“Up From New Orleans: Life Before, During and After Hurricane Katrina” — A conversation with transplanted New Orleans musicians Mark DiFlorio and Devin Phillips

Chapter Two

Facing Katrina


photo National Environmental Satellite

JJM  So, lets talk about the storm itself, and your personal experiences with it. I saw it approaching the Gulf Coast on the same satellite photos I am sure you guys did, but I was in the comfort of my Oregon home. What was going through your mind as Katrina approached, and when did you first begin to realize that you faced the likelihood of evacuation?

MD  Saturday, when one of my gigs got cancelled, which I was pretty pissed off about…

JJM  Katrina hit New Orleans on Monday, right?

DP  Yes, Monday.  By Saturday I was still thinking it would be more of an inconvenience than anything else. Hurricanes come through New Orleans a lot, and I have been living with them all of my life. But people my age hadn’t seen a Hurricane Betsy or anything like that, so my experience with hurricanes was that I would pack up my Play Station and an overnight bag and swim in a hotel pool. It was almost like a vacation. But I could tell that this storm was bad, so I left like I always do.

JJM  Where did you go?

DP  Shreveport, LA.

JJM  How did you get there?

DP  If I say so myself, this is a pretty amazing story. I decided to leave around noon on Saturday with two girls, one of whom was from Japan who had lived in New Orleans for about two years, and the other was from the Soviet Union, going to law school at Tulane. She had only been in New Orleans for about two weeks. There was another student from Tulane as well. The car we were in was running really hot, and after a while it just gave out — it was done. By this time I was a little pissed-off because I didn’t want to take this car in the first place. I don’t always take pressure the best way, and I was getting pretty anxious because by this time it was pretty obvious it was going to be a tough hurricane, but the people I was with didn’t have any worries — they think it is like a field trip, know what I mean? So I am getting more and more frustrated, because the car isn’t working good, and I am really mad at the guy who wanted to take this car even though I didn’t.

So the car is broken down and we are standing on the side of the road. It is pitch black out, and even though there are a lot of cars passing, nobody stops for us until a bald-headed, short white guy who looked like the Unabomber pulls over to ask if we need help. We tell him that our car is all busted and that we could use some help. So, he tells us we need to get going because the storm is coming, and offers us a ride in the van. Already I am asking myself whether I really want to ride with this guy. Then, he pulls back and opens up the back of his van — there are no seats in it, and it is filled with two-by-four’s, buckets, saws, and a bunch of equipment. Not only that, the floor is completely covered in dry dog food, and one of the smelliest dogs ever is back there as well. So now I am really thinking this is a bad idea, because this guy looks like he has all the equipment to tie us up and torture us in the back of his car! I told the others that I don’t want to go with this guy, but we don’t have a lot of options. I could call my dad to come get us, but it would take him eight hours to drive here, so it was agreed that we had to ride with this guy, but once we get into his van it will be too late to call our parents or anyone else for help. Now, I am 6’3″, 200 pounds, but I was afraid of the guy driving the van. I couldn’t go to sleep because of him, and because of how everything was so hectic and stressful — and I had yet to think about how the city could be destroyed! By the time we got to Shreveport, we went right to sleep, and we woke up the next day to learn about how rough things were in New Orleans. The trip was not any fun at all, and when the levees broke and everything else happened, it made it worse and worse.

JJM  Where was your mother when all this was going on?

DP  They evacuated to Baton Rouge first.

JJM  Did they have their own transportation?

DP  Yes. She and my stepfather evacuated together, and all my brothers and sisters did as well. Most all my family evacuated, but I had an uncle who stayed, who was rescued a few days later by helicopter.

JJM What about you, Mark? What was your experience?

