Hurricane season 2017 was “highly unusual,” science says.
Harvey hit close to home. As a retirement gift to themselves, my parents bought a condo in Port Aransas. The complex was aged, the paint — pinks, mint, turquoise and yellow — was fading. The unwitting kitsch: endearing. The Ritz, these weren’t.
“To see a city underwater, all hell broken loose, it changes you. You don’t think this can happen in an American city.”—Steve Pickett, reporter assigned to cover Katrina
“Our” condos are modest, family-owned beachside properties for people on a budget. People who saved, scrimped and worked real hard in order to attain said beach house, a lifelong dream of Dad’s. He wanted a no-frills place for the whole family to gather each summer for a few days, and it worked; with some exception, everybody got together annually thanks to that sweet home away from home.
So when Harvey pummeled the thing, we were pretty sad. But the grief turned directly to those whose Port Aransas homes and businesses were, to them, everything.
When the school year began, Port A kids had to bus to another county. Residents’ vehicles were underwater or in trees. The town went weeks without electricity, and a year later things were still pretty bad.
That’s just a micro slice of all the traumatic hurricane havoc we’ve seen, and we are landlocked.
Still it’s no problem finding Dallasites directly impacted by gulf coast hurricanes; in fact, when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, it took a toll on our city, and, while researching a 10-year-anniversary story, we met several current Dallas dwellers who experienced the storm first hand.
Here are some of those stories:
A decade after she hit the gulf coast — busting flood walls and washing away neighborhoods across Louisiana and Mississippi, upending lives and ending almost 2,000 — Katrina’s name still conjures up nightmare images of homes underwater and the Superdome crammed with shocked, suffering humans.
In the months that followed, Dallas weathered the residual impact.
Of the millions left homeless, thousands landed in in our city. Hundreds of new students enrolled in Dallas and Richardson ISDs, more than 120 at Lake Highlands High School alone (northeast Dallas and Lake Highlands is home to much of the city’s affordable housing, which meant that’s where the most Katrina escapees with vouchers wound up).
Many eventually returned home, but others built new lives here.
You can tell by their accents sometimes, when you are in a restaurant or the grocery store,” one Katrina survivor says. “I’ll be in line and hear a New Orleans accent and think maybe they are one of the ones who stayed here in Dallas.”
Of the several people we interviewed — all of them connected by Hurricane Katrina — most say they can’t believe it’s been more than a decade. The memories feel fresh and there is work still to be done …
… she woke with a start. Her bed was floating.
She ran down the hall, crawled out the window and stepped in bare feet onto the roof. She sat for hours in darkness and could hardly comprehend the horror she saw in the breaking dawn — her neighborhood immersed in water, people she recognized floating face down.
She had just started the tenth grade at West Jefferson High. She attended a dance there the previous Friday. Now her school, her home, everything she owned was gone.
“Life from that night spiraled out of control,” the New Orleans native says.
Sykes’ mom, a nurse, had been summoned the previous day to help evacuate the retirement home where she worked; she kept Sykes’ 4-year-old brother in tow. Sykes spent the night with family.
An evacuation of the city was in effect, but, like thousands of lower-income New Orleans residents, Sykes and her relatives had no transportation, no place to go. Also, they were used to hurricane warnings and hoped this would be no worse than the last one — maybe some downed power lines.
She, her aunt and cousins managed to escape the flooded-out house, but they got separated in the pandemonium.
“Life from that night spiraled out of control” —Harvey Sykes
“Everything happened so fast,” Sykes says. “I remember the total darkness, because the electricity went out, and so much water. It was raining. Once I got to where I could walk, it was like standing in a tub of water up your legs.”
She recalls a fetid, frenzied post-apocalyptic atmosphere where “you did not know who to trust.”
The police, for example.
“One cop might be helpful and telling you where to go to get safe, and the next might pull a gun on you. It was just chaotic and crazy.”
She remembers boarding a crowded bus, which she rode to a shelter. Various rescue groups met her basic needs, and she was able to telephone her family, but it would be more than two months before she would see any of them again.
“It was Texas versus New Orleans.” —Harvey Sykes, on high school after Katrina
Her grandmother had found refuge with a relative in Dallas who also took in Sykes, her mother and brother.
