Debbie has been in my most inner-circle of Destrehan High friends almost since I arrived there in 1983; along with my closest friends Ronny and Marta, she is one of the few people I have remained in contact with (though, admittedly, sporadically) since our high school days. She hung out with us sometimes, and when she wasn't with us, we'd take her left-over pizza – usually after midnight or even later. She put up with a lot of Ronny's and my nonsense, and that alone speaks volumes about her character. She was the drum major her senior year (my junior year), and she both earned and commanded respect. As a band member, I would have followed her wherever she told us to go – if she wanted us to line up on the 35-yard-line instead of the 50-yard-line, she would have done it with confidence, and we would done it without questions.
Over the years our individual journeys have taken each of us far, far away from Destrehan. Debbie lived in the River Parishes for about twelve years; then after high school, she moved here and there. She lived outside of Louisiana for 16 years after graduation; living in Allen, Texas (a suburb of Dallas) at the time of Katrina. In 2006, she and her children returned to St. Charles Parish, and she once again calls Destrehan her home.
Tell me about the week leading up to Hurricane Katrina …
Leading up to Katrina I was hearing a lot of conflicting news from our local stations who were making it the storm to end all storms. My family and friends were much less anxious about the fierceness of the storm – they are well-versed in hurricanes and only worry when it is time to worry. My initial thoughts were “I will worry when it is time to worry,” and "oh no, if they evacuate they are coming here!"
As Katrina approached and the evacuations started, it was very apparent that, despite the damage the storm would do, the mishandling and degradation that it would impose on many of the evacuees would leave scars worse than the storm.
Did any family evacuate and come to stay with you?
I housed my mom, step-dad, sister-in-law, niece, and various pets for about one-to-two weeks.
When Katrina became a reality, it was jaw-dropping to stand on the “outside” and have life be in complete normalcy, while so much tragedy was occurring in my hometown. I remember going shopping with my mom the day Katrina hit, and Dallas was moving along just as always – and I just stood there thinking, “people are axing their way out of roofs, drowning, etc., and I am shopping like normal.” It was much like the sensation when 9/11 occurred.
After Katrina moved out, my brother – who had to stay at Ochsner Hospital – was feeding us “insider” reports, so we knew our neck of the woods did not have much devastation. The hospital had armed guards surrounding it, due to armed looters. I remember just feeling very helpless and sad.
I heard some people referring to the disaster as some sort of “ethnic cleansing” for the city. I have never seen people and all forms of government take such a matter-of-fact attitude towards the suffering of others. I was mortified by the jokes and comments I heard about their hopes that a whiter version of New Orleans would be developed after the storm.
We maintained contact, of course, with all of our friends that evacuated and also with my brother until right after Katrina passed over – at that point, we lost contact with him for about two days.
Did Katrina change anything for you – as someone who was no longer a resident of the region? If so, what? How?
I returned to live in Destrehan one year after Katrina, and I was truly saddened for the city of New Orleans. The city was such huge part of my teenage life. Even at that age I loved the atomosphere of the city. I loved its downtrodden agedness, its essence of history; the diverse population, the riverboat jazz cruises, walks on the moonwalk, the french market, the Saenger Theatre, etc. They were my most beautiful memories, and I would never be able revisit them. My first drive down Canal Street was an emotional mix of loss, sadness, anger.
Now that I am in the insurance industry here, I hear horror stories everyday from New Orleans residents. These people who are finally – in 2010 – rebuilding their lives, their credit, buying new homes, trying to recover from the total material losses they incurred from Miss Katrina … but as I suspected, the emotional scars will never heal.
Since last fall (2009) Bert Montgomery, a native of New Orleans and the River Parishes, has been collecting stories from his childhood friends, high school classmates, neighbors and church family about their experiences during and after Hurricane Katrina. FaithLab is working with Bert to produce a book (in both traditional print and e-book formats) and an interactive website to honor his friends and their experiences.Throughout this fall – five years after Katrina – FaithLab will be posting excerpts leading up to the book's publication.