On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina passed east of New Orleans, Louisiana.
It was a huge and powerful storm. The tidal surge destroyed the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The failure of the levee system destroyed the New Orleans of my childhood. The New Orleans I knew and loved.
I was living my dream as the owner of an upscale take-out business and café in the heart of New Orleans. It was in a beautiful old house with big oak trees in front. Hurricanes have always been a way of life for New Orleanians. It is another excuse for a time to gather, cook, eat, drink, and take care of one another.
Not this time.
This time it was every man for himself. No one had a clue that the levees would break but the size and the energy of the storm was enough to not even have a thought of buying beer and staying.
I had a catering event for 750 people that evening. My refrigerators were packed with steamship rounds of beef, sides of salmon and every kind of food you can imagine. I locked up my business, hugged my employees and neighbors and locked the door. I thought about not leaving.
My cousin, who is like the brother I didn’t have, begged me to get in the car and drive to Dallas, Texas His job had transferred him there from New Orleans 7 years before.
I gave in, and grabbed only a few things for 3 reasons-
1. I was only going to Dallas for a few days,
2. I waited too long to evacuate and I had to get moving, and
3. I was only going to Dallas for a few days.
I packed t-shirts, shorts, a bathing suit, my laptop and some Seinfeld DVD’s. I called my vet and asked him to have kitty Valium ready for me to pick up. I put my two cats, Yin and Yang in their carriers.
I decided to head north, then west. I drove away from New Orleans feeling a bit scared, but I decided to think of it as a mini-vacation.
It takes 8 hours to get from new New Orleans to Dallas. This time it took 24. The interstates were on “contraflow,” which means all of the lanes are going one way. I went a whopping 2-5 mph and on the side of the interstate. I watched people’s cars overheat and people suffering from heat stroke, waving t-shirts with the words, “Please help us.”
I think this was the first time in my life I can remember experiencing discrimination. A group of cars got off of an exit in Mississippi to find a place to sleep. There were hand-written signs made of poster-board saying,
“NO BATHROOMS OR BEDS AVAILABLE FOR EVACUEES.”
The others kept looking for a place, but I got back on the interstate and kept driving. I finally found a Hampton Inn. I pulled up to the door. Same sign, so I pulled into a spot in the parking lot under a light, went to the bathroom in the parking lot and slept in my car. Yin and Yang were knocked out.
Every time I’d fall asleep, the sweat would start pouring from my body and I’d wake up to start the car and run the air conditioning. I did this about 5 times, until finally I said, “Screw it,” and started the car in search of coffee.
I crossed the Texas state line at 9:00 a.m. and I cried. I called my cousin’s house and his wife Janis answered. I said I made it. She started crying. I arrived at their house around 11:00 a.m.
We got the cats settled and made drinks while watching the weather channel the entire time. The storm had passed through Louisiana and Mississippi. Everything seemed fine. I left the room for a few minutes and I heard my cousin’s wife scream,
“OH MY GOD, THE LEVEES BROKE. NEW ORLEANS IS UNDERWATER.”
At that exact moment my whole world seemed to kick into slow motion and it felt like I was in a tunnel. We were in stunned disbelief and then I don’t remember much after staring at my city under water on the television. For the following three weeks I didn’t know if I still had a home to go back to in New Orleans. I don’t think I did much of anything, but stare out into space lost in a sea of shock and stress.
My best friend, Howard had evacuated to Galveston, Texas. He finally contacted me to tell me that he had to now evacuate from where he had evacuated to because Hurricane Rita was heading towards where he was in Galveston. My family converted their office into a bedroom. We had another human and another cat needing shelter on the way.
Howard and I ended up getting an apartment together and I thought about getting a job at Whole Foods in Dallas, Texas. I had no real dreams at the time. I was surviving on auto-pilot. I was just living from day to day waiting for word, or a reason to go back. I couldn’t think about tomorrow and I wouldn’t think about the past. It was too painful. My family furnished the apartment for us and many churches gave us clothes, shoes and necessities. I had never before asked for anything in my life. I felt humiliated and depressed.
I felt hopeless.
I told Howard that we should both get physicals and talk to a doctor. I guessed that I needed antidepressants because I was barely functioning and I could see that Howard wasn’t doing too well either, so to the doctor we went. Howard’s blood work came back all over the place. The doctor ordered a CT and they found stage 4 lymphoma. My whole life would change again. I ditched the idea of working for Whole Foods as I began to take care of my dying friend.
I went back to New Orleans on a press pass before anyone was allowed back into the city. A good friend (who was living outside of New Orleans in a pop up trailer with her son after losing everything) wanted to go into the city with me. Once again, I was in denial. I responded that I was strong enough to do it alone and that everything would be OK. I needed to know how my home was doing. I needed to be able to make some sort of plans.
She begged me to let her come. I picked her up and she took my car keys. She insisted on driving me.
