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The following introduction was written at the request of the Surviving Katrina and Rita in Houston project director, Carl Lindahl. Excerpts of this introduction and my godmother’s interview are in the Summer 2010 issue of Houston History Magazine. You can hear excerpts from Marie Barney’ interview on the Surviving Katrina and Rita in Houston website. Please do not re-print or publish without my express written permission.

Introduction to My Godmother’s Interview

by Shari L. Smothers, 2006

Telling my story has become part and parcel of the telling of other people’s stories. I recount them to others and I remember them to myself, so they’ve become a part of my intellectual history. I know things about Hurricane Katrina and her aftermath from returning to the city and listening to the stories that people were willing to share with me. It won’t be an old story for a long time to come because it’s not only about the hurricane. It’s about the shortfalls in the operations of the city before the storm as well as governmental neglect after the fact. It’s still evolving. Certainly, the story continues growing as it is retold today, during this first hurricane season since Hurricane Katrina and throughout the debate and division over the city’s renovation.

When I returned to New Orleans for the first time, I saw a wretched mess in my home; water was still held inside from the front to the back of my rented shotgun half of a duplex. I practically splashed with each step on the carpeted floor as I walked through, back to the kitchen where the old linoleum floor held puddles in places. Every rain came in through two holes in the ceilings in the front room and kitchen, sealing the fate of much of the contents of my home.

After, I visited my parents’ home. Since I didn’t have my key to their door, I went around the side to look over their brick fence into the yard. The familiar picture I hoped to see was torn away, replaced by what seemed to be the aftermath of a demolition job. The decks that my dad built were at odd angles and I couldn’t see the fountain that had been in the center of the yard. The water level was revealed by lines that wrapped around the house. Flooding had done this damage; it only looked like the work of a wrecking ball.

Even though I cognitively grasp the fact that at some point the water reached five feet, through the light switches inside my parents’ home, I can hardly imagine swimming down Morrison Road and around the corner up Strathmore. Literally, there was no way to simply walk through the streets. We would’ve had to swim or use boats. With no warning, after the storm, the water rose; would we have had enough time to get any food to the second floor? How long might we have had to remain up there before we'd be found? Thankfully, we did not have these issues to contend with.

Hearing the stories from people riding in the rescue boats and looking down into the water at the tops of drowned vehicles, in some cases at the tops of houses, would be unfathomable if I hadn’t seen snippets on the news, or photographs on the Internet. Going home to see those water lines throughout my city was at times overwhelming. And talking with people, sharing stories, seeing the devastation, all worked together in a healing manner, helping me to begin to find a place for this enormous thing that happened in varying degrees to me, to us. Going home and sharing stories and information seemed to help me, greatly.

Watching CNN after the storm, I was immediately skeptical of the footage. They showed only limited areas in the city: short clips of the same section of bridges and streets-turned-waterways that immediately made me wonder what was not being shown. Everyone from New Orleans with whom I spoke was watching CNN and other channels. We all had the same question: when will they show the rest of the highways, the city? As it became possible to communicate with the people still in the city and those freshly evacuated, it became clear that what I and others had suspected was definitely true; the coverage was censored and I was disappointed. For something so familiar to me and my family, to be unable to see the details of the devastation on any channel was unsettling in itself. My father watched the news all day, and asked, what about my house? All the channels, it seemed, coordinated efforts to withhold the truth. I had to rely on the words of friends and family-along with the talkative strangers that I ran into from time to time-to tell me what was really happening there. Channels compete on one level and they conspire on another-it reminds me of a scene in Conspiracy Theory starring Mel Gibson.

Once it set in that we were not going to be able to return home, families began to get on with the necessary things. First, the children need to be in schools. Parents found schools for their children by word of mouth and referral and guesswork. Things began to happen that surprised me a little. There were fights breaking out at some schools amongst the children. New Orleans children fought with Houston children. After one such event, the parents were being interviewed. A particularly offensive news clip that aired then still sticks with me. It featured a woman bitterly spitting out, “They need ta go back where they came from!” That segment was looped over and again in the news trailer, reinforcing the sensationalist predisposition of the media, those cliffhanger ratings chasers: “—Details at six.”

