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The Katrina Experience: An Oral History Project (Part II)

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"We were in the upstairs bedroom...we both look down at the floor. The carpeting goes whhoompf--some big wave beneath us pushes the floor up..." -- Candace Strahan, 57, from Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, interviewed March 13th, 2006.

My name is Stacy Parker Aab and I'm a writer here in Houston. For the past year I have interviewed Americans about their Katrina experiences.

To mark the anniversary, I am sharing two narratives with you. One is from Candace Strahan, describing what it was like to survive the hurricane in her Bay St. Louis home. The second is from Marty and Barbara Claiborne, describing the struggle to rebuild in New Orleans, six months after the storm.

Using the Studs Terkel approach, I've shaped those interviews into oral history essays. I've posted several essays on the project website: www.thekatrinaexperience.net.

As I interview and create essays, I will share excerpts here on The Huffington Post.

* * *


THE OCEANSIDE HOMEOWNER

Candace Strahan, 57, and her husband, Jim Strahan, 57, survived the storm in their Bay St. Louis, Mississippi home--a two-story house built 1500 feet from the beach. They remained on their second floor as the ocean surged through their first floor. The waves lapped ceilings that were 10 feet high. But unlike most of the neighboring houses, their house did not collapse.

I met with Ms. Strahan on March 13th, 2006, in a Shoney's restaurant in Picayune, MS, one of the few Picayune restaurants open six months after the storm.

About 9:00am, we noticed water coming up the street. I said, "Jim, do you think that's rainwater?" He starts looking at it. He says, "No, I don't. I don't think that's rain water at all." It was coming up the street pretty fast. It wasn't just overflowing ditches and all: this was the storm surge coming up the street.

We started running things upstairs. Our suitcases. My laptop. As the water started coming up, I started grabbing my cats and throwing them up the stairs. A couple of them didn't want to go. I got scratched up pretty good. We had put some bags with some nonperishable food--stuff you could just eat, you know. A big five gallon jug of water. I said, "Jim, take the water upstairs, take it all there. Everything you can grab, take upstairs." Because we could see this water. "Do you think it's gonna keep coming?" "I don't know."

It got all the way up to the porch. Now it's two feet. Cars were floating outside.

The water was in the house. I looked down, and there's one of my cats. It's swimming. Jim starts coming through the hallway from the bedroom and the water's up to his knees. He looks down, and there's a cat swimming next to him. He grabs little Phoebe up, and he grabs her up under one arm, and he's got something else under the other arm. I said: "Jim, I think we've gotta go up. We can't stay down here anymore." It was really coming up fast then. We both ran up the steps and we stayed up there. And it just kept coming up. We had ten foot ceilings downstairs and it got all the way up.

There was an upstairs balcony, overlooking the great room. Jim held the mattress against the broken window and I kept checking around the corner. We had an ax upstairs. There's a walk-in closet in one of the bedrooms with a pull-down for the attic. I said: "Jim, get the attic stairs down." I held the mattress for a while. "Get the attic stairs down because if it keeps coming up then we're going to have to go all the way up." Of course the cats had gone under the beds. I didn't know if we would get them all up into the attic.

I kept thinking, what if I end up out in the water? I can't have a purse. I gotta have some ID. I've gotta have some money. I had this zip lock bag. What am I going to do with a zip lock bag? I'm gonna need my hands and all. I stuck it down my jeans. I had my little CD with my pictures. I had my tax returns on CD for the last year. I said: "Well, I gained this weight this year, and my pants are so tight, even if I was in the water, nothing's coming out of these pants." So I stuffed them down my jeans.

We were in the upstairs bedroom. I'm standing there and my husband's holding the mattress, and we both look down at the floor. The carpeting goes whhoompf--some big wave beneath us pushes the floor up. I said: "If it goes any higher, you know, the whole wall beneath us may collapse and this floor's going to drop."

From the window, I watched other peoples' roofs. One had been floating up the street in front of the house. It kept going. I watched it go further up the street. It kind of stopped. I said: "Jim, that roof stopped moving." Sure enough, it started, slowly, going back towards the beach.

God bless our contractor, and my brother who helped design the house and everybody that helped us, for we built this house with 2x6s instead of 2x4s, and all the hurricane straps and the extra wood. Instead of building the studs this close together we put them this close together. It saved us. Our house did not collapse.

To read the full essay, and to learn more about the project, please visit: www.thekatrinaexperience.net.