When we got to New Orleans I saw dead animals everywhere. I saw dead human bodies. I saw cars in trees. I saw houses in the middle of the street. I saw children’s stuffed animals and blankets in trees. I couldn’t move or speak. It was too much to take in all at once. It was like nothing I’d ever imagined in my worst nightmares.
We arrived at my home and everything appeared fine. The glass on my front door was broken from the National Guard going in to check if anyone was dead inside. I walked in to the house and I heard water pouring. My house didn’t flood but ¾ of the roof came off, so the ceilings collapsed and it had rained in the walls. The mold had started to set in.
All I could do was walk in a circle until my friend led me out of the house. She said,
“Take care of it by calling the insurance company. There is nothing you can do. Now, would you like to go visit my sister or would you like to go to The French Quarter and drink?”
I just looked at her and said nothing.
The French Quarter was not affected and 90% of the bars were open. We sat at a bar, drank and talked to others. The owner had a charcoal grill outside and was grilling burgers and selling them.
I decided that I needed to go back to Dallas, Texas. Once I was back, Howard’s daughter came to Dallas from Birmingham, Alabama to get her father and take him back with her to die. I hugged him so tightly that I thought about never letting go. He said in my ear,
“I don’t know if I will ever see you again. I’m not going to be here much longer.”
It was December 1st, 2005 when he left. I stayed in the apartment to move the furniture out. I cleaned. I went to the liquor store. I sat on the floor in this empty apartment and drank until I was numb. I decided that I had to return to my home in New Orleans.
Living in New Orleans after Katrina was worse than the levees breaking. I was trying to salvage my parent’s home and fighting with the insurance company and FEMA. I lived with no electricity for 3 months and slept on my sofa wrapped in a comforter with a lantern on the floor. Yin and Yang were still with me and toughing it out too.
I finally got some men to replace my roof and do some work on my home. My cell phone started ringing at odd hours when I was home alone. It was always a man’s voice who would say,
“I am working in the neighborhood and we are watching you come and go. You live alone. We are going to rape and kill you.”
I bought a .38 Special and hollow point bullets. The gun went everywhere with me. I prayed to die before being gang-raped and killed. I drank until I passed out so that I wouldn’t care or know if I was being traumatized.
In June 2006, a client who lived in Sonoma, California called me. She had been searching for me on the Internet — trying to find out if I had survived. She asked me how I was. I said I had contemplated suicide several times. But in speaking with her I suddenly realized I had a new dream. My new dream was to leave New Orleans forever because I didn’t want to die there. And I knew if I stayed I would die.
She flew me to Sonoma for a week to get my head together. I looked around. It was my dream place that I didn’t know I had been dreaming of. It was so completely beautiful that words cannot describe what I thought as I looked upon the rolling hills, the oak trees, the rows and rows of vineyards, the soft blue skies with their puffy clouds and the gentle ocean breeze that came up from San Francisco through the Delta every afternoon. The birds seem to sing along with the cattle and everyone loved drinking wine with their meals. Had I died and gone to heaven?
My new goal became to figure out a way to move to Sonoma County, but I didn’t know how I was going to swing it. I had gone through my savings to try to fix my home.
And like the universe always does in these situations if you don’t panic — I received that phone call.
Howard passed away May 15, 2006. He told me before he died,
“Maria, you are a beautiful and talented woman. Your dream is to cook. Please consider starting your life somewhere else. You can do it!”
Howard’s daughter told me her father left me in his will. He had a letter for me and enough money for me to move somewhere else to begin my life all over again. He died and gave me new life.
I moved to Sonoma County, California on September 17, 2006. I was 52 pounds heavier, diagnosed with Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and my blood pressure was 220/110, but this was where disaster brought me —
It’s proof that you’ve got to hang on to your dreams no matter what you are going through. You have to believe that everything will work out if you don’t give up. You have to let people know if you have fallen on hard times because you never know where help may come from. People can’t help you if you won’t let them. I am living proof that you can survive. I am living proof that you can start a new life all over from scratch. It may not go the way you want, but if you are open to the idea that you can do it, then the universe begins offering you other options.
I recently visited new Orleans for the 1st time in almost 6 years.
Here is the video I shot in Treme, an historic neighborhood of New Orleans, Louisiana. Notice my voice and shortness of breath. It was from the mold in the air:
If you are in a place where you feel stuck — that unhappy, hopeless place where you think you can’t make your dream a reality … read this blog over and over until your faith returns. Contact me. No one said it was easy, but if you can dream it, you can do it. You can survive and start a new life.
Paul McCartney’s quote about the song, “The Long and Winding Road” is this:
“I was a bit flipped out and tripped out at that time. It’s a sad song because it’s all about the unattainable; the door you never quite reach. This is the road that you never get to the end of.“
My dream was waiting for me at the end of a long and winding road that lead to Northern California. Dream roads are waiting for you too. They can end well. No one said that it was going to be easy. What are you waiting for?
Here is an interview I did with HuffPost Live: