Voices Rising II: More Stories from the Katrina Narrative Projectby Rebeca Antoine
In Voices Rising II, the second compilation of stories from The Katrina Narrative Project, stories of loss, injustice and, at times, triumph are told by the people who endured Hurricane Katrina in 2005. As local and federal governments failed, citizens who lost homes, jobs and loved ones also lost hope. These are the stories of that loss but also of recovery and
In Voices Rising II, the second compilation of stories from The Katrina Narrative Project, stories of loss, injustice and, at times, triumph are told by the people who endured Hurricane Katrina in 2005. As local and federal governments failed, citizens who lost homes, jobs and loved ones also lost hope. These are the stories of that loss but also of recovery and new-found faith and determination.
The University of New Orleans reopened online in October, 2005, only two months after the storm devasted the city and the campus. Students, faculty and the entire university community combed the region and the nation collecting interviews and oral histories from people of all walks of life who were willing to speak about their experiences. These documents, transcripts and audio recordings are now archived at the University of New Orleans Library. This second volume from the collection gives further witness to one of America's greatest disasters, one that has irreparably changed the face of the nation.
- University of New Orleans Publishing
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Voices Rising IIMore Stories from The Katrina Narrative Project
UNO PressCopyright © 2007 Christopher Saucedo
All right reserved.
Chapter OneRefugees in the Land of Plenty
Holly Gee Interviewed by Anita Yesho
Holly Gee was one of many Bywater neighborhood residents who did not evacuate and used the Country Club, a gay bar on Louisa Street, as a community center.
So tell me— you've been in New Orleans how long?
This Mardi Gras it will be 20 years.
So you've been through a bunch of hurricanes before.
I've been through hurricanes before, but they've always veered away. You know, it didn't really hit us smack-dab-on before. And even though it seemed like a serious one this time, and we should really leave, and I was boarding up my windows the day before— it's easy for me to be in denial and hope for the best anyway. When Harold, my ex-husband, went out looking for gas, we couldn't find enough. We couldn't find enough gas to fill up the tank and leave, so we just looked at each other and said "Let's just stay." We both wanted to.
When was that?
It was August 28th, which was my birthday, the day before Katrina. So on my birthday I was boarding up windows. We just decided to stay, and I thought, "Oh, it will probably veer away like it always does, and it won't hit us smack-on with the eye." So there we were; it was storming away. He stayed with me.
What was it like during the storm?
It was very noisy. Very, very noisy. You could hear things banging against the side of the house, things flapping, and the wind was really loud. It was more exciting than scary, really. I don't worry about things that haven't happened that much— I try not to. So I was hoping for the best.
Were you in this house?
Yeah. This house has been here since the mid-to-late 1800s. It's been through many storms. It's solid. I mean, it's kind of raggedy— it's got holes in it, but it's basically solid, and I didn't think anything would happen to me.
We're about a block from the levee here....
Yeah, about a block from the river. So that night was just a noisy night, just a normal night. I cooked dinner, I drank wine, the TV was on, and we were watching the weather report. We went to bed listening to the storm, and then early, early in the morning it just kept going on. During the day, when it was still storming, it was kind of cool to look out the window and watch. Everything was boarded up, but there were little slivers between the plywood so we could look out at different places. At one point I opened the kitchen door; we stood there and watched, and the rain was kind of going uphill.
So the storm ends, the storm kind of petered out. It was Monday afternoon, still raining, but it was kind of sunny, and I think everyone who was here was antsy to get out and see what happened. Everyone wanted to get out and look around and see what happened. Finally, it let up enough, and we took a little walk and looked at my brother's house. There was standing water in the road over there [on Piety Street]. And it was "Oh, look at that house; it's completely fallen in." It was just interesting to see what kind of damage had happened, what kind of trees made it through, what kind of trees didn't. Pecan trees fared very poorly.
But the amazing thing about it— walking around— was that everyone who was out— it was like we'd gone through this enormous thing and we were all connected. From then on, everyone talked to everyone else. You wouldn't just pass by someone. For weeks and months afterwards, you talked to people. So we were hugging and talking, and there was a closeness with people afterwards that was really, really nice.
There was one little old man on the block, and me and Harold were here. And we didn't know what would happen. We had the radio on a little bit and people were talking about looting and things like that. So it was the typical fear— the fear of the unknown— that everyone felt. Those first couple of days you could see people walking around with guns hanging out of their pockets. Everyone who had a gun was walking around with a gun. That's just the way it was. Because there was no authority; it was just us, left to our own devices.
I noticed that right away all the corner stores had been broken into. Bars had been broken into. You know, people needed stuff. They needed food, they needed liquor, they needed cigarettes— that kind of stuff especially. Cigarette machines got broken into. I'm sure pharmacies got broken into. Nothing was really around me like that.