MD  I don’t have a television, so I don’t always keep up on the news. It wasn’t until Friday night before I was able to see the storm coming on television, and it was about as wide as the state at that time. I had stayed for a couple of hurricanes that they recommended evacuation in the past, where they cut off the highways and New Orleans became a ghost town, but nothing ever happened. So, until Katrina, in the ten years I lived in New Orleans, I had never left the city in the face of a hurricane. But, when I saw the size of the storm, I told myself that I was leaving tomorrow! I began calling people and found out that all my work had been cancelled. On Saturday morning my girlfriend Joanna and I decided to go to the gas station, where we waited in line for an hour-and-a-half. By this time, there was an incredible buzz in the city, and it dawned on me how real this situation was, that the shit was goin’ down. Before leaving on Saturday night, I went to my house to put everything up high and close my shutters. I lived on the second floor, and Joanna lived on the first floor in another part of town…

JJM  What neighborhood was this?

MD  I lived in mid-city, Banks and Jeff Davis, and Joanna lived uptown. I finished up at my house — the only thing I took was my cat — and then went to her house. She was working until midnight on Saturday, so I got everything off the floor, picked her up and split out of there. By this time they had already done the contra-flow — where only outbound traffic was allowed — so there was no traffic, and we were able to fly out of there. All we had with us were our cats, and we drove all the way to southwest Virginia, where her mother lives.

We figured we would be gone about three days, and thought this would just be a long ride. On Monday, the storm hit, but it passed and most everything seemed okay. I was even thinking about the gig I had on Wednesday, and I remember telling Joanna that while it was nice visiting with her mom, I had to get back to New Orleans because I was going to be working over the coming weekend. Then I heard some report about what could happen to the city as a result of the storm surge. Getting news was hard because Joanna’s mom didn’t have a television or computer, so the only news we were getting were the morning and evening National Public Radio news reports. In order to get online we had to go to the local library, where we were able to catch up on things for an hour at a time. So, on Tuesday morning, while I was in Laurel, Virgina, we heard this report that the levee broke, and we were just stunned.

JJM  Were both of your neighborhoods under water?

MD  Yes, my neighborhood had six-to-eight feet of water in it for a week.

DP  Mine was fine.

JJM  Where was your neighborhood, Devin?

DP  I lived in Lee Circle, about six blocks from the Superdome.

JJM  From my perspective, I saw a cloud about the size of the entire Gulf of Mexico moving toward Louisiana. All the meteorologists were predicting it would hit New Orleans — and if memory serves me were doing so three or four days before it actually hit. A significant part of the discussion among the scientists and television personalities was a reminder that New Orleans is a city under sea level, and a catastrophe was potentially in the making. So now I am thinking about the people of New Orleans — where the hell do they go? How do they all get out of town? Then there was video of people getting on busses, moving them out of the city or to the Superdome…

DP  Those busses should have just got on the interstate and kept on going…

JJM  It was clear that there were tons of people who didn’t have transportation and who were stuck in the city. I kept thinking about what kinds of accommodations were being made for people who wanted to leave but who had no way to get out…

DP  The Superdome…

MD  As far as I know, there wasn’t any kind of system that would take people out of the city. There was no way out.

DP  It was so crazy at the time. I could tell from seeing the size of the storm on television that this was going to be big. It was just so much bigger than any other storm I had seen come toward New Orleans before. I went to Wal-Mart just before I left town, and ran into some people I knew as acquaintances who said they were going to stay in town and ride the storm out. So, not everyone decided to leave. I often think about them, and wonder what may have happened to them. All they did was stay, because they had always stayed before…

MD  I believe it was Sunday when the mayor and maybe the governor announced the mandatory evacuation of New Orleans. As far as I know, it was the first time in the history of New Orleans that a mandatory evacuation had been ordered. My personal opinion is that they didn’t announce this evacuation earlier because they wanted to see where the storm was headed — once they tell people to leave, it is the government’s burden to take care of those who had no transportation, which was a lot of people. But when they were sure the storm was going to hit New Orleans, they saw the potential for it to sink the city, and were then obligated to get people out, although there was no realistic plan for an evacuation.

DP  Even a bad plan is better than no plan. At least it would have shown an effort was being made to do something.

JJM  Devin, you evacutated to Shreveport. Did you feel some impact from the storm up there?

DP  No. It was just hot and dry.

