Before and After Katrina

18 08 2015

Before and after Katrina is how we mark time down here in south Louisiana. There’s been other storms since then, but 10 years later, if someone talks about THE storm, you know they’re talking about Katrina. It’s the event that changed our lives forever. What makes my story somewhat unique is that it was during this dark, stormy time that I experienced the best of humankind.

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As the storm approached the bigger event in my life was that my husband had moved out the week before. I would be weathering the storm without him with my then 15-year-old daughter. I don’t remember being worried; I’d been through hurricanes before and knew the drill. Baton Rouge is far enough inland that it’s where people evacuate. The next morning the storm had barely impacted us and I went back to work.

Early that morning, even New Orleans appeared to have dodged the bullet. The storm had not hit NOLA with full impact. Mississippi was a whole other story. By mid-morning, there was breaking news. The levees were breached and New Orleans was filling up with water like the geographic bowl it was. My work friend and I seemed to be the only ones in our office aware of the seismic shift that had just happened to our world. Our boss was more concerned about ad deadlines and couldn’t grasp that the nightmare everyone knew would someday happen, was upon us.

The hours, days and weeks that followed have now become a blur. It would be days or weeks before we could contact our friends or family in the drowned city 90 miles away. What we did know was that Baton Rouge instantly doubled in size. The streets were completely clogged with evacuees, the grocery shelves were empty and Baton Rouge welcomed friends, family and strangers into their homes for weeks and even months.

I work in marketing at Woman’s, a specialty hospital and the largest OB hospital in the region. When they evacuated the NOLA hospitals tiniest, most vulnerable babies and the moms who had just delivered, or were still in labor, they helicoptered them to Woman’s. This is when husbands were separated from their wives, mothers from their babies, and parents from their children.

Woman’s was where these families were eventually reunited. The world media descended on us because we were the happy ending story in a region filled with tragedy. Patients arrived in their hospital gowns; families arrived with only their flood-soaked clothes, desperately looking for their wives, moms and babies.

Those of us not involved in direct patient care did whatever job was needed. The staff went home and cleaned out closets to bring clothes to our patients and families in need. I was my daughter’s Girl Scout leader. I volunteered the troop, who was still out of school, and they gladly came to help. The Scouts sorted and organized the mountains of donated clothes that arrived crammed in plastic garbage bags. They collected the clothes orders from the nurses and delivered the needed clothes. These teen girls shopping skills proved invaluable as they set up this “Clothes Store” housed in the hospital’s medical library. We heard first-hand accounts the horrors of what had happened as the clothes were received with tears, hugs and gratitude. We all did a lot of growing up.

We heard about the nurse who had learned that one of her patient’s had finally located her young son who had been put on a bus and sent to Houston. This nurse drove all night to Houston (5-hours away) to bring this son back to his mom. This was the kind of story I was experiencing amidst the stories of death, gunfire, drowning, looting and fear that filled the news.

It would be months later before I drove down to see the devastation first hand. It was like entering a war zone. Mile upon mile of devastation, and empty buildings, and no people on street after street. The black cloud of depression hung over the area for years.

It’s now been a decade.

I was recently visiting with a dear friend whose beautiful home overlooks Lake Pontchartrain. It received storm damage, but remained livable. She said she has no memories of the 5 years post Katrina. She took an early retirement from working in the criminal justice system. Her stories are the opposite of mine. She did not see the best of human behavior. I’m sure this was an unspoken factor in her taking an early retirement.

New Orleans has a revived spirit. Young entrepreneurs flooded the city post-storm and brought their youthful energy to this old town. Many stayed and made it their home. That depressed cloud is now gone. It’s still a city that is rebuilding; there’s still too many impoverished, too much crime, and really, really bad roads. But it’s jazzy, gritty, spirit is once again alive and well.

Baton Rouge no longer feels like the country town it once was. It has a thriving downtown and sprawling suburbs. Like New Orleans it’s now a city that has too many impoverished, too much crime and really bad traffic. But there’s a creative spirit in the air that extends beyond LSU football season.

The storm forced Woman’s Hospital to move up their expansion plans. When Baton Rouge instantly grew, so did the needs of the community. Our brand spanking new hospital is now 3 years old. Whenever I hear a helicopter, I flash back to those Katrina days. There was the constant sound of helicopters overhead. Helicopters still land at our new helipad bringing moms and frail babies, but these patients aren’t desperate and lost from their families.

