Although I have been jotting down thoughts for this book for several years, I didn’t really get started on it in a serious manner until after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans on August 29, 2005, three months after I attended activities in New Orleans celebrating the fortieth anniversary of my graduation from Dillard University. Hurricane Katrina attacked New Orleans almost two weeks short of the fortieth anniversary of my leaving the city for graduate school at Howard University in Washington, DC. I left New Orleans a few days after Hurricane Betsy hit in 1965, at which time hurricane waters had not yet receded in all sections of the city. Hurricane Katrina had a profound impact on my life, as devastation hit my family in an unimaginable way and ravaged New Orleans in a manner unparalleled in history.
My siblings, except for my younger brother, Anthony, lived in New Orleans at the time of the hurricane. Thus, these siblings, seven sisters and one brother, lost their homes, at least one car, their jobs, their mementos, and their way of life. They lost material wealth and much of the mementos that were even more precious to them. They lost contact with family and friends scattered all over the country. We lost our mother, Dorothy Angelety Jacques, who was on life support at Lafon nursing home at the time of the hurricane. My mother was one of seventeen senior citizens, along with her first cousin Renette Mercadel Peters, who were on life support at the time. After the electricity and backup generators went out, they could no longer receive the support to sustain their lives. They all perished as a result of this horrific storm.
New Orleans Levees Breached by Hurricane Katrina
We also lost our sister, Marianne Jacques Newman, on the New Year’s Eve following Hurricane Katrina. Immediately following their rescue after the hurricane, Marianne and her husband, Henry, were flown to Raleigh, NC—a place she had never visited in her life. There, Marianne (affectionately known as Mary) and Henry learned that their insurance company would provide them with only $70,000 for their house—the amount of flood insurance coverage taken on the house—a house that was worth three times that amount. The insurance company concluded that their damages were due to water and not the tremendous winds attendant to Katrina. I can remember clearly Mary telling me that they paid homeowners’ insurance for over thirty years and how unfair the insurance company was in dealing with their case. Mary didn’t live long enough to benefit from the Road Back Home, a program designed to pay Hurricane Katrina homeowners the difference between the value of their homes and the sum of the amounts paid in FEMA grants and insurance companies up to $150,000. Mary’s death, only two weeks after we buried my mother, was especially hard on my entire family. My little granddaughter Jasmine apparently felt the pain and wrote a poem about my sister, which her mother framed and gave to Henry, Mary’s husband.
All of the members of my New Orleans family had spent a lifetime hearing of the threats of various hurricanes, but the impact of those hurricanes, even those that “hit” New Orleans, could not provide an inkling of what was to come. On that miserable twenty-ninth day of August, five of my siblings, their husbands, and children evacuated the city and three of them remained to “brave the storm.” Several nephews also remained. Dorothy and Harry Perrault and Alva and Milton Morrison went to Pensacola, FL; Betty and Octave Francis went to Houston, TX; Alma and Henry Woodfork and their sons stayed in New Orleans; Denise and Lloyd Johnston and their sons found safe grounds in Lafayette, LA; Mary and Henry Newman stayed in New Orleans, as did my brother, Alvin Jacques Jr. Those that stayed in New Orleans were subsequently rescued and taken to three different cities.
Alma and Henry were initially taken to the Superdome in New Orleans and subsequently flown to Timmonsville, SC, where the community there embraced them. They would decide to settle in Timmonsville and buy a lovely home there. Within a year, Henry Woodfork would be dead. Mary and Hank were rescued first from the roof of their home and subsequently from a Mt. Olivet cemetery and mausoleum near Dillard University where they were stranded for nearly five days before being flown to Raleigh, NC. Mary would be dead within four months of their Labor Day rescue and buried in that same mausoleum. My brother Alvin would be rescued and taken to a hospital in Marshall, TX, where my dad’s first cousin, Dr. Isidore Lamothe, was coincidentally on the medical staff. He stayed in the hospital for nearly a week with a case of cellulitis and subsequently stayed for another week with our cousins Isidore and wife Grace in Marshall before being flown to Philadelphia, PA, where he is now living. The aftermath of the hurricane and his soaking in the high waters near the Industrial Canal traumatized him. He has not yet returned to New Orleans, not even for a visit.
Most of my siblings contacted me within two weeks of Hurricane Katrina, so I could inform them of the whereabouts of others. I became the central contact person and therefore developed a directory of relatives and close friends for our use. We were successful in finding the whereabouts of all my brothers and sisters, but we could not find Mother.
Intraocular lens implant
After hassling FEMA on the use of historical data to identify human remains, it was my husband, Ronald, who used his professional skills as an ophthalmologist to identify Mother’s remains using the intraocular lenses implanted in her eyes in 1996. He was successful in getting the records from the office of her ophthalmologist in New Orleans. As it turned out, Mother’s records were on the second floor of the O’Byrne Eye Clinic. All of Dr. Marilu O’Byrne’s records on the first floor were destroyed in the hurricane. Using the records, Ronald showed that the lenses mailed to us by the coroner had the same power and the same manufacturer as the ones in Dr. O’Byrne’s records. What a relief to use objective data to identify my mother, but the pain persisted and I stayed busy in my attempt to be responsive to my New Orleans family.
After Hurricane Katrina, I wanted to be close to my family and city and sought ways to get to New Orleans as often as possible. I became acutely focused on the magnificence of many aspects of my life and culture in New Orleans and wondered about the whereabouts of some old friends and classmates. I realized that what happened to my family was indicative of the experiences of many old friends, acquaintances, and loved ones of countless others. Perhaps, I instinctively knew that New Orleans would never be the same. My respect for my family, other residents, and the city grew as my city began to rebuild after that horrific Katrina experience. After about eighteen months of adjusting to the circumstances surrounding the death of my mother and the recovery of her remains, the death of my sister, and the devastation of New Orleans, the time seemed right to focus on writing this book.