Lodestar Quarterly

Lodestar Quarterly
Figure reaching for a star Issue 15 • Fall 2005 • Featured Writer • Essay

Hurricane Katrina the Killer

Patricia Ryan

Editor's Note

Patrick Ryan

September 22, 2005 -- Katrina's floods have only just begun to drain from New Orleans' streets, underneath them remains what God could only know, and another overgrown tempest threatens my hometown again. The city waits nearly defeated, struck through with barely unfatal wounds, though, always the resilient rebel, in so much wonder of living she treasures the freedom to live life her own way. Some of my family, who'd sensibly supposed Lafayette and Houston would offer them sanctuary, a moment to grieve the losses, will now surely need to evacuate again. Two days after Hurricane Katrina, my partner and I flew my mom to San Francisco to stay with us indefinitely. Of course, it was a fortunate decision, but I have been blessed to bear witness to her immense strength throughout the terrible ordeal and her ability to choose so swiftly and wisely even while many others around her made their decisions with less conviction. I hope I've inherited even an ounce of her bravery. Over the last three weeks, I've encouraged her to write about the evacuation. Her story is fortunate, too, and I mean for it to be read only as a glimmer of hope among heartbreaking news.

Katrina was not only a killer, she broke many hearts and brought incredible pain, loss, and grief to thousands of people. I don't think Louisiana will ever be the same. I can tell you right now, despite that most of us were born and raised in New Orleans and the surrounding areas, we will relocate in other states and start a whole new life. My relatives and friends that we've found and contacted are frightened to return. I, for one, cannot see surviving another Category 4 or 5 and go through the terrible ordeal of evacuating again. It was indeed a living nightmare.

The building that I lived in, a seven-story, 280-resident HUD facility, gave us very strict orders to leave before the hurricane struck New Orleans. We were told that if we decided to stay we were on our own. The staff would evacuate with their families. They would assume zero responsibility. They warned that the building could have its windows blown out, all the power would most likely be cut off by the storm for a month or longer, and people on the upper floors wouldn't even have water to flush their toilets. Obviously, the heat would be unbearable and when our food and drinking water ran out, no stores would be open.

I didn't want to leave until I heard that the nursing home next door planned to evacuate, too. My younger brother Tommy was a resident at that home. He's a fifty-eight-year-old Down syndrome man possessing the mind of a five-year old. He had a massive stroke on January 16, 2003 and can't talk anymore because he's paralyzed across the whole right side of his body, even his throat. He wears diapers and can't sit up or even turn over by himself anymore. He can't drink water or liquids without thickener added and fed to him by spoon like a pudding. He eats only special pureed foods and his medication only in applesauce. Yet this sweet man, Tommy, with all of those things taken away, stills laughs at jokes, bounces balloons, plays peek-a-boo, and throws kisses with his good arm. He tries to say "love you," but it doesn't come out like he wants. He loves music, and I often play his favorite songs on a Walkman for him, and he always tries to sing. Of course, no words would come out, just ahh, bahh, ahh, loudly, but adorably.

I'm his caregiver. Before the hurricane, I would walk over to his home two or three times a day and feed him lunch and dinner. The building was right next door. And even though it wasn't an easy job caring for him, he was a joy. His eyes would light up whenever we brought him a special surprise. His eyes would actually sparkle. My neighbors in the apartment building, which includes my own sister Maryann, who lives on the fourth floor, would watch me rushing back and forth to Tommy's home and always say, "You must be very tired, Pat, it's got to be so hard running up and down the stairs, and up and down the hallways, taking care of your brother." I would always tell them, "He brings me too much joy to be a burden." I swear to it and people just don't understand what a wonderful, satisfied feeling it is caring for a special person like Tommy. He's like my own child. I was only twelve-and-a-half years old when he was born. I helped care for Tommy. Mama told me if I wanted to be his godmother, I'd need to change his diapers, and I changed them. But then I ran off and got married when I was twenty-two years old. My husband, Earl, and I moved to Houston. But after Mama passed away at the young age of fifty-one years old, I came back, and in 1965, Tommy came to live with my husband and me for a total of fourteen years. Earl was twenty-two years older than me, which didn't please my family, and so as he got older, he grew less patient with Tommy, because Tommy could be difficult, and eventually we placed him in a group home for Down syndrome adults. Still, we always took him home on week-ends and holidays. After my husband passed away on New Year's Eve 1985, I continued to take Tommy home, too; and even after my precious, wonderful son Perry Thomas passed away with AIDS, and only eight years after my husband's death, I still gladly took Tommy for the weekends and holidays. Perry was only 36 years old. No mother should have to lose her child, the heartbreak is unreal. That was the hardest, worst time of my entire life. But I couldn't abandon my little brother, Tommy.

