The saying goes that time heals all wounds, but for three University of New Orleans (UNO) graduate counseling students whose homes were flooded when the levees broke after Hurricane Katrina, the memories are still painful. At the same time, the three students – each from a different walk of life and each with different viewpoints – share a hope for their future, a hope for their families’ future and a hope for the city of New Orleans itself.
Theresa Phillips was living an upbeat single’s life in a loft apartment in east New Orleans at this time last year. She was in her second year of the doctoral program at UNO and active in her community and sorority. Hurricane warnings came and went but no longer disrupted her routine; they were simply a way of life on the Gulf Coast.
In 2001, her first year at school as an undergrad, Phillips had been new to the area and a bit nervous about hurricanes. At first she evacuated each time that a storm was predicted to approach, often beating a four-hour retreat back to her parents’ home in Mississippi. “But that became such a hassle,” she says. “I would call back to friends in the city, and they would say, ’Nothing happened. The sun is shining.’”
But four years later, and now a veteran of hurricane warnings, Phillips wasn’t going to let talk of Katrina scare her away so easily. The week of the storm, she went about her normal life, running errands, attending sorority meetings, going to work and classes.
By Saturday, news of the approaching hurricane was harder to ignore. Phillips’ friends and family, knowing she now tended to ride out the storms, were calling and asking her to leave. Begrudgingly, she packed a few things and headed to Mobile, Ala., which was close enough for her to be back at school for a Tuesday night statistics class.
“I knew I was coming back that Tuesday,” she says. “I was really involved with that course trying to understand it, so I
didn’t want to miss it.” But as Katrina’s true impact began revealing itself in the days following the hurricane, Phillips heard that no one was getting back into New Orleans. She finally drove to Mississippi to stay with her parents and began making alternate plans for work and school.
The University of Memphis was the closest school with a doctoral program in counseling, so Phillips arranged for a temporary transfer and also took some courses online from UNO. For the next three months, she worked with other displaced students at Memphis, counseling them and helping them to adjust.
“It was helpful for me and for those students,” she says. “Once they found out that I was also from New Orleans and an evacuee, they felt comfortable talking with me. Though I was going through a lot of what they were going through, I felt connected because I didn’t have closure in New Orleans. I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye or pack up. Just meeting with those students helped me.”
Phillips returned to New Orleans in January, but her apartment was condemned. She managed to stay with friends until the university made arrangements for faculty and staff to live in the Marriott downtown. For the next four months, the hotel was home. She tried to stay busy with her graduate assistant responsibilities and with her job at Southern University at New Orleans, where she counseled students still coping with Katrina and helped them work out their course schedules.
Because she had been renting and didn’t own a home in the city, she qualified for a trailer from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Since April, she has been living on the temporary campus of Southern University, which consists of 45 trailers for offices and classrooms and 400 trailers for resident students, faculty and staff.
“Things are still hard, but it’s better,” Phillips says. “Katrina was devastating, and I cried a lot, but I hurt more for the people who were left behind – people who didn’t have the means or transportation to get out of the city. My training in counseling helped me to cope better so I could help others go through it. But at the same time, it’s hard because here I am now living in a trailer park. I once lived in a nice apartment complex. I had a two-story loft that was furnished – I had things. Now I’m still living out of my suitcases.”
She also misses many of her friends and colleagues who have since relocated all across the nation. “It’s been quite a challenge, but at the same time, I count my blessings,” Phillips says. “I was able to come back. I have a job, health insurance and the opportunity to finish the program. Even in my FEMA trailer, I’m writing my dissertation.”
Phillips expects to graduate next May and is determined to leave the city. “I don’t know where,” she says, “but I do want to leave New Orleans – somewhere I can have some stability, my own place. I’ve grown to realize that. Everything now to me is temporary. Although I knew that before the storm, now I really know things in life are just temporary and what you have in life today might not be what you have tomorrow. You have to take advantage of everything, that day, that moment.”
Phillips thinks the experience of Katrina has prepared her to be a successful counselor. By helping others cope, she also believes she has helped herself. “I’m helping them feel hope after Katrina because I’ve been through it,” she says. “I know it’s hard. I know it’s difficult. I’ve lived it too. I’ve lost things, I’ve lost friends, but it’s made me stronger. It’s made me a better counselor. My training can help me help these students even though I’m living the crisis too.”
Phillips regularly meets with other counselors so they can share their experiences and decompress. “Talking about it helps,” she says. “Just talking about this now got me teary-eyed, but I look where I am now and I’m writing my dissertation. At one time I thought school was over for me, but I’m living on campus again and I’m walking to work, so I see those as blessings.”