This parent wished to send back a large group of people to New Orleans when most of the neighborhoods had no running water, no electricity, schools incapable of reopening, and severely impaired healthcare facilities. She wished New Orleans parents and children to return to an unclean city, unhealthy living conditions, and unknown health hazards. It’s my hope that she hadn’t considered such facts.

As late as May, 2006, I heard a news headline state, “Houston’s crime rate increases by double digits. New Orleans evacuees may be to blame. Details at ten.”

I sat on the living room floor of my apartment with my mouth open. I thought of my seventy-year-old parents who never robbed anyone, their neighbors who worked all their lives and my friends who were employed in various fields as productive members of the New Orleans community. Only a week earlier I spoke over the phone with an employee of my complex. The woman stated that she “hated to say it,” but the break-in the complex had experienced was probably the result of the people of New Orleans. How sad is that? She had no idea with whom she was speaking, that I was one of her “suspects.“ Had I been in the office, she still would not have known. She would not have seen it written on my face, and she hadn’t recognized it in my voice.

Somewhere in all this negative publicity via news media and word of mouth, I was supposed to find work. I was advised at the job placement agency to keep any mention of New Orleans off my resume to stand a better chance of landing an interview. And I complied at first. I have to pretend I’m not from where I’m from and, by relation, deny an integral part of my life, all in order to survive in a different part of America, six hours west of home, in post-Katrina times.

It’s difficult to negotiate these waters at times. Still, I manage to keep it out of my personal life, because I remind myself that, as my sister-in-law said, people really don’t understand. I find that people rarely try to stand in your shoes before they render an opinion. The danger this formula presents is that people have a willingness to act, based on the limited and skewed information permeating the community at large.

People buying into these stereotypes and distortions are not people who will be changed if I run around with a sign saying, “We’re not all bad; I didn’t do it.” When I go into the office of my complex, the workers are polite and chatty with me. One woman even invited me to go to the gym with her. And yet, one of them made this comment about the people of my city, about me. I remind myself it’s not personal and they don’t know me. I’m just an invisible part of the collective in the hot seat today.

Finding Work

During my job search, I saw that there was a company other than McDonald’s seeking to employ people in Houston as a result of displacement due to the hurricanes; I noted on my calendar to be present for the interviews. I got a phone call from The Work Source regarding the same position, so I knew that I needed to be in attendance for that group.

I went to the presentation and was immediately certain that I wanted to do this. I wanted to learn new things to put on my resume, as I am interested in the interviewing process. Primarily though, I liked the idea of being a part of something that sought to give us each a voice when it seemed no one wanted to give us audience individually. It presented a venue to have our stories heard for all time by anyone willing to hear them. My interview with Carl Lindahl lasted most of three minutes and we were done. I barely had time to ask when I would be notified about the job. I sent up a prayer for the job as soon as he and I concluded our session. After, I spent time talking with some other women who were also interviewed for the same job, and then I headed home.

Before the interview I had received a phone call from a woman working with the Louisiana Unemployment Insurance Benefits office. I couldn’t just hang up on her because I hadn’t been able to get anyone from her office on the phone for weeks. I needed to know what should be my next step in the job search process, as I was in the unusual circumstance of having been laid off pre-Katrina. She told me what I needed to do, and was as mean and rude as she could be even hearing my expressions of sheer humility and appreciation.

I was putting on my shoes to head out the door as we hung up. I determined that I couldn’t afford to be upset with her right then, so I did my best to push her out of my mind. But, after hearing the presentation about the survivor project, I was so taken by the opportunity looming before me, and the “success” of the interview and chatting with others like me and swapping phone numbers that it was all enough to put her out of my head for a couple of days.

One week later was March thirteenth. My parents had slept over at my apartment. My plans to make us a big breakfast were thwarted by the blowout of a nearby transformer. Since the water was working, we got ready for the day, when my brother called to say that my niece was about to be born. And my friend called from Boston to say that he made mention of me on his website. My parents and I went to the hospital for the birth of Skylar Danielle Smothers and we returned to my apartment. I was sleeping when the phone rang, and it was Carl telling me that I had the job. I didn’t yell in his ear but my parents got the brunt of my excitement as I did a little victory shuffle in the living room. Then I took my nap.

