Sunday, August 29, 2010

How Katrina Affected Me 5 Years Ago

It was on a Sunday in late August. I was off that day and I got ready for the Trapped Truth Society meeting at Johnny's Pizza. Trapped Truth is a poetry group I attended. Back then, I was very much infatuated with this guy w ho wanted nothing to do with me. Most of my poetry was about him and how I dealt with his rejection. His excuse was a good one: we worked together. But that didn't stop him from playing mind game and my innocence getting the best of me.

I sat there with one of our friends who had just gotten back from South Louisiana. She had no idea that Katrina was bearing down on New Orleans and I vaguely remembered the storm that was supposed to hit the coast. We all thought it was nothing. Storms come and go all the time, right?

Her family managed to convince her to turn around and get back on 49 and head home.

The next day I went to work. Katrina was on the lips of everyone. I was working at Sutherlands Lumber at the time. The day wore on and I went home.

Purple Ice, one of the pieces that were in the silent auction

When the levees broke, we were all stunned. Then a couple of weeks later my landlord, got the phone call of his life. I lived at the Mid City Motor Hotel--a hotel that was converted into apartments. My mother had just moved back to Atlanta after being away for13 years to find work. She chose to make sure I was the only family to keep contact in. Our family in Georgia wanted nothing to do with us which is why moved away in the first place.

My landlord was contacted by Kevin Costner and his production crew. They were originally supposed to film The Guardian in New Orleans. They chose Shreveport and Mid City on Line and Jordan to be the Headquarters for the production. My neighbors and I were all excited.

As an artist wanting to get my art out there, I made sure my new neighbors--the crew--had some of my art. But I was in for a betrayal. My lease was up so my landlord and I met and re-signed it. Then my air conditioner went out and I was moved into another apartment that was tiny and cramped but I made do.

Everyone had family and stories. One of the members of Trapped Truth volunteered at Hirsh Coliseum, one of the shelters set up for Katrina victims, and she had horrible stories about survivors being caked in mold.


In October, there was a silent art auction and concert held to raise money for musicians who had lost their instruments. I was invited to have art in the auction, which was an honor for me. I didn't have the time to volunteer because I was only off one day a week, but I wanted to do something good.

We were on our way to starting to recover when Rita came. This storm did hit us up in Shreveport. The eye passed over our city that day and I slept through it that evening. But that morning I was scheduled to work. It was a Saturday and a day I would never forget. I even got some pics of the storm while I was at work.

I had spoken to my boss and told him that if the buses were running then I would be there. He understood. I depended on the bus system to get around. To my shock, in the already above ankel-length water, they were running. I was out in that mess with no umbrella. I mean what was the point? This was a Category 1 storm with very high wind speed that would eat my umbrella and spit it back out at me.

Alien Cityscape Table

It was worse when I got off and my coworker gave me a ride home. The next day I was having severe chest pain but I ignored it. It got so bad over the next week that my bosses daughter took me to the hospital where I was diagnoses with pneumonia. It had filled half of my lung and started on my other lung. I was sent home with prescriptions for medicine that I could not afford: penicillin, hydrocodone cough syrup and some over the counter meds. Members of Trapped Truth rallied around me and one of them bought my art--for the exact price of my medicine. My artists friends supported me and in the light of that good news, it only got worse.

I was on bed rest and really doped up off the narcotic cough syrup when my landlord came to me and told he he was breaking our lease. Kevin Costner's movie crew needed space to live. I had 30 days to get out. I was homeless and all of my art would be lost. One of my coworkers took in as much art as she could but I knew I would never see my pieces again. My coffee table that I built was featured in an art show right before I left. It was also left behind and I am sure my landlord trashed it. All I have left are photos that I haven't scanned. I took a pic of one with my phone so you could see the table.

The Birth of December Turns the Skies into Mahogany, and yes, it's misspelled

My old friend from school, Rebecca, got in touch with me and let me stay with her. Thing is she lived in Dubach, LA which was closer to Monroe than Shreveport. I had to leave my job and that meant also admitting to myself that this guy I really felt for really and honestly didn’t feel the same. I was broken inside and honestly, it wasn’t his fault. It was my own. I stayed with Becky for about a month and then realized that Dubach wasn’t for me. So I moved to Atlanta. My mother had gotten on housing but I couldn’t stay with her so I did something for myself.

I signed up for Job Corps. Since I came from Louisiana, I was considered a Katrina victim even though I have never even been to New Orleans. People would introduce me, this is Johnna from New Orleans, and I would correct them. No, I am from Shreveport. Once I explained my story, I was told I could get aid and money from FEMA, but I refused. I didn’t lose my whole LIFE like so many did. Many people had nothing but the clothes on their backs and some didn’t even have their own clothes on their backs.

My Coffee Table

I had no money, just my few paints and brushes, pictures of my apartment, my phone which Alltel didn’t serve Atlanta. I lived in a homeless shelter in Clayton County near the Airport and I was terrified. My mother kept my things and I would bathe at her house so the ladies could have the shower. Honestly, I was just scared.

I would lose myself in music. I had a little CD player that I carried with me everywhere. I would always be going through batteries. Churches gave us food and clothes. I had nothing to give but my art. The shelter I stayed at is called Calvary and it was off of the route for bus 501 or 502 I can’t remember.

I stayed there for about two weeks when I got the news that I would be going to Brunswick, GA which is on the coast. I was to leave that following Thursday. I got there the day before Christmas Eve and I was so lonely, so achingly lonely and homesick. I just wanted to go home but I had no home. I was just an artist in a strange place where no one knew me. We went to Jacksonville to a flea market. I was given like $20 to spend on myself which was an unexpected blessing.

Some of the members of Shreveport's Trapped Truth Society

I already had my diploma from graduating high school so all I really needed was a trade. I buried myself in art. I became known as the artist on center even though there were other artists. I also found my true calling in life. I wanted to help the homeless. So I started the Art4TheHomeless Blog. Actually it was called Colors of Ink. My friend Samantha came up with the name Art4TH. I met her and many of my now close friends at BJCC. One year later, I was on the front page of the Brunswick Newspaper. They got it wrong. They said I was from South Louisiana, but they did get the city right and my name spelled right.

Hurricane Rita at Sutherlands.

My mother was kicked out of housing and back on the streets. She lived on the streets from 2006 to 2009. I transferred to the Atlanta center to advanced training and helped her as much as I could until my time was up. Then I got a job at the airport and it was short lived. I was fired for cursing at a child—which I did NOT do. I did curse but that was because I literally ripped my skin off my finger and bled all over the place. There were these military men going to Afghanistan who complained of my attitude. I took my mother in when I finally found her. It’s hard to find family on the streets and honestly, I was scared to take her in. I was scared of the responsibility that had weighed me down in the past but we were all each other had.

Photo of me at the silent auction taken by Robert Trudoe

And then I got another job working at Nancy’s Pizza—where I am now. We’d lost our home but I managed to get a storage unit to store our things. I wasn’t about to lose more art or anything else. The owner of my job, Mike G, found out and paid our rent. That same week, my mother’s disability that she was fighting for two years, got started. It helped out with rent and I covered the food. And now you know the rest—she just recently had the open heart surgery.

Me on the front page of The Brunswick News

So today I look back five years. And I still cry. And I still fight. And I still survive. And I am not the only one. My tears are for the ones lost to Katrina, the ones who lost everything, the ones struggling now, and the ones who are trying. And I am with you.


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