It’s still hard to believe that in this modern world, so full of radar and up-to-the-second forecasts and technology so advanced that it can seem like magic at times, so many died when Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast in late August.
Even more incredible have been the stories of the survivors, some of whom have fought through the most desperate brand of hardship to try and reclaim their lives. In many ways, it’s the struggle to exist again, in this country where the things we have often serve as the outward face of who we are.
Though the hardships of the Gulf Coast evacuees might not be nightly news anymore, that doesn’t mean everything is back to normal. From a high of over 70,000 evacuees in the state in the days following the storm, the best estimate is that around 4,000 former residents of Mississippi and Louisiana are still in Arkansas. Mostly, the ones that remain were some of the hardest hit, the most desperate, those with nowhere else to go. In apartments and rent houses all over Arkansas, they’re still waiting — for FEMA assistance, for insurance payouts, for paperwork, for furniture vouchers, for word from family.
With Thanksgiving so close behind us and Christmas looming, we decided to catch up with a few of these long-term evacuees, to find out what brought them here, and why they’ve stayed. Their stories are enough to make even the least of us thankful.
A soul saved by stride piano.
In the tiny bedroom of the West Little Rock apartment he shares with his 91-year-old father, Luther Williams walks his long fingers up and down a second-hand keyboard, snatching a rollicking Fats Waller tune from the air. He might be the best piano player I’ve ever seen in person — one of the few remaining devotees to stride piano, the wonky, incredibly intricate hybrid of jazz and ragtime first popularized in the speakeasies of New York City just after the First World War.
When he’s done, he talks about the music in the brisk and animated tones of a man who has recently found Jesus. If he realizes the similarities between the scenario he lays out and his own, he doesn’t let on.
“Waller was talking about change,” he said. “They were changing, moving from the rural South to the urban North. You can imagine how frightening the prospect of living in New York was if you’ve lived your whole life in South Carolina. But you make the adjustment. You come into the new things that life has to offer.”
In the next room, Williams’ coffee table is covered with Hebrew texts, and his own careful research into numerical codes found in the Bible. To him, the piano is no less a spiritual instrument. Williams believes — really and truly believes — that stride piano can save your soul.
In recent months, since Katrina came and blew away the last of his love for New Orleans, Williams has surely gained new insight into the kind of profound change Fats Waller was talking about. A resident of the Gentilly neighborhood, Williams worked in the professional standards division of the New Orleans Police Department and played in the NOPD Band before Katrina. He says he has a doctorate and once taught mass communications. He and his father were able to evacuate New Orleans the day before the storm hit. Many of his friends and neighbors weren’t so lucky.
“We were blessed to have the resources to evacuate,” he said. “There were people who didn’t have those resources. They may have had the car, but not the gas. Maybe payday wasn’t recent and their account was low and they didn’t have the money to flee.”
Pretty much ending up where the wind blew them, Williams and his father landed at North Little Rock’s Hays Center. After that, they stayed at the Howard Johnson motel before finally settling into an apartment just off Chenal Parkway. Boxes still fill the corners a month and a half after they moved in.
Williams said that he had been set on leaving New Orleans long ago, but it took Katrina to finally “liberate” him from the city. “I never really cared for New Orleans,” Williams said. “I never really cared for the intellectual climate. … I was looking for a place that’s quieter, more natural. A place that will allow me to work undisturbed.”
Williams compares the aftermath of the storm — the looting and desperation shown to America on our television sets — to a white wall that was riddled with decay just under the paint. “Katrina exposed, it didn’t create,” Williams said. “All that it did was reveal the undercurrents that were already there. You can only play the game for so long about who you are. The city officials emphasized the city as a place where you can have a good time, but the souls of the people who lived there, they were dying.”
That, for one, is a reason why Luther Williams won’t be going back to the place he has called home for the majority of his life. Though his house was one of the only structures in his neighborhood to be spared from flooding, three trips to New Orleans since Katrina have only made him more sure that Arkansas is his home now.
