August 29, 2014 at 10:06 am EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Gulf Coast’s LGBT residents mark Katrina anniversary
Hurricane Katrina, Vicki Weeks, HIV, gay news, Washington Blade

Belle Reve Executive Director Vicki Weeks shows photos of the hurricane damage to her organization’s building. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

NEW ORLEANS — It was around 2 a.m. on Aug. 27, 2005, when Vicki Weeks, executive director of Belle Reve, a residence for people with HIV/AIDS in New Orleans’ Marigny neighborhood, and three of her staffers began to evacuate the Crescent City ahead of Hurricane Katrina with eight clients who had no other way to leave.

It took the group eight hours to drive three miles on Interstate 10 in New Orleans because of a massive traffic jam.

“We couldn’t move,” Weeks told the Washington Blade during an interview at her office last month. “Traffic was sitting and we were on a high-rise elevated expressway with no bathrooms, no water.”

The eight Belle Reve residents, along with Weeks and her three staffers arrived at a campground in Alexandria, La., 16 hours after they left New Orleans — the trip normally takes less than four hours. Weeks told the Blade she, her employees and residents immediately faced discrimination from the owners because many of them were of color.

“They harassed us every single day we were there,” said Weeks. “We were there 19 days looking for another place to go.”

Friday marks the ninth anniversary of Katrina’s landfall on the Gulf Coast.

A 28’ storm surge and winds that exceeded 125 mph in places devastated the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Up to 80 percent of New Orleans flooded after levees along the 17th Street, London Avenue and Industrial Canals failed.

More than 1,800 people in Louisiana, Mississippi and other states lost their lives during Katrina.

’Nothing recognizable’ on Miss. coast after Katrina

Hurricane Katrina, gay news, Washington Blade

Hurricane Katrina destroyed rows of homes along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, leaving only foundations now overgrown with weeds. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Jena Pierce, a lesbian from Biloxi, Miss., and her two children evacuated their home in nearby Gulfport with her photo albums and things she told the Blade she “knew I’d never be able to see again.” They rode out the storm at the hospital where Pierce worked that is 30 miles inland.

Katrina’s storm surge destroyed Pierce’s home that was two houses away from the beach.

“There was really nothing recognizable,” Pierce told the Blade during a July 14 interview at Edgewater Mall in Biloxi that suffered extensive damage during the hurricane. “You couldn’t tell what street was what street. There were no landmarks for identifying where you were.”

Julie Thompson, co-president of PFLAG New Orleans, and her husband lived about a mile west of the 17th Street Canal in the Bucktown section of Metairie, La. Up to 17’ of water inundated the adjacent Lakeview neighborhood of New Orleans after a levee along the waterway that empties into nearby Lake Pontchartrain failed during the storm.

Julie Thompson evacuated to her daughter’s home in Austin, Tex., where she lived for six weeks after Katrina made landfall.

She told the Blade during a July 13 interview at a Metairie coffee shop near the 17th Street Canal that she quickly learned the fate of her home from the pictures her now daughter-in-law in the U.S. Coast Guard sent.

“We only had a little over a foot of water, but it destroyed everything,” said Julie Thompson. “We didn’t have anything left.”

The U.S. Census noted New Orleans in 1999 had a poverty rate of nearly 28 percent — and this figure was higher among people of color. More than 100,000 people in the Crescent City did not have access to transportation that would have allowed them to evacuate ahead of Katrina.

“The city did not have an evacuation plan for people with no vehicles, and that’s why so many people stayed,” said Weeks, who lives in New Orleans’ Gentilly Terrace neighborhood that was under several feet of water after Katrina. “We tried to get our residents to go with relatives or with churches, but we still had eight out of 12 that had no way to get out of town.”

Trinette Crump of the South Mississippi AIDS Task Force in Biloxi told the Blade during a telephone interview earlier this week that she made sure the handful of people who lived in her organization’s transitional housing program safely evacuated the coast ahead of Katrina.

