Hurricane Katrina

New Orleans Voices: Denise and Richard

Two evacuated New Orleans residents, now living in Austin, Texas, remember the horror of Katrina and its nightmarish after-effects.
Denise and Richard are a young couple who lived in the Seventh Ward, right downtown in New Orleans. They stayed in their raised house during the hurricane and barbecued outside with their neighbors for a week, until the city became too contaminated to stay.

They were evacuated to Austin, where they live now in a sparsely furnished apartment. Having left New Orleans without his wallet, Richard is still struggling with the paperwork and red tape to get a new Social Security card, driver's license and birth certificate so that he can work. Denise is working at Goodwill and trying to keep her spirits up while struggling with nightmares and depression. Her two children are living in other states with relatives.

Richard:
If I get my identification, can't nothing stop me. Because in the city, I wasn't receiving no benefits. I wasn't receiving no financial help. All I needed to do was find a restaurant. I started as a dishwasher and worked up. I'm a monster in the kitchen. I can cook, I can clean, that's what I do.

So I don't receive any free benefits. I'm not worried about a FEMA check. I'm not worried about no government assistance. Just give me an ID! Let these people hire me, and I'm straight from that point on. I can work. I've been doing it since 13, that's all I know how to do is work, you know. That's the only thing.

It's moving slowly but surely. Once I get all my personal information back, get me a job, I be straight. From that point on, I be smiling. I work, that's what I need to do.

That's mainly the story of every person in New Orleans right now: They basically lost everything. And the things they didn't lose, the people who stayed took it from them. It's like only the strong survive. It's a matter of survival. I mean, I can't blame anybody who stayed during that tragedy, for going into anybody's house taking anything they needed to sell or use or eat or anything, because honestly, I would have did it.

I would have did it, and I'd do it again. As many times as I needed to do it to survive. So I can't blame anyone who went in my house -- I'm upset, trust me, that's the reason I didn't want to leave.

I'm 24, just started working, and I worked for everything I wanted, and I got it. I felt like it was more than just material things to me because it was my first time being able to do this on my own. Everything in that house I accomplished on my own, so don't tell me it is of no value. How is it of no value? I went out there and I busted my ass getting it! I worked my butt to get it. I went to work sick to get this, so don't tell me that this TV or this entertainment center has no value, because it is something materialistic and I could get it again. I could get it again, but I can't get it like I got it the first time. Because I worked, and I proved the point to myself.

And you know, it's all gone. And it's not gone because a flood took it or a hurricane took it. It's gone because people who was down there and the people who lost stuff like I lost stuff had to go in there and get it. They had to do what they had to do. So it's just you lost everything, because the people who went in there took my stuff. Obviously, they took my stuff because they lost everything.

So I mean, it's just from one person to another: Everybody from down there have something in common, mainly we went through a tragic thing. Everything I didn't experience that another person experienced, it kind of rubbed off on me because the things they lost, they took from me to get back. So it's kind of like they made their problem my problem. And my problem was somebody else's problem, because I went in somebody's stuff to get what I needed when I was down there. So that's the main reason I can't blame nobody for doing what they did: because it's a continuous story.

And I'm pretty sure that the people that are down there right now probably still doing the same thing. Going through somebody else stuff to get what they need. Because right now, it's not nobody else's stuff. I feel like right now all of them my family, everything down there is for them to use.

Alive in Truth: When did you leave?

Denise:
I believe it was Saturday, September 3rd. September 3rd. It was maybe noonish. It got to the point where it was a little too strenuous. The water had gotten real contaminated. It was to the point where when you walked through it or had to deal with it for any reason, it showed on the skin, or you became sick.

They had people in the water, and in the process of walking, you see bodies floating, women with babies, and animals trying to swim through it to get to a dry spot. As we were getting close to the point where we were going to evacuate from, we saw a couple of Army agents on a boat asking did we need any help or whatever, but they didn't come down the street or anything to see if anybody was in those houses to get us out of there. If it wasn't for the guy with the boat who we knew, we would have had to try to walk through that, and I can't swim. And I'm like five-five, so the water was pretty much to my mouth, so I needed the boat. But when we got to the point, which was maybe a couple of feet away from where we were going, they (Army people) were like, Do you guys need any help?

We didn't even know they existed, we didn't know they were right up the block on boats. [They] didn't come down the street to see if anybody was trying to get out of there, who didn't have transportation or just couldn't do it for any particular reason.

So I mean, when we got to the bridge, we were evacuated maybe in a five-minute process and we were out of there by military truck. And during the procedure, we were passing, and they had a Caucasian lady maybe in her early fifties, late sixties, had died, and had been there. And she was literally about to bust open. She was just there. They didn't try to cover her up; they didn't try to do anything.

Richard: The bridge we went to, I would say 16 hours before we got evacuated, when we got up there, it was empty. But 16 hours earlier, prior to us being evacuated, it had maybe 10,000 people on that bridge. I mean the bridge --that bridge, the one bridge that stretched all through the grid of New Orleans.