So, as the hurricane stormed closer, I planned to stay at my apartment, praying for the best, so that I could be near Tommy. His nursing home, privately owned, awfully managed, hesitated evacuating the patients because it would be costly, even though a mandatory evacuation had been declared by the mayor of Jefferson Parish. I was so worried for our safety, but I couldn't see any other option than staying with Tommy. But then, on the day before the hurricane, the nursing home assured me they'd evacuate, they just didn't know when; and my son Kerry told me that he couldn't stay at my apartment with me like he'd done during the last two hurricanes. Back in December, he'd sold his beat-up, old, white van to his good friend Chris, and now they asked Kerry to drive it as part of a caravan with three taxicabs evacuating across southwestern Louisiana on Highway 90. No one else could've driven the van, so he felt obligated. My son Patrick in San Francisco begged me to evacuate with Kerry. Everyone could see Katrina would be a huge storm. So, finally, at the last minute, I decided to evacuate with them...a caravan of his friends, their children, their neighbors, and even their dogs, because I knew I'd be no help without Kerry if the nursing home started flooding and I had to try and save Tommy.

The van and one taxi had no air-conditioning and it was at least ninety-five degrees with the humidity at about eighty percent. We were miserable, but at least we were on the road out of New Orleans, and traffic wasn't as bad as what we'd heard about on I-10. In our entire caravan we had fourteen adults and six children. I rode with my son Kerry, four other adults, Chris's ten-year old boy, and a tiny dog that yelped the whole time, night and day, every day, because she was so frightened.

We left Kenner, Louisiana on Sunday about 11:30 AM. The hurricane would hit the very next morning with winds 145 miles per hour. We drove west for fourteen hours just to reach Lake Charles, Louisiana. It would normally have taken about four hours. Not one of the motels along the highway had vacancies, so we parked in a big lot and tried to sleep in the van and the taxis. There was no sleeping for me because the dog yelped all night at anything and everything, and I was worried and upset about my family, especially precious Tommy. Everyone had lost touch with each other because we all evacuated to different places. Nobody knew where to go, it was all on such short notice. We just knew we had to drive as far away as possible from Katrina. Then some police officers drove into the lot and announced everyone had to leave the parking lot. It was illegal to sleep at the reststops. I thought they should've let us since all the motels were packed. But I didn't want Kerry to get arrested. Everyone else in our caravan didn't want to leave, but Kerry convinced them we'd find an available hotel further down the road. We drove until two in the morning. Kerry was so tired I thought he would fall asleep behind the wheel. Even that late in the night it was still so hot and humid. We couldn't stop sweating. Finally, Kerry looked at me like he was so exhausted, and we'd just seen a sign for a reststop ahead, so I told him, "Go ahead. Park in the back. You have to get some sleep." And so that was where we slept.

The next night we arrived near Beaumont, Texas. I think we arrived at two thirty in the morning after driving the whole day. We arrived at this couple's trailer, a friend of a friend's, where there were already three children, the friend's mother, her friend, and her sister, making nineteen adults and nine children in that small two-bedroom trailer in what must've been one hundred degree weather. Everyone smoked except for me and Kerry, there were three dogs, too, but the couple was gracious and patient with so many new people in their little trailer. By now all the children were hyperactive, running around in circles, and most of the adults were crying and hollering because we finally were hearing some news from the TV. Some of our homes were surely flooded and we still didn't know where our loved ones were, or even whether they were dead or alive. One of the women cursed no matter what she said.