That Scout troop stayed together through High School and took a trip to Italy together their Senior year. I’ve now been divorced for a decade. I’ve built a new life with my wonderful sweetie, Steve. My daughter’s dad and I sat by each other and watched with pride when our baby girl graduated from LSU a few years ago. We’ll all have dinner together when she flies in from Chicago for a visit.

Katrina…an epic milestone to remember. It’s important to celebrate progress and to mourn what is gone forever. It’s important to look back and see how far we’ve all come. God bless us all.

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Joy and Sorrow

26 07 2015

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In the space of one week; a joyful reunion of old friends and then a few days later, gunshots shatter our joy and fill us with sorrow.

Joy and Sorrow. Communities coming together to laugh and dance, and to weep and grieve.

High school reunions are like nothing else. It brings back with a rush the laughter, awkwardness, insecurities and innocence of our younger selves. With drinks in hand, we remind each other of long forgotten memories. We renew friendships that have slipped away and we feel the affection with long, deep hugs.

The storytelling and laughter rise above the band playing our favorite 70’s songs. By the end of the night, everyone is on the dance floor moving like we did at our Senior Prom. Many of us have maintained a handful of precious friendships over the decades, but many of us had not seen each other in 40 years. Yet we still remain a community. We can see our youth again, past the extra pounds, and greying and thinning hair. And we are all grateful for our name tags that have our high school photos on them.

A few days later, while basking in the glow of reconnected classmates; a shooting happens. The movie theater where lives are forever shattered is less than an hour from where we danced the night away. Lafayette is now home to some from that Class of 1975. All of us have spent time in this south Louisiana town that was voted the happiest place in the country. There’s a quintessential Louisiana phrase, “laissez le bon temps rouler.” It means “let the good times roll” and no where does the phrase come to life more than Lafayette.

We are all interconnected in south Louisiana. My work intern rushed to console friends who were sitting on the same theater isle as the shooter. I had a long conversation with another friend who was broken-hearted over the death of artist and musician, Jillian Johnson. Jillian’s band, the Figs were scheduled to play at a Fall party at my friend’s camp a few miles from Lafayette on the mighty Atchafalaya River. My sweetie’s adult children grew up in Franklin, the same small town where the beautiful, 21-year old college student, Mayci Breaux grew up. We have another phrase down here, “Who’s your momma and dem”. It’s how we connect because we know there’s just one degree of separation between us.

The murderer was not from our community—but just like the shooter in Charleston—he would have been welcomed. We love to share our culture down here with our great food, ice-cold drinks, music and dancing.

The hate group Westboro (I won’t call them a church) has threatened to disrupt the funerals with its evil since the shooter was a supporter of their particular brand of hate. Fifteen thousand have pledged to shield the families from another horror. There’s a call to show the world the beautiful gumbo pot of South Louisiana. Black and white and Indian and Cajun and Creole and young and old and conservative and liberal will hold hands to shield our community from hate.

I’m admittedly often frustrated by many things in my beloved deep South. But we have something here that is special…deep community. Maybe because we know we’re just one hurricane away from tragedy that we live our life with extra zest.

Together we attend our graduations and reunions, weddings and funerals, births and deaths, together. We are all interconnected in this web of life. We are one community.

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King’s Whiskey and Queen’s Tea

11 01 2015

It begins on Twelfth Night, the Epiphany, the day the kings arrived with their gifts for the Christ child. Now centuries later, it’s the day the king cakes arrive and the Mardi Gras season begins. We cook it all into a season-long party down here in south Louisiana, where our religion, politics and culture simmer together in a big bubbling gumbo pot.

AAAahhhhh, king cake, that coffee-cake-like, oval shaped king cakeconfection, sprinkled with the season’s colors of purple, green and
gold. There’s a small plastic baby buried in a slice—to represent the baby Jesus, of course. The recipients of this gift know they must bring the next king cake to the next gathering.

It is a season of indulgence during the cold, wet, dark days of winter. It ends on midnight Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras day, and Lent begins. Lent, the season of sacrifice to remind us all of Christ’s sacrifice at Easter. Most people sacrifice sweets or alcohol for those 40 days, which just counter balances the indulgences of Mardi Gras.

