Sunday, October 02, 2005

One Family's Story- Partially Told

First - The disclaimer.

We were going to watch a movie last night but I started asking Lee and Ana about their experiences in New Orleans before, during and after Katrina. Soon they were talking up a storm...I was soon taking notes. I'm going to attempt to write about some of what this family has endured, but from the outset I tell you I can not do it justice. There are so many details I can't include without writing an entire book. There is so much sorrow and fear.

Also, although this is going to be an unbelievably long post, I plan to write only up to the point where the family reached safety, so please remember this is only one part of the story. The rest is still being written and it is full of hope...and promise.

The photographs embedded below were taken by Ana Gomez and you can click on any of them to enlarge them. Ana also allowed me to read her personal journal where she wrote about what happened to her and her family. She has given me permission to quote from her writings* which are raw with the emotion and honesty of an 18 year old girl caught in the swirl of one of the worst natural and bureaucratic disasters in our country's history. I have paraphrased some of her thoughts, and polished some of her grammar for the sake of clarity.

The story begins...

There are five members of the Gomez family: Jose - the Dad, the Mom - Norma whom we call Lee, Michael - their 20 year old son, 18 year old Ana and 13 year old John'. They own their fully paid for home in mid-city New Orleans, the heart of downtown.

In late August of 2005 the Gomez family was preparing for a storm they heard was coming without ever imagining how bad it would become.

*Nobody ever went through a real hurricane before like a direct hit in New Orleans. Most of New Orleans Parish stayed home...Bob the TV weatherman said you're crazy if you don't leave, he wanted to scare people out...he knew how bad it was going to be.

The family did prepare...they prepared to be without power for a couple of weeks, but they didn't realize until it was too late that they would have to flee their home. They considered going to the Superdome but there were thousands of people already there and they thought better of it. Michael called local hotels who told him they had no room.

We went to church that Sunday (August 28th) one was there. My Mom asked our priest if it got bad if we could use the rectory for shelter since we've been going to that church our whole lives. The church was brick and high, we should be safe. The priest told her, "No" for insurance reasons. My Mom got mad. I told my Mom, "Don't worry you can't get mad, just forgive him and move on."

It got bad...very bad...very fast. Water was rising so fast the family scrambled to put their most cherished possessions in high places in the home.
On August 29th, Katrina's full force hit and the flooding had become widespread...the water rose around the Gomez home

My big brother Mike started to panic cause Bob the weatherman was scaring him...Michael got mad and kept saying, "We're going to die...but he got over it."

As the day wore on, water started to leak into virtually every room of the Gomez home. The winds tore off boards and shingles. The gutters flew off too.

I heard stories on the radio already about people trapped by water which reached all the way up to their ceiling. No one could come and help them either. It was sad we chose to stay or had no choice...and they had no help to come save them.

When water started coming in under the floor of their house, the family started packing. Lee and the kids tried to walk through water up to Ana's neck to a building near Broad and Tulane, but there was no one there to let them in, so they walked back to their house, and found it filled with about a foot of brown and "orangish" water.

I always saw people's houses flood on TV but never in my life did I think it would happen to us.

As the water rose the family tried to decide where to go and eventually opted to try to make their way to the courthouse building on Tulane street...near the jail. They grabbed what they could and walked back into the dark, murky waters.

I was scared. I did not know what was in that water. The last thing I told my Dad was, "Come with us!"
He said, "No." So we went on our way. That's the last time I saw my house...

We noticed that the water was getting higher and higher. Mike said, "Look the water is to our top step."

By the way the dogs were in the back room....April and Kiki...they did not make it.


The walk to the courthouse was a nightmare in itself with men in upper floors of motel rooms trying to lure the family - along with their few possessions and small amount of money - inside. Everything they now owned was in garbage bags stuffed in a big green garbage can that Michael carried hoping to keep the contents dry.

Around eight that night the family reached the courthouse where they found other people huddled on the steps. Cold and wet the family abandoned modesty and changed into dry clothes as Michael tried to provide some privacy by holding up a towel.

