Katrina 13 Years Later

The mini videocassettes in orange Nike shoeboxes under my bed. I always grabbed those first.

Our family had evacuations down to a drill. Living in New Orleans. You had to. My mom made sure she had the birth certificates, important documents and pictures. My sisters packed their favorite clothes. I made sure I grabbed my videocassettes. My mom used to record all my basketball games since I was four years old, all the way through high school. Never missed a game. She would record them and put them on these little cassette tapes. I don’t think they even make those tapes anymore. They were these little tapes that you had to actually put inside a VHS tape if you wanted to watch them. If you’re born after 1990, you don’t even know what I’m talking about right now. I wasn’t going to evacuate without those shoeboxes. I always took a pair of basketball shoes, too. As long as you have shoes, you can ball anywhere you go.

If you’re from New Orleans, you’re used to evacuating. It’s normal. Hurricane season really is an entire season. During hurricane season, you’re watching the weather reports and if it’s a mandatory evacuation, you go. When they hit, they hit non-stop. Every week there’s another one coming, with another name. There’s crazy rain and wind for a couple days and then it passes. As a kid, I remember hearing stories about Hurricane Betsy, a devastating storm that hit New Orleans when my parents were young – in the 1960s. There were high flood waters. People were stranded on their rooftops. Being from New Orleans, hurricanes were part of your childhood like ghost stories. But to me and my siblings, we had never really been through a bad one.

Ten years ago to this month, I was about to enter my senior year of high school. People were saying I was one of the top 10 players in the country. My high school was the two-time defending Louisiana state champion. We won it my sophomore and junior years. Recruiting letters were coming in from everywhere, but I had narrowed my choice down between LSU and Texas. It was August of 2005. New Orleans, my hometown, was never going to be the same. Katrina was coming.

Before Katrina was Katrina, it was just another hurricane that hadn’t arrived yet. The week before Katrina hit, everyone was worried about Hurricane Ivan. Ivan was supposed to be really big. There was a mandatory evacuation a few days before it got there. So we actually evacuated the week before Katrina — and then again one week later. We put the evacuation plan into effect: My mom, dad, two sisters and myself piled our luggage into our Chevy Trailblazer. We left New Orleans headed for Houston, with a car pool of relatives — my aunts, cousins, and two sets of grandparents all in different cars ahead of us and behind us. It was like a parade. Everyone had the same plan. It usually takes five hours to get to Houston, but it took us 24 hours that time. Everyone was trying to get out of New Orleans at the same time.

I still remember that evacuation for Hurricane Ivan so well. One reason is that it was kind of a false alarm for Katrina. Ivan was never as big as they said it was going to be. My dad was driving our car and the air outside was so humid. We had the windows down – he cut off the air so the car wouldn’t run hot — and I had my shirt off. It was bumper to bumper traffic the whole way. We stayed in a Houston hotel for a couple nights, got to swim in the hotel pool, and then returned home. It just felt like a family trip, like a little getaway. When we got away like that for those hurricanes, it was kind of fun at the same time, because nothing ever happened really, out of all the years we got away for hurricanes. Like previous evacuations, it was just a precaution.

Little did we know, way out in the Gulf of Mexico somewhere, Katrina was on its way.

Let me tell you a quick story about my grandfather. Because of Hurricane Ivan, I think some people underestimated Katrina. The evacuation warnings for Katrina were still “voluntary” until the day before it hit. We almost didn’t leave.

Elderly people are the most vulnerable in hurricanes but I guess they can be the most stubborn sometimes. I love my grandfather, but he’s very stubborn. When the news started talking about Katrina, he didn’t want to evacuate because the last time nothing happened with Hurricane Ivan. That’s the false alarm thing I’m talking about. So he kept telling us he wasn’t coming, he wasn’t coming. So we pulled up the Trailblazer, full of our stuff, to his house and my dad was talking to him, trying to get him to change his mind. That’s when he tricked us. He helped walk my grandmother to the car and said he needed to get something in the house. But when he went back in, he locked the door behind him. So we had to make a decision, and he wouldn’t leave. Time was ticking. We had to go — the hurricane was landing by that time and it was our four cars full of relatives versus one stubborn grandparent. It was one of the hardest things we ever did. Katrina divided families like that.

When we finally got to Houston and turned on the news in our hotel room, we saw the same thing unfolding in New Orleans that everyone else saw. My neighborhood was flooded. Our home was definitely gone. All the phones lines were down. We couldn’t get in touch with anybody. My grandfather was basically missing. We were so worried about him. This was the story for a lot of New Orleans residents. We were helpless, watching TV from a Houston hotel. We were assuming the worst about my granddad. My sister actually knew a police officer in New Orleans and so he went to my grandfather’s house and broke in and physically took my granddad to the Superdome. It probably saved his life. But at the same time, the conditions at the Superdome were horrifying. Even 10 years later, I can’t believe people had to live like that. No one was being taken care of. How does that kind of thing happen in America?

