Survival Stories
by James Dudlicek
Brown’s Dairy team members share details of living through Hurricane Katrina.
Thousands of New Orleans residents suffered great personal losses from Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent flooding. Managers and employees of Brown’s Dairy were among those affected, and some of them shared their experiences with Dairy Field.
Danny Hembree, maintenance manager
Hembree was lucky enough to be out of town on vacation when the storm hit. The West Bank resident’s luck continued when he discovered his house came through without a scratch.
“I tried to come back to town, but they had that mandatory evacuation, so I couldn’t get back in,” he says. “I snuck back in the night of the hurricane and saw that everything was OK. They said if you were still there after a certain hour, you had to stay. We had no power and no water, so I left again.”
When he finally got back to stay, Hembree was in the first wave of Brown’s employees to assist in clean-up efforts. “By the time we got here, everything was hot and spoiled, blown-up bottles,” he recalls. “We hauled seven or eight Dumpsters a day of milk out of here. We did that [clean-up] for about two-and-a-half weeks, 10 to 12 hours a day. … We had to wear respirators and suits. We had a lot of mold. … We had some roof damage and stuff like that. On the truck shop, it ripped the whole roof off.”
Though Hembree’s home was spared, his family is still feeling Katrina’s effects. “The company my wife works for is right on the canal where that levee broke, and she’s been living about an hour and a half from here since the storm,” he says. “Her job moved her there. She should be coming back in about two months.”
Keith Burke, machine operator
The situation was less rosy for Burke, a resident of the Gentilly area of the hard-hit Ninth Ward. “I lost everything in my house,” Burke says, recounting the day of the storm. “It’s my son’s first year in college, and we had to bring him Saturday, but we didn’t know what the storm was going to be like. So we waited, and then at the last minute on Sunday morning, he said we need to go up there to get ready for school. But we didn’t know they had cancelled everything because of the storm,” he says.
“So we left to go up there, but the traffic was very heavy. With everybody leaving at last minute like that, it was bumper to bumper. No matter where you tried to get out, it was like an eight-hour or 12-hour delay. … But the good part about it was on Friday, everybody got paid, so that’s why a lot of people had money to leave. … My wife has a friend she went to high school and college with, she lives in Lafayette. She had about eight families in her house, and she took us in. We stayed there a couple of days and then we left and came back [to New Orleans], but we couldn’t get in. … So we went to Rustin at Louisiana Tech — Louisiana Tech housed hurricane victims.”
It was several months before Burke has his family could return to New Orleans and learn the extent of the damage to their home. “On the weather [reports] they were saying New Orleans was flooded, and they said the levee had breached. … And they were showing the area I lived in. The water was over the street signs, and they showed the street that I lived on. … You could see the water just rolling in,” he recalls. “When we got back here and went to the house, you couldn’t even get the key into the iron door because it was all rusted. The floors were buckled, everything was tumbled over — your furniture, your refrigerator’s upside down. … You had to take your air conditioner out or bust the window to get in, take the hinges off the door. Everything that was in there was ruined — everything. … Everybody figured it was going to be like a couple of days you’re out, and you’re back to work. But that didn’t happen. Whatever you had on, that was it. … We got to Rustin, we stopped at Wal-Mart and bought some clothes.”
Burke eventually wound up in Shreveport, where he checked in with Dean’s Foremost Dairy and ran a filler until he was able to return to New Orleans. “They wanted to keep me, but I said no, they need me here,” he says. “We needed people here, because our people were scattered all over. We’ve still got a good bit of people out that we need, but right now we’re doing pretty good with the people that we have.”
For the time being, while others in his neighborhood are returning to rebuild, Burke’s new home is a trailer provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). “A least I have a place to stay for now, but how long it’s going to last, I don’t know. They say 18 months,” he says. “After 18 months, what are we going to do? I don’t know. If we have to leave the trailer, we’ll probably be outdoors, because right now apartments are like $1,800, $2,000 a month, and if it’s $1,800, they’re going to want a $3,000 deposit. We don’t have that kind of money right now.”
A lifelong New Orleans resident, Burke has seen his share of storms. “I’ve been through Bessie, Camille, I’ve been through all of them,” he says. “But this here — this was the worst one.”
Still, Burke says, New Orleans is his home and he aims to stay, but plans to take extra care in case there’s a next time. “If there was a hurricane, I would just have to up and leave. If I had a chance to get a U-Haul and pack all my stuff up and leave, I’d do that,” he says. “Other than that, I’m gonna stay. I’m gonna die in New Orleans. Believe it or not, a lot of people lost their lives because they didn’t want to leave.”
