New Orleans Stories: Mary Elizabeth B.
[Editor's note: this is the third in an ongoing series of oral histories from survivors of Hurricane Katrina. To read and listen to more histories, please visit Alive in Truth.]
Mary Elizabeth B. is a social worker who lived in the Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans. She was evacuated to Austin, Texas. This oral history interview was recorded by Alive in Truth: The New Orleans Disaster Oral History and Memory Project, and all-volunteer organization led by poet and journalist Abe Louise Young. If you would like to support their work, please donate online at Austin Community Foundation and specify "Alive in Truth."
I was born in Natchez, Mississippi, November 19, 1949, to Lawrence and Dorothy. I was the second of five children. Oh, my family raised me up with a work ethic. I never knew I was poor. I always thought we were rich. I did, but we were actually poor. My father worked for the International Paper Company. It was hard for a black man to get a job of that nature back then.
My mother was a domestic. My mother would work for white people. She would go in and take over their homes. She would feed you; she was the boss. They loved her, because she had that type-A personality, she was a take-over person. And, you know, young white women who were professional, but couples, they didn't know how to do things. They didn't know how to raise children. So they felt blessed to have a woman like that. And they were good to my mother, they were very good to my mother. They treated her well, with much respect. Her wisdom, they respected it. The wife would always ask her what to do, "How do you do this, Dorothy?" You know? I saw that when I would go with her sometimes. I didn't do anything, I just observed, because my father really hated that she took me with her, because he wanted more for his children. And, he didn't have to want more, because it was in us. You know, that, we would want to be much more than maids or domestics. Not that we downed my mother for doing that, but that's all she could do with her limited education--which was fine, because she was a beautiful person.
Okay, the hurricane: I don't think we were well-informed. For instance, the Mayor: before the hurricane came, I was watching T.V. And people were calling in asking him, "What should we do?" People always look to a leader to lead them. Okay? Disciples follow! And the mayor's response was, "You don't need anybody to tell you what to do."
You are a leader, how can you tell your people that? You know, God is our leader, doesn't He tell us what to do? I thought that was awful of him, awful, awful. You left your people to fend for themselves. I was disappointed in Ray Nagin.
I was disappointed with President Bush. President Bush, I thought, was a man who followed God. I have that book from Wal-Mart United We Stand, and President Bush had plans in there, and I was very impressed. But when President Bush didn't help us immediately, I was so hurt and so disappointed. And I felt, "Did he do this because we're Black and poor?" I had held such high regards for him. I was very hurt, like I knew him personally, you know? Because during 9/11, when he told us to do something, set some memorial, you know what I did? I went in my front yard, because the President, our leader, asked us to do this, and I was obedient and compliant. I made a cross in my front yard with flowers to remember the firemen and the people in New York City. I was living in LaPlace, Louisiana, and the children knocked my stuff down. But I was being obedient because our leader asked us.
But if your leader don't lead you, what are you supposed to do? That's why the people acted like animals in New Orleans: we had no leader, so they did what animals do. You know? What do you do? I saw them looting. I bought hot cigarettes, because I smoke. It was so funny, I called them my little thievery friends. I said, "You looking out for me, and the President not, Ray Nagin not, the police not."
I made a "Help" sign, by my house, from the awnings of the house after the hurricane. H E L P. The hurricane had blew them, blown them off. And I made, you know, "Help." It was big enough for any plane to see, because it was white. And then I put glass on it, so that they would know. We were there, "I am here." And every time I heard a plane, I'd run out that house, I'd have this big white hat on. They knew we were there. Because, you know, from the neighbors I had heard that the National Guard was coming, but they never came. Nobody ever came to get us, to tell us anything, nothing. I was there by myself. It was frightening. The house was damaged. I was carrying around a hammer and a pair of scissors in my purse for protection. The neighbors told me, "Mary, you better stay inside, if you know what's good for you." I said, "Baby, I don't have to come out for nothing. When it's night I'm inside." When I come out in the morning, I'd say, "I'm up. I'm okay. I'm going down the street to buy me a pack of hot cigarettes." When I come back, I'd say, "I'm back." And I'd go inside.
It was hot. I was dehydrated. I was dying. I had food. I had some water, but my water did run out. And I had to drink the contaminated water from the tap. And then to cool my body, I wrapped towels to lay on, you know, my naked body, to cool myself, you know. My neck started wrinkling. I started getting, yeah, the gray collar. I was dying. I knew that. I knew that. And God had it so that -- had the house, the curtains closed so it would be dark to try to make it a little cool -- he had it so I couldn't see myself fully. Had I seen myself fully, I would not have been able to take it. I would have been scared, and probably stressed out. That anxiety would have taken over. You know, but I did, I made it through that! I made it. Six days. Monday the storm, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday. Five days. We left Saturday, we went to the ferry.
Mr. Payton, who's the man who lives in the back, in the B apartment, he and I left. 'Cause I told him, "Mr. Payton, my brother keeps calling." And my brother was giving me updates, and he kept telling me, "Mary, don't drink that water, don't drink that water." He says, "Boil it." I was boiling it, but it tasted worse when you boiled it. It was awful! God, it was awful. It was awful. And so, he said, "You have to get out of there, you have to get out. You have to get out." And so, I, we did. I said, "Mr. Payton, we have to go. You coming? Because I'm going." And, so, Mr. Payton say, "Yeah." And we walked to the ferry. And he had a duffle bag, and I had one of those cooler things with the handle. We only took the necessities.
