When the monster hurricane ravaged New Orleans, its older residents were hit hardest. Two years later, they are still fighting despair and searching for hope.
Originally published in AARP The Magazine.
SHORTLY BEFORE HURRICANE KATRINA tore its terrible path through the Gulf Coast, Shirley Thomas purchased a blue-green duplex where she planned to spend the rest of her life. The property, in New Orleans’ Seventh Ward, needed a lot of work. But there was a guest cottage in the back where the 68-year-old retired contractor planned to live while she did the repairs. The property was, she says, “in the heart of Gangsterville.” Drug dealers had taken over the front porch. They rolled dice and drank while waiting for their customers. That didn’t bother Shirley, an evangelical Christian who was used to doing outreach with some tough characters. She’d just chase the men off the porch, insist they pick up their beer cans—and then talk to them about cleaning up their lives. To her, this new home and her circumstances were all part of a divine plan. “Okay, Lord, I don’t have to wonder which corner I’m going to do my ministry on,” she prayed. “This is my ministry right here.”
Two miles away, Maurice Frisella was enjoying a quiet and genteel retirement in his meticulously kept Victorian home. The house was filled with antiques, including his collection of Blue Willow dinnerware and many original paintings of ships. Frisella, 83, had devoted most of his life to serving the parish church in his St. Roch neighborhood. “I was the oldest altar boy in captivity,” he says. “I washed the bishop’s hands, brought him the wine, put the sacred vessels on the altar, lit the candles.” After the church was closed, he and his friend Frederick “Buzz” Burkhardt, 80, whom he calls his adopted brother, developed comfortable rituals of their own. “We were just like two old monks,” Maurice says. “We’d get up; we’d have our coffee with chicory, real cream, and sugar. We’d put on the television and watch our beautiful, our wonderful, Martha Stewart. Then we’d have a little glass of wine. Four o’clock, we’d have our lime cocktail. You talk about something delicious.”
In another New Orleans neighborhood, Althea Washington was getting used to the new circumstances of her life. She and her husband, Bertrand, had raised three children in Pontchartrain Park, with its neat brick houses and tree-lined streets. Bertrand, a retired assistant principal, loved Mardi Gras. “He rode on the floats,” recalls 75-year-old Althea, a retired teacher. “Sometimes I just sat there waiting to see him on the television, so I could record it to send it to my daughter.” In January 2005 Bertrand suffered a severe stroke. Althea shuttled him from one caregiver to another until finally she had to admit him to a suburban nursing home.
Some 60 miles away, outside the rural town of Empire, Louisiana, Neang Pum spent her days harvesting shrimp. Neang and her boyfriend, Savong In, had fled Cambodia and its genocidal Khmer Rouge regime in the ’70s and built a new life in America. They would take their blue-and-white boat into the Gulf of Mexico for days at a time. He would steer by moonlight. She would haul in the nets, then sort the shrimp by weight. When the sun came up, the couple, both in their 60s, covered themselves with mosquito netting and slept away the heat of the day. “During May and June my face was so dark because of the sun,” she says. “But I liked that. I tried to work hard so I could have money to be comfortable.” At the trailer park where they lived, neighbors would cook Southeast Asian meals for one another: roast pork with bread, duck soup with rice—anything but seafood.
None of these Louisianans could have ever imagined how quickly and thoroughly their lives would be changed by Katrina, that apocalyptic force of wind, water, and fire that killed 1,800 people and ravaged 90,000 square miles of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. While the Mississippi coast experienced a modest exodus of its population, New Orleans and nearby St. Bernard Parish went from 511,000 people before the hurricane to a population of only 216,000 today, according to state and federal estimates.
Most of these statistics have been documented elsewhere, but what hasn’t been talked about is the fact that the most traumatized victims are the area’s older residents. In Louisiana, 78 percent of those who died in the hurricane were 51 or older, according to the state’s Department of Health and Hospitals. What’s more, many of the survivors 65 and older have not returned home—only 40 percent, compared with 48 percent of younger adults.
Those who have returned must now contend with another kind of hell: closed hospitals, lost friends, and inadequate insurance payments that don’t even come close to covering the cost of reconstruction. Two years later, many of these older residents are still living in limbo, still wondering how they’re going to rebuild, or even if they’re going to try. For them, the nightmare caused by Katrina is still very much in the present.
Listen to “Voices of Katrina,” a Prime Time Radio documentary narrated by Barry Yeoman.