She said local meteorologists had forecasted the hurricane would affect New Orleans and other areas more than the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Crump evacuated with her neighbor from their Gulfport apartment complex to her parents’ home in the Florida Panhandle hours before Katrina made landfall.

“I didn’t really figure out until like maybe 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning that this thing was really going to come towards this coast and not those other places,” she said.

Miss Eddie, a transgender woman who currently lives at Belle Reve, rode out the storm in the run-down house near the Esplanade Mall in the New Orleans suburb of Kenner that she rented with her best friend.

She told the Blade during a July 14 interview at Belle Reve that she initially didn’t even realize her home was flooded when she stepped into 15” of water while walking to the bathroom.

“When I got in bed I said ‘oh, my feet are wet,’” said Miss Eddie. “I took a towel and I dried my feet. As I was putting them back into the bed, my foot hung out again. I said ‘oh damn,’ so I wiped it again and then it did it again. I said ‘wait a minute, we’re in a flood.’”

The street on which Miss Eddie’s home was located was under nearly three feet of floodwater after Katrina.

Members of the National Guard and volunteers brought them food, water and cigarettes because supermarkets and other local businesses were closed. Miss Eddie’s mother and her best friend both became sick after the storm, but she described her home as “blessed.”

“They wanted to kill each other and I was oblivious to the whole thing due to the flood and everything,” Miss Eddie told the Blade. “So we had a rough time during the Katrina with my mother.”

Excerpts of interview with Miss Eddie

Hurricane prompts some to permanently leave Gulf Coast

Those who had the means to do so temporarily relocated from New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

The home in which Johanna Williams and her family lived in New Orleans’ Upper Ninth Ward had more than 4’ feet of water inside of it after the storm. Nearly 8’ feet of water flooded her grandparents’ home.

Williams, who was 15 during Katrina and had come out to her friends weeks before the storm made landfall, lived with her family in Memphis for seven months after the hurricane. She joked she attended a school that was “in the middle of cotton fields.”

Williams told the Blade she was able to celebrate Christmas Eve in her family’s home because her father, who was a fire captain for the New Orleans Fire Department at the time, was able to repair it enough.

“The second the waters receded he was gutting out our house so we could actually have our house available to us,” said Williams. “We were one of the few people who were able to come back.”

Timothy Thompson, HIV, gay news, Washington Blade

Timothy Thompson (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Timothy Thompson, a peer educator with the New Orleans AIDS Task Force, evacuated the house in Slidell, La., in which he lived with his mother, grandmother and sister. They lived in a two-bedroom apartment with his family in Baton Rouge, La., for six months after Katrina before Timothy Thompson enrolled in Southern University.

Timothy Thompson’s family had to “pretty much gut” their home in Slidell because of the floodwaters and mold that followed. He told the Blade that he and his family “found strength” by volunteering at Louisiana State University and through “giving back by helping out” as a way to keep their minds off of Katrina.

“It was hard going from having your own car and your own space to being in a two-bedroom apartment with your family trying to sort out things,” Timothy Thompson told the Blade during a July 13 interview at a restaurant in the French Quarter, which did not flood during Katrina because it is on relatively high ground along the Mississippi River.

Timothy Thompson nevertheless said he was fortunate, compared to others who had no other option than to evacuate to the Superdome during Katrina.

“That was just a horror,” he said. “To be labeled as a refugee when you’re human, a member of the human race, it was more of the issue that just couldn’t be labeled to people living with HIV and AIDS. It didn’t matter. It didn’t matter if you were poor or rich. Everybody was lumped into the same bunch and had to kind of hope for their way out.”

Others simply did not return.

Jeff White, president of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Rainbow Center, a local LGBT advocacy support group, moved to New Orleans’ Gentilly neighborhood with his then-partner three months before Katrina.

