One year later: Diary of a disaster

August 29, 2006

On the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, The Sun is presenting a series of essays by people whose lives were upended by the storm.

`STARTING OVER' by Esther Cannon Scott

I am a 75-year-old African-American. I live in the Mid-City area of New Orleans.

When a mandatory evacuation was ordered, my husband, my great-grandson and I went to a hotel in the French Quarter. We were very confident that we would be back in our home in just a few days. Our 54-year-old home had never been damaged by a storm.

When I heard the awful roar of the storm early Monday morning, all of my confidence and optimism were gone. I knew it was a bad one. My husband and great-grandson slept through it. On Tuesday morning, a police officer told us that we should vacate the city. Officers organized a convoy and led us out. We had only half a tank of gas and no idea when or where we could fill up. After about an hour, we passed a filling station and were able to get gas.

We arrived in Morgan City just before nightfall. None of the hotels had vacancies, but because neither my husband nor I was able to drive at night, we spent a miserable night in our car. We got a room the next day. On Thursday night, my sister invited us to stay at her home in St. Rose. We were thrilled because we wanted to be close to New Orleans.

We spent the next five weeks anxiously awaiting permission to return to our home. We watched television news constantly. Early in October, we were told that we could go to our neighborhood. We had potable water, and electricity was available in our area. We applied for a trailer.

We had been told that we had 7 feet of water in our area. My car was totaled. The water had settled at about 3 feet in our house. We lost at least 90 percent of our possessions. Our biggest regret was the loss of hundreds of paperback books by black authors and our great-grandson's photo album.

We made the drive from St. Rose most days. We were not allowed in the neighborhood after dark, so we rarely managed to work as much as six hours a day. My husband got sick from the mold, so I, with three friends, gutted the house and moved out the ruined furniture and appliances.

I managed to keep my spirits up and cried only rarely at small frustrations. We did not have flood insurance, and were concerned about the cost of rebuilding our home. Money and gift certificates were donated by our church, our families and strangers. We also had the settlement from the car and a pittance from the household insurance.

In January, we moved back into our home. We had given up on the trailer. We bought a mattress and a microwave oven.

Three generations of relatives came to help us rebuild our home, including my sister from Owings Mills. Their labor saved us thousands of dollars. Our walls are up and ready to be painted. We are hoping that the federal money will help toward our recovery.

If the levees break again, we will bid New Orleans farewell!`ULTREYA' by the Rev. Marta Valentin

I was called to be the new minister at First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans and began my ministry Aug. 15, 2005. Twelve days later, on the night of Aug. 27, I found myself fleeing from Hurricane Katrina.

My wife, Alison, and I evacuated with our cat, Boo, to Fort Worth, Texas, where we watched in horror as the fate of the city, and our fate, unfolded. Back "at home," our belongings were being swamped with 4 feet of brackish, putrid water, and our beautiful peach-colored home was getting a brown, ugly bathtub ring around it, along with 80 percent of the city.

Suddenly, I was a minister to a congregation that was spread across the country, most of whose names I did not know. The church had no evacuation plan that I knew of, no way to ensure that we could find each other afterward.

We found each other, thanks to the power of the Internet. We organized ourselves online and tracked down the others whom no one had heard from. It was heartwarming how folks turned to their spiritual community and this unknown minister to find solace out in cyberspace.

My first sermon had been scheduled for Sept. 11, 2005, and we were able to come together on conference lines donated by the National Park Foundation. That Sunday morning, our pianist played the music while her husband held the phone to the piano, and we sang from wherever we were, which turned out to be in 14 states. Tears were shed by folks getting confirmation that their beloved friends were alive. My teary message included the acknowledgement that now they were New Orleans for me, and in the end I left them with the ancient Spanish word ultreya, which means "moving forward with courage."

One year later, we are worshiping at a Presbyterian church across the boulevard from us. Our building has been cleaned and gutted, and we are searching for the money to rebuild in a more accessible and sustainable way.

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