TODAY IN NEW ORLEANS, ENTIRE NEIGHBORHOODS still lie in ruin. Housing, particularly senior housing, is in short supply. Rents are sky-high. Many supermarkets and pharmacies remain closed, and public transportation is unreliable. Reconstruction funds are slow in coming. Take, for example, the Road Home program, created to provide Louisianans with grants up to $150,000 to cover insurance gaps following hurricanes Katrina and Rita. As of June 2007 the program had disbursed funds to only 29,000 homeowners of the 147,000 who applied. “This is not a place to live right now,” says Karen DeSalvo, M.D., chief of general internal medicine and geriatrics at Tulane University School of Medicine. “Every day is a struggle.”
Even before Katrina, New Orleans had a dysfunctional medical system that relied heavily on hospital emergency rooms for routine care. Today four of the area’s 15 hospitals are still closed, and many local physicians have not come back. Geriatric care is especially scarce, says DeSalvo. Under these circumstances some community leaders have warned those with chronic medical conditions not to return. “We tell our people: if you’re in a place where you’re safe, even though you want to come back, you need to stay there for a while,” says Sister Anthony Barczykowski, executive director of community services for the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
Althea Washington, the retired teacher, discovered that firsthand. Just before Katrina hit land, she fretted over whether to evacuate. She’d been through hurricanes before, and she was especially reluctant to leave her oxygen-dependent husband behind at the nursing home. But the facility assured her that he would be okay, so she joined her younger son’s family, who were making their way west, away from the storm, to safer ground. She planned to go right back and check on Bertrand as soon as the hurricane passed. “Well, things didn’t work out like that,” she says. “The water came. The communications broke down. Things got more serious. Things got tragic.” When Althea finally did make contact with the nursing home, she learned that Bertrand had died.
Several days later Althea ended up in Houston. It was there she heard about Sun East, a senior apartment complex in nearby Jacinto City that was taking in evacuees. With assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), she rented an apartment there. Later she sent her son to check on the family home. “He told me that I didn’t want to see it,” she says. The floodwaters had climbed nine feet, the roof had a hole, the interior was covered with mold. The family’s possessions were destroyed. Everything was gone.
Then came more crushing news: Althea’s insurance wouldn’t cover any of the damage. In January 2006 she received a letter explaining that the homeowner’s policy, purchased by her husband, excluded losses caused by “the peril of windstorm during a hurricane.” So she remains in Jacinto City, trying to cope with the devastation, disappointment, and dislocation that Katrina heaped on her and her family. In New Orleans Althea sang in her church choir. But now “I sing from the pews,” she says. Joining a new choir would “cause me to admit that there are things that I cannot go back to, that I’ll never be able to go back to. Some of my choir members are gone. I will not see them again because they are in other parts of the country. We’ll never be together as we once were.”
PHYSICALLY AND EMOTIONALLY, KATRINA CONTINUES to take a heavy toll on survivors. Many still live with relatives or in cramped FEMA trailers in half-deserted neighborhoods. Their own houses are uninhabitable; their savings are gone; their friends and relatives have scattered. Depression and stress disorders are common. “As time goes on, mental health needs just continue to escalate,” says Sister Anthony. “People get more and more discouraged. Mental health treatment is a top priority, but it’s nonexistent right now.”
Before Katrina, Anthony Haas, 71, a retired maintenance engineer, and his wife, Ruth, also 71, lived in a 1920s-era home in New Orleans’ Lakeview neighborhood. “We had put every penny, every bit of our energy, into making this our perfect house,” says Ruth, a retired accountant. As Katrina was approaching, the couple took shelter with Ruth’s sister. After the storm passed, Anthony started walking the two miles back to their home to rescue their cat. When he got near the house, he saw that the water was rising and he turned back. He called Ruth on his cell phone and told her that he couldn’t get back that night and would stay on a highway overpass and return the next morning. Then his cell phone gave out, he got stuck, and the former Marine was evacuated to Thibodaux, Louisiana. Finally, after ten days, he ended up with relatives in Abbeville, 160 miles from New Orleans, where Ruth went to meet him. They never did find out what happened to the cat.
Anthony still hasn’t gotten over the displacement or the hardship caused by living in a FEMA trailer since November 2005. His blood pressure is up; he had to get a heart pacemaker. He suffers from bouts of short-term memory loss, and he’s depressed. He quit exercising and even abandoned his favorite hobby of sketching portraits. “I can’t even pick up a pencil,” he says. “I guess I’m just destroyed. I’m 71, and I have to start all over. We’re fighters, but I can’t fight this.” (The couple haven’t quit the fight, however: at last check they were planning to move back into their house in late summer.)