Lea Flowers is a wife, mother of two boys and a doctoral student. Her life is lived on the go. Prior to Hurricane Katrina, she was “ABD” – all but dissertation – and was preparing for her interviews and study.
“In the days leading up to Katrina, it was gorgeous,” she remembers. “It was the best two days of weather we had had in awhile. It was perfect weather. When they say it’s the calm before the storm, they really mean it.” Flowers and her family were attending a wedding reception when she heard that the mayor of New Orleans was urging people to board up their homes and evacuate.
“Of course we knew something was in the Gulf,” she says, “but we didn’t take it too seriously. It happens all the time in New Orleans. But we went ahead and boarded the house and packed about three days of clothes along with some pictures and left with the full assumption that we would be back.”
The Flowers family drove to stay with relatives living in Birmingham, Ala. There was a sense of relief immediately after the hurricane hit, and the family quickly made plans to return to New Orleans. In fact, they were packing up their car to drive back home when they received a call from their security alarm company.
“They said there was some interruption in the system and the alarm was going off,” Flowers says. “Since we were out of town and not knowing really what was going on, we just told them to reset it. They called back five or 10 minutes later saying another one was going off, then another. This went on for about 30 minutes, and the company said that the police were dispatched but they couldn’t get to our residence. I was like, ’What do you mean they can’t go to our residence?’”
The Flowers family lived six blocks from the London Avenue Canal in the Gentilly/Lakefront area of New Orleans. What they didn’t know at the time was that the alarms were being triggered by rushing water bursting in through the doors and windows of their home. “Shortly after the alarm calls, we turned on CNN and were watching the coverage,” Flowers recalls. “We then saw all that was going on at the Superdome, and we thought, ’Yeah, we will stay and let this thing run its course.’ So we were watching it unfold on TV like everyone else.”
As the Flowers family watched the news, they recognized their neighborhood. “They were showing the vet where I take my dog, the coffee shop where I meet my friends, the bank where I bank, and it was just the peeks of the buildings,” she says. At that point, the logical conclusion became all too clear – the family’s home was gone.
After a week in Alabama, Flowers’ husband, a pharmacist, needed to return to work. His employer arranged for the family to stay in a hotel outside Alexandria, La. “I went to a Wal-Mart to try and buy some more clothes for us,” Flowers says, “but everything was bought out. We went to Old Navy, and I ran into one of my old professors. It was like we were all in a fog and all we had were the clothes on our backs. I remember just walking around in these 99-cent flip-flops for what seems like forever because that’s all I had.”
Flowers and her husband finally made it back into New Orleans to see what was left of their home in October. They left their sons, ages 7 and 9, with family because they didn’t want to subject them to more trauma. The 10 feet of water had receded, but their possessions had been transformed into little more than debris. All that was left was a skeleton of a home filled with sludge and mold. They knew they would never call New Orleans home again and returned to Birmingham soon thereafter.
Flowers eventually settled in Alabama and began to get back on track with her dissertation. She did most of her interviews online but traveled to New Orleans periodically to meet with her committee and professors. She finished her study and graduated last May.
Flowers says the experience was hard on her family, especially her oldest son. “It’s those little things that we all miss,” she says. “His birthday is in July, and last year he had just gotten a new Batmobile. So we are sitting there and trying to explain things to him and he says, ’So does that mean my Batmobile is gone? But Mom, I stuck it under my bed to protect it from the hurricane. It’s in a special place.’ From a child’s perspective, he thought he did all he could to protect it. Then my other son says, ’But Dad boarded up the house.’ That was a challenge to explain.” Both boys have since adjusted to a new school and made new friends, she says. “And (my oldest son) has a new Batmobile.”
What’s left of the family’s home and property is for sale, but they don’t anticipate a potential buyer to emerge anytime soon – at least not until after the current hurricane season comes to a close.
Flowers, like many others, describes New Orleans as a war zone. “The city is in major construction mode, but it’s like a drop in the ocean,” she says. “There are only bits and pieces done. So we are going to move forward with our lives. The kids have been through enough, so we don’t think it’s fair to move them again.
“Without going and seeing the city, I think it’s very difficult for people to get a sense of the devastation and where it is now. Even now it’s grassroots and individuals pulling up their bootstraps to get things done, but they can’t do it all by themselves. My husband and I realized that this is bigger than us – we can’t do it. It’s going to be years before the Times-Picayune (the daily newspaper in New Orleans) no longer has Katrina-related news on the front page. It’s going to take quite sometime before the city is anywhere near normal.”