MD  Shreveport is north and west, and the storm went east. We actually got hit with rain from the hurricane in Virginia four days later.

JJM  My guess is that you guys watched much of the same news coverage of the storm’s aftermath as me. I was furious by the lack of basic services, by the outbreak of crime, and by the sadness and heartbreak caused by what appeared to be poor governmental response. How much anger did you guys have about what you were seeing?

DP   I wasn’t angry, but I was really confused, know what I mean? I just didn’t know what was going on. It was surreal, as if it weren’t even happening. It is hard to explain.

MD  Yes, I was confused too, that was my first reaction. Then I was sad, then I was depressed, but I don’t think I was surprised that any of it was happening. Once the levee broke I knew that the city wasn’t prepared to handle the consequences of it.

DP  Do you remember when you were young, and you would think you were invincible? It is hard to appreciate the intensity of a storm like this, because you don’t have the experience. My parents saw Hurricanes Betsy and Camille, so they could understand this storm a little better than me, and they got angrier than I did. It’s funny because when I was a little kid, out of stupidity I wished that a hurricane would come so I could see what it would be like. I couldn’t understand Hurricane Betsy because all I had seen of the storm was what was shown in old black and white films, where stuff would be flying all around. Now, I watch television and I see my high school, and I see my best friend’s neighborhood where I hung out every day, and that entire neighborhood is gone. It was a place I went to every day, where all the old ladies I knew would say hello and ask about me. That is what I am familiar with, and it is all gone, so the pain of a devastating hurricane is now very real to me.

JJM  There seemed to be conflicting information coming from the local and national authorities. President Bush wanted to paint a bright picture about how well the government was responding, while the mayor, on the other hand, was preparing everyone for horrendous stuff  — at one point the headline in the Portland paper read something to the affect of “25,000 Body Bags Ordered.” That was horrific and unimaginable. I didn’t know what to believe. What was going on in your minds at that time concerning the potential for personal loss and tragedy?

DP  At that time it wasn’t as real to me as it is now. It is like getting in a fist fight, and the punches don’t hurt right away, but after you fight, you can feel the pain. Now, I get depressed about it every day, more than I did while it first happened, because it was different. It was like speculating about what you lost before you even knew what was lost, but when you discover what you lost and see what you are not going to get back, it is tough. This is the saddest time for me, probably more so than before, because I now realize my life is going to be up and down. Even though I am satisfied with my life, it is never going to be the same again, know what I mean? It’s different. It’s like when the fist fight is over, you are angry and jump back into the fight some more, but after you step away from it, you get a chance to look at what the fight took away from you, what you gained from it, and what you should have done different.

JJM  The government’s response to the crisis made me pretty angry.  Seeing people without a way out of the city or off their own rooftops was quite a wake up call for me. The ineptitude and inaction exposed the absurdity of our national fantasy that we have adequately progressed as a society when it comes to values and race.  I found it incredibly disheartening…

MD  I felt pretty disconnected from that while I was watching it on television. Out of this situation I realized that I am a person with a lot of means — not that I am financially secure, because I am not — but, for whatever reason, I have always had just enough money to take care of myself, and I could get out New Orleans before Katrina hit. I had the means to see the storm coming, I had friends who encouraged me to leave, and I actually had a car and a place to go, so I left. I am sure a handful of people who stayed in the city wouldn’t have left even if they could, but mostly what I saw were people who just didn’t have a way to get out because they didn’t have the economic means to do so.

I wasn’t really shocked by what I saw. While watching it I was thinking that the rest of the country is now going to see a real poor part of the United States that they had never seen before — this was not Mardi Gras. But the poverty that was seen is what a large part of New Orleans is like — there is a lot of it in that city. You can’t even begin to explain how undereducated and poor New Orleans is. While there are a lot of problems with school systems all over the country, there is a huge problem with the schools in New Orleans, and because of the poverty, there is a tremendous amount of crime there. What was shown after Katrina was not the face of the city that usually gets marketed nationally, and now everyone was seeing it.

