Katrina: Idahoans’ stories 10 years after the storm

Elisabeth Ratcliff-Tate, Garden City

Avon bottles, adoption papers, a pet turtle among the rubble

Ratcliff-Tate, now retired, managed political campaigns, including that of former Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Marilyn Howard.

Ratcliff-Tate says she goes everywhere in her camper, including once driving to Nova Scotia by herself. The year after the storm, she drove that camper south to St. Bernard Parish, La., as a volunteer with the Boise Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. She and other volunteers from Boise met up with Habitat for Humanity for a weeklong stay.

St. Bernard’s Parish, a New Orleans suburb, had been under 15 feet of water after Katrina. Ratcliff-Tate joined a team whose task was gutting houses, leaving nothing standing but the studs. Certain kinds of questions — questions that would have been odd in any other context — came up with regularity. One example: Should you try to clean a tub that’s filled with black mold, or should you just take it out and dump it in the yard?

“Everything we saw was tumbled, like a washing machine,” recalled Ratcliff-Tate.

The water had receded months ago, but a stench of mold and rot still filled the air. Garbage and wheelbarrows filled with carpeting, drywall, cabinets and more sat in front yards. Some houses were in better shape than others. In many instances, said Ratcliff-Tate, it was unclear who owned the houses the crews were clearing.

Volunteers often came across people’s most personal possessions. Adoption papers in one case, a family’s pet turtle in another.

“We tried to be sensitive to people’s privacy. Because here we were, strangers pawing through their belongings,” said Ratcliff-Tate.

She and the other volunteers on her team stayed in touch for a while after the experience, “but little by little, people went their own way,” Ratcliff-Tate said.

Her experience as a volunteer came with some ambivalence.

“We really didn’t understand what this was all about and why we were doing this. Were people going to come back? Were they going to rebuild? Were they going to scrape the property? We didn’t know, and we still don’t know. But we all pitched in and did what we thought we were supposed to do at the time,” said Ratcliff-Tate.

She brought home one memento: an Avon bottle given to her by the woman who owned the pet turtle.

Wanda Jennings, Boise

“Driving down the street, you’d see refrigerators, dressers and clothes, just piled out there.”

Jennings is a retired teacher from Jefferson Elementary School in Boise

Jennings also traveled to Louisiana with the Boise Unitarian Universalist Fellowship to St. Bernard’s Parish the spring after the storm.

“March seemed like it was removed from the event, but houses still needed to be gutted, streets needed to be cleared. Driving down the street you’d see refrigerators, dressers and clothes, just piled out there,” said Jennings.

She remembers walking into houses where rugs were wet and rotting. Jennings saw FEMA trailers parked throughout the neighborhood. She also heard stories of residents who had trailers, but no one had given them the keys to get inside. Jennings stayed in a tent with about 40 other volunteers. It was uncomfortable and noisy, “but after a day of working, you were tired. You just went in there and slept,” said Jennings.

Her crew gutted four homes. Residents thanked the volunteers.

“They were really appreciative. But it was an odd encounter as you were carrying the junk out of their houses,” said Jennings.

When she came back home to Idaho, Jennings shared stories with her students. She wrote an essay noting the many people she’d met in Louisiana, including Ray, a man whose extended family lost 40 homes in the storm. Ray was most heartbroken about losing the videos of his son’s baseball games. He’d spent years recording them.

Jennings wrote, “As we left he was crying as he found a laminated picture of his son’s team that had survived.”

Allyson McNabb, Boise

“That’s what makes the South so special, the resilience.”

McNabb was a high school student in Conway, Ark., when Katrina hit.

Like lots of small towns surrounding the storm zone, Conway offered shelter to those who had to leave their homes. McNabb remembers hundreds of people arriving by bus and taking up lodging in the city’s sports complex. Some of the people on the bus were still wearing wet clothes.

“There were 500 cots set up, and air mattresses. People were coming and going,” McNabb said.

Her father is a doctor. He volunteered to provide medical care at the sports complex. McNabb and her mother baby-sat kids while their parents used computers to try to find loved ones. McNabb also helped set up a makeshift grocery store at the complex where people could choose the food they wanted and have some semblance of normalcy.

McNabb was just a teenager, but even at that age she remembers being offended by news reporters and even some volunteers, who seemed to have come to the storm zone as an adventure and “didn’t respect peoples’ stories.”

“That bothered me, people coming for their own self-glory,” said McNabb.

She wants people to know that the storm remains a part of many Southerners’ lives. Katrina affected those who lost their belongings and homes but also affected the people called upon to help.

“The storm is a thing that happened. Down there people are resilient, strong. That’s what makes the South so special, the resilience,” said McNabb.

Carol Pfeiffer, Boise

The city of New Orleans, lit only from the lights on suspension bridges

Pfeiffer is a quality health record analyst at Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center in Boise.