From that time to this my enthusiasm for the project has not diminished. In fact I still talk with people about telling their stories. It’s the chance for people without voices to be heard as individuals. This record of stories is for those with inquiring minds to access so that they may hear, read, and see what happened to families and individuals in their words. It’s larger than the individual resident of Houston who does not understand. It’s larger than each of us who lost the lifestyle that we knew. It's broader than the ratings-driven news media can encompass. It’s a collection of the story of us, told one at a time, until there is no more time or resources to gather the stories. It is a remarkable undertaking to record the people of a sweeping natural disaster and its devastating aftermath.

The story of this group of people—of us—is far-reaching and impacts a broad segment of the population beyond just us. More importantly, who we are could be lost for all time, without a forum to just be heard, to make record of who we are and how we lived. The Surviving Katrina and Rita in Houston project seeks to provide that forum, to collect and preserve those memories in the Library of Congress, the University of Houston archives and other useful repositories. And I get to be a part of that!

Doing the Work

As a member of this project, I was charged with the responsibility of finding and interviewing twelve people, family, friends and strangers. Through this project, I’ve met some good people who were separated from places and people familiar to them. They now suffer the task of starting over again, many from nothing; some in their thirties, some in their seventies and eighties. Some are not interested in returning to New Orleans in the near future. Some wish to but can't for health reasons, or are uncertain of what will be the next phase in the city’s reformation. I’ve talked with people who insist on returning to New Orleans, because it’s home, and because they have hopes of regaining a past New Orleans that lives in their hearts. With only filtered information, it has been difficult to make life decisions, and so people remain here working to build a new future, knowing they are safe, but uncertain of whether or not they’ll remain here ultimately.

These people represent the lifeblood of a world-renowned community, one filled with groups and factions more than individuals, to the passing eye. New Orleans had its share of corruption and violence. There was much more to the city though. New Orleans had well-maintained hotels, as the city is a tourist town. It had the French Quarter know for serving up revelry around the clock, where could be found women willing to bare their breasts from balconies or the streets, for Mardi Gras beads and other trinkets. New Orleans had a service population that was underpaid, under-represented and invisible to much of New Orleans and the country. I heard often of people’s surprise that there was such poverty in New Orleans, as people began to get more information.

Such was not the case for everyone. We were lawyers and retirees, judges and bus drivers, secretaries and businessmen and politicians and everything in between and around.

My interviewing began at home and branched out. I interviewed my dad and my brother and his wife, my parents’ friends and people who were referred to me. And their stories moved me. As they told their stories, I watched and listened as they were moved to tears in the retelling. I traveled with tissues to each interview because I could never be sure what to expect. I heard them find joy and laughter in the midst of the grief. I heard them speak with resigned acceptance as they talked about feeling as though they'd suffered a death. And I heard them say how their faith managed—and how it continues—to sustain them throughout the ordeal and aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

One Interview

When I was asked to share about only one of the twelve interviews that I took part in, I didn’t know which one to pick because I find significance in all the voices, heard and not: the voices that are heard in bits and pieces, and those that have something to say but not the courage, are represented in all that we are doing. I decided to share the interview done with Marie Barney who is my godmother. I call her Aunt Marie. Hers is a story of great loss just prior to Katrina, a story of surviving and continuing, with no time for satisfactory grieving.

My godmother told her story with only my initial question to get us started. She told the story of her life in New Orleans and her community life and the world that she and her husband Clarence Barney created for themselves. Clarence Barney is my godfather and I call him Uncle Barney.

My godmother told me stories that I’d never heard and stories that were familiar. She told me of her time here in Houston. Aunt Marie said that in New Orleans she hardly noticed the advance of Hurricane Katrina to the Louisiana shores, until it was time to go, because of the death and funeral of my godfather, her husband and her best friend. And I listened with renewed amazement to the story she told.

