The pictures of me moving into my first apartment are still in my apartment.
I lived at 4500 Elysian Fields Ave., Apt. 112, in the Gentilly area of New Orleans. What did it matter that my first apartment did not involve monthly rent, and included a meal plan through Dillard University, where I was a senior mass communication major. It was still my own. My first.
Notice the past tense: "lived."
I had been in my new apartment for only a week when it was destroyed Aug. 29 by Hurricane Katrina and the floodwaters that came when the levees were breached a day later. These, and later fires, ravaged the campus. The hurricane caused wind damage to my parents’ home and my wonderful, sweet New Orleans, where I was born and raised.
Now I am supposed to make a list of everything I lost in that apartment to prepare an insurance claim. I tried, but I had to stop. I would write three things, and then I would get frustrated, and then I couldn’t write any more.
I am frustrated because I have to start all over. I could not remember every single detail in the apartment, to make sure all was accounted for. The value of everything in my apartment surpassed $6,500, a hefty price tag.
Sure, money from FEMA and the insurance claims helps, but it doesn’t replace my picture albums and my special mementos.
It’s not just the things that I lost. It’s the feelings: The places I remember from childhood. The walks on Decatur Street, to go eat my favorite powdery beignets with my family. The Saturday nights hanging out with my friends on Bourbon Street. Just being able to walk in Harrah’s Casino after I had my 21st birthday this past summer. Visiting my aunt’s authentic home located in the Ninth Ward. New Orleans was a city that was riddled with crime and poverty, but I still called it my safe haven.
I moved into my off-campus apartment, not five minutes from Lake Pontchartrain, on Aug. 18. I was decorating my new pad room by room. Everything had to match. My plan was to work from the back of the apartment to the front. I had already completed my bathroom and bedroom, just in time for the first day of school on Aug. 22.
I kept thinking, "Man, I have my own place and I am so excited about it." Really excited.
The next week, I settled into my cozy bedroom with its red and khaki curtains. I had two twin beds when I moved in, so I pushed them together to make a bed that was even larger than a king. When king size sheets did not fit the bed, I bought two sets of twin bedding, and it worked out fine. The bedding was white with a khaki comforter. Three pillows in red pillowcases, and my brand new Delta Sigma Theta afghan, with my sorority’s crest and Greek letters, adorned my bed.
I was proud because my room colors reflected my bold and outgoing personality.
Then on Sat., Aug. 27, about 8 a.m., my mother called to tell me that I should come home and ride out the storm with the family. I jokingly told her that I wasn’t going home until they kicked us out of the complex.
And about two hours later, it was like Paul Revere when the British were coming. Our apartment manager knocked on every door in the complex, warning the students of the hurricane. There was a mandatory evacuation of the campus and its housing. We had to be off campus by 5 p.m.
Having gone through this drill many times before as a native of the area, I honestly did not rush out of my apartment. Sure, I knew there was a Category 5 monster headed straight for the place I called my new home for a week, and for my permanent home of the past 21 years. But I never fathomed what would happen in the coming days.
So, I warmed up some dinner rolls from the night before to snack on, and sat down in front of the television. I watched mainly BET and MTV (my favorites), and then realized that I should turn on the local news or the Weather Channel, so I could see where Katrina was headed.
How did it become so powerful in such a short time? The day before, I realized the storm had entered the Gulf, but I was not really paying attention to the weather. I just knew it was the typical Louisiana, hot weather. It never dawned on me that it is always calm before a hurricane hits.
I thought I should get some gas and swing by Popeye’s to get my favorite three-piece chicken strip dinner with a large order of green beans. Well, the lines at the gas stations were ferocious. I was third in a trail of cars that overlapped onto the highway with motorists waiting to gas up. Still, after I filled up, I went to Popeye’s and everything seemed normal.
I went back to my apartment and visited with my best friend from Sacramento, Calif., who lived on the second floor. I stayed there with her for the longest, talking about last year’s mandatory evacuation for Hurricane Ivan, which turned away from New Orleans at the last minute. That time, my family did not evacuate. We were out of school for only two to three days.
Frustrated, my friend and I did not want to leave our apartments.
Some of her boxes were unopened still. She threw a raincoat over her television to protect it. I chuckled at that.
From her balcony on the second floor, we tried to guess how high the water could come up if Katrina produced a storm surge. We concluded it was not possible for the water to rise to that level, because the apartments were on high ground. But I began to worry because I was on the first floor.
By this time the complex of about 55 residents was empty, except for me, my friend and two other girls. I said my goodbyes to my friend, and gave her a hug and told her I would see her in about two days. It was about 4:30 p.m.
I went to prepare my apartment for what was to come. I took the recently opened boxes containing my newspaper clips from my internships, my portfolio, and a bundle of pictures and I placed it on the sofa. I thought that would be high enough. I rolled my television and DVD player into the living room closet, and threw magazines and other things on the top shelf.
In my bedroom, I gathered everything that was on the floor and placed the items in drawers. I took my clothes hamper out of the bathroom and placed it on my bed. If the water was going to get in, I just wanted to have my clothes up high, I was thinking. My room had two closets. The shoes were on the closet floor. I surveyed everything and thought it would be fine.
I grabbed two pairs of shoes and an outfit for church the next day. That was it. No accessories, no other clothes, shoes, handbags; nothing from my large collection of CDs. I expected to be gone for about two days.
I sprayed for insects before I left. My mom said it was the perfect time to do it because I’d be away from the fumes, and there’d be time for the repellent to start working. Because I was spraying in all of the cabinets, I took all of my non-perishable food and placed it in plastic bags on top of the refrigerator. I did not think to bring the food with me.
When I arrived home — on the West Bank, which is just over the Crescent City Connection Bridge over the Mississippi River and about 15 minutes away from my apartment — my family was gathered in front of the televisions, debating whether to leave or stay. The battle went on in my mother’s head well into the night. We left at about 5 a.m. Sunday and found ourselves sitting in traffic, and traveling back roads to avoid more traffic. It took about 10 hours to reach Dallas.
We did not know we’d be away from home indefinitely.
Katrina wreaked havoc on New Orleans and beyond. Uprooted by Katrina, the big tree in my parents’ front yard is still resting on the house. At Dillard, floodwaters receded to reveal muck, debris and tangled tree branches. Fires of uncertain cause are said to have destroyed three campus buildings. The semester is canceled.
After a week and a half away, I could have stayed in Dallas, but I wanted to be closer to home. I enrolled at Southern University in Baton Rouge.
I still have not been able to see what is left of my first apartment.
I have heard many stories, but I just won’t know what to believe until I see it with my own eyes.
I know that my first-floor apartment was flooded. How high did the water get? I don’t know. I was told about 7 feet. I have tried to picture that much water in my first-floor apartment. I am 5 feet, 11 inches tall, and it gives me chills just thinking that had I been there, the water might have risen to my chin and past. Knowing that some of my peers went through exactly that makes me shudder.
I don’t know if I will be allowed to return to salvage anything.
If I am, it will not be a joyous homecoming, but one filled with tears and heartache.
I envision the pictures of me in my first apartment floating around in a sea of contaminated, muddy water. I think of my Sweet 16 photo of me with my Dad, and a million pictures of me with my line sisters and friends, and the photo albums of my college life.
They may all be destroyed. For now, I don’t know.
What I do know is that sometimes, the fear of the unknown is worse than knowing the truth. And I was going to buy more frames for my photographs when I got back to school, to finish the task of decorating my first apartment.
Rebecca Roussell is a Graduating Senior from Dillard University. Currently, she is attending Southern University. The preceeding article was published on Black College Wire.org.