One hidden casualty of Katrina has been self-sufficiency. “Before the storm, people were independent and on their own,” says Barry Dixon, director of the Area Agency on Aging in Gulfport, Mississippi. “Now, they need someone to take care of them. They suffered psychologically and physically, and after the storm they became more frail.” Even those whose houses are still intact find it almost impossible to get the help they need to remain at home because of a shortage of home health-care aides. This has caused an unprecedented migration to institutional care. In Louisiana alone, 1,300 people had to be moved into nursing homes after Katrina, according to a Department of Health and Hospitals survey.
Maurice Frisella, the retired altar boy, weathered the storm with his friend Buzz Burkhardt in their Victorian home. Without electricity or water, they sat overnight, burning candles and “listening to the screaming wind,” Maurice says. Their bathroom collapsed, but the house never flooded.
For a few days they subsisted on peanut butter, crackers, and candy. Finally, Maurice stepped outside, into water that rose to his knees. “It looked like Venice,” he says—or, more accurately,Venice stripped of its inhabitants. Tree limbs and furniture floated by; Maurice stopped to catch his breath in a floating wingchair. “Buzz, we got to get out of here,” he announced upon his return. “We’re running out of food. We have no one around here with us.”
Wading to an elevated median, the two men were picked up by a National Guard truck, given blue paper suits, and airlifted to a nursing home in Gonzales, Louisiana, near Baton Rouge. For a duo accustomed to sipping Port wine in a hundred-year-old home, it was a disorienting turn of events. “I didn’t know what a nursing home was,” Maurice says. Buzz, once husky, pronounced the food unpalatable and stopped eating; he dropped to 117 pounds. Maurice experienced medical problems of his own. “We were lost,” Maurice says. “We didn’t know where we were. We didn’t understand anything. It was all so strange.”
They weren’t alone. According to Jean Cefalu, a nurse who worked at their Gonzales nursing home, 40 evacuees arrived all at once. This left the facility short-staffed. “Many Jane and John Does came from New Orleans nursing homes without any identification,” she testified last year before the Senate Aging Committee. “Many of these residents were acutely ill… Many were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder… Many of them are helpless and have no resources or finances to rebuild their homes.”
For Maurice and Buzz, rebuilding wasn’t an option. Like many New Orleans houses without mortgages, theirs was uninsured. Sitting abandoned, it was ransacked by looters. In April 2006 Maurice and Buzz were transferred to Chateau de Notre Dame, a Catholic nursing home in New Orleans. Maurice much prefers the new facility. And Buzz has gained back 30 pounds. Still, their days are a hollow routine, punctuated only by the occasional medical appointment. “We just sit in here and listen to television,” Maurice says. “Television and that’s all.”
AT SOME POINT, EVERYONE WHO ENDURED Katrina has had to deal with the federal government. During the first year after the storm, FEMA paid out more than $6 billion to 950,000 people in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. It provided 100,000 trailers for temporary use in front yards and trailer parks. The Small Business Administration (SBA) lent $7 billion to rebuild homes and businesses and replace personal property after hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
But for many older residents, dealing with the federal bureaucracy has become one of the most grueling aspects of trying to rebuild. “The brick walls we hit with FEMA created many sleepless nights for me,” says Marilyn Tyler, former manager of Sun East, where Althea Washington now lives. “I had FEMA cut off [funds from] a 99-year-old man. What the heck is he going to do?” Others feel similar frustrations. “FEMA’s whole attitude is just to deny benefits at this point,” says Kim Seamster Duffy, an attorney with the Mississippi Center for Justice. FEMA spokesperson James McIntyre says his agency follows federal law to the letter when determining who gets, and doesn’t get, benefits.
Neang Pum, the Cambodian-born shrimper, also found the federal safety net as porous as a shrimp net. She and Savong returned home after the hurricane to find their trailer flattened. None of the contents were salvageable. They located their boat under a bridge. It was badly damaged, “like a fish with just the bone. I wanted to die,” she says.
