Memoirs from the Hotel Katrina
I gained a few more wrinkles in the weeks following Hurricane Katrina. Our university campus volunteered to be a safe-haven for those displaced from the storm. The aged Roberts Hall, which was and still is set for demolition, was transformed into a temporary shelter for evacuees from New Orleans and southern Mississippi. I was ‘asked’ to coordinate the effort and timidly agreed. Helping those less fortunate than I was the thing to do, wasn’t it? I always had trouble with that before. I didn’t want to get too involved. Just let me write a check. I don’t want to get my hands dirty. I believed I could help others by staying on the fringes and offering the minimum; still helping, but not getting personally involved. When asked how things at Roberts were coming along, my only response was, ‘interesting.’
About two weeks into working at Roberts, I decided it was, indeed, interesting. I fell into a not-so-comfortable routine giving my laugh lines a true work out. The characters I grew to know by name became familiar and welcoming.
Take, for instance, little Sammy. This whirlwind of a five-year-old was a true artist and preferred the companionship of the office volunteers to his cousins and classmates. Sucker in mouth and crayon in hand, he penned the most colorful and lively of masterpieces, most of which decorated the office and lobby bulletin boards. He also wanted everyone to know that it was his birthday – every day.
Another smile-maker was 14-year-old Cedric (but it was very important to him for you to know he was just a month shy of 15). He liked our female student volunteers, and when reminded of his own age, he retorted, straight-faced, that he ‘digs older women.’ He talked about New Orleans like it was a fairy land and how he missed the food the most. Carrollton is too ‘country’ for his taste, and he joked that we should trade in our taste of grits and catfish for that of crab cakes and crawfish. He then sauntered off as he heard TI’s latest video blaring on the lobby TV.
Speaking of crawfish and characters, Albert was our resident chef. This 40-something smiling face was promptly hired by a local restaurateur. The regular menu of barbecue and country cooking soon made room for such Creole and Cajun delicacies as crawfish etouffe, jambalaya and red beans and rice. Having evacuated without his vehicle, Albert was picked up each morning by his new boss about the time I was coming into work. Morning greetings were quickly replaced with inquiries as to what was on the menu for that day. Albert always asked how I liked the previous day’s dish. I mistakenly told him (within earshot of his boss) that I would pay double for his etouffe. I mentally kicked myself as they drove away. Albert found housing in Carrollton last week and moved out of Roberts. I don’t know what is on today’s menu.
Willow was the little darling of Roberts. She was the flower of her pre-K class and after having been at Roberts for a week or so bloomed from a timid and frightened child into the most endearing and vivacious little girl. She had regular play dates with some of our sorority girls, who doted on her without abandon. Some of her artwork hung alongside little Sammy’s.
CNN told us not all the stories were happy ones. Ten-year-old Sean came to us with his extended family. This shy and dedicated-to-his-homework boy searched for his mother hour after hour and day after day on the missing persons’ websites in our computer lab. One bright Sunday, we located a woman searching for a boy by the same name as our Sean. We called the number and several hours later tracked her to the Houston Astrodome and confirmed her maternal relation to our Sean. She had no desire to come here and didn’t pursue our offers to send Sean there. Every afternoon upon his return from school, Sean would grab a bag of Cheetos and ask if his mother called him today. The answer was always no. Yesterday, the school called wanting to know if Sean was still living with us. He had not attended school in a couple of days. We learned later that a family member drove him to Atlanta to meet his mother. I hope she has Cheetos in her home.
Two of my favorite people were Mr. and Mrs. Thomas. This almost-80 couple was up early every morning waiting for our shuttle to take them on their numerous errands. Sometimes the shuttle driver’s log had no destination written by their names. I think they liked to go for rides and see the sites. I spent part of an evening with them after dinner. Mrs. Thomas in her smart finger-wave do and Mr. Thomas in his cozy brown flannel shirt tell me about their New Orleans. They were born and raised there – never been any place else. Their family, from as far back as they can recall, have always been New Orleans people. I asked them if they wanted to go back. They responded strongly and quickly, ‘No.’ Their biggest concern was finding a church as nice as their old one.
Not many of our guests returned to New Orleans. Most obtained housing in and around Carrollton, and though there are many more characters to tell of, it would take volumes to do them all justice. Roberts Hall and its Katrina occupants were some of the most interesting people I’ve ever met. Many say Roberts had seen better days – that it’s past its prime. I don’t agree with them. As its current guests moved out by the handful, I believed Roberts’ heyday was just passing. Its prime was truly in its 11th hour in the short weeks following Hurricane Katrina.
When asked if I was ready for this year’s Hurricane season, I responded, ‘No.’ Would I do it again? Three months ago I would have responded ‘No Way,’ but after the first anniversary of Katrina I fondly remembered these smiling faces I encountered and was able to truly help. I got personally involved. I did more than write a check. I got my hands dirty. Would I do it again? Yes. I would.
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