Even amid disaster, Katrina survivors find blessings
Their lives were ripped apart by the storm, but Katrina's victims say they still have much for which to be thankful.
Published November 24, 2005
They lost homes, neighbors and cherished communities to Hurricane Katrina. Some are uprooted, far from the only place they ever knew. Others have returned to the cities they love, to pick up the pieces and start over.
They will gather this Thanksgiving with family and friends to reflect back and look forward. But when tragedy scars the soul, what is left to be thankful for?
Blessings, it turns out. Big and small ones. A beloved city that is crippled but stands. Strangers who gave of themselves and became heroes, then friends. School, once a drag, now appreciated. A new life whose future had been uncertain.
Many who made it through the storm have a new understanding of what it means to give thanks. Here are some of their words.
* * *
"I'm thankful that I had a chance to make my life there."
- Raymond "Pops" Thomas, 91, New Orleans.
Just about everyone who's anyone in the restaurant business in New Orleans knows Raymond "Pops" Thomas. He started as an apprentice cook at the famed Roosevelt Hotel, back when blacks needed permission from the boss to walk into the French Quarter after dark. As a chef, he spent a decade at Brennan's Restaurant, 12 years at Commander's Palace. He's still a food consultant at Acme Oyster House, where most afternoons he could be found chatting up the cooks, relishing life in the city he has called home since he was a boy. That is, until Katrina.
Since the storm, he has been living with his son outside of Los Angeles. He's grateful his shotgun house back in New Orleans suffered only minor damage. And, of course, he's thankful for the roof over his head, for the care of his son and daughter-in-law. But he keeps thinking about going home.
"I'm thankful that I did live there a long time before all this happened. I'm thankful just for being in the city of New Orleans. I'm just thankful for God just giving me life as it is.
"The storm, it's just sort of one of those things that God give me. And I was just thankful that I wasn't in the catastrophe that the people in the 9th Ward was in. I was just above the water level. . . . The only thing that we got was just the wind and the rain.
"I'm just a New Orleans man. I'm just not a California person, you know? They say I'm too independent, but that's the way it is.
"New Orleans is all I know, it's all I know. I don't have any intention of going back home until after the first of the year, one way or another. But if I live, I'm going back home. I've been treated like a king, please believe me. I'm here, and I enjoy what I have to be with them, but I just want to be home."
* * *
"The folks stood with us and helped us stand up when we were down, and I'm just grateful for the United States of America and all the people who made our plight a part of their lives."
- Allen Calliham, 44, Waveland, Miss.
A self-described "Air Force brat," Allen Calliham never really had a hometown. Then, in early 2004, he moved to Waveland, Miss., to care for his elderly parents. When his father passed away and then his mother, in May, he inherited their place - the house that had become home. A few months later, Katrina washed away nearly everything inside.
Calliham saved some family photos, his grandmother's handmade quilts, his mother's paintings - but he figured the house was unsalvageable. Then one day a church group from New Hampshire showed up to carry ruined furniture and wallboard away. Their kindness gave him strength. He has $10,000 in insurance and government aid, and needs at least $50,000 to rebuild, but he's going to try.
Last Thanksgiving was a somber affair, coming two months after his father's death. But he, his brother Gary and their mom watched the Dallas Cowboys as they always had. This year, Calliham and his brother won't have their folks, but they'll watch their Cowboys, like always.
"The biggest thing I'm thankful for is that my brother and our friends and our fellow Wavelanders survived Katrina, and that we didn't lose as many of our neighbors as we feared we had.
"I'm thankful for the people who came from far away to help us . . . all the people who came and made it possible for us to survive."
"You have no idea the generosity of people, and how it has come out in this horrible time."
- John Parry, 79, New Orleans.
He has spent a lifetime serving others, as a waiter at some of the world's finest dining establishments. George V in Paris. Louis XVI in New Orleans. And now Irene's Cuisine, a French Quarter favorite. Customers in the know don't reserve a table, they reserve an attendant: the always warm and gracious John Parry. He never imagined that his customers and boss, friends old and new, would one day attend to his needs.
On dialysis and recovering from a hernia operation, Parry was trapped by floodwaters in his apartment after Katrina struck. Rescued by boat, he was sent to a shelter in Baton Rouge, where doctors and nurses administered care, arranged delivery of dialysis equipment to a friend's house in Florida, even reserved plane tickets for the trip.
When Parry returned to New Orleans in October and found his home in ruins, his boss, Irene DiPietro, offered the key to her French Quarter apartment; customers came by with cash or clothes. Now Parry's back at work.
"The first thing I notice, the warmth in the people. . . . Clotheswise, you name it. Moneywise. Food. You have no idea the generosity of people, and how it has come out in this horrible time.
"I never believed, in a million years, the generosity of my customers. The help from everybody, from everybody, wherever you went. Things like that I'll never forget."
* * *
"I'm just really thankful that . . . we still have a school to go to."
- Christa Ervin, 17, Long Beach, Miss.
Christa Ervin remembers a time when the kids at Long Beach High joked how great it would be if a storm destroyed their school, so they wouldn't have to go to class. Now, post-Katrina, the high school is one of the few local structures still intact; students elsewhere are attending classes in trailers.
On Nov. 5, the Long Beach senior attended her last homecoming dance - a Hollywood-themed extravaganza organized by a group of Pennsylvania students who raised more than $30,000 to put on the dance, and then traveled to Mississippi with donated gowns, a deejay and door prizes. Senior year is supposed to be about graduating, getting out of school. But Christa's just happy to be back.
"To tell you the truth, we would hope for a hurricane to blow our school away. . . . And I'm very thankful that my school is still there.
"I really didn't think another school, or other students, would come down here and help us. I didn't even think to think of anything like that. For somebody to come down and get all that food and all the decorations we had . . . I don't know if we would've had one (a homecoming dance) if they wouldn't have come down here and done it for us."
* * *
"Time, time and the kindness and generosity of people here has just helped me overcome."
- Darlene Poole, 43, Gretna, La.
Darlene Poole walked away from her old life with nothing but a plastic container stuffed with clothes, identification cards and family photos. The former Orleans Parish sheriff's deputy didn't know she'd be heading to Illinois until she and other evacuees boarded a plane. While some family members went to Houston, she ended up sheltered in a vacant building at the Elgin Mental Health Center, northwest of Chicago.
Volunteers offered a comforting shoulder, practical tips and extraordinary generosity. Poole is now friends with a couple who've provided six months' free rent in an apartment above their home.
Poole will spend Thanksgiving with another evacuee she met after the storm, a man she affectionally calls "my little brother."
"There's a whole lot of things to be thankful for this year. I'm just really thankful for the kindness and generosity of the people here. . . . Knowing that my family is safe . . . I'm just going to be more grateful than I've ever been before on a Thanksgiving.
"The crying has stopped, but I still reminisce."
[Last modified November 24, 2005, 00:19:08]
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