The Camellia Under Water: The Secret Garden


(Last in a three-part series. Read parts one and two).

“Shallow water, oh mama” – Mardi Gras Indian traditional

The Tuesday after Katrina, we were stuck in a Houston motel, lost as to what to do next.

We were worried about friends and family still in New Orleans. We were worried about jobs and houses. The levees broke next to the city’s Lakeview neighborhood, flooding my girlfriend’s house with eight feet of water. My car was sitting in four feet of water. Houstonians donated  clothes and toiletries, leaving items in large cardboard boxes. The motel owners held a barbecue, and we ate hot dogs and played basketball with other refugees.

Whenever we left the room, to eat, to shop, we could always tell who the other New Orleanians were in the room. They all had the thousand yard stare, like they’d just watched a car drive over their favorite dog.

An extended family from St. Bernard Parish —aunts, uncles, grandparents, children— rented the rooms surrounding ours in the motel. I overheard one of their late evening gatherings, when they voted to move together to Tennessee, at least for the next year, until they figured out what was left to salvage from their homes and businesses.

At this point, I’d forgotten Slidell. My colleague Matt, though, stayed in the parish during the storm. A month later, his hometown Cincinnati Inquirer published an article he wrote after evacuating from Louisiana.

As I drove through town, a colleague who works in ad sales for the Slidell Sentry News called out to me. She was standing on the corner with friends and family. I stopped on a dry patch of asphalt and got out, wishing I had been able to take a shower, but trying my best to look dignified while giving new meaning to the term “starving journalist.”

I asked her how she was; the pain in her eyes answered for me. She still hadn’t seen her home; it was likely destroyed, but the roads were impassable, and she didn’t know for certain. I asked her about the Sentry. She said her brother “swam” there earlier, and the entire first floor was under water. My heart sank.

She said our publisher, Terry Maddox, was giving out food somewhere. He was “supposed to give out 200 meals, but only gave out 60,” she said.

She turned and pointed to a white SUV parked at the nonfunctioning stoplight. Inside was Slidell Police Capt. Rob Callahan. He was talking to people outside his car window. A CNN news crew was riding in his back seat. He told me to meet him at the emergency operations center on a narrow road around the bayou.

I tried to drive there myself, but my Jetta sunk into a black, smelly sludge. It took some time to get free. That was the last I saw of Rob Callahan. I hope our paths cross again.

After I freed my car, I toured the city. Katrina had toppled everything in sight throughout St. Tammany Parish, and every road I tried to drive down was blocked by debris.

Trees, boats, fences, and upturned cars were scattered throughout the city. I had no choice but to drive back to Mandeville, hoping my roommates had saved me a cold beer from the cooler.

It’s an eerie feeling when you’re sitting in a room by yourself lit only by candle light, huddled around a radio that’s pumping the airwaves with the only media lifeline remaining for Greater New Orleans. Cell phones, regular phones, and television remained out. Nobody really knew what was going on, and the reports were choppy and based on rumor at best. I figured the rest of the world knew more about what was going on than the people smack dab in the middle of it all…

Slidell was inundated with a 10-foot storm surge, with coastal areas seeing as much as 13 to 16 feet of water. Homes, businesses, municipal facilities and our newspaper offices were all wiped out by the storm. Later, during the recovery, the Sentry-News was combined with sister publication Covington News-Banner, and all the workers were moved west to Mandeville. The paper shut its doors officially in 2009, though another news company, the Slidell Independent, rose to take its place. I visited the town once, about two years after the storm. Slidell was still recovering, and there was angst in everyone’s voice that I talked to. I haven’t been back since.

Many of my co-workers left town for good. Aileen and her family are now in North Carolina. After holding out a few years, Matt eventually moved to California. Betsy still lives in St. Tammany, now a mother of four beautiful children. I don’t know what happened to Shell, our editor-in-chief. I’m assuming she and her family survived.

A month after the storm, Dave, the sports editor, and I returned to New Orleans to clean out our Garden District apartment. Bugs had infested the refrigerator, but since it was stainless steel and not ours, we attempted, in vain, to clean it up. We drove around, surveyed the destruction. Entire neighborhoods were pitch black. Every house north of Carrollton Ave. caught water. That evening we drank and shot pool at Ms. Mae’s. The next day we said goodbye. I didn’t see Dave again until 10 years later, while attending an event in Atlanta. Dave, who covers gambling for, wrote an excellent piece on the industry’s Katrina experience.

That weekend, just a month after the storm, New Orleans was bustling with insurance adjusters, contractors and the National Guard. It was occupied federal territory. Other than the bartenders at Igor’s, a nearby bar on St. Charles, I could find only one other civilian moving around Baronne Street near my house.

I met Jeannette Bell once, before the storm. She was a gardener, and had recently bought an acre lot on the border off Baronne, just on the Central City side, transforming it into a bountiful flower and herb garden. I lived close by, and met her one day while she was working on her flowers. She said hello, and allowed me to tour through the roses, lilies, gardenias, fig trees and dozens upon dozens of other perennials and annuals she had planted, in an English style garden. We talked liked old neighbors.

That weekend after the storm, I ran into her again while she was in her garden. The flood waters never reached her property, and her plants were still in full bloom. We talked about Katrina. CBS news trucks filmed her garden one afternoon. They wanted to show how there was still life in New Orleans, despite Katrina. I mentioned I was moving away, back to my hometown Baltimore. As a goodbye gift, she gave me a jar of homemade fig jam. I think I still have that jar somewhere, sitting on a shelf, unopened, like it was 10 years ago.

Author: Geoff Shannon

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