Two policemen saw us, the stopped. Two female policemen stopped. They say, "Are y'all leaving?" And we said, "Yes." She said, "Good." She said, "Do you need anything?" I said, "Some cold water." And they gave us two bottles of the coldest water. I thank those two women, you know. I had seen several male police officers, and they never offered us anything. Nothing. Everytime I asked them, "What's going on?" "Oh, we got a call, we got to go." Who are these fools? You know? But, we got to the ferry. We must have stayed there about eight, nine, ten hours. A long, long time, that's all I know. It was a long.
A helicopter came. Army or Navy or Air Force or some kind. And it airlifted us. I thought we were going to the Louis Armstrong Airport, but I found out since I been here, we were airlifted to the Belle Chase Naval Airport. I didn't know where we were. I never knew where we were. 'Cause I kept saying, "This don't look like Louis Armstrong Airport. I don't remember it looking like this." I couldn't figure out where I was. And nobody ever told you where you were. It was so confusing! I saw this barbed wire on the fence. And the people, they had us moving from this line to that line. Then they'd say, "Move to the left, move to the right, move to the middle." It was crazy. It was chaotic. There were no restroom facilities. They gave us water, water only. Babies were out there, old people, it was awful out there.
I saw frightened people. I saw dying. I saw death. I saw death. I saw people drunk and scared, frightened to death. Do you hear me? Have you ever seen anybody frightened to death? Well, baby, I saw it on the faces. It was wrenching. Do you hear me? Oh, oh, and people knew they were dying. They knew it, and they wanted to get inside, to breathe, because it was so many people out there. It had to be more than a thousand, I know, or more. It was people, people, people. People were falling out and all kinds of stuff. But it was horrible. And, like, they didn't have any facilities to urinate, and stuff. And people had pooped on the floor, lights were out in the bathroom. I had to pee, I couldn't hold it no more. I had held my pee for like thirteen, fourteen hours, I had to pee. And I didn't want to pee outside like an animal. So, I asked one of these people dressed in a uniform, where was the nearest bathroom? And she pointed me to this one that was dark. And I went in there, and, oh, I stepped in poop. Oh, my feet. Oh, it was awful.
So we got in the airport finally, got some coolness. We still sit in there until about six o'clock that morning. Okay? And about six they told us we could get on, board the airplane. They still didn't tell us where we were going. So, we get on the airplane, big, beautiful airplane, big-old wide seats. I said, "My god, look at this. How nice!" And so we all settled down, sit down, people are breathing, now. Air is good, there, you know, relaxed a little bit. Because we're getting out the chaos. And, so, I asked one of the stewardesses. I say, I look at one of the books in the little pocket, it says, "Alaska." Alaska? And I asked the stewardess, I said, "Miss, are y'all taking us to Alaska?" And she says, "Why?" I said, "Because we don't have Alaska clothes!" She says, "Try 72-below zero." I said, "Oh, my god." And so, I, I didn't ask her anything else. I simply got quiet, and I prayed. And I said, "God, you have seen us thus far, and I know you will continue to take care of us. And I'm trusting you. Wherever you're taking us, I know it's going to be alright." And I went to sleep.
When I woke up, we were on the ground. I looked out the window, I saw four trees. And I said, "God, this is not Alaska." And I heard somebody say, "We're in Austin, Texas." And I just started laughing! I said, "Austin, Texas. We're in Texas?" I said, "God brought us to Texas? Why are we in Bush country?" And somebody said, "Oh, no, this is not Bush's country. Austin didn't carry Bush." I said, "Okay."
And we put our feet on the ground, and all these angels were there greeting us, and had water and snacks and love! Oh, love, and love, and love, and compassion, and oh, it was just wonderful! It was like angels were there to greet us and welcome us. "Welcome to Austin!" They were happy that we were here. They were treating us like human beings, treating us like human beings. You know, like, like we matter. Not like the people in New Orleans treated us, like we didn't matter, like nobody cared about us.
I want people to know that it's incumbent upon the leaders who have been put in place to communicate with the people so that people can make intelligent decisions about what they need to do for their families. It's wrong not to inform the people and keep them updated. That's your duty. We put you there for a reason, and you should live up to it. If you can't, get out. Give it up, if you can't do it, move on out the way, and let somebody who will be committed to the people do it. That includes Bush, Ray Nagin, and whoever else. That's what I want them to know.
And I want Mr. Bush to know I'm disappointed in him, 'cause I really did love him and respect him. But I did see this big old plane fly over my house, I don't know who it was. It was red, white, and blue, and it shone a spotlight on my house. I don't know who it was, but I appreciate it, because that somebody let me know they knew I was there. I don't know who it was, but I thank whoever that was.
I might find my new husband. That's what I hope to find. I want to do some graduate study. I want to do some volunteer work. I want to do a lot of things. Because I'm free. I don't have any baggage. I'm free to be me, and Austin embraces difference! I love it! I love it! I can sit in the rain, and nobody will call the police on me. [....]
I've met beautiful people in here. People are beautiful. People have solutions to their problems, leave them alone. Let them make their own decisions. Just inform them.