They all reunited a week before Sykes’ 15th birthday, Nov. 23. Her grandmother enrolled her in Lake Highlands High School.
Bob Iden, principal at the time, recalls that more than 120 displaced students from Louisiana and Mississippi entered the high school that September and November.
“It was a challenging time,” he says.
He recalls that student groups, the Parent Teacher Association, neighborhood churches and nonprofits rallied to help the Katrina transplants.
A group of Boy Scouts launched a supply drive for Katrina evacuees. The LHHS National Honor Society organized a similar campaign. Spring Valley Athletic Association offered free registrations. The PTA Angels Program, a group of Lake Highlands parents, worked with school counselors to collect and distribute backpacks and school supplies.
But tension mounted.
“It was Texas versus New Orleans. We were always fighting,” Sykes recalls. “I tried to stay out of it, keep to myself. Some would try to start something, but I was like: ‘I just lost my house! I don’t know you. Leave me alone.’”
She blames herself in some ways. “I was so angry. I did a lot of bad stuff.”
One day, she says, the fighting was so out of control that several students were sent home. The way Sykes remembers it, only New Orleans kids were suspended.
Iden doesn’t remember the exact incident, but he says there “absolutely” were fights and even brawls.
Sykes overall found it difficult to adapt to Dallas culture. “I was born and raised in this small community where everyone knows each other, and then I get to Dallas and it was very different.”
“Coming of age in all of this, some students had good experiences, but you add that trauma to the already traumatic experience of emerging adulthood, some of them are still struggling.”—Farrah Gafford, PhD (studied lasting impact of Katrina on young survivors)
Social problems were just the start. The academics were far more challenging at LHHS, Sykes says. Add to that the fact that she had missed some three months of her sophomore year, and it was impossible to catch up. She had to repeat a few classes.
By her junior and senior year, things had settled at school, and Skyes “got in a groove,” she says.
Back in New Orleans, she says, she had friends, but life was hard. She experienced childhood abuse and economic troubles. As traumatic as it was, she thinks Katrina ultimately put her in a better place.
“The storm and the aftermath ripped my heart out, ruined everything I had planned for my future … but moving to Texas broadened my horizons in so many ways. I saw new opportunities.”
Today she works for a communications company and is intensely involved in her church.
“Katrina shook me up. But she dropped me in a spot that, I think, is a better place than where I would be.”
Evacuation is mandatory, the New Orleans mayor announced the morning of Aug. 28, 2005.
But Kristie Jemison’s family, like most in its socioeconomic bracket, did not consider leaving Tremé, an old neighborhood flanking the French Quarter.
“I grew up in the projects,” Jemison says. “Every year we have hurricane warnings, and they are never that bad, and we have no way to get out anyway. No car. Nowhere to go.”
Jemison’s statements echo findings in a 2007 Journal of Public Health study that showed poor and African-American residents disproportionately disregarded the Hurricane Katrina evacuation mandate for a few reasons: optimism based on riding out previous hurricanes, inconsistent evacuation orders, financial constraints and neighborhood crime.
“The next day when we woke up, there was water flooding the streets. And it was rising.”—Kristi Jemison
The Jemisons had just moved from public housing to a duplex. They still had access to their former third-floor unit. When the storm hit, they went there for the higher ground.
The hurricane itself was tolerable, Jemison recalls.
“But the next day when we woke up, there was water flooding the streets. And it was rising.”
Their home was destroyed, and inside this hot, powerless apartment they had nothing to eat or drink.
“I grew up in the projects. Every year we have hurricane warnings, and they are never that bad, and we have no way to get out anyway. No car. Nowhere to go.”—Kristi Jemison
“That’s when me and my sister went out looting,” Jemison says, voice cracking. “It was the only way for us to get food and water.” She cannot talk about this part without tears.
“We were walking through that water, seeing dead animals and at least one dead man. I was crying. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing with my own eyes.”
The stench was intensifying, and reports of violence were spreading.
“I knew people were fighting over food, killing even,” Jemison recalls. “Looters were getting shot.”
Her 16-year-old brother, Chris, learned that the hard way.
He told his sisters to stay inside. It was too dangerous in the streets for the girls. Chris joined others at a nearby store pillaging for food and supplies when a man who he believes was the shop owner opened fire.
