Captured in 'Time'
The last time we saw them, they were frozen in the most perilous moments of their lives. From a storm that produced limitless gripping images, theirs became iconic. But we never knew the people inside the frame. A year later, we found them. They are ordinary people, trying to get back to the way ordinary used to feel.
By VANESSA GEZARI
Published August 29, 2006
Sadie James takes care of people. Before Katrina, she was a home health care aide for an elderly lady in New Orleans. As the storm approached, she left her rented house in the lower Ninth Ward to stay with her mother, Irma, who was 74 and in a wheelchair.
Sadie and her mother have always been close. They even look alike.
“You only get one mother in a lifetime,” Sadie, 52, said.
First, there was just wind. Then the levees broke and water filled the city. The water stank. Dogs, cats and rats swam and floated in it. Sadie watched through the window of her mother’s first floor apartment.
After three days, rescue boats floated up to the housing complex where Irma lived. They dropped Sadie and Irma at the foot of Interstate 10 on Elysian Fields Avenue, near a truck stop. It was getting dark, and Irma was hungry, so Sadie caught one of the bagged lunches that emergency workers were dropping from the upper level of the interstate. That night, Irma slept in her wheelchair and Sadie slept on the road.
In the morning, they made their way to the Superdome, Sadie pushing, Irma riding. Military helicopters roared in and out, bearing people to the airport. Between the interstate and the Superdome lay a stretch of flooded streets.
“I looked at Mama, and then I looked up at the Lord, and I said, 'Ma, I got to bring you down in that water,’ ’’ Sadie said.
They rolled past a dead man bent over in his wheelchair, Sadie remembered. A finger floated by. Gusts from the helicopters scattered Irma’s diapers over the water. Sadie almost fell, but she kept going.
National Guard troops loaded them onto a bus, then into a big helicopter. The next day, former Vice President Al Gore and his son ushered Sadie and Irma into the first two seats of an American Airlines plane. Al Gore told Sadie the plane was headed for Tennessee.
We have to start somewhere, Sadie said.
They were taken to a Red Cross shelter in a church. About a week later, a shelter volunteer said she had something to show Sadie.
You’re not going to be mad or start crying or anything? the woman asked.
“Mad or crying about what?” Sadie said.
The woman pulled out a copy of the Sept. 12 issue of Time magazine. On the cover was Sadie pushing, Irma riding, and all that water.
“I thought I was going to be a millionaire,” Sadie said.
Reporters came and called, and she talked to them, but after a while she wished they would at least buy her lunch. Churches invited her to speak. A church in Knoxville has her picture up on the wall. There’s a CD out with her photo on the cover.
She misses New Orleans. In Tennessee, she walked into a Texas Roadhouse and ordered a large margarita to go, and everybody got quiet. In New Orleans, it was normal to drink a beer in the street. The rules are different there.
She lives in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. They have skunks, foxes, bears. She doesn’t go out at night.
She misses her grandchildren and her siblings. Her mother went back to Louisiana. She said she was getting sick in Tennessee.
She lives in a Section 8 apartment in Alcoa, Tenn. The apartment feels too big: three bedrooms, two baths. Alcoa is a quiet little town, nothing like New Orleans, but she sleeps downstairs on the couch because she’s afraid someone might break in.
A framed copy of the Time cover hangs on the living room wall. Sadie sleeps under the photo, under the flood.
She cries often, and doesn’t know why she is crying. She has nightmares, the same dream, over and over, jolting her awake.
“People floating in water,” she said. “Water, water, water. Dirty water.”