Columns » John Brummett

From Metairie to Chaffee: Gloria's story

by and

Gloria W. Steele, an 82-year-old retired second-grade teacher, didn't have cable television in the house at 4829 Ithaca Street in Metairie, La., where she'd lived for 35 years. She and Julie, her 4-year-old pug, never stayed up to watch the 10 p.m. news on the regular networks. So, Gloria didn't know the details delivered in special reports last Sunday night about mandatory evacuations and a bulls-eye on New Orleans. It probably wouldn't have mattered. "I didn't want to leave," she told me Saturday afternoon. Dressed only in the house dress and slippers she'd worn since Thursday morning, and with her white hair hanging straight to her shoulders, she found herself in a processing area at a place called Fort Chaffee. She was sitting next to a small plastic bag containing everything she had, and to her beloved Julie at the end of a leash. Yes, she had understood last Sunday night that a hurricane was forecast. But hurricanes had come before, and the house had stood up to them. She had a special roof. She took her little body, about five feet and maybe a hundred pounds, outside to retrieve six sandbags. She placed three against the back door and three against the front. Then she went to bed, alone, except for Julie. Her 13-year-old pug, Susie, died not too long ago. Sometimes she calls Julie Susie. Her Himalayan cat died several years ago. Her husband, a sportscaster who got fired by New Orleans' Channel 6, she said, died in 1991. Her son died in 1998 at 34. "I don't want to talk about it. It wasn't suicide." She was awakened about 7 a.m. Monday by rain, then the power went out. She thought that would be that. About 11 a.m., she noticed water seeping into her kitchen, then her bedroom. By 3 p.m., five inches of water filled her home. "Julie was having to tip-toe around,²" she said. "I said, 'Oh, Jesus, what do you want me to do?' I¹m an 82-year-old woman and I can't handle this." She and Julie sloshed, alone and hot and in the dark, for four days. She had no power, no communication, no neighbors. She didn't know the horrible things the world knew. "I was the only one left in the 4800 block of Ithaca Street," she said. She went out to check on her Olds 98. It wouldn't do a thing. On Wednesday, a neighbor came to check on his house and told her she had to get out. She said she wouldn't. She told him she had a little water and food, and that if she ran out, she could always eat Julie's canned food. "Old people don't like change," Gloria said, her voice rising. "I don't want to be here." A policeman knocked at her door Thursday morning. She threw on her nightgown, red-and-black socks and slippers. "I was more worried about gathering together Julie¹s things," she said. She spent the first night in a gym and the next in the squalor at the Superdome. She thought she was getting a ride out on a bus to San Antonio, but the crowd around the buses overwhelmed her and forced her back. On Saturday she found herself holding Julie on an Arkansas Air National Guard C-130. Her hips hurt from climbing the airplane steps. Now she awaited an open shower and a bunk bed in spartan, but air-conditioned, military barracks. Gloria told officials she had relatives in Kansas City, but was estranged from them. From the van transporting her to her new barrack home, Gloria smiled to me, waved and said "good luck to you."

Add a comment