A year later, Flowers, like many of the other UNO students, is still working to reclaim her life. “It’s a horrific thing that has been shared by many people, but there is also a part of us wanting to be who we were before,” she says. “I want to be Lea Flowers again, not a refugee or evacuee.”
Flowers adds that she values this time as part of her life experience, but she doesn’t want it to define who she is. “It’s time to see people as humans instead of victims. A loss is a loss, and everyone can relate to that,” she says, emphasizing that losing a home isn’t so different from losing a relationship. “If you look at it in that sense, then we’ve all had a Katrina moment sometime in our life. It becomes more about empathy than pity.”
“I was a doctoral student at the University of New Orleans. I was a very busy graduate assistant. Then Katrina came along and everything changed,” says Bianca Puglia, a native of New Orleans whose family has lived in and around the Crescent City for generations.
Unlike many of the other “locals” who preferred to batten down the hatches, Puglia says she and her family always heeded the storm warnings. “My family always evacuates with anything over a Category II hurricane,” she says. “My family lost everything with Hurricane Betsy in 1965 when I was a child.” But as Katrina approached, even Puglia was tempted to stay and wait out the storm. She was so focused on school that she didn’t want to leave. “My whole life was the doc program and getting my Ph.D. in counseling education,” she says.
But her family wouldn’t hear of her staying behind, so Puglia packed up her computer files and a few old clothes. “I was thinking I would be held up in a hotel for about three days and come home,” she says, citing her usual evacuation plan. Instead, she ended up staying in Houston with a friend of the family and wasn’t able to return to New Orleans for almost a month. Her parents and one of her sisters have homes on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain and didn’t sustain significant damage. But Puglia and her other siblings weren’t so fortunate. She, her other sister and her brother each lost their homes.
“I lived with my parents until the end of November, and everything was just surreal,” she says. “We lost over 100 homes in our extended family. There was a steady stream of people bringing what they could salvage from their homes to my parents’ house. It was hard trying to figure out where everyone was. We were lucky that we didn’t lose any people.”
Puglia was able to take some classes online while living with her parents. “That was very important to me,” she says, her voice cracking as emotions resurface, “because it was the only part of my life that I could hang onto. School was all I had left except for an old pair of jeans and two T-shirts.”
She wanted very badly to return to the city and scrambled to find affordable housing. “I got lucky and found one in Marigny, the neighborhood I was thinking about moving to before Katrina,” she says. Once she had her own space again, Puglia’s spirits began to pick up. “I was glad to be back in the city and grasp some kind of normalcy,” she says. “For the first couple of weeks, all I had in my new home was a bed, a desk and a plastic bin that I used as a chair. Slowly but surely, now I have a furnished apartment.”
Puglia has since finished all her course work and has only her dissertation to complete, but she is requesting a leave of absence for the fall and won’t return until January. “The leave of absence is because my house is gutted, but it’s still sitting there, and I’ve been avoiding it,” she says. “I need to make some decisions, knock it down, clear the property and decide what to do. Now that I’m at a place where my course work is done, I’m taking this time to take care of it.” Part of the reason she had avoided the task was because she was determined to stay focused on school, she says, and she wasn’t emotionally ready to face the remains of her past.
Puglia says the experience has changed her priorities and what she values in life. “Material stuff isn’t that important to me,” she says. “It’s rather interesting to be 47 years old and have nothing – not even a potato peeler – and have to start from scratch. It’s changed how I view my material possessions and priories. Quality of life is more important to me now; people are more important.”
“I think Katrina brought out the best in people – in some the worst, but for the most part, the best,” she says. She adds that life isn’t anywhere near being back to normal yet in the Big Easy. There are still power outages and minor inconveniences where the city has yet to be rebuilt, but Puglia is adjusting to the new New Orleans. That process has been helped along, she says, because she and the other graduate students who were able to come back to the UNO counseling program have grown close and depend on one another for strength and encouragement.
Puglia is looking forward to graduating in August or December of 2007. “I want to graduate and find a professorship, but I have mixed feelings about leaving the city now,” she says. “I was ready to leave it before, but there is a part of me that feels that I need to stay. I need to help contribute to the rebuilding, but the professorship will probably take me away from New Orleans.”
Doctoral student and New Orleans native, Bianca Puglia’s home was destroyed by the rising flood waters from Hurricane Katrina last year. Despite her devastating loss, she and her family refuse to leave the city they have loved for generations.