I didn’t go back to New Orleans for months. No one was allowed back. I keep thinking about an elderly lady who lived around the corner from me. She died in the hurricane. Growing up, I would see her all the time because she would drive by every day when the whole neighborhood was playing ball in the street. We had one of those basketball hoops that you could just roll out. We would just roll it out and play five on five every day after school. Every time a car would pass, we’d have to stop the game and let the car go by. And this lady would always pass by really slow. She was the sweetest woman, but man, she drove slowly. We always messed with her in a playful way, dancing around the car, waving, making noise — just being kids. She would smile. By the time I returned to my neighborhood, she wasn’t there. The houses weren’t there. The trees were uprooted. I didn’t even recognize my own neighborhood.

New Orleans is small, so everybody in New Orleans knows everybody. I talk to people over the years since Katrina happened, and everybody has different stories of what they heard from different people. My wife, who was my girlfriend then, had a friend die because she was walking through the water, trying to get to higher ground and she fell through a drain in the ground. She drowned. There was stuff like that going on and you never heard about it on the news.

Sometimes I ask myself: If Hurricane Katrina hit a wealthier city, would it have suffered as bad for as long as New Orleans did? I don’t know the answer. But New Orleans is a really poor city. It’s one of the great American cities, but it’s poor. It’s even worse now after Katrina. I feel like if it was in a nicer area, some things definitely would’ve been handled differently. I think there were also a lot of rescue and emergency personnel who did their best and saved a lot of lives. But a lot of New Orleans residents feel like that. The Superdome chaos might not have lasted so long. What happened there? FEMA eventually came but they didn’t come right away when we actually really needed them. Why was FEMA so delayed? What happened there? Nobody knew the levees were going to break during that storm, but there were people who knew the levees were old and needed repair. Who is responsible for that? Hopefully, 10 years later, we’re still asking those questions.

I was happy that my grandfather and girlfriend were safe. My family was safe. But my life was suddenly strange. Like I said, I still couldn’t return home. I enrolled at a new school in Houston. It was a big change for me because I had spent all my years of high school at Brother Martin, which was a Catholic private school. Suddenly I was a senior at Hightower, which was a much bigger public school in a new state. Just totally different. I didn’t know anybody at the school. People were real cool to me – some kids would even take pictures with me in the hallways – but it was hard to adjust. I was a high schooler living out of a hotel. We had two hotel rooms — my auntie, my cousin, my cousin’s husband, her children, my other grandfather, they all were in one room with two beds. And then my mom, my dad, my two sisters and myself, we were in the joined room next door with two beds. That lasted for weeks. Strangest of all, I didn’t touch a basketball for about two months. We ended up having a good team at Hightower. Some of those guys I’m still cool with to this day. We didn’t win the state championship but we went all the way to the semifinals. You know what our mascot was? The Hurricanes. You can’t make that stuff up.

When I finally returned home, there wasn’t a home. I had to wear a mask to go inside. Everything was stiff just from sitting in water, like a corpse. Mildew was everywhere. I was just in shock. First of all, being back in New Orleans, the feel of the city was just eerie. It felt funny, I don’t know how else to explain it. When I walked into my house, everything was moved around, all the furniture had been shifted by the water. All my recruiting letters from colleges were destroyed. That was stuff I wanted to save for my kids one day. My bed was flipped over, my dresser was turned on its back. The TV was on the ground. The crazy thing was you could see a brown ring where the ceiling and wall met, going around the whole house. That’s where the water was just sitting for weeks until it finally drained out.

New Orleans will never be the same, man. New Orleans was one of the best places ever. It’s still the best place ever, as far as people. You’ll never find people as nice as New Orleans natives. Everybody is polite, everybody is trying to help one another, everyone is creative. And that’s what I love about New Orleans. But as a city, I know it will never be the same as it was when I grew up. They’re knocking down all the projects, building all kinds of new buildings. It’s just not the same. It’s like if you were to leave the city you’re from, and come back, and everything is just changed and all the people you knew are gone.

For me though, I never take anything for granted. I had to learn that at age 18. Everything I have, everything my family has, we all feel blessed to have it, because we know what it’s like to have everything taken from us. We basically had to start our lives over. That’s something I never thought would ever happen to me, but through all of that we all stuck together. My wife and I, we’ve been together since eighth grade. We got married three years ago and today we have two children. We stuck together through all of that. Hurricane Katrina kept us apart for that year but not forever. I don’t know if that’s a lesson or anything. But even the limelight of this NBA stuff, it could be here one day and it could be taken from you another day.

I still have those videocassette tapes today. They have all my basketball highlights on them, but I don’t have any way to watch them on VHS anymore. But I’ll never get rid of them. They remind me of Katrina and the people we lost 10 years ago.