“I don’t like to go. I really detest it, but I have to go,” Williams said. “I detest the experience. In that neighborhood, all you see are massive amounts of furniture on the sidewalks, waiting to be picked up.” He’s planning on renting out the house for the time being.
The storm showed many residents of New Orleans what they lacked, he said, and he’s better off with what he lacks in Arkansas. The people here are kinder, more sincere, with none of the “fake finery” of that town, he said.
He won’t let himself believe that the destruction caused by the hurricane was for nothing.
“Though Katrina would seem to be a destabilizing influence,” he said, “it allowed many people who have faith in God to come into their destiny. It’s going to be a catalyst for fulfilling their divine purpose.”
For him, that means working to perfect his piano playing, with the long-term goal of making a living giving concerts and cultural presentations about the history of the form in schools, museums, concert halls and retirement homes. He hopes that will mean getting his father “squared away with the care he needs.”
He believes stride piano can help rebuild people’s lives, the way he’s rebuilding his own here in Arkansas.
“The world is in an awful state,” Williams said. “It’s not the poverty of social structures, it’s the poverty of the people — the poverty of the soul. It’s the fact that people are desperate and longing and unfulfilled. That’s the problem … We’ve lost touch with who we are, and we’ve lost touch with each other. What’s important is this legacy of beauty and strength … stride piano can give people that.”
Claire and Warren Haun
From paradise to a rent house many miles from home
When she talks about the destruction of her dream home, four doors off the beach in Waveland, Miss., Claire Haun has a thing she does with her hands. She makes a scooping motion, like a man taking up a drink of water. Then she lays her palms flat together and rubs them hard enough to make a noise in the still living room of the rented house she shares with her husband and mother in North Little Rock. At 57, her hands are still smooth and fine-boned. But in that moment, they become the paws of a giant, gathering together all the pieces of her life and scrubbing them into oblivion.
Having evacuated from Waveland at least twice before, the Hauns never expected how much their lives could change overnight. Claire’s husband, Warren, is a retired engineer and she is a retired nurse; they were comfortably upper middle class. She was active in the arts scene in Waveland and neighboring Bay St. Louis. She wrote the grant to help renovate the community theater, and then held an auction of works by local artists to raise the matching funds. Living on the coast was paradise, Claire said. She once told a friend that it would take an act of God to make her leave. “I’ll tell you,” she said. “I even mopped my kitchen floor before I left. That’s how sure I was that I was coming home.”
Instead, the Hauns returned to a nightmare. Like most of the houses in Waveland, their home, completed just 32 months before — with an attached cottage custom built to allow Claire’s 94-year-old mother, Martha Koon, to live independently — was a total loss, tossed by the ocean’s giant hands into the trees. She has photographs: Warren’s collection of restored antique cars, flattened under toppled pines; a Kenmore dishwasher ripped out and carried 350 yards by the storm. Inside the dishwasher, miraculously unbroken, her mother’s antebellum cut glass punchbowl, put there for safekeeping. The rest of her possessions are unrecognizable as ever having been something someone would want.
As they had before, they evacuated to Tunica, Miss., the day before the storm with only three changes of clothes and a few plastic totes full of photographs. When it was clear that Waveland had been wiped out, they went to Memphis, then to Little Rock, where Warren was born. (Claire’s people are from Arkansas too. In one of those real-world twists that would never be believed in a novel, I soon found that Claire and her mother are related to me through the Sheridan branch of the Koon family, possibly as close as second cousins). Three days after the storm, they had rented a house on a quiet street in North Little Rock’s Park Hill neighborhood, picked because of the porch swing.
Though they’re mostly settled in now, the experience has been jarring.
“Imagine that when you left your house this morning, that’s the last time you’ll ever go back,” she said. “Then, in three days, you’re in a different state, in a different house. That’s essentially what happened to us.” She described it to someone, she said, as being in one play, and suddenly being snatched up and dropped into the middle of another. “You don’t know your lines, any of the characters, any of the plot. Sometimes it takes a little while to get your arms around it.”
