Katrina Survivors Reflect 10 Years Later

Jamar Jefferson and Donna Bonner are just two of many who relocated to Austin

As we approach the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, it's hard to remember how much 2005 was dominated by the events immediately surrounding the storm's landfall. Decisions were made, some of which New Orleanians never truly believed they'd have to consider – similar to some of those made during the Austin area's recent Memorial Day weekend flooding. During the largest disaster-related population dispersal in U.S. history, Austin was among the immediate locations chosen (and championed) for disaster relief efforts. Unable to go back to a decimated Crescent City, and with few prospects, many evacuees found safe haven and made new lives here in Austin.

The following are, primarily, the journeys of survivors-turned-Austinites. They are only two of thousands of stories of mental and emotional endurance, coming from disparate backgrounds and points of view. Their stories serve as reminders that Katrina is neither the past, nor settled history. For some, like Jamar Jefferson, now a barber at Agape Family Barbershop in Austin's Eastside, it was a breaking point from a life filled with uncertainty. For others, like Donna Bonner, a former teacher at the University of New Orleans and Tulane University, the storm still lives within.

Jamar Jefferson (Photos by Jana Birchum)

Jamar Jefferson: A New Start

"I just lost both of my jobs. I was sitting at home. My wife's mom told me to turn on the television and watch the news because they had already evacuated. She wanted us to see how severe the storm was. We were like, 'Wow.' We didn't even know because we didn't watch TV. We always watched what was on, like movies and stuff When we saw [the oncoming storm] we were like, 'This thing looks like it's pretty serious.'"

On the gravity of the situation: "The way the city is made – it's made like a boat. If it rains, it floods. We get threats with hurricanes all through hurricane season. If [we were] to actually pack our stuff and evacuate every time they told us a hurricane was coming, we wouldn't be able to live in [hurricane] season. You know what I'm saying?"

On making the decision to leave: "At the time [Angel] wasn't my wife. We had a kid together. She was on the phone talking to her mom. Her mom was like, 'Y'all better leave the city.' She was real upset [with me] because I told her I was going to stay. If I stayed, Angel was going to stay. I turned to her, and I asked her. I said, 'Hey, if I wasn't here, and it was just you and the kids, what would you do?' She was like, 'I would evacuate and go with my mom.' I said, 'Okay.' We packed up three days of clothes and left."

On leaving the city: "My mom lived in nearby [Calliope Projects]. I told her I was evacuating and that I would take them if I could, but I [didn't] have enough room for her, her husband and my brother. My sister, at the time, had transportation. Once again, that was the mentality of most people from the city. 'I'm not going nowhere.' She had a SUV. She could have very well took her, her two sons, my mom, her husband and my brother, but she chose to stay. [We ran into] traffic on the highway. It's called contra flow – five miles an hour all the way to Houston. Took 23 hours driving. It's me, my wife, our two kids. We stopped in Houston because that's where the majority of her family was. We was going to Austin because she had an auntie there that was already living here in Austin."

On deciding to stay in Austin in the aftermath: "Me and my wife were in the Woodward Hotel. We're waking up, getting ready to seek resources for that day and we were watching the news. I was like, 'Babe, look, that's our house. That's our apartment right there. Somebody's standing on top of it.' The water was above the first floor going up to the second floor. I was like, 'Our apartment is done.' I was like, 'I don't have no job to go back to.' Obviously, we don't have nowhere to stay. I was like, 'What do you want to do? We're here.'

"I looked out the hotel window, and you could literally see Downtown. I was just looking at it. I asked her, 'What do you want to do? You want to go back, or you want to try to survive out here in Austin?' She was like, 'I'm down to stay. It'll be cool.' Something new, something different. Immediately I [asked myself], 'You think you can take what you have, and survive out here in Austin?' I don't know. I grabbed this feeling like, 'If I can survive in New Orleans, I know I can survive anywhere.' I said, 'Okay so let's do it.'"

On reception and restarting in Austin: "It's just my opinion. Anybody that came from New Orleans – who came to Austin – it probably made them feel uncomfortable, because they weren't used to another individual opening their arms, opening their doors to their homes. Giving them filled bags of groceries. Just give it to you, and want nothing in return. Initially, I was like, 'Is this real? This can't be true.' For some people, they say Katrina was a catastrophe to their lives. For me, it was a blessing. It opened my mind up. I started seeing life differently. I started seeing that I [could] actually achieve things. It made me go for greater."

Donna Bonner

Donna Bonner: Still Surviving

On being in the storm: "I stayed with my ex in a property that his family owned in the French Quarter. Relatively speaking, we were safe from the water because our levees didn't break. We were nearest to the river. The French Quarter's right on the river. Actually, this is the hardest part to talk about, being there, to be honest with you. We were in the French Quarter and the storm hit – really no big deal. We were in a very sturdy, early 1800s, late 1700s kind of a building. We went out the next day and [that's when] we realized that there were issues. People looking for family in adjacent neighborhoods and not being able to get over there. The police looking bewildered. I remember, in particular, two police officers coming up to me and asking me what I thought. I've never had a police officer ask me what I thought of something.

"I'm from New Orleans East. It's the upper Ninth Ward – the other side of the industrial canal. It flooded terribly. My house was flooded up to the ceiling. Something I didn't take into account was coastal erosion. All the stories I ever heard about hurricanes were from [Hurricane Beth] in the Sixties, from my parents and grandparents. It wasn't an active part of my thinking process.

"A friend of ours who worked with my ex was trying to get to the Lower Ninth to see his [family]. They couldn't get over to there. We started to notice stuff was wrong. We started to see freaked out people who were wandering in from the areas after the levees broke. I'll just be the informer a little bit here, and say that is was a 29-foot tidal surge, a tidal wave. If a storm destroyed the city, we thought a storm [would have] come up the river and over [Lake Pontchartrain]. That didn't happen. It was just that all these levees [breaking].