JJM  Again, the thing that was so amazing to me was the ineptitude of the response. Even though it was generally known that a category four or five storm could breech the levees, for whatever reason they didn’t prepare for the essential needs of the people who could be impacted by this.

DP  That is pretty obvious to me, and the thing I would like to know is, “Why?” You make a good point, but, why is it like that? Things don’t change that fast. The civil war seems like a long time ago to us — and it was a long time ago, but the South is still the South. Even though it is modernizing and changing, it is still reminiscent of what it was before.

When you saw those people on the roof, you saw the color that they were, but the issue isn’t that we left them on their roofs because they are black and we hate black people — that is ridiculous! The issue is why were they on their roof in the first place? Why is their education so shitty? Why are they living in those depressed neighborhoods where their sons and brothers are dying all the time in the first place?

Man, when I got to Portland, an alto sax player invited me to his house for dinner with his family, and before driving over there he apologized for the neighborhood he lived in — he said it was bad and that it was like a ghetto. I told him not to worry, that I am from New Orleans. So he brought me to his house and, man, I didn’t see any ghetto. It was nothing like the kinds of bad neighborhoods you see in New Orleans.

JJM  Did you guys go back to see your neighborhoods?

DP  Not before I came here.

MD  I did. Joanna and I went back as soon as we could, which was about six weeks after the storm. My zip code was closed up until about six weeks after. Hers was going to open but then Rita hit and a levee broke, so they closed it down for another week or two. Joanna was really itching to get back, so, as soon as it opened we drove back down.

JJM  So did you have reports from friends, telling you the status of your house?

DP  We could see it on the Internet.

MD I have a story I want to share about this. Joanna lived on Spruce Street, which is uptown off of Carollton. Her block was great, filled with some real classic New Orleans people. The guy across the street, Mr. Shaw, was an older man who grew up in the city and lived in his house with a couple of dogs. He was not going to leave his house for the storm, even if he could get out on his own. He always stayed during previous storms, and was going to stay for Katrina as well. His land line was working throughout the storm and after it passed, so Joanna called him a couple of times a day to make sure he was okay. The block got about three feet of water, but no water came into their homes because they are built about four feet off the ground. She called to tell him that she had food and water in her house that he was welcome to, but her keys were at another neighbor’s house, and to go over there and get the keys and then get the food and water. He couldn’t get the keys, but the National Guard broke into her house so he could get the food. While they were there they were evacuating people in boats in helicopters, but they weren’t taking animals. One night while we were watching the national news, there was video of a boat going down Spruce Street, and it stopped at Mr. Shaw’s house! The National Guard went up to the door and wanted to take Mr. Shaw but they wouldn’t take his dogs, so he started to cry, saying that he was tired and hungry and wanted to leave, but wouldn’t leave his dogs behind. It was a heartbreaking thing for us to watch.

JJM  How did the story end?

MD  Eventually they were able to take animals so he evacuated.

JJM  What about the status of your own places?

MD  We had seen that there was only three feet of water near Joanna’s house, so we were thinking her place would be fine. My landlord lived in Texas, and when I talked over the phone with him, he said he heard there was eight feet of water in the neighborhood, but since I was on the second floor about twenty feet off the ground, I knew there wouldn’t be water in my apartment, but I didn’t know what else I would be facing. Six weeks after the storm we drove into the city and went to my neighborhood first, and found it to be pretty much a ghost town — there was absolutely no one down there. By then much of the city had been cleaned up, so my street had tree brush lined up on both sides of it, and we could see the water lines on buildings, which were above my head.

I wasn’t able to get into the front door because the water swelled it shut, so I had to get a ladder and climb in through the top. The only damage inside was a little mold on the floor. When we went uptown to Joanna’s house — where we knew there was no flooding — we discovered her roof had blown off, and had actually been off for the entire six weeks we were away. She lost her ceiling in three of her rooms, and it basically fell in on everything inside. She lost about sixty percent of her stuff. So we spent the whole week cleaning out her apartment, trying to salvage what we could and storing it elsewhere.