Iola Graves, controller
With her New Orleans East home almost completely rebuilt, Graves nearly lost something more important in the wake of Katrina, when she lost track of her husband for about three weeks.
Graves headed to Baton Rouge to stay with her daughter. “When I left, I only took two or three pieces of clothing. I left at 6 a.m. that Sunday morning prior to the storm, and I thought I’d be coming back home in a couple of days,” she says. “But then Monday, the storm hit, and it seemed that everything was going to be OK. Then that Tuesday, when it actually flooded, the breach of the levee happened and the water came into the city, and I’m watching it on TV. They’re saying Kenner is under water, St. Bernard is under water, New Orleans East is under water. … I had 4 feet of water in my home, and I lost everything.”
It was about two months before Graves was able to return. “Since New Orleans East where I live was one of the hardest hit, we were longer getting back into the city than, say, Kenner or Metairie or Uptown, because we were just like the Lower Ninth Ward and St. Bernard,” she says.
Graves and her husband John, who works at a New Orleans hotel, did not evacuate together. “They asked him to work. They had a room for us at the hotel; I could have stayed with him but I chose not to,” she says. “He went to work and I didn’t hear from him for about a week, and I didn’t know where he was or what had happened to him. But Tuesday, when the water was coming in … he had to evacuate, and he had to go across the river because that was the only way out of the city. He went all the way down the interstate the back way to Baton Rouge, and then back to his mom’s house in Franklinton, Louisiana. But because there were no phones, he couldn’t communicate. They had downed power lines, and my phone wasn’t working, and I could not get in touch with him.”
Eventually, through a series of phone calls between relatives in Louisiana, Texas and Ohio, Graves learned her husband was safe. Meanwhile, she checked in with the Baton Rouge office and started helping to resume business operations.
“I just called out of the blue that Tuesday, just to see what was going on … and I spoke to [plant superintendent] John Broussard, and John told me how he evacuated and he was in Baton Rouge. I asked him if he needed me to come in, and he said, ‘No, we’re not doing anything right at this moment, but if we should need you, we’ll call you.’ About three hours later, he called me,” she says.
“We have some great employees. Some of them came and stuck it out. Some of them slept in trucks or whatever. But eventually Kennon ordered trailers equipped with computers … At first we were just helping answer the telephone and taking orders … it’s hard to run this business without a computer … We went to Dallas to close out for the month. They were very nice at corporate … Everyone was wonderful. We appreciated all the help, and without them we wouldn’t have been able to get through this. But without the work, I don’t think I would have been able to get through this, because I had something to keep me busy, to keep my mind off of what was going on.
“All this time, I did not know what my house was like. People were telling me the water was over the roof and my house was just gone. But I’m kind of like my mother. My mother was a strong woman, and she was my hero. I can handle a lot of stuff, I can endure.”
Unlike many others faced with storm damage, Graves was fully ensured, and expected to be back in her home by press time. “I’m very fortunate, and I’m just thankful for that,” she says, noting that about a third of her neighbors have returned to rebuild. “I belong to my neighborhood association, and they’re telling me that 90 percent of the residents have committed to coming back to the area. You now see trailers in yards, roofs are being changed throughout the neighborhood. The people have cleaned out their homes. They’ve gutted them and sprayed them down for mold. See, that’s what got us was the mold. It’s not the water — it’s what the water does. It was hot at that particular time, and the houses were shut up. So if you got four feet of water, your mold was up about six feet.”
Graves has hopped around a bit while waiting for repairs to be finished. After staying with her daughter for four months, she moved in with her husband when his hotel provided rooms for their employees and families. But when the hotel needed the space for Mardi Gras crowds, they relocated to a FEMA trailer. “We can go back [to the hotel] after Mardi Gras if we choose to, but I choose not. I’m tired of moving,” she says. “The company was very nice in getting out FEMA numbers and setting up trailers for employees, giving them a place to live so they can continue to work. … I have a really nice trailer. It’s small, but it’s comfortable. It has all the conveniences, except for a washer and dryer.”
Graves is a little nervous as the 2006 hurricane season approaches. “I’m relying on it being another 50 years before this happens again, because I couldn’t rebuild again — not in the city. I’d have to look elsewhere.
“A lot of people are still out of the city. They’re trying to get people to come back, but where will they live? They have no place to stay. It’s just a bad situation all around.”
