cavasher had arrived at the shelter two days earlier, after overstaying her welcome at a friend's house in Baton Rouge where she had been staying since the storm hit.

Montgomery, a butcher, waited out the storm with his brother, cousin, and mother in an apartment in New Orleans.

"Everything was loose, flying around," he said of the wind. "After, the floodwater came.''

His mother got a lift to Texas. He, his cousin, and his brother set out for dry ground nearby.

"We swam," he said. "Then a boat picked us up, brought us to the parish line. I trekked in water to the causeway, and a truck picked us up and brought us to Baton Rouge.''

Since arriving at the shelter, Montgomery's brother had left for Missouri. He didn't know where his cousin is. He wasn't certain where his mother was, either.

"To the best of my knowledge, she's with my stepfather and sister,'' he said.

For their part, Cavasher and Montgomery planned on staying in Baton Rouge together.

"Some good things have come out of Hurricane Katrina, and he's one of them,'' Cavasher said.

Clearing the French Quarter

New Orleans remained mostly abandoned except for the U.S. military, which had set up base camp on the banks of the Mississippi, a stone's throw from the French Quarter.

Next to the camp was a large tent city, housing hundreds of volunteers who had come to support the military by cooking, cleaning, and clearing debris. Among them were crews of Navajo Scouts, Native American firefighters from Arizona.

"When we got here, you couldn't even walk down here, with the logs,'' said Ed Notah, leader of a crew from Fort Defiance, Arizona.

Notah's crew was one of about a dozen U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs teams who had been staying in New Orleans on 21-day rotations.

Since arriving, Notah's team had been busy clearing out the wreckage that Katrina left behind.

"We set up base camp, we sawed broken branches, cleared sidewalks,'' Notah said. "The tour has been smooth.''

The Navajo Scouts also cleaned up debris from Jackson Square Park in preparation for President George W. Bush's address there on September 15.

Chris Moore, 51, a volunteer with a faith-based group from Macon, Georgia, was also staying in the tent city.

Moore grew up in New Orleans's Seventh Ward at the base of the French Quarter, not far from the camp.

"Coming in last night, it was like going through a war zone," he said. "The streets are blocked off, there's a lot of damage to buildings. Nothing but darkness in the depth of the city where there should be lights.

"I felt funny coming back,'' he said. "But I'm glad to see so much good coming out of the darkness.''

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