“He was running away when the guy shot him in the leg,” Jemison says. She says Chris was rescued by helicopter from rising waters and wound up in a Dallas shelter.
He told people it was a cut on his leg, she says, because he was ashamed and scared to admit he had been shot while looting.
Back inside the apartment, over a small transistor radio, broadcasters instructed the stranded to place a white flag in a window to signal rescuers.
“We hung a white shirt, and they came,” Jemison says.
She climbed from the balcony into a tiny basket attached to a rope dangling from the helicopter. “They pulled us up, one by one, and when we asked them where we were going they said, ‘We don’t know.’”
The helicopter deposited the women on a stretch of sun-soaked land near the airport.
After a lengthy wait, they boarded a bus to a shelter at a military base in Fort Chase, Ark.
“There, it was a mess,” Jemison says. “Hundreds of people in this big room. There was a guy on the cot next to me holding a big gun. I was so scared. I did not sleep the whole time there.”
They reached a family member who had spoken to Chris — he was alive.
Jemison’s mom used a small amount of salvaged money on bus fare to Dallas, where altruistic strangers from a local church helped them find her brother.
They lived several weeks in the pop-up shelter. Dedicated volunteers there helped them secure a Lake Highlands-area apartment, funded in part by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
She entered 10th grade at LHHS and school brought a new set of troubles.
For one thing, Jemison had been wearing the same clothing for weeks. “I wore the same thing every day to school and, you know how kids can be, they said negative things.”
LHHS students teased Katrina evacuees and told them to “swim back to where you came from,” she says.
Katrina students were easily baited, says Jemison, because they were hurting, vulnerable and ready to snap back.
The dynamic led to fights and that big brawl between groups of students; Jemison remembers staffers locking the Katrina students in a foyer until things calmed down.
“They treated us like animals, some of them,” she says.
But for every hateful interaction there was a loving one. One Lake Highlands resident took Jemison and her siblings shopping for a new wardrobe. Others donated school supplies and toiletries.
Over time, many of the unwelcoming or aggressive Lake Highlands students got to know their new classmates and grew more sympathetic, Jemison believes.
She battled cultural and academic shock and a lengthy period of depression. But by senior year she was so popular her peers voted her 2008 homecoming queen.
“Yeah,” she says, “I guess that was progress.”
Today she works at a Richardson company called OneExchange and is an aspiring actress who has landed notable roles.
In “Treme,” an HBO show about her old neighborhood, Jemison played a bystander at a parade that erupts in violence.
She played a gang member in the movie “Get Hard” starring Kevin Hart and Will Ferrell. Most recently she had a nonspeaking part in “Hot Tub Time Machine 2.”
Because she survived Katrina during her formative years, she says, the event shaped the way she sees everything.
“Katrina made me real humble. When you have everything taken, you can’t help but get humble. I understand now that you can have everything taken from you at any time.”
… left town after the mayor issued the mandatory evacuation notice. She was among the last to make it out before the storm that drastically changed her life’s course.
Gafford grew up in Lake Highlands and attended Richardson ISD schools including LHHS.
She moved to New Orleans in 2001 and was nearing the end of graduate studies at Tulane University in August of 2005.
“I would always get out of town when there was a hurricane, but my boyfriend convinced me we could hunker down in New Orleans,” she recalls. “Then my dad called Sunday morning from Dallas and asked me to come home. We made it to Olive Branch, Miss., at midnight and watched the storm on TV.”
Gafford had been renting in a higher-elevation neighborhood, and her place was not as badly damaged as most, but she found it impossible to return to the city right away. It was worse than predicted, she says.
“How do you replace your whole life?”
While she did not face the immediate intense suffering experienced by those who stayed, every area of Gafford’s life was impacted. Tulane endured such immense destruction that its campus closed indefinitely. Gafford’s graduate program dissolved and the neighborhood she was researching for her sociology doctorate no longer existed.
“How do you replace your whole life? That is what I was thinking,” she says.
Immediately following the storm, Gafford moved in with her family in Dallas. She says she encountered an outpouring of generosity from Lake Highlands people, but having spoken with many survivors, she also has heard the narrative of evacuees being treated badly.
