American Refugees: Hill Staffers Share Katrina Stories
Everyone who lived through Hurricane Katrina has a story: where they were, what they did and how they coped.
House Republican Whip Steve Scalise and Democratic Rep. Cedric L. Richmond, who both represented pockets of New Orleans in the Louisiana Legislature before coming to Washington, reflected on their experiences ahead of this weekend’s 10th anniversary of the storm.
But they aren’t the only ones on Capitol Hill with tales to tell.
In Richmond’s office, two staffers were in high school when the 2005 hurricane upended their lives; a third legislative aide came to New Orleans two years later for college and recalls falling in love with a city that still needed help.
On Scalise’s team is a staff member who remembers turning on the television as a news camera panned out on the storm’s destruction to reveal the parking lot of his family’s church, several feet underwater.
Leaving the Big Easy
Brandon Gassaway, now Richmond’s communications director, was 17 and just starting his senior year of high school. As the storm drew near, he was looking forward to a “hurricane day” on Monday, Aug. 29 — the day Katrina was due — to delay a scheduled calculus test.
Much of Gassaway’s large extended family lived in New Orleans East — “absolutely where you don’t want to be” when a hurricane hits, he said — and a verdict was reached to camp out at a hotel downtown, on higher ground, to ride out the storm. But in the middle of the night on Saturday, Gassaway’s mother said it was time to drive to Dallas. “I’m like, ‘We do this all the time,’” Gassaway recalled. “I packed a very, very light bag, partly being a teenager, just like, ‘I don’t feel like going, so I’m just gonna bring a T-shirt and some shorts and kinda hang out.’”
Gassaway’s family members settled into a hotel in Dallas after a 12-hour car ride, in the first of many hotels in Dallas in the weeks that followed, after it became clear their homes had been destroyed.
“We watch[ed the storm] on television, and it [was] surreal,” he said. “First it’s shock. ‘Oh my God, what’s going on, what is happening, let’s make sure people are safe,’ things like that. And then it sets in: You’re not going back to school anytime soon.” Joe Lustig was 15 and starting 10th grade at the same high school as Gassaway, though they didn’t know each other at the time. (Richmond also attended the school years earlier.)
At that point, they, along with others staying in the medical center, were airlifted from the roof by a Coast Guard helicopter and flown to Lafayette. Lustig was out of contact with his parents for 48 hours, which he described as “terrifying.” “Last I knew they were at the medical center and next I heard from them they were on their way to Chicago,” he said. His mother had family there, and that’s where he and his younger sister would attend school for the next year.
Like Gassaway, Geoffrey Green, now a senior legislative assistant for Scalise, was about to start his senior year of high school. He was attending a small Christian school affiliated with a church founded by his grandfather, and Green’s father was pastor and headmaster.
The family had just moved into a new house in the New Orleans suburb of Slidell, but Green’s childhood home and the church were directly across the street from each other. Green’s parents, not wanting to take any chances, decided a week in advance of Katrina’s arrival to leave with their two sons and stay with friends in Memphis.
“The first few days were fine,” Green said. “We went to dinner, we kind of watched what was going on, on TV, and it just got worse and worse and worse.”
As the storm approached, he and his family would pile into their parked car, where they could get a signal for the local radio station back home.
Green said the New Orleans station would play an endless stream of public services announcements, and the Greens would listen closely for familiar names and neighborhoods to gauge the conditions on the ground.
It was when they saw a live TV shot of their church parking lot, underwater, that they began to realize how bad things had become.
Green’s father knew a lot of people through the faith community, and his phone “was blowing up” from churches around the country asking how they could help. (Green and Gassaway both noted 2005 was the year people were starting to send text messages, and they recalled helping their parents use the communication tool when landlines went down.)
Green, his brother and mother ultimately settled in San Antonio, Texas, while his father went back to New Orleans to lead the congregation, which no longer had a home. Services were held everywhere and anywhere. “My dad had churches in people’s homes, he had them in shopping centers, he had them in movie theaters, he had them in furniture warehouse stores,” he said.
By the end of 2005, the Greens reunited in Louisiana. The family’s new home in the suburbs, purchased before the hurricane, was still standing and Green enrolled at a local high school where teachers and students were grappling with how to move on.