Graves says Mardi Gras should give the city a needed lift. “It shows the other parts of the country that New Orleans is not down and out, that we’re up and coming, and we’re not going to let this disaster take away what New Orleans is all about. Mardi Gras is a big thing for New Orleans,” she says. “I think we need this to show people that we’re all willing to come back, we’re all willing to rebuild this city, and that we will do whatever is necessary to get that done. … The people are going to have to come back and show they want this city to thrive and be great. I hope it’s greater than it was before. I hope we get all the parks and nice income for people so they can afford to live on their own and not be on welfare and depend on the federal government.
“I’d like to see people own their own homes. … The income level just needs to come up. It’s going to take people like us to help with that. I guess we’ve been doing our own little thing our whole lives and didn’t pay attention to what was going on around us. We need to be more aware of that, be more vigilant and help people that are less fortunate. I should be one of the first because I belong to a public service sorority. We work with a non-profit organization, we make donations to colleges and give scholarships, and we take kids on Saturdays and teach them etiquette and take them to visit college campuses. I am involved in that, and that’s a nice thing. But we need to be more vigilant with this city to make it a great city.”
Calvin Rodriguez, CIP operator
Rodriguez, who lives in Kenner near the airport, at first planned to ride out the storm. “It wasn’t too bad at first, but then the wind started blowing. We have a big tree in our front yard and it fell over on top of the neighbor’s car. Then the windows started busting,” he says.
“The roof was vibrating; the wind was trying to pull the roof off. It cracked all the ceilings but it didn’t pull the roof off. Then the water started rising. It came up about 21¼2 feet inside and it stopped. … We were stuck upstairs. The water stayed until about noontime Wednesday, and that’s when we loaded up and got out of there.”
But after a while on the road, Rodriguez’s truck caught fire. “I finally got in touch with my dad, and he came and got us, and we went to Texas for a couple weeks. After two weeks, we came home,” he says. “We had to gut out the whole house. We were living upstairs; we got a hot water heater so we could take baths. We just recently got in the walls and the floors, so just now it’s getting where it’s livable. Luckily, we got to come back to work, and they paid us for all the time we were out. It helped to still get your paycheck, because it’s a long time before you’ll see any insurance money. We got some of the money and we’re waiting on the rest of it. We had enough insurance to take care of getting the house fixed. Everybody got about three feet of water. I mean, it’s not destroyed like the ones you see in the Ninth Ward. But everybody’s in the same boat.”
The rest of the area is also starting to come back to life. “Things are starting to open back up. At first, there weren’t too many restaurants open, but now more than half of them are open. Hours are starting to expand a little bit as they’re getting more employees,” Rodriguez says. “Not too many things got destroyed down to the ground, so most of the places are coming back.”
Other members of his family were similarly impacted, including his father, also a Brown’s employee. “My dad lived on the other side of the airport. It wiped out his trailer, so he moved in with us,” he says.
His grandmother lives in an older part of town that stayed dry. “Her house, a tree hit the corner of it, but didn’t get any water, so the house itself was fairly fine. But it was the stuff that went with it — no going to the grocery store, no getting her medicines and stuff like that,” he says.  “You know, every year, hurricanes come. … It was always just two, three days and back to normal. But I remember when I was a kid, that’s when Camille hit. And we drove to Mississippi. And it was bad over there, but nothing like it is now. The other day I talked to a friend of mine, he lives in Bay St. Louis [in Mississippi], and he said there’s just nothing there. In Mississippi, where they have three casinos — he worked at one of them — they’re all just gone. So we’re lucky where we live. Nobody lost their houses.”
Rodriguez says he wouldn’t try to stick out another storm. “We’re going to leave if another hurricane comes. I didn’t feel like we were going to die or anything … but it was the after effects — nothing being open, no electricity, no water,” he says, “and you knew it wasn’t going to change for a while.”
Rodriguez is less enthusiastic about the future of New Orleans. “I don’t think it will be better than before. It’s going to take a long time. New Orleans itself, it’s hard to do a lot of things because there’s so much politics involved,” he says.
“We don’t have that in Jefferson Parish in Kenner. That’s why everything’s just pretty much coming back to normal there. … Most people are coming back, but it’s going to take a few years because there’s so much devastation. In Kenner and Metairie and all, it’ll probably be rebuilt by the end of this year, because the houses weren’t destroyed. That’s what we’re hoping for, by the end of this year we’ll be pretty much back to normal.”