In her story I heard the familiar ambivalence about returning to the home that she and her husband shared for thirty years. I listened as she recollected the family dinners that fell to her to prepare as a “senior” of the family in recent years, how those local family members are scattered since the storm. She’s dissatisfied with being so far from her husband’s final resting place and not being able to visit easily. These are some of the things weighing on her, not her next meal, because they were retired and had taken care of their business, as did my parents and many more people.

Marie Barney talked about Uncle Barney’s funeral being the last major event in the city before Hurricane Katrina hit. It was an event attended by the standing mayor C. Ray Nagin, National Urban League President and former New Orleans mayor Marc Morial, members if the Landrieu family, more local political figures and other dignitaries in the ranks of the National Urban League from as far away as Washington, DC.

The remembrance dinner was the last engagement that Dookey Chase would host for months. Dookey Chase is a well-known black-owned eatery specializing in New Orleans cuisine. Even the location of the funeral was of note. For this was the last major event of Dillard University’s Lawless Memorial Chapel; the next day, we were evacuating because of Hurricane Katrina. Only days later, both the restaurant and the chapel sustained major damages as a direct result of the flooding. Dillard University was unable to reopen the campus for the spring semester due to the extensive damages suffered. Mrs. Chase was working to get her restaurant repaired and operating for the 2006 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.

I was impressed by the way my godmother recounted the story of her loss and her distraction from the storm’s advance as she and her sons and family prepared for the services for her husband. Katrina was nearly upon them when they realized that they must evacuate. And on Sunday, they did just that. Aunt Marie and her son who lived in New Orleans and her son and daughter-in-law who lived in Florida, then home for the funeral, all packed lightly and headed to Houston for what they thought would be only a few days. It wasn’t that at all. Throughout, she found humor in her experiences: at times it seemed almost in defiance of the difficulties they present. Her matter-of-fact statements about her life and loneliness are not without feeling, or weight.

It seemed the storm provided Aunt Marie some needed distance from the loss of her husband. And yet it robbed her of her time to grieve the loss of him; it robbed her of many of the things that reminded her of him and the home that they’d made together. It put, immediately, distance between her and Uncle Barney’s final resting place. She can’t visit as she would like. Katrina physically separated Aunt Marie from the larger family that she was accustomed to having near her. The significance of this separation becomes exponentially greater when you consider that she was removed from her familiar life, family and friends, to grieve the loss of her husband in completely unfamiliar territory.

Hers is the start of an entirely new way of being; without her husband, away from the home she knew for thirty years, away from the family and friends that were once close by. She needs to get settled in her new lifestyle once she decides what that will be. When she speaks of volunteering, and experiencing the great things that Houston has to offer, it rings familiar as it is the same sentiment that others have shared. Hers is a different story, unique without a doubt, but the familiar ring of finding one's place—as my brother put it, the natural desire to seek out homeostasis wherever we land—is clear and poignant.

For the interview, we sat at her dining table in her very nice apartment in the Houston Galleria area. Her high ceilings and white walls reminded me of the living area of her home in New Orleans. Her furniture, some of which she put together, is attractive. The apartment is comfortable and seems to suit her in this transition stage. She said that she is satisfied with the location and the complex itself. She moved once in the complex from the back to the front and the new location is quieter which she likes. While she makes her plans and determines what to do next, she lives in a clean, quiet, comfortable location. She told me she is just coming out of survival mode and her grieving was never really done. My godmother said her life is too much about her. Shopping for necessities, being independent in new ways such as putting together some of her furniture, evacuating for Rita on her own, planning for tomorrow: these things are only about her and she requires more. To abate the feeling of loneliness this gives her, she is now seeking something to do to make her life mean something larger. Marie Barney told me her story for the record.

Article Attribution:

Shari L. Smothers writes and edits website copy, articles, poetry and more. She designs and customizes websites for individuals and organizations. Learn more about Shari by visiting her website, The Word ‘Mage. You can email Shari at ssmothers@thewordmage.com.

Visit the Surviving Katrina and Rita in Houston website to learn more about the project and exhibits.

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