Pfeiffer was a member of the Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center’s Life Flight team when Katrina hit. Then-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne asked the team, as well as that of St. Luke’s, to accompany National Guard troops to bring chronically ill patients back to Idaho for medical care. Two C-130 planes carrying medical crews from both local hospitals traveled to Louisiana shortly after the storm.

Pfeiffer, who was a paramedic RN, said crews packed the planes with water, medical supplies and a couple of pallets of Power Bars. She and the other medical workers were used to flying, but being in the C-130 was a different kind of experience altogether, she said, with its open cabin, lots of noise, and a bucket in the back of the plane in lieu of a bathroom.

The planes left from Gowen Field and several hours later were flying over an eerie sight, the city of New Orleans, virtually dark save for the lights on suspension bridges.

“That was the first time it hit us, where we were going,” said Pfeiffer.

The C-130s flew to Houston. There were no ground crews, so the crews from each rescue plane that landed got out and waved the next plane in. That was just one of many examples Pfeiffer said she saw of people willing to help each other in unexpected ways. The medical crews sped to the Houston Astrodome, where they encountered “people everywhere,” said Pfeiffer. The complex’s weight room had been converted into a ward for patients in delicate conditions, dependent on oxygen, and those who had come from nursing homes.

Each C-130 carried about 15 patients, mostly elderly, mostly afraid, to Idaho. One woman told Pfeiffer she was leaving everything she knew behind.

“I told the patients we were taking them to a place where there would be more people to care for them,” said Pfeiffer.

She helped one elderly couple get in touch with their daughter for the first time since the storm. Pfeiffer contacted the daughter to tell her that her parents were safe, a call that gave Pfeiffer goosebumps, she said.

The planes landed in Boise in the middle of the night. Kempthorne was there to greet each patient and shake each of their hands.

Some of the patients went back to the South after receiving care. Some moved into local nursing homes and lived the remainder of their lives in Idaho.

Colby Spath, Boise

Always aware of the anniversary of Katrina

Spath grew up in Metairie, a New Orleans suburb, and lived in New Orleans at the time of the storm. He tends bar at The Modern Hotel, works for Radio Boise and DJs a few times a month at Neurolux.

In 2005, Spath lived in one half of a double shotgun house in the Irish Channel neighborhood and owned an Uptown record store, Rocks Off, named for the Rolling Stones song. A native of the South, he had lived through storms before. He had no intention of leaving the city because of Katrina. His plans changed Saturday night, the night before New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin issued a mandatory evacuation order. Spath and a friend left for Baton Rouge at midnight. The normally one-hour trip took seven hours because of the traffic, said Spath.

Today, a decade removed from the storm, he says he didn’t realize how profound and long that journey to Baton Rouge would be.

His house in New Orleans didn’t flood, it was built 5 feet above ground, but the roof leaked. He lost all of his clothes and other belongings. Spath had planned to go to graduate school to study 19th century American religion. He had close to 2,000 books in storage and a file cabinet of research, all lost. At his store, an entire wall collapsed. His office and computers were ruined, along with much of his inventory.

What followed was an odyssey that included an unsuccessful attempt to get a loan to rebuild his store, a relocation to Austin, then New York City, and eventually back to New Orleans.

“But it wasn’t the same,” said Spath. “There are different people now. It’s a port city, that’s the way it should be, but ...”

Longtime residents talk about shifting demographics of New Orleans neighborhoods and post-storm gentrification. Spath experienced it firsthand. His apartment that had cost $700 a month cost $1,250 when he moved back in 2008. Starting new businesses, which he’d done a number of times, was now financially out of reach for him in New Orleans. He had friends in Boise. He came to visit and decided to stay.

“Being from a swamp climate, and living in big cities like Chicago, New York and Austin, I liked the idea of living in a place with mountains and rivers,” he said.

The people who stayed in New Orleans during the storm and beyond now see themselves as “better New Orleaneans” than those who left, said Spath, a sentiment that makes the city feel more unfamiliar to him despite his deep roots there.

He’s always aware of the anniversary of Katrina.

“You can’t help but notice it. You’re bombarded on social media,” he said.

Other traces remain.

“Even now, at work at the Modern. If someone screws up something, we’ll say, ‘You’re doing a heck of a job, Brownie’” said Spath, an allusion to then President George Bush’s often-criticized praise of FEMA Director Michael Brown.

Like so many others, Spath said he was on the receiving end of true generosity from friends and strangers because of the storm. When he was trying to get resettled, friends in Chicago threw a party to raise money for him. They sent him a check for $1,200. The money helped him move what remained out of his record store.

He still wonders at the strangeness of the storm and its effects.

“On that Saturday night when I left New Orleans, I had a business. I was getting to know someone I cared for a lot. I had a great part-time job in a local music club and an amazing apartment. My best friends lived next door,” said Spath.

“You think you’re leaving for a couple days then you’re going back to normal. And you never do.”