How do I explain ... it was ... I had plenty of food. I had water so I knew I would be okay. Suddenly there was no electricity or gas. No TV. No newspapers. No police. No fire. We were just on our own. It was just anarchy. And anarchy was very interesting. I didn't know what anarchy would be like, but for us, in this little corner of the world, our anarchy was people banding together and hanging out together for safety and just for community— sharing food, sharing information. Because all we had was each other, and that was the really beautiful thing about it. That's all we had; we had each other.
And then we were refugees in the land of plenty. The produce warehouse, A.J.'s, down the street half a block, rolled open their doors the day after Katrina and said "Spread the word throughout the neighborhood. Come get all the fruits and vegetables you want." They just gave everything away. People were going over there with shopping carts and hand carts, filling them up with cases of all kinds of fruits and vegetables. I had tomatoes. Luckily I took practical things like potatoes and onions and stuff that lasted a long time. But also we had avocados and mushrooms and wonderful fruit. We had all kinds of stuff. And then it was just the people [who] started gathering around. People called it "Gilligan's Island," and in a strange way it was.
There was a lot of stress involved in our lives because of the drudgery of living with no electricity, no running water. I heard some splashing in the pool next door the next day, so I walked over there, and there were some naked people swimming in the pool at the Country Club. I walked over, and they had cocktails by the side of the pool; and they were swimming, and they looked up at me and said "We're members!"
I just said "That's okay! I don't care— I don't think anything like that matters right now."
They had ice in their drinks, and I looked at them, and they said "Well, the bar is open. Somebody broke into the back of the bar, so you can walk right in the back of the house." So I said "Oh, okay," and I walked in there. I had a glass of orange juice, and I was thinking I'd better hurry up and drink this orange juice because it's going to go bad. And then all of a sudden there was this ice machine and full bar, so I thought "Well, I can make this into a screwdriver." And from then on it was just drinkin' and eatin'. It was partying; it was hanging out by the pool, chit-chatting with people, fixing food. That was our life. Everyone in the neighborhood hung out there. It became this community center. There must have been 75 or 100 people a day coming there and eating at the height of it. And I have pictures of that. But what happened was more and more people started coming around. People heard that the Country Club was open.
First of all, every morning you'd see people coming with buckets. They'd carry a couple buckets and they'd dip them into the pool and walk back home, so they could flush their toilets. So we all had the pool water for keeping our toilets flushed. We didn't need to use any of our bottled water for that sort of thing. We put chemicals in the pool every day and swam every day, so we didn't have to take a bath. So that was covered.
And we had not only all those fresh fruits and vegetables— there was another warehouse across the street [that was used by] a steamboat cruise line— I can't remember what it was called exactly— but they had a big walk-in cooler with milk and cheese and eggs and cream and bread— all kinds of stuff. And you could walk in another door, and it was a walk-in freezer that had big boxes of shrimp and steaks and chicken and ham. Just all this stuff, frozen solid. So we had all this food. That's why I say we were refugees in the land of plenty because we had all these people [eating] all around the pool.
All the people who were here, the survivors, the people who stayed— there were a lot of what I call the "gay caterers:" people who hung out at the Country Club before the storm. They had all the tables set up; they had tablecloths on the tables; they had chafing dishes out. We rounded up every neighbor's barbeque we could find with either briquettes or propane. And I had an outside kitchen set up behind my house, so I could just hand stuff over the fence.
My job became that I cooked breakfast every morning— a big pan of some kind of eggs with stuff in it; then I would fix coffee. I boiled water, and we had cream from the warehouse over there, so we had fresh cream and fresh coffee and breakfast and [other neighbors] cooked the rest of the day. After a couple of days of that, I thought, "I don't want to be a slave to just cooking, cooking, cooking all day, so I said "Forget it. I will wash the big pans and dishes." I did that because I was boiling water [anyway]. That was plenty to do because I did the breakfast thing, and that was it. But it was really nice.
One day I kind of choked up; I kind of teared up. Maybe it was day four or day five. I walked over there, and Kevin, the guy who was coordinating everything, had so many people— somebody peeling garlic, somebody peeling shrimp, somebody chopping onions. All these people were working together to create these big meals, and they would just cook and cook and cook. It was just wonderful because it was young, old, black, white, gay, straight. It was everybody— the dregs of the neighborhood that didn't leave. It was everybody together. There were children there. It was this really nice gathering of people.
So that was the whole first week. And it was very interesting. Strange things had happened during the week, but we were just on our own. We had this giant fire about on the third day when Dennis Sheen Transfer Company, over by the A.J.'s warehouse, caught on fire. I think they might have had fireworks stored in there because it was a sight to be seen as things went BOOM BOOM BOOM— the sky was just lit up. Like fireworks. And there were thousands of some kinds of tanks, like the propane tanks that are on barbeques, but I don't think they had propane in them. They had some other kind of gas. And those things started exploding, and it just went BOOM BOOM BOOM. It was the scariest thing.
