My Katrina Story, or: How I became the highest paid meatball roller in New Orleans
Hurricane Katrina is currently ranked as the third most intense landfalling tropical cyclone to ever hit U.S. soil#, it holds the belt for financially costliest natural disaster in US history, and at least 1,245 people died during the hurricane and subsequent flooding. The poor response from the government and the horrific stories that came out in the storm’s aftermath are truly a dark spot in our country’s recent past.
My personal Katrina story is a bit strange, however, in that I am one of the rare few who can say they came out relatively unscathed by it. Unlike many others, my loved ones and I were able to make it out of the city, only having to witness the overwhelming outcome after the worst was over.
The one weird side effect I still have to deal with though, is the disruption of my internal timeline. Ever since I woke up on that perfect Saturday morning before Katrina hit, the flow of time, or at least how I remember it, has been off. In some cases, it’s been impossible for me to recall how much time passed between certain events just before, during, and for the years immediately after Katrina.
However, I am certain that this story starts exactly 10 years ago from the date it’s being published here on Random Nerds.
A Beautiful Red Ball of Death
I was sitting on the couch in my sister’s yellow shotgun home# neatly slotted away amongst the other homes on Cherokee St. in the Uptown neighborhood known as the Black Pearl.# I had just started to emerge from the fog of the previous night’s debauchery when I flipped open the lid to my laptop and was greeted by a flood of instant messages (old-school IMs, not iMessages, those didn’t exist yet).
“Dude, did you go to the ATM yet?! There is no money left at the campus ATM!”
“Did you get gas yet? The line at the Carrolton station is crazy!”
“Where are you going to evacuate to?!”
I remember thinking to myself, “What the fuck is everyone freaking out about? That storm? We were just talking about how it was no big deal less than 24 hours ago.” So I asked what the hell was going on…
“Check weather.com, you asshole!”
And there it was, the most awesome and terrifying weather system I had ever seen…
Please understand I’m not saying Hurricane Katrina was awesome, but I’m a huge weather nerd and I get excited about every severe weather alert that hits my phone. Besides, I figured I would ride out this ‘mother of all storms’ at Charity Hospital# just like I did for Hurricane Ivan (which missed us) because my sister was a resident at Charity and they allowed the family members of doctors to hunker down there during hurricanes.
I was snapped back to reality when my phone rang and my cousin on the other end delivered some startling news:
“Charity Hospital’s disaster response team has been told that they should evacuate for their own safety, so it looks like we are heading to Texas.”
“They’re evacuating the doctors that are supposed to stay behind in case people are injured during natural disasters?”
“Huh. Ok, I’ll get dressed and fill the cooler with beers.”
From that moment on, I was a Katrina Evacuee. I packed a bag with clothes and emptied our fridge (which apparently makes me a damn genius).#
Evacuating New Orleans seemed like a logistical nightmare, though. I-10 had employed contraflow#, opening up both sides of the highway to evacuating New Orleanians with all roads into the city become exits, but even still the traffic was bumper-to-bumper and hardly moving.
Luckily we had the forethought to simply take the side roads that followed every bend of the Mississippi River all the way to Baton Rouge. With a brief bumper-to-bumper stint on I-10 west to 49N, we eventually made it to a road that would lead us to our home for the next few weeks…
…a place called Plano, Texas.
Texas doesn’t suck
Our destination was one of my sister’s colleagues’ mother’s house. This complete stranger had agreed to open her home to her son’s friends, which included myself, my cousin, my sister and her significant other, both of whom were flying in from vacation and had their flights rerouted to Dallas so they could meet us. I only remember hitting a little bit of traffic, but that might have been because I had burned through a 12-pack of beer before we even made it out of Louisiana.
Under normal hurricane circumstances, most New Orleanians stay put and have what is called a “Hurricane Party.” Wikipedia describes a ‘hurricane party’ as an event “held by people who, for differing reasons, cannot or choose not to evacuate during a hurricane warning, but instead ‘hunker down’ as any good Southerner should.” But even it is quick to note that “these events are usually more centered around the people and the socialness of the event…alcohol will most likely be present, as is customary in some locations to drink according to the intensity of the hurricane.” I was unwilling to let Hurricane Katrina be any different, so I threw my own hurricane party right there in the car. I blasted sweet road-trip tunes, and constantly updated my cousin with the weather reports on my BlackBerry 7100’s blazing fast GPRS connection as Katrina slowly creeped towards the coast of my adoptive home.
The party ended when we hit Texas and I ran out of beer, but gained a mild hangover.