"People were wandering in and saying the police had told them they were on their own. You're watching girls walk around with two-by-fours, because they're so scared. The water started spreading more. People are just scared, freaked out and nobody knows what's going on. The local media were wonderful. They came together. They were broadcasting, but we didn't have any news from the outside. We left the next day at daybreak and it was crazy.

"I remember being up on the roof because there was a warehouse that blew up not far from us, caught flames and everything. [We] ran up when we heard the explosion. I remember looking out at the city and the water reflected light back in your eyes. I just remember thinking, 'All those fancy ideas I was teaching, I should have taught them to swim.'"

On leaving the city: "We assumed that since nobody came in that maybe there was no way out. My ex and I used to bike on the river – I knew exactly where the bridge closest to the river entrance was. Mind you later on in the day people on that bridge got shot at when they were trying to cross over. It was this crazy paranoia that was happening and [there was] also racism. I hate to get into this. One of the only ways that the media really found out about it quickly was that the people that were shot at were primarily African-American, but they're were some French tourist with them. We were able to drive out. We stayed as close as we could to the river, got on that entrance. When we got on, there were people walking out.

"I thought about those people on the bridge. Our vehicles were full. We couldn't pick anybody up, and we saw some dead bodies as well. We snuck on the I-10 because they had the city blocked off. We actually had to sneak and move some barriers to get out."

On arriving in Austin: "We had [my ex's] mother with us and her other son was here [living in Austin]. We lived in the motel for six months. We got a Wal-Mart card. That was from the Red Cross though. I think people really learned a lot from it and are better now. They wouldn't let me in with my dog, and I wouldn't leave my dog at the time. At the motel yes, but not at the help centers or anything like that. I wouldn't leave my dog. I refused. I was really in shock. That was the policy back then. They've changed it since Katrina.

"We lived [in an extended-stay] for six months. Every month they would threaten that they weren't going to pay for the next month. I didn't want to commit to being here. [But] it was like once I got here, there was no energy in my body. It was crazy. Nothing made me happy. Finally we just moved into an apartment in the neighborhood by the FEMA motel. That was the best I could do.

"My ex actually developed really terrible depression and he just stayed in bed all the time, almost. That was really hard on me as well. I didn't know what to do to make him better. I went [into] anger, resentment, and fear. In terms of not going back, my home was destroyed. My ex didn't want to go back, and that affected that decision too because I think I just didn't have the ability to make decisions. I should say I was particularly alone because my family's all deceased. My mom had died in 2004 and I don't have any siblings.

"I [had] been resetting up social networks. I was conscious of that when my mom passed away. I taught college. I had that kind of group of students. I was always really well liked by my students. I had a group of students around me, all that kind of stuff. I was on soft money at both schools and so I was also laid off from [University of New Orleans and Tulane University]. All this anger, resentment, and everything in fear that I had, anxiety and things that I just had not experienced before.

"I really did not feel able to work once I got here, especially being laid off. I did teach some classes online for the University of New Orleans, before I was laid off. I did one research project as well in West Louisiana after Katrina, in 2007. Otherwise I just was so freaked out. The next few years were me realizing that I had pushed my stress this far."

On processing the aftermath: "I guess that's been my priority – getting over the PTSD. I'll just say this. Right after the disaster, one of the things that really hurt me is that I'm from a primarily African-American part of town, but I'm white. I'm taken as white. I'm actually not completely white, but I'm taken as white. People will say things in front of me.

"People in neighborhoods that were not destroyed, which we called, the Isle of Denial right after Katrina. People in the Isle of Denial, along the river, uptown and downtown, would say things like, 'Well, your neighborhood didn't have any heritage anyway.' Or they'd say things like, 'It's probably better if the people in the projects don't come back.' That hurt me, and wounded me very deeply.

"One of the things that we would joke about in the FEMA motel was the difference between white people and black people's reaction to it. I have to admit, although I never thought as myself as a typical white person, I had greater expectations of the government, of what would happen, than I think my black friends did. Does that make sense?

"I think that my black friends, and a lot of the black people that I knew, they were like, 'What? The government's going to what?' Like, 'Get out of here, white girl.' I think that, in a weird sense, I was a little more set up for [disappointment]. I think that black people have a lowered expectation of how the government's going to respond to them. Or anything like that. Right? Whereas, I'm a white lady. I'm a teacher for God's sake. I'm used to being treated in a respectful manner."

On understanding and stabilization: "I remember one time actually listening to NPR. [The speaker] was talking about [having] the urge to drive into oncoming traffic. I was like, 'Oh my God. That's like what I feel,' and I started to put it together. I just started reading more and I was like, 'This is what's wrong with me.' It's not that I'm not nice anymore. I'm not happy anymore. I have PTSD. At that point I was like, 'I'm going to get better.' I went at it the way I went at graduate school. I went at it like a job.

"I'd get up every morning and I would work on it. I started reading books about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, about grief, how to get over grief. I started meditating. I did a lot of yoga. I actually called the HOG Center at UT. That's the good thing about being an academic, you think of these things. I found out what to do through them and I was able to access care. I actually ended up at a wonderful place at the Samaritan Center, which I think is one of the places that treats the most military people.

"I did a lot of therapy. I did a lot of EMDR – the eye movement, desensitization reprogramming – which has really worked for me, along with the talk therapy. For me, the last 10 years have really been recovering from PTSD. Working on building a new life. It's been a long road."

This story is an extended version of the one that appeared in print.

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Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, Jamar Jefferson, Donna Bonner, émigrés

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