Editor's note: Since Fall 2009 Bert Montgomery, a native of New Orleans and the River Parishes, has been collecting stories from his childhood friends, classmates, neighbors and church family about their experiences during after Hurricane Katrina. FaithLab is working with Bert to produce a book (both traditional print and e-book formats) and an interactive website to honor his friends and their experiences. FaithLab is posting excerpts leading up to the book's publication. Rachelle and I were members of the Colonial Regiment together. The Colonial Regiment was the name of the marching band/dance team/color guard at John Curtis Christian School in River Ridge. Rachelle was on the dance team, and she was a great “anti-pop” music comrade. In early 1983, a young Irish band – on its first-ever tour of America – came to play at a club on a riverboat in New Orleans. Rachelle and another friend told me about this young band; they introduced me to the band's music; and, ever since then, I've been a big fan of U2. She was a funny and intelligent friend with great musical tastes (when everyone else around us was convinced that Styx was the greatest thing ever since, well, the Bee Gees). Even today, I can't read about, talk about, or listen to U2 without remembering Rachelle Crain.
Rachelle grew up in Old Metairie and lived in the River Parishes region for twenty-seven years. She has now lived outside of Louisiana for fifteen years; she resides in Grapevine, Texas, which is where she was living when Katrina came around.
Tell me about the week leading up to Hurricane Katrina.
In the week leading up to Katrina, I watched the news constantly. I can't remember exactly what the news was saying, only that we all kept a keen eye on what was happening in the Gulf. All of my family still lived in New Orleans – my parents in old Metairie (in the same house that I grew up in); one of my sisters lived in Kenner; and my niece in River Ridge (about a couple of blocks from John Curtis School).
What were your initial thoughts?
I never believed the hurricane would hit my beloved city, because I never thought anything bad could happen to such a wonderful place.
What happened when the evacuations became mandatory?
Well, my parents – for the first time in their lives – actually evacuated for a hurricane. They evacuated to Tylertown, Mississippi. That's where my dad grew up. He still has relatives that live on the farm and the land of his parents. So, I was glad that they got out; but my sister and niece decided to stay and ride out the storm. My niece actually stayed at my parents' house in old Metairie, while my sister stayed at her house in Kenner.
I was astonished by all of the people that were leaving the city. I was glad most left, but could understand why some stayed behind. Most of all, I was saddened for the people that wanted to leave but had no means to – they were forced to experience something most of us couldn't even imagine in our worst nightmares.
I didn't house any evacuees, but the thought did cross my mind. I was a single parent at that time, with a small child and a lower-salary income, and I thought it best not to invite stranger(s) into our home. Friends and family that I knew all went to stay with other members of their family. I couldn't get in touch with anyone else to invite them to my house.
What was it like watching the news reports?
I don't think I slept for three days … just constantly watching the news. At the time, I was working for a family that was originally from New Orleans. I went to high school and was on dance team with the owner of the company. So when Katrina hit, we all were watching the news and the online reporting of the storm. For that whole week after Katrina hit, we didn't get a lick of work done. Thank goodness I was working for someone that had a connection with this disaster, because I don't think any other employer would have been so generous and understanding for my lack in my employment duties and responsibilities in the days that followed the storm.
Were you able to maintain close contact with family/friends?
My niece stayed behind in my parents' house, and when Katrina was inland, I would call her and hear over the phone the loud rumbling and wind. It was insanely intense to hear that through the phone. She had to scream into the phone so I could hear her. Even to this day, I cannot imagine the decibels the storm created.
I never lost contact with my family. The only time there was a lull was when phone batteries ran out and they had to find electricity to recharge.
After the storm was over, I could talk to my niece – remember, she was staying in my parents' house. No water was in the house until the levees broke; it was only then that water started coming in. The storm didn't cause the flooding, the weak levees did. Once the levees broke, water started rising, and my niece had to retreat to the second story of the house. My niece's boyfriend's mother worked at the time for the Mayor of Kenner. She sent a rescue boat to pick up my niece and her boyfriend from the house. There was two feet of water inside of the house, but when my niece stepped outside and down the front porch steps, she was up to her neck in water. She said she had never been so scared in her life. They had to walk about six blocks to higher ground for their rescue. Shortly after they left my parents house, many neighbors squattered at my parents' house on the second floor, along with their pets. I don't know how many days they were there, but they eventually crawled through my parents' window onto the roof and were rescued via boat.
Once my niece and my sister were reunited, they hopped in a car and headed to Tylertown, where my parents were. I don't think they were any better off because Tylertown was hit by the storm, and even though there was no flooding there, the power was out and there was lack of supplies. They had to bare the southern Mississippi heat of early September with little food and water. I tried my hardest to get them to come to Texas, but my father thought they'd be better off in Mississippi.
My parents were literally some of the first people back in the city when the roads and barricades were open. They quickly gutted and rebuilt their home, and by the time all of their neighbors were coming back into town, their house was completely renovated. My sister's house in Kenner and my niece's house in River Ridge were not damaged at all by the storm. In fact, my sister's house never lost electricity.
Side note, pt. 1: Reportedly, nine bodies were found in my parents' neighborhood. Whether the bodies were of residents in that community, or if they floated down Airline Highway when the levees broke, I can't say.
Side note, pt. 2: My mother's brother and his son were on the roof of their house for three days before being rescued. He lived in Chalmette, close to Lower Ninth Ward.
Side note, pt. 3: My parent's have rental property in the Lower Ninth Ward/Holy Cross District. The house's inside watermark was one inch from the ceiling. The house sits on the Industrial Canal. The levee is right outside the front door. I played on that levee when I was a child, and still to this day I climb it and watch the barges float by. It was my mother's brother's house before he passed away many years ago, and my parents have been renting it out since. The tenants that occupied the house evacuated to Texas and they have not come back. The house has now been completely restored and occupied by new tenants.
Did Katrina change anything for you – as someone who no longer lives in the region?
Katrina changed a lot for me. All of my family ended up going back and rebuilding; I'm not sure I would have had it any other way. Even though I have now lived in Texas for 15 years, New Orleans is my HOME. It always will be! So, if my family had moved away after the storm, we all would have lost some of our identity. I travel back there several times a year, and I find myself doing the "tourist" things along with some of the old rituals of an authentic New Orleanian life. I appreciate it more. I definitely don't take it for granted. I encourage people to travel there and spend time breathing it in rather than staying intoxicated the whole time. Katrina did bring out some good aspects … the city is being rebuilt by people who 'want' to be there, rather than 'have to' be there.