She began to study the sociological impact of Katrina and its aftermath on people who were adolescents and teens when the hurricane struck. She interviewed more than 30 18- to 25-year-old survivors and wrote a chapter in the book, “Rethinking Disaster Recovery” examining the career paths of African American emerging adults in post-Katrina New Orleans. From her studies she is able to confirm that young people who came from New Orleans to Lake Highlands likely transferred to a superior educational system, which might have paid off for them in the long run, though it was undoubtedly a difficult adjustment.
She notes that young people (like Harvie Sykes and Kristie Jemison) suffered in many ways: First, there is the traumatic initial impact, and many of them had residual symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder; second, they had continuing stress as they were forced to adjust to new environments, the loss of friends and culture, a new and more-challenging school system, often after having missed several months of school.
“Coming of age in all of this, some students had good experiences, but you add that trauma to the already traumatic experience of emerging adulthood, some of them are still struggling.”
Why were some of the transplants to Lake Highlands mistreated?
Gafford believes it had to do partly with “around-the-clock images in the media of people behaving wrongly in the Katrina aftermath, abusing the system, but without proper context.”
Maybe recognizing that some of those looters were 15- and 16-year-old kids looking for food and water, that those who did not evacuate likely had no option, would have quelled the criticism.
“What does poverty look like? Many did not understand. Living in the suburbs, for example, you don’t think of people not having cars, credit cards to stay in a hotel — some did not have a choice,” Gafford says.
After eventually earning her PH.D from Tulane in 2008, Gafford became an associate professor at Xavier University of Louisiana where she taught sociology until last year. She continued to research Katrina as it related to urban sociology and sociology of family, race and ethnicity.
She recently married and, six months ago, had a child and has moved back
The congregation at St. Patrick’s Church on Ferndale and Walnut Hill knows Earlin Vincent as an outstanding soprano. Most know, because she often speaks fondly of her hometown, she is a New Orleans native who came to our neighborhood as a result of Hurricane Katrina.
Her sunny personality belies the painful memories that surface when she talks about the storm that destroyed her home and uprooted her life.
“I was finally in my retirement dream house,” she says with a wistful smile.
She was born and reared in the Seventh Ward; in 2001 she had retired from her job as a schoolteacher and was remodeling a home in Eastern New Orleans. In semi-retirement, she taught voice lessons at Xavier University and served as cantor at St. Dominic’s. She “loved, loved, loved” it.
When the evacuations were ordered, Vincent did not think twice: she booked a room at the nearest available hotel, in Beaumont, Texas. Her elderly parents were another story.
“My dad and mom did not want to leave. I had to make them come with me.”
She remembers the mayor on the news pleading for people to evacuate and asking ministers to offer transportation for those in need.
The main reason she left, she says, was because she heard the storm would hit category four or five, and she expected electricity and water would be out for several days. It wasn’t because she anticipated the flooding or devastation that occurred once the levees broke, she says.
From a hotel lobby, she and her family and other evacuees watched TV.
Mostly they sat in silent disbelief.
“It was very quiet during those days. Sometimes someone would start crying,” she says.
She remembers seeing images of the street signs in her neighborhood, water reaching their tops.
Based on the footage, Vincent and her parents, who lived in the Gentilly neighborhood, knew their homes were underwater.
“When I realized [the swirls of color muddied on the floor were] my pictures, I just felt queasy.”—Earlin Vincent
She had packed enough clothing for three days. Before she left, she had placed her most valued possession, a collection of family and teaching photo albums, on a high shelf.
She got lucky, she says. “Out of the blue” a friend of her brother offered up his empty three-bedroom condominium in the Lake Highlands area.
“When he saw us, he hugged my brother and told us about how my brother had once helped him,” she says. When we arrived, members of his church brought blankets, clothes, food.
“It was the first time I cried through the whole thing,” Vincent says.
She cried again when she returned to the remnants of her home — St. Dominic’s church was covered in mold, piles of wood replaced houses, the dirty residue of 6 feet of water was visible on her walls and the photos were nothing but swirls of color muddied on the floor.
“When I realized that was my pictures, I just felt queasy.”
Soon after landing in Lake Highlands, Vincent attended church at St. Patrick’s.