That bridge goes from the east and then it breaks off and goes to the Ninth Ward. It go from the Ninth Ward all the way through the Downtown District, round the Superdome, go round the Superdome, and go straight to the West Bank. That's a good 30, 35 miles. Out of that 35 miles, for 20 of them, they had people packed back-to-back on the bridge. Twenty miles of people on that bridge. From the Ninth Ward area where the water was sitting under the bridge. That's how high the water was in the Ninth Ward. It sat under the bridge like you was at Lake Pontchartrain. The water sat -- this same bridge is like an overpass of the Ninth Ward, you actually walk under this bridge. In our area, on this same bridge line, that where they have after Mardi Gras, that's where they have the Indians go, and everybody go after Mardi Gras and they have a big old, big old party. Everybody be under this bridge. The same spot where people died, under this bridge. This water was all the way to the top sitting under the bridge, where people usually walked out at the bottom, that's how high the water was.

A lot of people was killed for things they had. Some people were killed behind food, some people was killed behind water, some people was killed behind weapons. Some people was killed behind early events. They just really couldn't --you know, he might have killed his cousin, couldn't do him nothing, because if he did do him something, the police was going to know he did it. Right now, there is no police. Police wasn't police for the hurricane. The police quit, the police said, The hell with it, I have family, too. You're not going to make me sit out here in 110-mile-per-hour wind, telling me the hell with my family, to watch these people. So that's how they felt. They quit. Once we heard that they quit on the news, that's the last thing they [newscasters] should have did. That was the exact last thing they should have did. When they realized that was the last thing they should have did, they stopped telling us the news.

I mean, a lot of stories I was hearing, a lot of things I was getting from the news, the people who was actually down there, we wasn't getting that same news. They wasn't telling us, because they knew that a lot of outcome was going to happen from exactly what they said. Like when they told us that 200 some officers quit, that was the same day they started looting. They told us that the night before they started looting. Two hundred officers quit their post, just abandoned their job, boom. Looting started the next morning. We knew it -- who's gonna stop me? Prisoners escaping from jail. Now, how in hell the prisoners know 200 and some people quit? The security guards know half the police quit, so, "I'm quitting." Now the prisoners escape, and some people let prisoners go. Prisoners end up on the same bridge with people who are evacuating from the storm. So how do you know if that's one of the prisoners who was in the Convention Center killing people?

And they're covering that up, saying only two people died, three people died. People come out of that Convention Center stone crazy, stone crazy. They come out of the Convention Center, where once a person who went to school, had straight A's, had a career, went to the Convention Center for help, come out of there stone crazy. Guys, grown men pulling out their hair, seeing children die, seeing people get raped. They caught a man in the bathroom with a child in his hand, a little boy, you know, in his hand, while he naked. Them six days really brought a lot of people through a lot of different things.

Honestly, we're one of the lucky people. I mean, I feel like we had it bad, but a lot of people, they had it worse. And the main thing was, you couldn't calm a child down, you couldn't. It was so dark, pitch. I mean dark, pitch black, you can't see nothing, nothing. It looked like the Blair Witch Project. Honestly, it was just so black, if you had a child crying, you can't stop them from crying. What are you going to tell them? What they have to do? No toys, no TV. There was basically nothing there.

The only reason we ate was because we had a few things, we barbecued every day. Six days straight, I fed the whole neighborhood, the whole block. Everybody on our block, we was fine. If one person had something the other person didn't, we came to get that, made a meal. One person could cook pork and beans and rice on the grill, he got their meat, I got pork. We gonna do something.We did what we had to do to survive. We had to live like a family.

[…]

I really don't know exactly if moving to Austin was a good, good thing. It's better than what it could have been. A lot of people could have been in worse places. Could have been living with family that don't want you to live with them. We've got our own house, so this was by far the best thing about the hurricane was actually getting this house. Because this kind of closed a lot of doors on things that happened in New Orleans and gave us the opportunity to start over. This is like the big start-over point.

This is like, you know how you get that tickly feeling when you're so happy about something. It's like the first day of school, in a sense. You know, last year I had a "C" but this year, I'm gonna get an "A." You get a chance to start over. We're starting over in Austin. We've met a lot of people, they're friendly, and Austin is the best thing by far that could happen from the hurricane.

Denise: I'm still a little tense about it. I'm still not feeling that completeness or nothing like that. I'm not relaxed. I don't feel at home. And it's still agitating. My kids aren't here, so that's another thing that doesn't make it seem homey. Basically, it's just a lot of stuff right now that's incomplete, and I guess once we get everything together, it will be a little bit better. But as of right now, it's still like he said, a big shock. It's unbelievable. I look around when I'm out or just sitting on the porch, I be like, "I cannot believe this." To this day, it's just hard. I never experienced nothing like this, and I don't want to do it again. But I can't get over it. It's like a nightmare.

Richard: I'm over it.

Denise: I'm not. I'm not over it by far. My kids are still separated. I talk to them on the phone and stuff, but it's hard on them, too. They're getting by, but it's harder on them than it is on me right now.