It was important, the Hauns said, to create a sense of normalcy as soon as possible. In Waveland, 95 percent destroyed by the hurricane, tent cities have sprung up, with people camping on the slabs of their houses. When the truckloads of relief supplies arrive, the people seem to emerge from the rubble and scurry over the piles of debris, Claire said, scooping up food in their arms. Pictures don’t do it justice, she said. The trips the Hauns have made to the site of their former home have been an “assault on the senses.” Even if she could have stood it, she said, she couldn’t make her mother live that way.
“We have friends that are in tents,” she said. “And every day, they stand in line at the soup kitchen. They try to figure out how to get their clothes washed. They’re waiting for power poles, for clean water, for FEMA trailers, for sewage. It’s like living in a war zone.” She admits that it makes her guilty that she’s here, when so many of their friends are left behind.
As we talk, the phone rings. It’s an insurance agent 400 miles away, asking if the debris has been cleared off a truck on their property so the scrap man can tow it away, as if they had any way of knowing that. They had homeowner’s insurance, storm insurance, and flood insurance. After the insurance company gets through denying their claims, the Hauns said, they might get a quarter of the $750,000 appraised value of the house and its contents — enough to pay off the mortgage, but not much else. The red tape has come at them in a thicket. Every form they fill out seems to require some bit of information that was lost in the storm.
“We had to sit and list every item that was in our house,” Claire said. “It’s horribly depressing. When you think about losing a house, it’s one entity. But when you pick it apart, you say, ‘Oh, I lost that bracelet. And, oh, I lost that scarf, or that favorite purse of mine. It makes it more personal. That’s very traumatic.”
They are living on gifts from friends and family, and Warren’s pension. The Red Cross bought their winter coats. FEMA is paying the rent and utilities, for now. The living stipend they had been receiving from State Farm was cut off after the company decided that “flood” had hit the house before “wind and storm.” After three months, they’re still waiting for a final decision on how much they’ll receive from their wind and storm coverage. If that’s denied, they’ll be left with their government-sponsored flood insurance.
While they’re not expecting much, Warren Haun said that he considers them fortunate compared to some. Just up the street, a friend’s half-million dollar house on the beach was flattened. “They had enough flood insurance to pay off about half of it — to pay off the mortgage, and that’s about it,” said Warren. “He’s 72 or 73 years old, and he’s working. He has to.”
It’s a choice that Claire may be forced to make soon, to quit her retirement to go back to work as a nurse. Depending on how much their insurance payout will be, she said they’ll either rent for the rest of their lives, or buy a more modest house somewhere in Little Rock or North Little Rock.
For now, however, they’re living in a constant state of waiting and hoping. Every time they go back to Waveland, they seem to find some treasured memento of their former lives — left, Claire said with a chuckle, by the “Hurricane Fairies” that live in the woods — an heirloom quilt spotted with mold, a silver necklace machined by her father during World War II, her mother’s grade school spelling medals. Little things help, they said. So does the kindness of the people they’ve met in Arkansas.
“The people here have just been wonderful,” Warren said. “They’ve just gone overboard to help.” After word got around their new neighborhood that they were Katrina evacuees, a neighbor came over and gave them a $300 gift card to Wal-Mart. It made them all cry. “This lady had never seen us before,” Warren said, “and she gave us $300.” As the drawers and cupboards of their house fill back up with the stuff that makes life possible, they’re becoming whole again.
Adam Rosenblum and Christina Latendresse
Storm sparked their imagination.
Throughout Adam Rosenblum’s tale of weathering Katrina in a New Orleans high-rise, finally making it out of the city, and coming to Arkansas to stay, he often interjects, “It was interesting.”
It might be a verbal tic, something he’s using to get his mind around the magnitude of what he saw. It’s surely the understatement of the decade. His description of the city as seen from the top floor of the Marriott Hotel on Canal Street the day after the flooding is enough to send a chill up your back: a broad lake with the sun shining off it, the water full of rooftops for as far as the eye could see.