Neang applied to the SBA for a disaster loan to rebuild her craft. The request was denied—as were 55 percent of all the applications the SBA received after Katrina and Rita. According to Nguyen Dinh Thang, director of the relief organization Boat People SOS, many of Neang’s neighbors—older commercial fishers from Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos—were likewise unable to secure federal loans. “They don’t have credit histories, and that’s why many of them were turned down by the SBA,” he says. “Many don’t speak the language, and the application is complicated. They have no idea about applying for a loan. And they don’t know how to appeal unfavorable decisions.” Carol Chastang, an SBA spokesperson, says the SBA lends money only to borrowers who can provide proof that they can repay the loan.
Neang slept in her car for two weeks after the storm. She grew ill during that time, even fainting once while waiting at the local FEMA office. Eventually FEMA gave her $21,000 for her personal property. She also was assigned to a unit in the FEMA Diamond trailer park in Port Sulphur, Louisiana. Neang and Savong put the FEMA money directly into fixing up the boat. They installed two new engines. For them, there was never much doubt they’d resume shrimping. “I am old,” she says. “I don’t know if I could work for anyone. He’s old, too. We’re rebuilding the boat so we can make a living and retire later.” But the $21,000 didn’t even begin to cover all the needed repairs for the craft, which still lacks radar and other navigation equipment. There’s no heat or air conditioning, no cooking stove. They haven’t been able to replace the CB radio. Neang and Savong still use the boat to shrimp, though only for short trips. “We go like the blind,” she says. Albert Gaude, a fisheries agent with the Louisiana State University Agricultural Center, says it’s possible to shrimp without electronics, but “it’s more dangerous and less efficient.”
Neang remains hopeful. She weathered a four-year exile in the Cambodian countryside under the Khmer Rouge, followed by a stint in a Thai refugee camp. If Diamond closes down, she’ll live on her boat. In time, she believes, she’ll be able to scrape together enough money to resume shrimping at full throttle. “If I am alive,” she says, “that boat will return to the sea.”
HOW WELL ANY INDIVIDUAL DID after Katrina depended on a random set of circumstances: How far did they live from the Gulf of Mexico or a ruptured levee? Was their house elevated? Were they able-bodied or frail? Did they heed the warnings to evacuate? Did they have pets that needed rescue? Were they insured? What house of worship did they attend? Did they have financial resources?
One of post-Katrina’s most celebrated models of recovery is the New Orleans neighborhood of Village de l’Est, which was settled in the 1970s by Vietnamese refugees. The residents of this tight-knit community were accustomed to helping one another through crises—and as soon as Katrina’s floodwaters subsided, that mutual-aid system kicked into overdrive. The three priests at Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church badgered the electric-utility company until power was restored. They provided buffet-style meals for returning homeowners. And they immediately began mapping out a long-term plan that includes a 300-unit senior housing complex. “We set the church as a staging ground, so that people could find comfort,” says Father Luke Nguyen, one of the priests. That made it much easier for an estimated 80 percent of their parishioners to return to their communities.
In other parts of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, self-reliance became the order of the day. Shirley Thomas, the retired contractor, arrived home after Katrina to walls spotted with mold and floors covered with black slime. She could see marks on her walls where the water had risen two feet or more. The Seventh Ward still had no electricity. But the house and guest cottage were fundamentally intact. “Every shingle was in place,” she says. “Every piece of weatherboard was in place.”
This just confirmed what Shirley already believed: She was supposed to remain in the Seventh Ward, ministering to the drug dealers and young people who lived around her. “I know the Lord led me to this property,” she says. “And I told my children, even if I’m the only one in the neighborhood, I’m going back home. If we didn’t do what God was leading us to do, who would be the light to these young people out there?”
Her home, which Shirley bought in 2002, wasn’t insured. So Shirley rallied two of her children to help her start the cleanup. They donned face masks, rubber gloves, and boots. She took out her pick hammer and started attacking the moldy plasterboard in the main house. She hired her brother and his building crew to hang new Sheetrock. Thus begun a reconstruction project that continues to this day. Shirley does what she can: stains floors, textures ceilings, and paints walls. She works part-time for Catholic Charities. At night she stays with her mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease, in an independent-living house run by Catholic Charities on the suburban West Bank. She gets worn down. “Physically, I’m tired,” she says. “But you can’t stop.” Besides, she says, the spiritual rewards outweigh the physical fatigue.
One sunny day Shirley was replanting her flower garden, which had been completely destroyed by the flood. “And a man was walking his dog—I saw him on the other side of the street—and he came on my side,” she says. “He said, ‘Miss, the flowers are so pretty, I think that’s what I’m going to go home and do.'” The hope of Shirley’s garden was contagious. All because of “something as simple as flowers,” she says.