They evacuated to Memphis from where they had moved, but went to Arkansas because they did not have a place to stay. White lived in the state for two years before moving to the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

“I saw friends of mine on the news in the water that didn’t make it,” White told the Blade during an interview at a Mexican restaurant in Gulfport on July 14 that had been on the beach before Katrina. “We lost quite a few neighbors and friends. I just won’t go back.”

The South Mississippi AIDS Task Force’s transitional housing facility suffered minor damage during Katrina, even though it is a block from the beach.

Crump, whose Gulfport home was damaged after a tree fell onto her upstairs neighbor’s apartment and water was able to enter her unit, told the Blade she was able to restock her organization’s transitional housing facility with food and other items once the local utility company restored electricity.

She said a number of clients simply did not come back.

“A lot of clients at that time decided to relocate out of state,” said Crump. “They haven’t returned.”

Dylan Waguespack of Louisiana Trans Advocates, who was 13 in 2005, and his family evacuated their home in New Orleans’ Lakeview neighborhood the night before Katrina made landfall. He lived in Baton Rouge, La., with his mother and brother, while his father traveled from his job in Dallas on the weekends.

Waguespack returned to New Orleans in January 2006 after his school re-opened, but it took his parents three years to rebuild their home. Waguespack never lived with his family again because of what he described as the estranged relationship he had had with his mother for most of his life.

He lived with his mother’s sister “for a while,” but eventually lived in a New Orleans homeless shelter.

Waguespack moved back to Baton Rouge after he graduated.

“Katrina was terrible, but it really was one of the best things that ever happened to me,” he told the Blade during a July 12 interview at a Baton Rouge restaurant with other local LGBT rights advocates.

Katrina ‘devastated’ trans support, exacerbated poverty

Advocates in Mississippi and Louisiana told the Blade that Katrina continues to adversely affect the LGBT community in the two states.

The hurricane destroyed a bar in Bay St. Louis, Miss., that was popular among local gay and lesbian residents. Other bars and clubs in Biloxi did not re-open after the storm.

“We had a few other outlets, where as now we have three,” Pierce told the Blade. “There’s not a lot for the LGBT community.”

Reports indicate that many trans people from New Orleans and surrounding areas who evacuated during Katrina faced discrimination while living in shelters.

Elizabeth Anne Jenkins, president of Louisiana Trans Advocates, told the Blade last month that a number of doctors and other health care providers who treated trans people in the Crescent City did not return after the hurricane. She said there were only two therapists in New Orleans after the storm who would treat trans people.

“It absolutely devastated any kind of support you could get, not to mention the housing for the homeless and the people who were having troubles with their parents,” said Jenkins. “All that sort of support just went away.”

Timothy Thompson told the Blade a lot of people who were unable to evacuate New Orleans during Katrina continue to suffer. These include people living with HIV/AIDS who stopped taking their medications or simply “gave up.”

“The best way to compare it to is of someone who went through Iraq and had post-traumatic stress syndrome because of all of the different changes with the water, the changes with not knowing where your family was, not knowing whether you’re going to make it through,” said Timothy Thompson. “All of these things weigh on someone who has those different health issues because your body’s under all this fatigue and stress. A lot of people didn’t make it.”

Katrina exacerbated poverty among many of Crump’s clients who often rent their homes and live on a fixed income.

“If they didn’t have any renter’s insurance and they didn’t receive any money from FEMA, that means that they had to start all over on their own,” she said.

Julie Thompson said there remains a lot of what she described as “survivor guilt.”

“You’ll find [it] all over New Orleans,” she said as Jenkins and other LGBT advocates listened. “I know you see this all the time from people who didn’t have anything happen to them. They kept everything, but those of us who didn’t, there’s no reason to feel guilty. It was just what happened. Some of us got it, some of us didn’t.”

’We’re still having problems’

Hurricane Katrina

Several homes remain shuttered in New Orleans’ Upper Ninth Ward nine years after Katrina. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Damage from Katrina remains clearly visible in many areas of Louisiana and Mississippi.