The King’s Whiskey and the Queen’s Tea is a small local event connected to a small neighborhood parade that began 28 years ago. My wine-drinking friend, Queen T was this past year’s Queen. I joined her and the Southdown’s Krewe to celebrate the passing of the crown to a new Queen and King. (Here’s last year’s post about her coronation).

The event is held at the lovely, gracious home of the parade’s founder. No one thinks it odd that our host, a doctor, has a feathered hat on and is brandishing a sword while he makes pronouncements. The first announcement is that it is time for the men to go outside to build the bonfire. Inside the Krewe of Southdowns past Queens share poetic words of advice to the new Queen, all followed by a toast. This is the Queen’s Tea.

After the passing of the crown from last year’s Queen to the new, we join the men at the King’s Whiskey. Outside there is a large wooden throne overlooking a metal “chimney” into which dried and brittle Christmas trees are thrown to create a spectacular bonfire. There are about 60 trees that are burned one by one. That number has reached 200 in past years and the party has lasted until dawn.

There is generally a pronouncement as each tree is put into the fire and a bagpiper plays. While the sound of the bagpipe is mournful, the tunes he plays are not. We hear the theme from the old TV show, Bonanza, and “The Saints go Marching In,” to which many in the crowd sing to. Later drummers add their rhythmic beat to the night.

I was stuck by how ancient and primal the evening felt. Amongst the fun and frivolity, the courtly traditions harken back to a centuries-old European tradition of royalty. At the Queen’s Tea the words are spoken in a courtly fashion. The reign of past Queens are honored, as the new Queen becomes part of the lineage.

It was easy to imagine ancient bonfires that lit up the winter nights. We’ve always needed warmth, light and friendship to help us through dark times. The sound of the bagpipes, and the drums, and the explosion of heat that each tree created as it exploded into flames, gave a timeless feel to the night. It made me feel connected to long-gone souls who had the same kind of gathering. People have always gathered for the warmth of community on cold winter nights.

Cheers to the beginning of the Mardi Gras season and to the Krewe of Southdowns. And may I not eat too many slices of king cake!

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I am Gay Married

30 06 2013

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I try not to be too political or too personal on this blog space, but the events of this past week are too big and close to my heart to stay quiet about. Civil rights were front and center. One step backwards with the rollback of a decades old legislation that supported the right for everyone’s vote to count and one step forward with eliminating a roadblock to who can marry.  Add to that Texas politics and Paula Deen and well…it’s been a  helluva rollercoaster of a week.

I am a proud daughter of the South, even if my extended family members are sometimes crazy. Crazy is, after all, a proud Southern tradition. It’s why we say, “bless their heart” down here so often. I live in South Louisiana. I’ve always felt this little pocket of the South is it’s own special world. It’s epicenter, New Orleans, embraces it’s diversity and tolerance with a wild joie de vie. I’ve stood in line for brunch in the French Quarter in the shadow of St. Louis Cathedral with Bloody Mary in hand and watched as a six-foot drag queen sashayed by in miniskirt, fishnet stockings and cowboy hat and no one turned a head. Black, white, cajun, creole, hispanic, vietnamese, gay, straight, young and old, we all simmer together pretty well in this big ole gumbo pot.

I work for a healthcare organization that has a noble mission, to improve the health of women and infants. It’s a caring place to work and that care is not just extended to the patients but to the people who work there. This caring place also extends benefits to same-sex couples.

It dawned on me when my sweetie moved in—even though we’re not the same sex—that those benefits might apply to me. We’re not anti-marriage, but with grown kids and he’s been divorced and widowed and I’ve been divorced, we kinda have a been-there-done-that feeling about getting married again. It’s also not a good financial decision for us. If circumstances change, we may fly to Vegas some weekend and have Elvis marry us, but until then we’ll keep living in sin. Bless our hearts.

In order for my sweetie to receive benefits from my employer, we had to prove we’ve been living together for a year, fill out a form and get it notarized. And poof, we did and our domestic partnership was legally recognized. That’s how we became, what we call, Gay Married.

Civil rights and equality for women, blacks, gays should be the same as for men, whites and straights. Some days it’s a step forward and others a step back, and yet other days it’s that half step that moves it forward. This bumpy path toward equality is a slow journey, but it is moving forward. In the two years since my sweetie and I entered our notarized domestic partnership, real same-sex marriage has started to happen.

It’s Gay Pride week. I cheer with my gay friends the step forward this country has made this week. I walk with you on the path of love and equality. And I’m proud to say I’m Gay Married!

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