I shared the recliner sofa in the trailer's living room with four other people. The next morning, it couldn't have been later than five, Kerry tapped my shoulder to wake me up, and his eyes were wet with tears. I thought he was going to tell me that Tommy was dead. But instead, when I asked, "What's the matter, Kerry?" he answered, "No Mama, I found Tommy. He's still at the nursing home. They didn't evacuate yet."

I was so relieved, but Kerry said the water was rising into the building, and now all I could do was pray that they evacuated. By the next evening, we hadn't heard anymore news, and the poor couple was expecting even more people. I don't know how they handled so many visitors. They were a young couple -- only in the early thirties -- and between their prior marriages, they had four children. She had uterine cancer, but she was also pregnant for another child, so she'd refused chemo. The house was so incredibly chaotic. I was set for a nervous breakdown and so awfully devastated watching that terrible, terrible news. Crammed together in that little trailer, hot as hell, all any of us could do was cry as we watched thousands and thousands of people stranded, our entire city flooded. But then, late that same evening, we decided to move on, and we drove to Van, Texas, a little town where another friend lived, but in a more spacious double trailer, far into the Texan woods.

That night, because I was the oldest and sick with grief, they offered me a real bed. Kerry and some of the others still slept in the vehicles. During the whole ordeal I'd been using Kerry's cellphone to keep in touch with my youngest son Patrick in San Francisco. Making any phone call took over twenty or thirty tries to get through. Well, Patrick booked a flight for me to San Francisco, on a flight the next morning, offering to let me stay with him and his partner Frank until Kenner's mayor allowed residents back. We knew it could be weeks, although we had no idea it might even be months. But Patrick wouldn't take no for an answer. He could tell that my stress level had soared incredibly high. I have a heart condition, too, and so he was afraid I'd have a heart attack.

So at four-thirty the next morning, before the sun rose, Kerry drove me an hour to Love Field in Dallas, Texas. We thought we knew how to get to the airport because we were going by written directions from one of the women who lived in the double trailer, but it was pitch dark and none of us ever visited Dallas. Then suddenly, wherever we weren't sure where to go, we'd see these little road signs, smaller than usual road signs, and for some reason, I think it must've been God's work, Kerry decided to follow those signs instead of the woman's confusing directions.

Low and behold, we made it to the airport, and I made it to my flight. But the most incredible thing is what Kerry told me over the phone once I got to California: on their way home, they looked in the rear view mirror, looked out the window behind them, hoping to decipher their way backwards, but not one of those signs that had just guided us to the airport were there anymore. Now, my son Patrick would explain it differently, but I believe it was the work of angels. Nothing else.

After almost a whole week in San Francisco, we still had no idea where Tommy had been evacuated, if he'd been evacuated at all. We'd received conflicting information everywhere. The worst thoughts crossed my mind. All week, we'd been searching the internet for clues about the whereabouts of our entire family, but we hadn't found anyone yet. Then my oldest sister Lucille, in Winthrop, Massachusetts, called and told us that our brother Harold and his wife Kitty were safe. She gave me Kitty's cellphone number because I'd forgotten my address book in the rush of evacuating. I'd left so many important things behind -- my checkbook, important papers, even my precious Perry's urn -- and I only brought one day bag with clothes enough for a few days. I think everyone was in the same situation. Brother and Kitty had evacuated to Baton Rouge. I finally got in touch with my sister Maryann, too, who'd evacuated the day before I'd left Kenner.

Then on Labor Day morning, my son Terry called us from Virginia. He'd decided to relocate there and try to find a music job. Terry's been playing jazz and old standards at the Marriott for quite a number of years. Lee, Terry's wife, has a brother and sister living in Virginia. He said that he reached Tommy's nursing home and talked to someone, a nurse, a janitor, I don't know, who claimed Tommy was still there. They'd never evacuated, even after a week. I didn't think it was possible. There was no electricity or running water. The home had a private generator, but I didn't think it could've lasted a whole week. I wondered if Tommy was safe. I'd heard people looted near my apartment. Terry said they'd rolled Tommy into the hallway since that's where the only air-conditioner worked. After the phone call, Patrick convinced me to try the nursing home again. Amazingly, Tommy's activity coordinator, Tiffany, answered. I was surprised and relieved to hear her sweet voice. I wondered if Tommy might still be there, but she said "No, they evacuated Tommy the day after the storm." I knew Terry's story sounded off. I asked her if the whole staff and residents were there, and she said "No, we're only allowed to check on things." And can you believe it, she wasn't sure where Tommy was evacuated to -- and remember, this is a Down syndrome boy who can't talk coherently and is completely dependent upon other people to care for him. Well, Tiffany thought he'd been moved to some home in Abbeville, Louisiana, one possibly named Vermillion or Vermont, and then she asked that if I find him to please give her a call back and let the home know where he is. It sounded irresponsible to me. I couldn't believe that owner had asked those workers to stay during the hurricane. The home might've been torn to pieces.