Concrete slabs from oceanfront homes that had been along U.S. Highway 90 between Gulfport and Biloxi are clearly visible. Pine trees along Interstate 10 between New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast that Katrina damaged remain.

A number of damaged homes with large orange X’s spray-painted onto them remain along North Claiborne Avenue in the Upper Ninth Ward. Dozens of overgrown lots in the Lower Ninth Ward where houses had been before Katrina remain vacant.

The outrage that local, state and federal authorities faced over their response to Katrina also remains in New Orleans.

A dog house built outside the Lower Ninth Ward headquarters of Common Ground Relief — an organization that rebuilds homes and restores wetlands in the neighborhood and offers a variety of legal and other services to New Orleanians — has the acronym for the Federal Emergency Management Agency written on it. Weeks recalled homeowners throughout the city expressed their frustration with FEMA’s post-Katrina response on broken refrigerators — many of which contained liquefied meat she said smelled like “dead people” because of the lack of air conditioning — they duct-taped and placed on the street outside their homes to be picked up.

“People wrote on them, ‘FEMA inside, do not open,’” she said. “We were so mad.”

Several homes along Fleur de Lis Drive in New Orleans’ Lakeview neighborhood had bright red signs in their yards that read “Fix our streets!” because the road is nearly impassible because of the water that inundated the neighborhood after the levee along the 17th Street Canal failed. The church that Jenkins and her partner, Donna Jean Loy, attend on the street was under 17’ of water during the storm.

“We’re still having problems,” Jenkins told the Blade, noting her church has been rebuilt in spite of FEMA’s promises to help.

Julie Thompson stuck her finger in her mouth as an expression of anger towards FEMA and its response to Katrina.

“It was bad,” said Williams.

Weeks is among those who noted to the Blade the federal government — and not city or state officials — funded the rebuilding effort, but they did not actually do it.

“We were so angry at the response of the first two weeks,” she said. “After that I can tell you if it wouldn’t be for the people themselves who live here and volunteers this city would not be rebuilt.”

Mississippi advocates said their state’s response to Katrina was far better than that of then-Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and then-New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin.

John Perkins of Waveland, Miss., who was born a month after Hurricane Camille devastated his hometown in 1969, noted that then-Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour had connections with federal officials in D.C. because he chaired the Republican National Committee from 1993-1997.

“People have a lot to say about Haley Barbour, but he did a good job with that,” said Perkins. “It’s probably one of the things I’m most proud of him about.”

Crump echoed Perkins.

“The state’s response went well,” she said. “They did everything they could for the storm.”

Crump told the Blade that FEMA “responded well,” but she feels people who “should have received some type of assistance from” the agency didn’t receive it. She said many people were unable to navigate the red tape in order to receive federal funds to rebuild their homes and other services.

“A lot of people don’t understand complex processes like that,” said Crump.

Activists remain united after Katrina

Hurricane Katrina

Julie Thompson, co-president of PFLAG New Orleans (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The advocates with whom the Blade spoke said Katrina galvanized the LGBT community in a way that continues to this day.

The National AIDS Fund invited HIV/AIDS service providers from Louisiana and Mississippi to D.C. after the storm so they could meet with federal agencies, foundations and other non-profits that could provide them with post-hurricane assistance. Kathryn Garner, executive director of AIDS Services Coalition in Hattiesburg, Miss., told the Blade during a telephone interview earlier this month that local pharmacies did “extraordinary things” after Katrina to try to ensure people with the virus received their medications.

Someone broke into her organization’s clinic following the storm and “stole everything.”

“Whether they were local pharmacies or national chains, they all worked together,” said Garner.

Health Services Center, an HIV/AIDS service organization in Anniston, Ala., offered housing and office space to Weeks, her staff and clients after she e-mailed the Department of Housing and Urban Development from the campground to which they had evacuated from New Orleans.