Someone had knocked on the door at three in the morning and said, "Hurry, hurry! Get up! There's a giant fire down the street." So we got up, and there we were in the dark, trying to get dressed, and we ran outside, and sure enough there was this giant fire just burning away. Luckily the wind was blowing it towards the river. I thought "My God, now what? We survive the hurricane, and now the whole neighborhood is going to be burned down." We had no fire department to call. We had no people to help us.
So there we were watching this, just standing in the street in the middle of the night watching the fire burn for hours. And it just got louder and louder. At one point a giant BOOM went up in the sky. It was like a giant mushroom cloud of fire and light and the sky was lit up for what seemed like many seconds— many seconds of bright, bright light. Brighter than the middle of the day. And I ran for my life. It was like a movie, and I was running away from the fire as fast as I could. [Gestures running as if in a slow-motion movie scene].
I didn't know if Harold was alive or dead. He and another guy had gone closer to the fire, and they were crouching behind a dumpster watching the thing when the big boom happened. That was one of our many instances, too, of realizing how much information and a lack of information the world had about what was going on in New Orleans.
See, we didn't see any news. We didn't see television or read anything. We had no knowledge of how the rest of the world saw us. We could see how we were living, and that was plenty to deal with to get us through our daily lives. The only help I was doing was cleaning and cooking. Some people I knew, like my friends Richie and Emily, they had a canoe, and they took the canoe over to the wet across St. Claude Avenue, and every day they rescued people out of attic windows, pulled people out, rode them to land, went back and got more people. That's what their life was like that week. But my life was on dry land, taking care of myself, and helping the people around me.
We were watching that fire and someone went and got a transistor radio, and we were listening to it. It was a call-in show, and someone said "I live in the Marigny. I'm worried about that fire. I can see it over by the river. What's going on with that big fire?" And some official, I can't remember who it was, said "Oh, yes, we're aware of that fire. We're containing it right now."
They were not containing it! He said "That's an abandoned warehouse." That was not an abandoned warehouse! It was a full warehouse! The things that guy said we knew [were wrong]. That was typical. We knew people were not telling [us] what was really going on.
[The fire] died down, well, it didn't really die down. It kept burning for days and days and days. But luckily it never spread over to the other side. So that was good. But we had that to deal with. We had all these different things. We had helicopters, too, from about the second day. Helicopters. One after the other. Non-stop. Flying over us, flying over us. To the point where I was thinking, "They must be over here trying to look at the naked people by the pool." You know, because the first couple days, that's what it was. And then after more people in the neighborhood found out about it, then it was just more of a big family scene and there was no more naked swimming, but at first there was. So at first I just thought, "Oh, that's just George W. Bush flying over looking down at whatever."
We were just on our own and everything was fine. We had everything we needed. Lots of water. We realized that all the water tanks were full of water too, and we never got around to tapping them because we didn't run out of bottled water. The Country Club was just stocked to the rafters with everything they thought they needed for Southern Decadence weekend, which was coming up, which was going to be a big week of business for them— or so they thought. So they had cases of beer stacked up to the ceiling, cases of bottled water stacked up, so we had everything. Everything we needed. So that was that. That was week one. That was hurricane week.
And then came day eight.
Now, by the eighth day, even though I'd been swimming in the pool every day, my hair was getting really dirty, and I couldn't stand it anymore. I had to wash my hair. So what am I going to do? I don't want to contaminate the pool more, so I figure I'll just wet my hair then lean it over the side and shampoo it and then pour a bucket of water over my head, kind of rinse it out that way. That was my plan.
I put my bathing suit on and walked out the door with towel and bucket and shampoo, and here came, to my complete surprise, about eight military vehicles. Humvees and whatnot, driving up the street, all filled with soldiers. They all jumped out and positioned themselves all over the block. All over the sidewalk. Down by Markey's Bar on the corner. Everywhere. And they all had rifles. And I know ... well, they all pointed guns at me. Because they had the scopes on top, like a flashlight, and it was just almost dark and after they talked to me a few minutes I could see all the lights pointing at me in the dark. So I know the rifles were pointing at me too.
What happened was there was this little old black man walking down the street too, leaving the Country Club for the night, and they stopped me when I was close to him, and they told us both to drop what we had in our hands and put our hands up, and we stood there. They interrogated us for over ten minutes. They asked us all these questions, and I was just trying to explain what was going on, that we were just a bunch of neighbors hanging out, that we're the people who didn't leave. That some people didn't leave because they have animals and they weren't able to evacuate with them, and that for whatever reason people were still here.
Excerpted from Voices Rising II Copyright © 2007 by Christopher Saucedo. Excerpted by permission of UNO Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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