As we turned the block, a large man waived down our car, asking if we were the folks interviewing the FEMA trailer occupants. We responded that we were and he asked, "Why we need to have a trailer for you to talk with us?" As we attempted to explain the goals of our projects, he shook his head and said, "Some folks who need a trailer still can't get one. This lady here," he gestured to a woman who was walking up to our group, "She can't get the keys to that trailer right beside her house. It's been there six months."
Then Coach (he never did give his proper name) began to tell us the story of his neighborhood. "Spike Lee, he ain't got nothing on me, baby" he'd say after a particularly graphic detail. "I saw people droppin' babies in the water 'cause they didn't know what else to do. Bro, we had a bad time down here."
Coach shared his house with his elderly mother. Both lived on opposite sides of the second floor, above their garage. As the storm approached, he suggested to his mother that they leave the city (Coach was fortunate to have two cars), but his mother did not want to leave. They weathered the wind and rain, and though the house shook, it suffered little damage. After Katrina passed, he and his mother sat on the front porch, surveying the neighborhood and Coach saw water running down their street from around the corner. He assumed that a water line had broken and thought little of it as the water simply ran down into the storm drain in front of his house. After several hours, the drain stopped taking in water and slowly it filled the street and reached the sidewalk. Heavy rain often flooded the street, so Coach was not overly concerned. But when water reached his garage doors, he began to think something more serious had happened. Soon the water had risen several steps up towards his porch and when one of his students passed by in a boat, he called him over. By this time, the water was chest deep and still rising. Coach took the boat over to a nearby lot where another boat was stored and waded up to it. After hotwiring the boat, he began to travel through the neighborhood, checking in with people to see how they were fairing. Quickly, it became clear that everyone needed to evacuate, so Coach organized the shuttling of the remaining neighbors over to the highway overpass and from there to the Superdome. "Some folks refused to come," he said, shaking his head, "they wouldn't leave they house and they gone now. I went back twice to ask, but they wouldn't leave." He added that his neighbors either drowned or were forced to evacuate when the National Guard came for him. His next door neighbor's son was sick at the time of the hurricane and rescuers didn't reach him in time to save him. Coach eventually made it to the Superdome himself. (His neighbor, Mr. Singleton, described that experience starkly, saying "Only two people know what happened in there, the folks who was in there, and the Good Lord.") His mother was ill and through a connection, Coach was able to get her up into the offices at the Superdome and thus to a safe shower and some chairs for her to sleep on. After three days, they evacuated to Texas and eventually to Chicago. Even though she is a life-long New Orleans resident, his mother has since remained in Chicago because Coach does not believe the city is safe enough for her to return. The lack of services and public transportation means she would be forced to remain in the house all day and he could not let her spend her days cooped up alone.
After inviting us into his renovated home, and proudly displaying the group of volunteers from Dartmouth College who helped gut his destroyed downstairs, he treated us to more stories, drinks, and photos of the storm and its aftermath. He left us with a book of Katrina photos, some directions and information about the best neighborhoods to visit, and the request that we promise to stop by and say hello next time we are in the neighborhood.