Editor’s note: This first-person narrative of living through Hurricane Katrina is adapted from Gerald Anderson’s newly published memoir, Still Standing: How an Ex-Con Found Salvation in the Floodwaters of New Orleans, and from his “My Katrina” series that was originally published in Street Sense.
Ten years ago at the age of 37, Gerald Anderson was evacuated to D.C. after rescuing victims during the flooding in New Orleans. Busses took him and other Katrina victims from the airport to the D.C. Armory and then moved him from one hotel to another. Finally, he was told to leave.
With no place to stay, he moved in with one of his homegirls from New Orleans. His friends were offered apartments, but because of his criminal record, no one would rent to him. He put up signs and did odd jobs to earn money. He also sold drugs, and before long he was back to the cycle of drugs, prison, and homelessness.
Meanwhile, his whole family was in Texas and with the help of the Internet, he was able to find and contact his mother, siblings, and nephews shortly after arriving in D.C. Yet he had no means to visit.
Everything began to change when he learned he could write for and sell Street Sense. He was so beloved by his customers that in 2013 they pooled airline miles to send him back to New Orleans to visit, eight years after Katrina.
But six months later, when he missed two visits to his parole officer, and hence two urine tests, he had to appear in court. His urine tested positive for drugs. The judge could have sent him back to prison; instead she sentenced him to a drug treatment program.
That was in April 2014. Within three months Anderson moved to a recovery home in Arlington, Virginia and has been drug-free ever since. As soon as he received copies of his book, he went right over to the courthouse to visit the judge and sign a copy for her.
Anderson has built a new family in D.C.—his Street Sense customers—and he plans to remain living in the area. In the future he plans to mentor young men, so that they won’t make the mistakes he made.
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It was the day before Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans.
While my three friends and I were paddling in a boat that we’d found at an evacuated house in the rich folks’ part of town, we saw another friend Calio screaming for help. His girlfriend, Michelle, was in labor inside their house.
The flooding was so high that there was no way to get her out. So we fought the waves to get tools and a ladder into the living room from a shed out back. And then—with Michelle screaming and writhing the whole time—we pounded at the ceiling until, finally, we broke through to the sky. Calio climbed the ladder and poked his head and arms above the roof. He waved a white sheet as we held tight to the base of the ladder and prayed for help.
Meanwhile, the military had been dropping boxes containing food and water that hit with big splashes and then floated. Inside the boxes we found hot packs of Salisbury steak, peas, mashed potatoes, and Snickers.
I went upstairs to feed Michelle’s two boys, who were eight and twelve. They were huddled together wide-eyed on the bed they shared.
They wanted to know, “What’s happening?”
“The water gonna come in here?”
“Mama gonna be okay?”
I told them, “Mama be fine. Soon y’all have a new baby.”
Like the rest of us, they relieved themselves in a bucket, which we emptied into plastic bags.
After about forty minutes of wondering whether help would ever come, we heard a whirring sound from a helicopter circling right above that made the whole house vibrate.
And then we heard Calio talking to someone.
He yelled down that he’d gotten a helicopter’s attention.
“Tell them to come down quick!” I called.
We heard the brrrrrm of the helicopter getting louder. Calio came down the ladder, and told us, “The helicopter man say move our ladder. They gonna get in here. Now!”
We looked up and saw the guy stepping down this wiggly ladder that was attached to the helicopter, which was hovering above the roof.
Three more guys came down. One asked, “Man, why didn’t she leave?”
They told Michelle to stay calm, to open her legs, to breathe. She was screaming and crying. I could hardly bear to watch.
Next we knew, a slimy infant was oozing out between her legs. A medic stroked the little body, and a squeaky whaaa whaaa came out of its tiny mouth.
Maybe it was an hour later that they put the baby in a sack—like a duffle bag—and hauled him up their ladder and through the roof. One of the guys wrapped Michelle in a big sling and towed her up next to be with her new son and escape the nightmare below.
