November 28, 2017

From Charlie McNeely, Outreach and Community Engagement Coordinator, Trauma Informed Oregon

As a part of our focus on trauma informed care and resiliency for the November/December newsletter Charlie has shared her experience of Hurricane Katrina while attending college at Xavier University in New Orleans, Louisiana.

I moved to New Orleans to attend Xavier College in July 2005. My aunt accompanied me to help me settle into college and it didn’t take long for us to experience the southern kindness folks talk about—from two ladies offering us lemonade and shelter during a rainstorm to carpools to stores to stock up on supplies. Acts of kindness were all I saw during the traumatic Hurricane that hit New Orleans in August of 2005. For me, the trauma of the hurricane was more so felt during the aftermath. It was the not knowing who survived, where folks were, if I was going back to school or if I was now homeless. I wondered about the things I could not replace such as photos and valuable items passed down from my grandmother. All of these questions haunted me for months. However, despite all of that, I still feel like one of the lucky ones and experienced the most ideal recovery process in comparison to the horrifying stories I know that folks had to live through.

Just to clarify, for those that said (or heard), “you all knew the hurricane was coming you should have left,” we had been receiving hurricane warnings/threats since July, none of which hit land. Some of my peers were purchasing very expensive flights home for each of these threats. When we received word that it was going to be a category 5 hurricane, we had less than 24 hours to prepare our exit. Also, most of our safety evacuations involved going to neighboring counties and states who at the very last minute received notice that Katrina would be paying them a visit as well. The entire south was feeling a VERY REAL sense of helplessness and desperation. I have family in Texas and Alabama, my initial plans was to fly there to wait out the hurricane. At the very last minute, I decided to change my ticket and to fly home to Oregon. Not knowing that I wouldn’t be allowed back into my dorm room until January, I packed comfortably, four sweat suit outfits, one pair of tennis shoes, and my homework that would have been due the next week.

Southern Hospitality

A friend I’ve known since grade school in Portland was also attending Xavier. She already made plans to wait out the hurricane in Oregon. Luckily, she and I were able to receive a ride from her roommate’s aunt, who lived in the next city, Baton Rouge. The plan was to stay at her house and receive a ride to the airport that next morning. We had been told by authorities, numerous times, that the neighborhood was safe from the hurricane.

Once we finished our light packing, we piled up in a compact car and started heading towards Baton Rouge. Unfortunately, because of the rising waters, the police rerouted traffic out of the state and we had to travel into Mississippi and go back into Louisiana through a major northern highway. All of this took about eight to ten hours. Once we arrived at her home, we found a notice on her front door that her area was being evacuated as well. My heart sank. This woman who didn’t even know me took on the responsibility of ensuring that my friends and I arrived safely to our destinations and now she had the added stress of finding safe shelter for her family. In the end, we all survived, we are grateful and bonded forever from this experience.

The TEA* the Media did not Spill

Throughout all the tragedies and horrific stories I have heard over the years from folks that were directly impacted by this event, I’ve also heard stories similar to my own. Those who lived through it will tell you how folks came together and helped each other and that the real spirit of Louisiana did not fold, bend, or break. My university opened the doors for everyone in that area and cooked five days worth of food for everyone that was being sheltered there. Folks were opening up their personal businesses and homes to strangers that had nowhere to go. People came together in solidarity during that hurricane, to pray, fellowship, sing, and help the most vulnerable which were the elderly that needed medications and the children that needed clothing. I felt more community during this time of despair than I have ever felt in life.

How can someone who does not know me, when her family and livelihood were all at risk, make it a priority to ensure that two scared and naive Oregon girls arrived at their destinations safely? Now that is the spirit of The South. But this isn’t only my story, there are thousands more like mine. The media often portrayed black people as looters and thieves instead of focusing on the hospitality and spirit that continued after the hurricane such as civilians rescuing folks with city and school buses or those that went from door to door helping get the molded items out of folks’ homes so that their health wouldn’t be further compromised. Food trucks arrived at front doors with rice, beans, and water. People who had cell phones were going around allowing folks to call and check on their loved ones. Restaurants were cutting their prices in half. There were mission trips put together to help rebuild their homes. Civilians did more rescuing and recovery work before the authorities arrived and even after their arrival.

As you can see, our experiences greatly differed from how the media portrayed this tragic occurrence by lacking to represent the true compassion, resilience, and soul of Louisiana and The South. Throughout Hurricane Katrina, from the evacuation process to finding out that we would go back to the devastation we still kept our spirits because we did go back to something.

Katrina “Tried It”

In January 2006, we received notice that we could come back to get any items that were safe and not destroyed from the hurricane. A caseworker that I had from age 11 to 18, reached out to a friend that she knew lived in Louisiana and told her my story. My caseworker told me that her friend’s neighborhood received heavy rain but not much damage beyond that. The next day, I received a call from her friend saying that if I wanted to come to Louisiana to salvage my belongings that she could put me up in a hotel that was open and nearest to the university that I attended. She flew me out, picked me up from the airport, took me to the school to get my most important items, which were my photo albums and jewelry passed down to me from my grandma, fed me, and gave me money for a cab to the airport for my departure the next day. I am grateful that I had the opportunity and was given the resources and support to retrieve my most sentimental and priceless possessions (because most people did not). Yet, to feel the essence and heart of Louisiana when I went back was the greatest feeling of all. Louisiana didn’t skip a beat. Katrina came in full force and with all of her might, destroying everything in her path, tried to break the soul of the people there and failed. It was as if the trauma and loss we all endured made folks unite in strength and numbers. We got through that time by reminding ourselves that we were all in this together—our determination to prevail and rebuild what Katrina had taken from us. I refer to that time as a beautiful struggle.

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*To “spill the tea” is a southern phrase that means to share gossip.