Thursday, July 14, 2011

My Katrina Experience by E.J. Findorff

I don't pretend to have any expertise or secret to offer aspiring writers in my blogs. Most of what I write is prefaced by this works for me. Instead, since all of my novels take place in New Orleans, I thought to share a personal experience in this featured blog.

At the time of Katrina, I was working at a print shop in Niles, Illinois, just north of Chicago. My parents, who lived in New Orleans East, pretty close to the Lower Ninth Ward, evacuated a day early, going to Baton Rouge with my grandmother to stay with my sister. They only took enough items for a two-day stay.

The levees broke and my
family couldn’t leave Baton Rouge. That is when a life changing reality set in; my hometown was under water. My experience was a lot different than my parents and those who still lived in New Orleans. I was saddled with the guilt of not being with them and of my life not being turned upside down and the deep sadness of knowing that the home I grew up in was no longer.

My parents lived in the same house in New Orleans East since I was three. I moved out when I was eighteen and my grandmother moved into my old room. After I graduated from the University of New Orleans, I waited tables in the Quarter until I moved to Chicago for a job at twenty-six, about ten years before Katrina.


New Orleans East was a lower-middle class area that was mostly black, with some gangs, but overall, not the worst neighborhood to live in. There were shootings and robberies that you would hear of, but luckily, my parents were never involved in a crime statistic. After Katrina, my parent’s house, which was two blocks off Lake Pontchartrain, had about five feet of water and was totally ruined.

So, at this point, my parents and two grandmothers were staying in my sister’s cramped one bedroom apartment in Baton Rouge with her husband and child and they had no where else to go. I could only imagine the heartbreak and tension they were feeling, not knowing what their future held or what they had to go back to. They had no clothes and their medicine was all back at the house.

The following weekend, I took off work and drove down to Baton Rouge. I don’t know why I did this to myself, but I listened to New Orleans and Mardi Gras music and I found myself crying at different moments during the thirteen hour drive. It became scary when I hit Jackson, Mississippi, as every gas station off the interstate had long lines of cars waiting for gas. For a while I didn’t know if I’d have enough gas to make it, it was getting dark and there was no cell phone reception.

Along the way, I encountered many service vehicles, fire engines, and such heading down. There were campers and SUV’s with Katrina relief written on them. When I finally made it to the apartment complex, I ran up to my family and hugged them and cried, trying to tell them it would be okay, but here I was, feeling that guilt; feeling like an outsider, but this wasn’t about me, it was about my parents and my sister and the hell they were going through.

I
stayed with them for a few days. There was nothing for me to do but offer support. They told me I shouldn’t have come, but what could I do? I needed to be there with them, if nothing else, but to be a distraction. When I left, we hugged and cried again and I continued to cry on the way back to Chicago. The total shock of all of these events and the adjustment to a life to follow was going to take a huge toll on them. This was a long way from being over.

As soon as people were allowed back into New Orleans, I drove down to help my parents try to retrieve any items that might have been salvageable. It was extremely creepy driving into our neighborhood as it was a ghost town. It reminded of a typical Stephen King town when there was something evil afoot. There was no law and every time a vehicle came by, we had to be ready to defend ourselves. We’ve heard terrible stories of robberies and murders from people offering help.

We looked around the house first, wearing rubber gloves and facemasks. There wasn’t much to save. Everything was lost; pictures, greeting cards, everything made in elementary school by my sister and me. It was all gone. Gutting the house was a gut wrenching experience, but I couldn’t let it show. Eventually, we had dragged everything we could to the curb. This was a requirement of Road Home buying the house.

My parents, grandmother’s, sister, her husband and child had lived in the one bedroom apartment in Baton Rouge for a while. I called constantly, getting updates on how FEMA’s assistance was coming along. A month or two into it, my parents managed to get their own apartment within the same complex and that saved their sanity for the short term.

My sister had the patience of a saint, dealing with the entire situation. She called FEMA everyday, making sure my folks wouldn’t fall through the cracks. One of my grandmothers was able to move into a FEMA trailer on her property in Slidell while my other grandmother continued to stay with my parents.
Eventually, FEMA came through with Road Home money and my parents started a new mortgage on a house in Baton Rouge and my sister also got her first home just a mile away from them.
There were a lot of New Orleanians that stayed in Baton Rouge.Although they are still adjusting to a new life, their new home is in a better neighborhood than the old one and the house is nicer, but it’s not the same, so they tell me. They miss their old life, as would anyone. However, the way I see it, Baton Rouge has gained a lot of character.

* * *

E.J. Findorff is a native of New Orleans. He graduated from the University of New Orleans while serving six years in the Louisiana National Guard. Unhinged is his first novel. For more information about E.J., please visit him at http://www.ejfindorff.com, http://ejfindorff.blogspot.com, and http://www.facebook.com/findej.

8 comments:

Tracey Devlyn said...

E.J.,

Thank you for joining us today. I'm so sorry to hear of your experience with Katrina. I can't imagine how helpless you must have felt. Sounds like your parents are in a better situation, though, and you now have a well full of feelings to tap into should you use a hurricane in one of your books.

Good luck on your debut!

Tracey

E.J. Findorff said...

Yes, I do feel better that they are doing good in
Baton Rouge. Thank you.

Tracy March said...

Hi E.J.,

Thanks for sharing your story. I'm glad that it has all worked out for you and your family. We had a brush with hurricane disaster with Isabel here in Virginia...certainly a surreal experience.

Best of luck with Unhinged!

Carla Buckley said...

Hi E.J.,

My agent lives in New Orleans, and when Katrina hit, all I could do was think about her as she and her family fled north, staying with clients along the way until they reached her parents' home in New York. Years later, we still talk about it in passing.

I'm so glad you shared your story. Thank you!

Carla

Joelle Charbonneau said...

Hi EJ,

Hello from another Chicago suburbanite! I've only been to New Orleans once, but the city made a huge impact on me. I can only imagine what it felt like to have your home town in such devastation and your family displaced. Thanks for sharing your story!

Joelle

E.J. Findorff said...

Thanks everyone for your well wishes. I feel lucky to have grown up in such a unique place and using it as the setting in all of my manuscripts, it acts as a character in itself.

Al Leverone said...

Hey EJ, that entire experience seems like the sort of thing that will be as vivid in your mind thirty years from now as it was while it was happening. Thank goodness your family survived the experience.

By the way, congratulations from a fellow Medallion author on the release of UNHINGED; that cover is way cool!

jenny milchman said...

Your experience reminds me of what I've heard New Yorkers who were far from home on 9/11 say. In some ways it sounds as if the disconnect--having to hear what was happening yet be spared the immense upheaval--drove your pilgrimage to Baton Rouge. Thank you for sharing this story. It feels odd to offer congrats after that, but I do send big congrats on your debut.

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