When the storm hit, Rosenblum, a Maryland native, had been in New Orleans just a year. Rosenblum is engaged to be married to Christina Latendresse, a manager-in-training with the Marriott Hotel chain, and he worked as a sous chef at Herbsaint, one of the city’s top restaurants. Both graduates of the Culinary Institute of America, they met at school in New York.
“We were going to have our wedding in September,” Latendresse said. “And they said, that’s right in the middle of hurricane season, so you might want to rethink the date, so we did.” With a guest list of 150 ready and most of the arrangements made, they set Nov. 20 as the date. (Now, their wedding is tentatively scheduled for May.)
As hurricane warnings were issued, Rosenblum and Latendresse boarded up their house in Terrytown, across the river from New Orleans, and went to a room in the Marriott to wait out Katrina.
“We watched the storm come in at three in the morning,” Rosenblum said. “It was actually pushing the windows in and out a good inch and a half.”
In the year they had been in New Orleans, Rosenblum said they’d had two serious hurricane scares, but both storms veered off and spared the city at the last moment. “We keep having these scares, they keep telling us it’s going to be a huge hurricane and to get out. I think this time, people said, Enough is enough, I don’t want to leave.’ ”
Even before the levees broke the next day, the wrongness of that kind of thinking was clear. The palm trees along Canal Street were snapped off. Office tower windows were shattered. The street was covered with glass, and telephones were ripped from office buildings. Then came the looting.
The police “were letting people break into stores,” he said. “They didn’t want to be the bad guys. It’s understandable.”
Though their house was mostly spared, with only a tree on the roof and no interior damage, it was the looting he saw that made Rosenblum decide he wouldn’t be returning to New Orleans. “I saw how people reacted to it,” he said. “It pretty much turned me off to the city. The first chance they got, people just broke into stores. It wasn’t like they were getting the necessities — food and water. They were getting whatever they could get their hands on.”
“It really showed that there were a lot of people in New Orleans who were really needy,” Latendresse said. “Someone who will go and loot is needy for something.”
The day after the storm, Rosenblum and Latendresse loaded up a car and came to Maumelle, where her brother’s family has lived for seven years. In the weeks since they’ve been here, Rosenblum has been working at his brother-in-law’s mortgage company and for a local caterer. At night, he works on the business plan for his dream: a 3,000-square-foot restaurant he’ll name Imagine.
“There were a couple options open,” Rosenblum said. “But once my brother-in-law started talking about the commercial opportunities here and I saw a site I wanted, that’s pretty much when we decided we were staying.”
He’s already cut a deal with real estate developer Lou Schickel for space in a new development at Cantrell and Interstate 430 and hopes to open the restaurant next October. It will be a fine dining/casual atmosphere place, with a mixture of American, French and Italian cuisine. He’s talking to local farmers and co-ops so he can use locally grown ingredients.
Thanks to an offer she couldn’t refuse, Latendresse is back in New Orleans, working at the Marriott for at least the next six months. Rosenblum worries about her. A few days before Katrina hit, a close friend of theirs was murdered in the city. With the storm and flooding, he said it looks like the crime may never be solved.
Latendresse works near the French Quarter, which was spared most of the flooding and where the city almost appears normal. A trip just a few blocks away, however, shows how far New Orleans has to go. “Five blocks down the street, it’s just dead,” she said. “A lot of the things the people love about New Orleans as far as the tourists’ perspective are back up and running, but it’s people’s homes and people’s lives that were really changed by this.”
Latendresse sees the storm as a disaster, but one that got her and Rosenblum moving in a new direction. “We wouldn’t have thought of going for the restaurant had the storm not happened,” she said. “This is something we chose to do because of the hurricane, so out of great tragedy can come some insight.”
In the meantime, both Rosenblum and Latendresse are learning to love Arkansas — he firsthand, she in the short visits she’s able to make. They’re looking for a house in the Maumelle area. “It’s a beautiful city,” Latendresse said. “All the demographics fit for the kind of restaurant we want. My family’s here, so why not stay?”
“I didn’t lose anything that can’t be replaced,” Rosenblum said. “We got out safely. Everything after that was bonus.”