My years living in New Orleans pre-Katrina had warmed my cold Jersey-born heart to the concept of Southern living, but I’ll admit I still saw Texas as some sort of pro-Bush hell-hole full of oil, guns, and truck nutz.# I assumed this was going to be almost as bad as living through a hurricane and prepared myself for the worst.
But then we got there, and the people of Texas welcomed all of us with open arms and showed us nothing but love.
It was a regular occurrence for neighbors to drop by with home-cooked meals or to just stop in and say hello. The local Red Cross gave us all gift cards to freshen up our limited wardrobes, which I used part of to buy a University of Texas beer koozie to keep my Shiner Bocks from sweating. And I can’t forget the local YMCA and how they gave us all free gym memberships to help us blow off some steam, even though I opted to forgo the gym to stay home and play MafiaWars on my computer instead.
As Katrina finally made landfall, all we could do was sit around and watch the TV or surf the internet and sift through the endless misinformation about the current state of our home. With absurd reports of 12′ of water at Tulane (which would have meant the end of Uptown and the Black Pearl) and news of gangs of looters that had organized into some Mad Max-style society who shot on-sight any residents that opted to stay behind (also untrue, mostly), we had no idea what to expect. And this misinformation was worse than no information at all, as it led to each of us going down our own personal rabbit-holes of what we’d have to end up doing now that New Orleans was completely destroyed.
We stayed in Plano, Texas for almost two weeks, but eventually cabin fever began to set in and the feeling that we were approaching the point of overstaying our welcome was becoming ever more present. We knew we had to move on.
For my sister and her fellow Tulane residents, that meant heading to Jackson, Mississippi to moonlight at the local hospital. My cousin who worked for Entergy at the time would also head to Jackson to continue to manage their fleet of private jets. My plans, for the moment, were to assist in their relocation and then figure it out from there.
But before we departed for Jackson, we had one big to-do on our list: We had to head back to my sister’s house in New Orleans to get paperwork that would allow her to moonlight as an orthopedic surgeon (remember she was on vacation when we evacuated, so she never had a chance to grab them or anything else).
Shotguns, Helicopters & Feral Cats
As we were preparing to hit the road to New Orleans, I was instructed by our host to head over to the neighbors to pick something up that I would apparently need for our journey: a 12-gauge shotgun, which a very polite Texan handed over with a simple greeting and without question.
“You must be Joe.”
“Here you go!”
[He reaches a few feet to his left and reveals the largest shotgun I’ve ever seen outside of a video game]
Around 7pm, my sister and I piled into our rented Ford F-150 and followed behind her friends in their fully-loaded Ford F-250 that not only had a fully utilized gun rack spanning the rear window of the extended crew cab, but it also had an in-dash TV with HD antenna and a DVD player (did I mention that I fell in love with Texas?). The plan was to drive straight through to New Orleans and only stop for gas. When we hit the city limits, my sister and I would spilt off from her friends and head to our own homes, then we’d meet back up in Plano.
The drive went quickly (I can’t even recall stopping for gas) and as each mile ticked away, our anxiety grew. While we knew things were bad, we had no idea just how bad they would be. Around 5am, we were only about an hour outside of New Orleans and immediately things started to feel ‘unsafe’. It’s hard to explain why, but some part of our natural instinct kicked in and it was telling us to be on alert. It was at that time I pulled out the 12-gauge from under the rear bench-seat and loaded it with three shells.#
We finally made it to within a few thousand yards of our destination as the sun began to rise, only to come upon a National Guard checkpoint consisting of two humvees that looked like they had narrowly escaped a fire fight in Fallujah parked at angles across each lane. A bright-eyed solider in his early twenties with an M-16 slung on his shoulder approached my sister’s window and inquired about what we were up to:
“Hey, what’s going on? Where are you heading?”
“I’m a doctor at Tulane, and I’m heading to our house that is right around the corner from here so I can get my residency documents.”
“Ok, well it’s not very safe to go into the city right now. Do you really need them?”
“Yup, I need them.”
“Ok Doc, are ya’ll armed and do you need any ammunition?”
“Um, yeah we’re armed and I think we’re set for ammunition, thanks.”
“Ok, then you can go. Good luck, and be careful.”
Do we need ammunition? (I don’t know, DO WE!?) That question put us on high alert, and our goal became to get out of there as quickly as possible. We rolled up to my sister’s home on Cherokee St, parked our truck, and hastily surveyed the damage.
Miraculously, the house was more or less intact, with only a few broken windows that were smashed by our neighbor’s slate roof tiles, which had been turned into a near endless supply of sharp projectile objects.
Our neighbor’s house was only about 10′ or 15′ from ours, but that was enough distance for Katrina’s powerful gusts to get those slate tiles moving fast enough to embed them into the side of our house.