* * *

THE DERMATOLOGIST AND HIS WIFE

Dr. Marty Claiborne is in his late 50s, and Mrs. Barbara Claiborne is in her late 40s. They were interviewed November 11, 2005, outside the Menil Collection, Houston, TX. Marty was preparing to return to NO to restart his dermatology practice. Barbara would remain in Houston until their youngest son finished the school semester. Marty was the first speaker. Barbara's words are italicized.

I guess you just feel frustrated that everything is so slow to fix up. I mean, everyday it seems like you have to keep on the workmen. We got four feet of water in the house. The house is ripped out to the sheet rock. Every piece of furniture we had downstairs is ruined. All the photographs were ruined and it's not just the four feet below. Once you start ripping out things, everything above four feet [is ruined]. So everything in the kitchen cabinets had to be pulled out. Everything had to be scrubbed. Everything had to be cleaned. And you're talking about an 1800 square feet first floor. We just had voluminous amounts of material that had to be cleaned, thrown away--some decision had to be made--we've made six trips back to New Orleans. It's just frustrating because it's just tough, it's tough to get the workmen there, to get the work done, it's tough to get the inspectors out. We finally get the wiring done to get the house ready, and now it's going to be one to two weeks before the energy company can simply come out just to quote "turn the power on."

Our carpets upstairs are dirty. They were white, or sort of an off-white color, and they're pitch black, from the mud, from our feet, from what we were carrying upstairs to put upstairs in the house. So they're all black.

Every time you go in the house, downstairs you're looking at studs, with a brick exterior, a slate floor, concrete recessed floors, in the living room and dining room where the hardwood floors were, those have been ripped up and torn out. So you go downstairs and everything is just filleted open to the shell. You go upstairs, and your carpet's black and dirty from walking upstairs, you have no power, so--

My biggest fear is when I go to redo this house--that was at one time nice--who is to say that the levees aren't going to break again? They haven't promised me that. So now I have a contractor coming in and he says: "You want a refrigerator/freezer? You know, do you want to do cabinets?" And I was thinking about putting cabinets in--nice ones, like I had. Now my fear is why should I put my good money, if I'm not even...I don't feel comfortable enough to put good money in case the levees break again. I mean it's frightening. My husband naturally said: "Barbara, let's do it exactly the way we had it before. Our house looked really wonderful. Let's put it back exactly the way we lived before." And I think he's right. But it's frightening. When you go through all this work picking out all this stuff. Next year, summertime comes, I'm going to be a wreck. I'ma need Valium!

I mean, here it is. It will cost three and a half billion dollars to fix the levees around New Orleans to Class 5 to do it correctly. The City of Boston through Ted Kennedy has a project called The Big Dig scheduled to cost seven billion. It's already at fourteen billion. And this is a damn underground expressway for the City of Boston. Something they didn't have to have, just to help with traffic, so they spent fourteen billion over the last ten years getting this project done, and we have to beg for three and a half billion to fix up the whole city to which thirty percent of the country's oil supplies come from. So we have to beg all of these Senators, who look at us like "Why, I'm not sure the money will be spent right." Well fine, let's have a committee from out of town monitor the thing. I don't want the Corps of Engineers to do it anyway. They were supposed to put sheet piling down fifteen feet. Now, it only went down seven to ten feet. So they didn't even do it right. Now it's the Governor that's supposed to be supervising it. And on top of that, the first fifteen to twenty feet--well, we find out now--is nothing but soil, soft soil, peat soil. Soft mud, basically. And the pilings should have been 45 to 60 feet deep. So from day one, it was run incorrectly. The little bit that we're supposed to do, they didn't do that right. The US Corps of Engineers is horrible. They represent the government, and you can't sue the government--

It's our home. The only one our children have ever known. This was where we've always been. And then we have some people telling us: "Oh, New Orleans is a swamp land." Well, that's easy for them to say. That's our home!

Here we are with all this oil and gas revenue coming through Louisiana. We've been drilling oil for fifty years. Florida and California say: "Oh, we don't want to harm our coastline." Well, we've got a fifty-year environmental impact statement. You just had a Class 5 hurricane blow through the Gulf, zero oil spill, zero nothing. These people don't want to drill off the coastline. They don't want to give us the money that's coming off our coastline to rebuild our levees just to protect our selves. And here's the Arctic Refuge, with all that oil and gas money, and they say: "Oh, it's pristine." The area they want to drill is frozen tundra. It's not green valleys or mountains or hills. It's in the middle of a frozen arctic wasteland. And here they are telling us that we can't have three and a half billion dollars to fix our levees. Well it's enough to make you scream.

For more information about the project, please visit www.thekatrinaexperience.net