“The organist was playing a Bach Prelude that blew me away,” she recalls. “It’s rare that you hear that in church.”
After mass she asked to audition for the choir.
“I was told to come to rehearsal Wednesday, and the rest is history.”
Vincent and her 90-year-old mother — her father died four years ago — live in a home in Garland now, in a subdivision that she says reminds her of New Orleans.
“I was 65 and did not want to go start over in a city that also needed to catch up. The neighborhoods I grew up in are gone.”
Aside from serving as cantor at St. Patrick’s, Vincent leads the children’s choir and has produced two music CDs.
While she suffered some loss, Vincent says she can’t complain. “We lost no lives. And I have made many friends here. I miss my students from Xavier, but I am where I am supposed to be. And my mother is very comfortable here.”
When the anniversaries come and the images of Hurricane Katrina show up on TV again, Vincent cannot look. “It reminds me too much of those still suffering. Those who have never recovered,” she says. “Materials were lost, but also some people lost some irreplaceable thing within themselves. I only suffer for them and for those who died.”
Steve and Rachel Roberts- Pickett
Except the spotlight illuminating Steve Pickett for his live broadcast, Slidell, La., was pitch-dark. Beneath Pickett’s steady voiceover rolled grisly images from the preceding days: homes underwater and residents on rooftops or wading through dark, waist-high water; faces distorted by pain, confusion and heartbreak; human limbs and hair peeking out from beneath piles of rubble.
Pickett traveled to Louisiana to cover Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, he says, but when floodwaters marooned a city and many of its inhabitants, he became a part of an historic event.
“Like most weather-related stories, we had a team set up to cover Katrina,” the CBS 11 reporter says. He and other reporters took shifts at disaster areas in the weeks following the storm.
“But once we got there, it was clear this was not a weather story but an event, and there is a big difference. Now it is about lives.”
The local news teams in New Orleans had lost everything, their studios and equipment, so reporters such as Pickett were invaluable to the Katrina coverage.
At first, Pickett and his cameraman Billy Sexton spent nights in the CBS news truck as they covered outskirts of New Orleans, such as Slidell and Mandeville, La., and Pass Christian, Miss.
“Once the levees broke, there was no getting into New Orleans,” he says.
Sexton had family in the region.
“Billy’s brother took us in one night. His mother’s home, in Mandeville, was destroyed. Billy worked nonstop while he and his family dealt with the destruction. I don’t know how he did it.”
“We saw another woman with a broom, sweeping the street, a dead body only yards away from her feet — all she said to us was, ‘I am not a refugee.'”—Steve Pickett
There was no shortage of shocking news from the suburbs.
“Nothing was left,” Pickett says of the homes and businesses that once populated the area. He recalls the sound of gunshots ripping through the night during one of his live spots, when he was the only visible thing within miles — a target, he feared. The generator-equipped news truck was an added hazard, he says, because of the lack of functioning vehicles in the area.
“There were people who wanted ours.”
What the newsmen encountered when they finally reached New Orleans was even worse — “indescribable,” Pickett says.
Desperate survivors begged them to broadcast messages to loved ones — “Tell them I am alive,” they pleaded, names scrawled on hoisted cardboard signs.
Pickett and Sexton helped a broken elderly couple they found trudging in the blazing sun. “We knew they would die if we didn’t help, so we took them to a makeshift command center where they at least stood a chance,” Pickett recalls. “We had to leave them. We asked a stranger to look after them. We saw another woman with a broom, sweeping the street, a dead body only yards away from her feet — all she said to us was, ‘I am not a refugee.’”
Pickett, a longtime Lake Highlands resident, won an Emmy for his Iraq War coverage. He has been on the scene following F5 tornadoes. He’s covered every sort of atrocity. More recently he reported from the site of an earthquake in Haiti, which caused greater casualties than Katrina.
But Katrina stays with him, more than anything.
“To see a city underwater, all hell broken loose, it changes you. You don’t think this can happen in an American city.”
Pickett tried to balance his rescue and reporter modes. He slept in the truck and vacant buildings. His live reports ran during the 5 and 6 a.m. and the 5 and 10 p.m. newscasts.
He rode on rescue boats. Even in the 6-foot high waters, some refused to leave their homes.