The air smelled of burning rubber and decaying plant life (Katrina killed lots of trees), but what was most unsettling was the lack of living creatures. Birds had been replaced by military and coast guard helicopters circling above, which on several occasions during our short visit stopped overhead to take a look at what we were up to on the ground. Nevertheless, we packed our rental pickup and found the keys to my sister’s boyfriend’s older model Ford F-150 and began to pack that too.
But while we were frantically packing our trucks, two very eerie things happened.
The first was a squad of National Guard soldiers armed with M-16s and dressed in military fatigues marching down our street. I waited for them to reach me so they could see from a distance that I wasn’t a threat. When the squad of 20+ soldiers reached me, the sergeant made a hand gesture that sent every soldier to one knee facing outwards on either side of the road. He asked for my ID and once he confirmed I wasn’t a looter, all he said was, “It’s not safe, you should leave.” I replied, “We’re almost out of here, thanks,” and jogged back over to the house to resume packing, even more quickly this time. But I was stopped at the front door by three familiar yet haunting faces.
It was the neighborhood cats. They were skin-and-bones and were very close to starving to death.
New Orleans has an abnormally high population of feral cats, but most locals appreciate their presence because they spend their days laying around in the sun and at night they hunt for vermin. These cats were like our neighbors and it was horrible to see them in this state. I did all I could do to help them, which was to find every piece of dry food in our house and dump it on the ground in the hopes that it would ease their suffering, even if just for a little while.
Eventually we got both trucks packed with the belongings we coveted most, but we decided that it wasn’t safe enough to drive the 3 Miles down St. Charles to check on my cousin’s apartment; it was best for us to just get the hell out of dodge before our luck ran out. Our next stop was Shreveport, Louisiana, where we would stay with some friends before hitting Plano for one more night, and then finally heading to Jackson, Mississippi.
While in Shreveport, I unlocked a life achievement controversial both because of what it symbolizes and also for how easy it was to complete: I bought my first and only firearm.
I had a fair amount of experience with a variety of firearms, but I never actually owned my own. From what we had heard, it made sense for us to arm ourselves, but the shotgun I had was both on-loan and not a great defensive weapon — a bit unwieldy and meant for shooting game, not aggressors.
I assumed we’d be held up for hours at the local Academy retail store, but the federal government saw fit to approve my background check, and in 45 mins I was now one of millions of armed Americans.# When it comes to firearms, I show them the respect they command, but all I could think of while I was standing there with a handgun that was now legally attached to me was, “Man, it would suck to end up like one of those poor bastards that accidentally shoots themselves or someone else.”#
However, the rest of our epic journey was rather uneventful. We made it back to Plano, said our goodbyes to our incredibly gracious hosts, and my cousin, my sister, and her colleagues drove to Jackson, with me escorting them the whole way.
4700 Miles Later I’m finally back in New Orleans
After leaving my fellow evacuees in Jackson, Mississippi, I set out on the open road knowing that I’d eventually end up in New Jersey with my parents, but with no actual timeline for getting there. This afforded me the freedom to visit with friends along the east coast, and thankfully my sister’s boyfriend at the time loaned me his 5-speed F-150 because he was working on the river for the next two months and didn’t need it.
In that pickup, I roamed around some of the most beautiful settings you can find in this country and got to experience every mile of the Blue Ridge Parkway#for the first time in my life. I felt completely free and, for a short time, I didn’t even feel like an evacuee because I was so focused on taking in every mile of my journey.
In the 6 weeks since Katrina made landfall I had covered more than 4,700 miles, become a gun owner, connected with old friends, and listened to more country music on the radio than I care to mention. But the whole time I just wanted to be back in New Orleans keeping a watchful eye on the Black Pearl. When I finally pulled up to my sister’s little shotgun house knowing that I would finally get to move back in to my home, I was absolutely delighted. I was ready to help rebuild this city, no matter the state either of us were in. As I was unpacking the truck, I was greeted by one of neighborhood cats. This time he wasn’t looking so rough, but I could tell he was hungry and very happy to see me.
For the next week, I busied myself with cleaning up my sister’s house and surveying the surrounding neighborhoods to get a read on how many people were actually there, which was easy to figure out because the answer was pretty much zero aside from the always armed National Guard. Thankfully I was lucky enough to be one of the only blocks in our area with water, cable, internet, and power, so life was pretty good. I even had time to watch movies like Dodgeball: An Underdog Story.
And I wasn’t lonely all the time because there were plenty of National Guardsmen to shoot the shit with. I don’t even remember the names of these two soldiers, but they were willing to pose for a picture on my front porch. Anything to pass the time, I guess.