Within minutes, my son's wonderful partner Frank used the web to find a list of nursing homes in the Abbeville area. I stood next to him and called each home and asked about my precious, adorable Tommy. At the first home, a woman said, "No, I'm sorry, he's not here." At the second home, a young man answered apologetically, "No, I'm so sorry, he's not here." My heart became heavier and I didn't know if we'd ever find him. And at the third, a woman said happily, "Yes, he's here." And I just about shouted, "Oh, thank you, thank you, God!" Then I just cried. The sweet lady on the other end of the line said, "He's all right. I'll let you speak to his nurse." So Wendy, his new nurse, came on the line and she said, "I'm so thrilled to meet you, Ms. Ryan. Tommy is fine, we're all in love with him! He's incredibly sweet. In fact, our teenage volunteers are playing with him right now." I was so relieved and so happy, I just cried and cried. My sweet son Patrick took me in his arms and I felt so blessed, so very blessed.

It seemed after that we started getting news about all our loved ones that were missing. It was all mixed emotions then because thank God, they were all alive, but they'd each lost everything but the very clothes on their backs. The water was to the roofs in all of their homes and because they'd left their cars and carpooled with someone else to wherever they were going, they lost their cars, too. Patrick received e-mail from my cousin Tony, a former Sacred Heart brother who lived alone with his very handsome cat, Mickey, at his parents' house on Elysian Fields. Tony hasn't gone back to see his home yet, but it's most likely he lost everything: the home, his parents' antiques, his job at Xavier for at least a semester; but can you imagine, he was robbed of $1,600 that he took with him after he had evacuated to Jackson, Mississippi? He was cleaning up some fallen tree branches from his friend's front lawn after the storm hit Jackson, and a woman passerby stopped and talked with him. They talked for a long time. Then, once Tony said he had to get back inside, she started walking away, and shouted back loudly, twice, "Don't stay out too long. It's too hot!" Inside, the money was gone. Tony's such a goodhearted and intelligent man, but now he's also very angry at the U.S. government. I believe it, too. This flood that took so many lives and homes could have been prevented. Those old levees should have been completely rebuilt following our last big hurricane. But Patrick says that Bush even cut funding to levee repairs in 2003. Regardless, Tony sounds terribly depressed, angry, and bitter.

My sweet son Kerry hasn't been doing well, either. He seems confused and depressed. He's still in Van, Texas with his friends, and today the count is around thirty people, so he's still sleeping in his scorching hot van. They all go to church every evening about eight o'clock. He doesn't eat all day until he eats at the church's evacuee kitchen, but at least it's a good hot meal, but I know he doesn't shave anymore and I'm sure his hair is getting long again. I thought for sure he wanted to come live in California, but even after Patrick found a job for him on the internet, Kerry said he didn't want to leave his friends, Chris and Lucy, with whom he has been living since quitting his job at the Cenacle Retreat House last December. My heart gets very heavy when I think about Kerry. He's down and out and has no confidence nor get-up-and-go. Who knows, maybe if he goes back to New Orleans, he'll find a job rebuilding the whole city. He just might work hard and do something good with his life. I don't know what else to say except, "I love you." Love will see us through.

Kerry called me the other night, tears in his voice. He said, "Mama, they found a man in his attic. He'd been sitting there for days with his dead wife and dead children. Mama, he had no more tears left. He just sat there dry-eyed and stunned."