Calio stayed with us. We tried to get him to go. The helicopter man asked him, “You sure you don’t want to come?”
He answered, “I’m just gonna stay. I know you gonna look after my family.” They had already taken Michelle’s other two boys up in sacks, and they offered to take the rest of us. But I replied, “No can do buddy.”
I still wasn’t believing it. I couldn’t imagine the storm getting any more intense, even though the helicopter man said, “I don’t know why y’all staying here. Ten hours from now it’s gonna hit. I’m telling y’all, get outta here!”
I said, “If it do hit, I know how to survive it. I survived this far. I’m not leaving my hometown.” I thought I was a smartie.
By the time I realized I should have listened, it was too late. I said to my boys, “I’m tellin’ you man, we better get back to the projects where it’s higher ground. We shoulda gone on that helicopter.”
Outside, toppled trees and tangled wires made it impossible to paddle, so we pushed the boat. I pointed to some cats that were mewing on rooftops and shouted, “They got more sense than we got!”
Along the way, we met a man whose roof had fallen in; he told us they were sleeping in the bathtub. Another family huddled on their porch in prayer. I prayed too, with every move I made.
Beside us, dogs were trying to get help, just like us humans. Some had the mange with scabs and patches of missing fur. They were paddling like crazy, fighting the currents for their lives. Lifeless bloated bodies of little puppies floated by on top of the chin-high water.
That we were in the midst of a terrifying event was further made real by signs scrawled on houses: Please help us! People Dog Cat . . . Need food! . . . GRANDMA INSIDE NEEDS DIALYSIS! . . . Bush get down here right now!
You could hear screams of people trapped in their homes. That’s when I began thinking about those I had left behind when I was released from Orleans Parish Prison only a few weeks earlier. If I were still in a cell, what would be happening to me?
And with this thing getting rougher by the minute, I didn’t even want to imagine what guys were going through in “the hole,” an underground cell where you were sent for fighting or other misbehavior. In addition to unruly inmates, the hole was infested with rats running all over the place. Being below ground, it would surely get flooded.
I thought about my friend Smiley, who was always getting into fights. He’s probably in the hole right now, I thought.
And I thought about friends I had played cards and dominoes with. I even thought about a few deputies I was cool with that I used to talk to at night about the street and what I would do if I beat the charge.
But now I worried that deputies would go home to their families and I wondered what would become of those left locked in their cells. It wasn’t until after the storm that I read accounts about deputies abandoning inmates, who were locked up without food and water. I heard that some prisoners knew how to file down toothbrushes and bush combs to make them into keys, which they used to pop the locks. Some, however, stayed behind trying to help others.
There was nothing anyone could do to rescue those behind steel doors—the guys in solitary. Several inmates suffered from conditions like diabetes and epilepsy and didn’t have their medication. Some never made it out.
Many of the prisoners who were left in the rising sewage waters without food or water were teenagers; many were being held for minor violations, and some had not even been charged. But compared to my battle with Katrina, my time in prison was sweet like Mama’s pecan pie.
Finally we got the boat back to the projects. We told every family that in less than ten hours Katrina would hit. The helicopter rescuers had told us, “When it hits, crouch down on the floor.” I thought this must be what it’s like in a plane that’s about to crash.
Yet I continued to question, Could this storm really get any worse? In ten hours, I would find out that so far, I had seen only the beginning.
My book tells the whole story about all the rescues I did with my homeboys and how we looked after folks in the projects.
After Katrina, I would sit in on myself; it was like I gave up. I got sent to prison for selling drugs and after being released I was homeless. I would pay to sleep on people’s floors. One guy locked me out and stole my clothes.
But now selling Street Sense and writing my stories are like big great activities to me. It rocks my body. It’s like club music, hip-hop, go-go – that’s how this process makes me feel.
Before, I didn’t know there was another way. It wasn’t until the judge sentenced me to drug treatment and I did so well, that I got a key to my own place, a recovery home in Virginia, where I live with nine other men.
Now, I know I’ve got somewhere to go, something to do.