Another couple of weeks passed and over that time neighbors would stop in to check on their house and fix it up, only to leave again to go back to their more comfortable and stable temporary homes.
One morning though, one of my closest neighbors and his cousin stopped in and asked me if I was up to drive around east New Orleans to check on his friends’ houses. I of course said yes because my schedule was wide open.
These are some of the pictures from that trip around east New Orleans, which sustained huge amounts of damage due to flooding caused by one of many levee failures:
These next three pictures are disturbing…
Yes, we actually did find those evil looking Chucky dolls in a flooded out car and yes we took the time to pose them and wedge a real revolver in Chucky’s plastic doll hand.
It was pretty common to rely on dark humor to cope with seeing the devastation day-in and day-out.
The highest paid meatball roller in the city
Eventually I ran out of house repairs to do and the neighbors’ visits became less and less frequent as it became clear that New Orleans was not returning to normal operating status for at least a few months. This also meant that Loyola was certainly not opening, at least until the following spring semester, so I had nothing to do.
Thankfully, in the few weeks since I had returned, a local Italian restaurant, Vincent’s, had re-opened.
As far as I could tell it was not only the only open restaurant, but the only open business for at least three miles, so I figured I would stop in to inquire about a job. I was hired on the spot to work as an expediter and prep-chef, despite having zero cooking ability or experience in a professional kitchen. Let’s just say there wasn’t a whole lot of kitchen staff to choose from, and I’m pretty sure it helped that I brought up my Italian heritage and my roots in New Jersey.
When I was working at Vincent’s, which was for about 12hrs a day 7 days a week (what the hell else would I be doing), I was known as ‘Joey from Jersey’. My co-workers were incredible people that taught me pretty much everything I know about cooking to this day, and at one point I even got to add my own item to the menu, which was basically chopped artichoke hearts and bacon rolled in breadcrumbs that were then deep fried and flooded with marinara sauce and melted mozzarella cheese. The waiters would run back into the kitchen and shout their orders at us while slamming their tickets down on my station as we all laughed over the name of my appetizer…
Order coming in! Two chicken marsalas, one bracialoni, one artichokes Vincent and another order of Joey’s Balls!
At one point I became over confident with my new found cooking skills and got the nerve up to ask the owner for a raise. I was already being paid well considering I was the most inexperienced person on the entire staff, but I figured it was worth a shot anyway. The owner’s reply came without hesitation:
“Joey, you’re the highest paid meatball roller in the city!”
And with that, the conversation was over. However, that owner, who still runs Vincent’s Italian Cuisine on St. Charles, and who had worked his way up from a busboy to eventually buying into the family business, ended up giving me a small bump in my paycheck anyway. It was, as it often was, just another great opportunity to ‘break Joey’s balls.’
I worked at Vincent’s for many months and even kept the job part time as I got myself back into school. I don’t keep up with my old friend’s at Vincent’s anymore, but they are people I will always respect, and I’ll never be able to repay them for letting me be part of their family when my own was so far away.
I know what it means to miss New Orleans
Katrina dominated my life for more than a year, and as I mentioned at the start of this story, still strangely effects me today, as I even found it difficult to recall these events in the appropriate order. But telling my Katrina story makes me feel so grateful for the friends and family I have in my life because a lot of Katrina stories are terrible and involve people losing tremendous parts of their lives and in some cases parts of their family.
I haven’t let Katrina dominate my life since that year and now, when I think about it, I focus on all the positive things it ended up creating in my life, which include things like having my parents move down to New Orleans to help the city rebuild, eventually becoming permanent residents, or that fact that if it wasn’t for Katrina I more than likely would not have met my wife, who transferred to Loyola because she wanted to be part of the rebuilding effort too. Just a few short years after Katrina, we were second lining# down Canal St. and Bourbon St. to celebrate our marriage with our best friends and family.
Hurricane Katrina may have been one of the most horrific events for 99.9% of New Orleans and the city still has a long way to go in its structural and cultural rebuilding, but as devastating as it was, it forced me out of my comfort zone, and in doing so, it made me a better person. It forced me to see things that made me put the world in a context I couldn’t imagine before and it forced me to do things that pushed me beyond where I thought I was capable of going. And for that I am grateful.
Katrina photos by: Joe Corbett (me)
Vincent’s photo by: Google
Second Line wedding photo by: Tyler Kaufman
Like what you read? Share it.
(That helps us.)
Love what you read? Patronize Joe Corbett.
That helps us and the writer.
What is Patronizing? Learn more here.