Then I spoke with my son Gery in Iowa. His wife Connie had heard horrible news a few days ago. Connie's cousin in Biloxi, Mississippi was killed by Katrina's winds along with her husband and children. I wonder why they didn't evacuate. I know that so many people in New Orleans were too poor to evacuate. Some had no cars, others had no money. I'd never met Connie's cousins, but it breaks my heart just the same.

I called my niece Michelle, my brother Phil's daughter. Philip passed away last year after a long six-year battle with cancer. What a champion he was. I still call him my hero. And now, I feel so bad for Michelle and her partner, Maria, and for her mother Jane and her brother Mike and his family, too. Every one of them lost everything. Every possession. Even the little town they live in, the oil from the oil companies has leaked across the whole town. It's running under all the flooded homes. Ruining them. It will not be safe to live in that area anymore.

Michelle is a very strong young lady, but I could hear grief and sadness in her voice. Her mother isn't taking it very well. Mike is a fireman there in Chalmette and he's still working, finding bodies, and helping wherever he's needed. I couldn't help sitting down and crying afterward. They aren't allowed to see their residence (if you can call it that) for four months. In the meantime, they will be thinking about where they want to relocate. They are a very close-knit family, and that helps, of course, but it also means that their decision will be much more difficult.

My best friend, Laverne, she's a widow with four sons and a daughter. I found her just yesterday by calling Rosaryville, where she worked. She was there, and she told about her evacuation ordeal. It's heartbreaking. Her son sent his wife and children away to be safe from the storm. He stayed at their home to protect it. Then when the water reached the roof, he went up through the attic, cut a hole through the roof, then sat on top the house with just enough food and water for a couple of days, a pair of rain boots, and a fishing pole. He was rescued four days after the storm.

My sister Maryann doesn't know what to do, either. After she evacuated to Houston, she left her daughter's house because they couldn't get along, and now she's staying with her granddaughter, another evacuee. Yesterday, she wanted to go move near her son in Washington state; today, her friends told her she's crazy to leave her apartment at Westminster, all her friends and furniture behind, and she starts crying and changes her mind. She wonders why the good things that have happened to me haven't happened for her. She's waiting for someone to appear, tell her what to do, and then do it for her. I realize that I'm lucky to have such a wonderful son like Patrick and his partner Frank. I might not have made the same decisions if they hadn't been around to rescue me. They've supported me, encouraged me, and searched the internet until they found everything I needed to find. Furthermore, Patrick's friends are still sending me clothes, robes, nightgowns.

Today as I was walking in the Sunset district of San Francisco, looking at all the different sorts of houses, window shopping, and exercising my legs, I spotted a headline on the New York Times: "45 People Die In A New Orleans Hospital." Patrick tells me later that the thirty-one people who died in that nursing home in Poydras, Louisiana died because of neglect and are now charged with murder. I realize it required patience to find precious Tommy, but thank God he's alive and in a better home. So many people have been less fortunate than us in Katrina's wake. And now I've decided to keep Tommy in that home in Erath, Louisiana. He seems to be getting along there. The town seems quaint and peaceful. I hear they'll even be moving the patients into a brand new home in another month.

My son Patrick and I have had some long talks about where my life should go. I've expressed my fears about going back to New Orleans. Many people will go back, and I believe people should go back, but at seventy-one years of age, I couldn't go through another hurricane evacuation. So I've found a HUD apartment at Notre Dame Plaza on Dolores Street. It is a beautiful building for low-income seniors right across from a big, beautiful Catholic church and a lively green park nearby. It's also walking distance to Safeway Market, and Patrick's favorite vegetable store, Golden Produce, as well as a community center where they serve delicious meals for only $1.50. San Francisco, my new home! But I'll always be thinking of my old home, New Orleans, devastated, grief-stricken, and nearly drowned by Katrina, and maybe some day I'll see it again, but not for a very long time.

Patricia Ryan

Patricia Ryan was born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana. Among the many things she's done in her life, she has been a country western singer, potato chip sorter, elevator operator, housekeeper for a Catholic convent, and the mother of five sons. Her fifth and final son is Lodestar Quarterly's founder and editor-in-chief, Patrick Ryan.

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