“Everybody felt the same pain, everybody went through the same stuff. … My English teacher, she was in the middle of trying to get her insurance adjustor to come out and see her house. And I remember her getting the phone call in the middle of class, she was just like, ‘I have to go, I have to leave, please don’t tell the principal, just stay here, please keep reading,’” Green recalled. “At that moment, we weren’t just a bunch of rascal seniors … we all knew the gravity of the situation. Our parents were going through it, too.”
Gassaway’s family stayed in Dallas, but Gassaway went to live with an uncle outside Los Angeles to finish high school. He and Lustig, across the country from each other at this point, became known in their new schools as “the Katrina kid” after telling the story again and again to classmates, few of whom understood the scope of destruction their city had suffered.
“They would say, ‘Oh it’s crazy you’re coming here in the middle of the year, what’s going on?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, I’m from New Orleans,’ thinking that would explain everything,” Gassaway said. “Everyone I met, I felt like they had no idea.” Gassaway and Lustig both ended up, in Lustig’s words, feeling like “minor celebrities.” Gassaway was even elected to play a part in homecoming festivities.
While Green was the first of the three to return to the New Orleans area, his parents were only in the able to reopen their church in the past three years. It now has two different locations, each in suburbs outside the city.Lustig and his sister were able to convince their parents to return to Louisiana after a year in Chicago. Not being native to New Orleans, his father was “indifferent,” while his mother feared another hurricane. The children ultimately prevailed and the family began to rebuild its home in March 2006, with completion in December 2008.
Gassaway went to college in California after finishing high school, and frequently visits New Orleans for work or vacation. His family, however, is still scattered throughout Dallas. While some relatives have begun to rebuild their houses, no one has yet been able to officially move back home. Lustig and Gassaway talked among themselves about how it could be possible that Lustig’s family, who are white, could have secured the federal funding to fix their home in such a short amount of time.
“We lived in a neighborhood that the government paid a little more attention to in terms of giving Road Home money,” Lustig said of the grant program. “We got just as much water as people in the east. … I didn’t realize it at the time. I think my parents realized it, but I think they would [say], ‘Yeah, this is not right,’ but they weren’t going to refuse money.”
Gassaway, who is black, recalled how members of his family talked openly and at length about the racial politics of the post-Katrina recovery period, which many argue accounted for a system that put black homeowners at a disadvantage over whites. “It was discussed very, very much,” Gassaway said, “that if we put our house here, we would have got ‘x’ amount more than what we would have gotten if we lived ‘here.’”
Back to Work
Green was a politics nerd, and after high school graduation he would drive to Baton Rouge to watch special sessions of the state Legislature, where restructuring the levee boards was a major focus.
He remembers Scalise had become famous as the state representative who obsessively emailed updates to constituents during and after Katrina, sharing information that went viral among New Orleanians looking for any scrap of news about their city.
Green was hired by Scalise in 2012 and “kept begging” for a legislative portfolio that included the Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees the nation’s water resources. He works on that issue today, along with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“It was a personal issue for me,” Green said. “It was a personal issue for my friends.”
Loving New Orleans
While Green, Gassaway and Lustig had grown up in and around the Big Easy before the storm, Peter Hunter fell in love with the city after. A native of Indianapolis, he came to New Orleans in 2007 to start his freshman year at Tulane University.
“I wasn’t going down there to be a part of anything bigger,” said Hunter, now a senior legislative assistant in Richmond’s office. “I was going to start school and Tulane sounded nice.”
Though Indiana was far removed from the storm’s devastation, Hunter remembers “bake sales [and] some people in our church took in some people. … I remember discussing the use of the word ‘refugee’ in English class, because that was a big topic.”
Driving into New Orleans for the first time, nearly two years out from the hurricane, he was struck to see the signs of destruction still evident along the highway.
The Hoosier ultimately fell in love with New Orleans, and in the years since he has looked for ways to link his policy work to his adopted city. Realistic about what Democrats can do in a GOP-controlled Congress, Hunter mentioned a legislative push to aide post-Katrina New Orleans: An overhaul of the criminal justice system, which currently has some bipartisan appetite.
“New Orleans is a city I care about, and the whole region is a region I care about. And now getting to work for someone who can help that region is just … ” Hunter paused. “Yeah. That’s why I’m here.”