From New Orleans to Natchez, I’m home

Published 12:08 am Sunday, August 29, 2010

Following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, I left New Orleans to take refuge with my family in Natchez until residents were notified that it was “safe” to return.

As fate would have it, I was recuperating from surgery in a New Orleans hospital. Two of my cousins, who reside in Natchez, were planning to travel to New Orleans to assist me in my recovery. However, after a careful review of the weather reports, it became obvious that “Plan A” was not a viable option. Therefore, I chose, in consultation with my family, to stay in the hospital, even though I was officially discharged.

I slept peaceably through the entire ruckus that Katrina born on the city — maybe unexplainable. On the morning following the devastation, a nurse’s assistant came to check and found that the floor of my room was covered with water. She immediately left the room and returned with a nurse who made the decision that I must be removed from that room and placed in another.

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My recall is that I didn’t have any concerns, and I felt very comfortable. However, it was obvious that things around me were changing. The hospital filled with individuals who were not patients who had made their “temporary housing” in the hallway. On the floor where I was, I learned that the windows had been severely damaged by the wind from Katrina.

In spite of it all, my emotions were in control. I assured my New Orleans and Natchez families, that I felt comfortable and wanted to stay in the hospital — “a safe place.”

Others from the hospital were safely airlifted by helicopter to Baton Rouge, while I waited for a boat to slowly tread through high waters along Napoleon Avenue and take me away to who knew where.

Since I was a hospital patient, I followed orders and didn’t bring anything of value with me — no credit or debit cards, cash or jewelry. That was fine, except, how was I supposed to manage through this catastrophe! Fortunately, the attending physician and her husband were friends, and they gave me $200, which allowed me to feel comfortable, or so I thought.

Then came the morning of Aug. 31, 2005. I, along with other patients, had to leave the premises. Food and other necessities could no longer be delivered since there was severe flooding. I, along with other patients, walked down six flights of steps, waited and waited in the dark and secluded basement. Then, we were led to another dry space. This time it was outside on the emergency ramp.

There I was, all alone, and wondering what would happen next. After a firm request to one of the individuals directing the flow of traffic and admittance to the boats, I was finally allowed to get on a boat with two other individuals, neither of whom was a patient. But rather, they had come to the hospital to stay in a “safe place” with a family member. Weak, recuperating from surgery, but strong in mind and heart, I persevered!

The boat stopped at the corner of St. Charles and Napoleon Avenues. I pondered, once again, what I shall do now. The heat was scorching, laced with the humidity that only New Orleans can claim. The number of people who gathered steadily grew. The word circulating was, “a bus was coming.” My question was, a bus going where? My cell phone was “dead’ so I couldn’t call my family and tell them my whereabouts.

A drug store, flanked on the “river side” of Napoleon Avenue, was being infiltrated by many who were “stuck” on the corner. In spite of being totally oblivious of time, the hospital staff who had served me extremely well eventually appeared on the same corner; astonished that I was still there. One nurse questioned whether or not I had taken my medication; since I hadn’t, she gave me a roll of Ritz Crackers and a bottle of water.

In the midst of all that was going on, the yellow school bus finally arrived. Filled to capacity, we traveled slowly down Tchoupitoulas Street; to where, I had no idea! I got off the bus followed the crowd to the Morial Convention Center.

In spite of the flooding, I remained determined to find comfortable housing — optimistic me! That wasn’t to be! However, in my quest to find a police officer, I walked upon my cousin who was looking for his granddaughter. Prior to this miraculous blessing, I had attempted to call my family in Natchez, but since I didn’t have a credit card, 1-800-COLLECT was not a viable option. I asked Cousin W.L. to allow me to use his card, but to no avail, since by that time all of the lines were down. Night had fallen and we weaved our way through the crowd and found his wife. Threats of killing and fighting rang out and people scurried about. Others were walking along the street calling out the names of their loved ones, hoping that someone would answer their call. That was a scene that I shall always remember.

As time passed, we found a “safe location” inside of the convention center. My cousin and his wife had a system whenever a hurricane threatened to hit the city, they would take one of their cars to a parking lot at the “foot” of Canal Street and park on the highest floor. Thank God, that was my “ticket” out.

Since that time, Sept. 1, 2005, Natchez has been home! I left the “Big Easy” to find comfort in the “Little Easy.” I left the place where I was born and lived for most of my life. My father was from Louisiana and my mother was from Natchez, so I had the privilege of growing up with my father’s family and now enjoying retirement with my mother’s family.

Family and friends (old and new) have been wonderful. I’ve made new friends, found a wonderful church home, St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church No. 2, and moved my membership from the New Orleans Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. to the Natchez Alumnae Chapter.

I travel to New Orleans at least once a month to spearhead one of my breast cancer foundation’s longest standing services — a support group for breast cancer survivors. My foundation, which bears my mother’s name and mine — Edna B. and Joyce Fay Washington Breast Cancer Foundation, Inc. — has maintained services in the New Orleans area, as well as educational seminars in the Natchez area.

Natchez, thank you for welcoming me with open arms! I am enjoying and have become acclimated to my “second home.”

Joyce Fay Washington Ivery is a Hurricane Katrina survivor.