They remained in Northeastern Alabama for seven months.

“They went overboard to help us,” Weeks told the Blade.

Representatives from Human Rights Campaign, PFLAG New Orleans, the New Orleans AIDS Task Force, the LGBT Community Center of New Orleans and other local and regional LGBT advocacy groups in Louisiana took part in weekly conference calls after the storm.

Tim Hornbeck of the Forum for Equality, a statewide LGBT advocacy group based in New Orleans, organized the calls.

“We would make plans for what we were going to do when we got home,” Julie Thompson told the Blade. “We were afraid since everybody was everywhere that the community was going to break apart and we needed to keep together. If we didn’t keep together, than how could we even have a community.”

Julie Thompson and the four other members of the PFLAG New Orleans Board of Directors returned to the city roughly six weeks after Katrina made landfall.

The National Youth Advocacy Coalition and COLAGE gave PFLAG New Orleans $25,000 to distribute among young people who had been left homeless because of the storm. The advocates decided to meet at the LGBT Community Center of New Orleans to determine how to distribute the money, but there was no electricity.

“We had to climb through a hole in the fence and go over garbage and go in there to this cold room in the winter and we met there every week,” recalled Julie Thompson. “Finally we decided, you know we need to get a coalition going that doesn’t meet under these circumstances, so then we met in a bar because this is New Orleans, okay… and we invited a lot of people. Everybody could share their stories, but we wanted to know what was going on with everybody so that we could support each other.”

Julie Thompson — who once attended Southern Decadence with her gay son who passed away from a stroke in 2008 during Hurricane Isaac — told the Blade that people who attended the annual New Orleans AIDS Walk in September 2006 noted the camaraderie of the local LGBT community.

“We know because of what happened to us, we as a community know that if we don’t have each other, we don’t have anything,” she said. “I’m a straight ally, but I know the importance of it and we have to keep it together.”

A similar situation played out in Mississippi.

Equality Mississippi, a fledgling statewide LGBT advocacy group, offered assistance to LGBT people on the coast after Katrina. The Union for Reform Judaism contributed $10,000 to these efforts.

“After Katrina everybody was helping everybody with anything you needed,” Perkins told the Blade. “There wasn’t a question after that.”

Perkins, who co-founded the Mississippi Gulf Coast Rainbow Center with White, said one of the reasons they decided to create the group is because he noted most of the LGBT people who lived in the area were “cut-off and weren’t able to connect with each other” because the bars were closed.

“That’s usually around here where everybody congregates because there really isn’t anything else, which is one reason why we started the page and wanted to get the community center going so there is an actual place for people to go to,” said Perkins. “That’s what we’re hoping to get to further down the line as we get bigger and get more money is to be able to build it.”

Crump, who moved to the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 2003 from Jackson, the state capital, told the Blade she was determined to return to Gulfport and to the South Mississippi AIDS Task Force after Katrina.

“I had made Gulfport my home,” she said. “I decided to return and continue to work in the fight against HIV and AIDS and continue to work with the clients.”

Some advocates along the Gulf Coast are even able to maintain a sense of humor about Katrina and its lingering effects.

Julie Thompson recalled slipping twice in the mud outside of the building of the New Orleans City Park campus of Delgado Community College where she worked. An adjacent structure collapsed during the hurricane because of the flooding.

She lay in the mud in the rain before she was finally able to walk to her car, call her husband and tell him they were not going to be able to go out for dinner.

“Sometimes you have to just lay in the mud and then you can get up and start over again,” she said. “That’s the way New Orleans was. We lay in the mud and then we finally got up and started over again. Now we’re making for a better, stronger everything.”

Michael K. Lavers has been a staff writer for the Washington Blade since May 2012. The passage of Maryland's same-sex marriage law, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the burgeoning LGBT rights movement in Latin America and the consecration of gay New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson are among the many stories he has covered since his career began in 2002. Follow Michael

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