“They were in shock. The rescuers were begging them to come and some wouldn’t. As a reporter you have to try to remain objective, but I wanted to scream.”
He realizes there were rampant reports of looting and violence, but that generally was not his experience.
“I saw people in desperate situations who needed help. We saw and documented the efforts to save people. We saw thousands of people getting on buses, no idea where they were going. Older people, a woman who looks just like your grandmother, walking toward you, lost, confused, her lifelong home is underwater, she doesn’t know where her family is or where this bus is taking her, and there is nothing you can do.”
“Whole towns were obliterated. You hear about the devastation in New Orleans but all these other places looked like a bomb had blown them apart. It almost felt obscene to be there — to this day I can smell the smell of death. You can’t prepare for that.”—Rachel Roberts Pickett
Steve Pickett returned from a long assignment in the Middle East in early 2005. His future-wife Rachel Roberts-Pickett was preparing to graduate Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.
After years of grueling workloads, the couple looked forward to time together at their Town Creek home.
A monster storm was brewing over the gulf, though, and it would keep the pair apart for most of the next five years.
Roberts-Pickett had just started her first post-education job as a management development associate with the City of Dallas when Pickett left for flood-ravaged Louisiana.
During the two weeks he was there, she was at her new job, coming out of her skin.
“It was one of those things, something happens, you feel compelled to go,” she says. “I had the training and felt I could play a key role, but I was here, in Dallas, not doing anything to contribute.”
Looking into various recovery efforts, she found an opening with Hagerty Consulting, which was outsourced by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to help cities recover from Katrina damage.
She left her job of two weeks and relocated to Mississippi. It was drastic, but she says she had no doubt this was “what she needed to be doing.”
Pickett was not happy to see his longtime girlfriend go at practically the moment he returned, but they are the type of couple that encourages one another’s oft-extreme drives and passions.
In her new gig, Roberts-Pickett wrote grants that would help municipalities receive funding for removal of debris, restoration of public infrastructures and emergency protective measures. This involved 60- to 80-hour workweeks visiting disaster sites and interviewing an endless parade of aid applicants whose lives had been toppled by the storm. She worked in environments with spotty electricity and no potable water and witnessed a ghastly amount of ruin to hundreds of cities along the Gulf Coast.
“Whole towns were obliterated. You hear about the devastation in New Orleans but all these other places looked like a bomb had blown them apart. It almost felt obscene to be there — to this day I can smell the smell of death. You can’t prepare for that,” Roberts-Pickett says. “Maybe military people can understand, but most people would find this unfathomable. And the people I worked with — they probably shouldn’t have — but they stayed to rebuild. They fought. It teaches you a lesson about life and resilience.”
She returned to Lake Highlands regularly and always planned to move back after the Katrina work was finished — but it never was. She stayed for more than five years, marrying Pickett in 2007.
She only came home when she was seven months pregnant with the couple’s now 4-year old son Syeed. (Pickett’s 23-year-old son, Patrick, is a LHHS graduate.)
In the years his wife was away, Pickett continued to cover major events both locally and abroad.
He reported frequently on Dallas schools and neighborhoods impacted by the influx of Katrina evacuees.
“Lake Highlands and nearby areas like Vickery Meadow and communities just west of Central Expressway were inundated with an incredible amount of people, many who made a new start here, many who have become a part of the fabric of Lake Highlands. You can’t go to any part of our city, even now, really, without feeling Katrina’s impact.”
Both Pickett and his wife feel a strong, lasting connection to New Orleans and the area, and they visit often, taking historic tours and patronizing local bed and breakfasts.
Here at home, they run into people from Louisiana and Mississippi in grocery stores and restaurants (“we know their accents,” Roberts-Pickett says) and strike up conversations. Their house is filled with art and music influenced by New Orleans culture.
Their Hurricane Katrina experiences began as jobs but ultimately touched something deep inside their souls.
“You are invested in the recovery, as invested as the people who live there,” Roberts-Pickett says.
The Picketts agree Katrina changed them, taught them that when something happens of this magnitude, you don’t have to stand on the sidelines, you can throw yourself into doing what you can do.
At best, the experience changed our society collectively, Pickett adds.
“You learn a lot in disaster. Hopefully lessons learned from Katrina transcend to other situations.”