New Orleans officials and volunteers on Saturday spent the city’s annual remembrance of Hurricane Katrina as a sort of mirror image of itself, accepting thousands of refugees fleeing the unimaginable destruction of Hurricane Laura 15 years after residents here were forced to a embark on a similar exodus.
Mayor LaToya Cantrell led the wreath-laying ceremony that morning at the Hurricane Katrina Memorial while city and state officials scrambled to accommodate the growing number of residents of the Lake Charles area with no water, power or shelter back home.
Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services processed evacuees from Hurricane Laura at the Shrine on Airline in Metairie Saturday, Au…
The city was initially assigned 750 Laura evacuees in three hotels, but as northern Louisiana lost power and several thousand utility company workers began filling hotels in Baton Rouge and other cities, the number of people needing shelter ballooned overnight. The state designated New Orleans as a key evacuation center, setting up a reception center at the Shrine on Airline to process evacuees, who numbered 6,000 by Saturday afternoon.
“Let’s continue to remember and let’s never forget,” Cantrell told attendees of the ceremony, one of several in the metro area.
Cantrell, who led rebuilding efforts in the Broadmoor neighborhood after Katrina and the levee failure, described Laura evacuees as arriving by FEMA buses and in cars packed with family members similar to how Katrina evacuees arrived in Baton Rouge, Houston and Atlanta 15 years before.
“We’re no strangers to tragedy,” she said. “We are one, and we will always stand for our brothers and sisters who are in our parish and also outside of our parish. We’re called to respond. And we do.”
The Department of Children and Family Services Secretary Marketa Garner Walters said registration center at the former Zephyr Field in Metairie will be open around the clock to greet evacuees, provide wristbands and book them in hotels to help keep them as socially distanced as possible and address any immediate needs.
The state opened 10 additional New Orleans hotels after 3,000 evacuees showed up at hotels across the state during the 12-hour period that ended at 6 a.m.
Walters said that while the flow of evacuees slowed down somewhat after that, they could pick up again if people from storm-damaged areas check on their property and found it inhabitable.
Walters said she could make no predictions about where it could top out.
“We’re not turning away anybody who needs help,” she said.
A wing and a prayer
Ten of those people were members of the Lee family, whose home was virtually demolished by Laura’s 150 mph winds.
“We’re just here on a wing and a prayer,” Zeta Lee said of the extended family that piled into a single SUV for the trip.
Lee said she was on shift as a surgical nurse’s assistant until 7 p.m. Wednesday and could not get on the road before curfew.
The evening spent in their Ryan Street home, she said, was harrowing.
“We had to barricade ourselves in with dresser drawers against the wind and there were bricks and glass flying everywhere through the house,” she said.
The next morning, the explosion and fire at the BioLab chlorine plant about five miles away forced them to stay inside their wrecked house as toxic clouds billowed into the air for hours.
Family members dug out of the debris that trapped them to find their roof “was down the street on somebody else’s house,” Zeta Lee said.
They slept in their car for the next two nights before FEMA directed them to the welcome center in Metairie, 240 miles away.
Samuel Lee, a sandblaster and painter, said the family will now focus on finding some kind of shelter and eventually moving back closer to home once electricity is restored.
“We really don’t know what’s next,” he said.
‘We got you’
The timing of the influx of evacuees turned a response that would surely have happened regardless into one with a special resonance. City officials and a raft of volunteers have been filling thousands of gift bags with toiletries, children’s books, and snacks and delivering them to evacuees in local hotels.
“There is a constant message of welcome coming from the mayor and City Council,” said Walters. “It’s as if they’re saying, ‘You’re in New Orleans now. We got you.’”
Walters said her department has received federal permission to load all food-stamp benefits onto cards on September 1, instead of parceling grocery money each day for two weeks.
Cantrell said she has been speaking with with Lake Charles Mayor Nic Hunter and wants to set a positive tone about the new visitors, having known “the experience of being welcomed and not so welcomed.”
“We’ve been here before,” Cantrell said. “We want to make sure that their needs are met and that they’re prepared for the long haul of recovery.”
It was a message echoed in the earlier ceremony, which ended with a plea for those whose homes were hit by Laura early Thursday morning, a fate that felt eerily familiar to those whose homes were ruined by Katrina.
“God, they grieve, like we grieve. They feel right now what we felt,” said the Rev. Robert Jackson of Historic Second Baptist Church.
Nearly everyone who led the ceremony had suffered catastrophic losses after the 2005 storm and flood. Clarinetist Dr. Michael White, who played a sorrowful version of Amazing Grace on Saturday, lost his archive of historic sheet music, his library, his research and dozens of clarinets.
The Original Roof Riders
A ceremony at the Jourdan Avenue levee break in the Lower 9th Ward also drew a somber crowd and members of families who paid respect to those who lost their lives in that hard-hit neighborhood, where floodwaters pushed most nearby houses off their foundations.
Robert Green Sr. and his family spent Saturday morning following the route that the family house had floated in 25 feet of floodwaters, from 1826 Tennessee St. to the 1600 block of Tennessee, where it came to rest against a large tree.
Wreaths were placed at the Hurricane Katrina Memorial in New Orleans during a ceremony commemorating the 15th anniversary of Katrina. The even…
The Greens and their neighbors call themselves the Original Roof Riders after sitting on the top of the house as it floated and were eventually rescued by a boat.
But two loved ones were left behind: Robert’s 3-year-old granddaughter Shanai fell in the water and was lost and Robert’s mother, 73-year-old Joyce Green, died on the roof; her remains eventually recovered near the big tree.
Joycelyn Green Askew. Joyce’s niece, said she had a special bond with her aunt, who considered her an honorary daughter.
“My aunt was my friend, my confidante. We talked intimately,” she said. “I lost all of that.”
Robert Green, 66, who wore a memorial t-shirt to his mother and granddaughter Saturday, said that his neighborhood was an example of inequitable hurricane recovery.
“It looks like we live in a forest,” said Green, pointing to the overgrown lots that harbored snakes, rodents and other wildlife where rows of homes used to stand. Many of them had been purchased by Black pioneers who bought their homes in one of the only places that was allowed in a segregated city. That sort of convivial, neighborly atmosphere is forever gone, he said.
It is that deep, persistent sense of loss that is hard to tally, that comes on top of the stressful evacuations that sent New Orleanians away for months and years, separated from each other and from the city’s acclaimed culture, said rapper Demetrius “Sino” Warren.
Demetrius and his brother Darrell “Sess 4-5” Warren said they feel a bond with the Laura evacuees. They said that at least they have been able to relocate within the borders of their home state, not to far-flung southern cities like Houston, Atlanta and Nashville, where many Katrina victims settled and never returned.
“They have a long journey in front of them,” Darrell Warren said. “But they will do better if they can stay connected to their culture, share information with each other and rebuild as a community.”