Several hours later the family ventured inside the courthouse which was being used by police, and sheriff's deputies as a shelter for them and their families, but they were offered little or no aid. The families staying there had mattresses.

...we slept on the hard cold cement floor. I couldn't sleep much - it was wet all around us and cold. I started to shake and couldn't stop.

Eventually the family went back outside to the courthouse steps and watched their city flood.

Soon the family members say they felt unwelcome at the courthouse. They were refused food and told it was for the jail inmates.

"This is not a shelter, you should have evacuated." That made my Mom mad. They did not even give us water.

The family stayed on the steps of the courthouse until they realized they would have to go somewhere else if the people staying there would not share food and water with them. Deputies also ignored their pleas to go rescue Jose. Eventually deputies in boats started moving people to the Broad bridge in boats...the Gomez family members were among those people.

When we saw the boat I was so happy. The Gomez family jumped in that boat! I could not believe that we only went around the corner, that's where the bridge was...but it was dry.

The family spent a full night and day on that bridge, occasionally hearing promises and rumors that buses would be coming to take them to a shelter. No buses ever came. They tried their best to find comfort. Ana told me that some people they were with "started doubting God" but the family watched the night sky and decided the stars above them were "angels watching over us."

The family eventually began sharing the bridge with evacuated jail inmates. Buses did come, but for the prisoners, not the people who had been displaced.

We...realized even the big pretty buses were not for us, but for the prisoners. I was disappointed.

Still they were a family without food, water or shelter. As the days wore on they attempted to get to the Superdome on a couple of occasions only to be turned back. They eventually made it to the New Orleans convention center where again they were met with rumors of buses coming to take them to safety. There were other rumors too, rumors of giant walls of water about to sweep the city. Ana was petrified.

There were additional events that were far more frightening. The family witnessed police shoot a man who jumped on a squad car. According to Ana they left the man's dead body in the street.
At night there were gunshots and screams and one evening the family members, which now included several friends and their children - four of them under 6 years old - huddled together on the street and witnessed what they feared was a rape.

I saw a male figure walking fast with a small girl crying...He held her by the hand telling her to shut up. They went all the way to the back of the lot. I heard the man say, "Sit down and shut up!" We yelled out, "Are you okay?" about three times. We could hear the girl crying softly. When we asked the girl if she was okay, the crying one would answer. That made me nervous. About five minutes later the little girl and the man passed by the crowd. I had a bad feeling. I think he raped that girl and I did nothing about it. A little girl's life was one saved her.

There were other things the family saw...street justice - a man beaten to death by a mob wielding pipes after two kids accused him of rape. Ana says the kids lied. There was looting too and members of the family admit taking part in a limited way, only to get things they needed to survive, Ana told me, "I thought God was gonna be mad at me for taking cookies. I wondered if God was gonna understand. I said, ' Please God forgive us, but we've got to have clothes.'"'

Eventually the family left the convention center and made another attempt to reach the Superdome. They were again turned away but were told by a soldier to stay on the side streets, a couple of blocks from the Convention Center. He said buses would be coming but the drivers were afraid they'd be mobbed.

On September 3rd...buses came.

They let us on a bus. I felt like hugging the bus. I felt like I won the lottery. I was safe. I was on the bus...I was getting out of here.

They eventually ended up at a shelter run by the 1st Baptist Church in Athens, Texas

We were so happy to finally have a bed. Everyone was so nice and helpful. Showers...I turned on the felt so good, like I was washing away all the things that happened to me in the past week, washing it away. Not forgetting, because I can't...but washing it away.

Eventually kind people in Athens helped track down Jose Gomez who had been evacuated to San Antonio. The giving people of Athens agreed to drive the rest of the family to San Antonio to be with him. As it turned out, Jose has thus far opted to stay at the shelter. Michael stayed with us for a few days and then initially planned to go to Houston, but ended up staying in San Antonio where he is getting his own apartment. The rest of the Gomez clan remains at our home, and we are quite blessed to have them here.