Thomas, the Contender

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Ten years after Katrina, a life of woe continues in this, the story of Thomas:

While a relatively small city, Orleans Parish, paroisse d’OrlĂ©ans…the city of New Orleans, Louisiana serves as one of the major ports along the U.S. coastline. The city was established by French colonists and is named for the Duke of Orleans. It is often referred to as The Big Easy due to being the birthplace of Jazz music and its support of Jazz musicians over the decades.

Growing up in the lower 9th Ward, Thomas accepted that he did not have much. Along with his belongings, he carried hope in his two hands. There were not many opportunities for a man of little formal education and poor upbringing. Still, Thomas managed to get by. Life in The Big Easy was not always easy, but he had a job. He had a home. He had a dog. Family were nearby and overall, Thomas was happy. Not happy in the way you see on glossy television shows, but he was happy…at least until August of 2005.

On August 28th, 2005, the mayor of New Orleans declared a city-wide, mandatory evacuation; the first ever in New Orleans history. For days, the National Weather Service and National Hurricane Center had been tracking a storm that started over the Bahamas. Originally believed to be a potential threat to Florida, the storm- now officially Hurricane Katrina- shifted and New Orleans would be at its core. With the majority of the city under sea level, it is protected by levees built by the Army Corp of Engineers in the 60’s. Upon receiving the mandatory evacuation notice, poor residents in areas such as the 9th Ward, did not have any other place to go or the resources with which to get there even if they did. All along the Gulf Coast, some residents just simply did not believe the threat was significant.

By the time Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana on August 29th, Thomas along with some 14,000 other residents had escaped to the Superdome arena where temporary shelter was offered. They knew their small tract homes would not survive Katrina’s 125 miles per hour winds. Before leaving, Thomas tried to find his dog but no amount of whistles or calling his name resulted in his return. Frightened and unsure of what tomorrow may bring, Thomas waited for the hurricane to pass. He could hear the wind howling and beating against the walls of the Superdome and rain poured through the roof in a few places. Eventually the howling stopped, but the nightmare continued for worse than the force of Katrina’s winds was the water. There was so much water. Some 53 of the levees surrounding the city were breached. Up to 80% of New Orleans was submerged in water, with water coming inland up to twelve miles. The Coast Guard and Army Reserves had not prepared enough for this sort of damage. The Superdome was dry but her doorway was flooded with residents seeking aide. Food and water were scarce. Babies cried as mother’s tried to console them. Thomas felt imprisoned but was thankful to be alive. To keep his mind off of the devastation they were hearing on the radio and to keep his thoughts from worrying about his dog, Thomas volunteered to help soldiers process the influx of people. An officer of some sort, maybe a reservist, asked Thomas and a couple of other men to follow him. They were led down a hall to another room where upon entering Thomas immediately felt sick. Rows of gurneys were set up, some empty but some containing body bags. Over the next few days, he helped soldiers carry in bag after bag. Thomas did not want to count them but believed there to be hundreds. By the third day, they had run out of bags. Although he kept his face from looking into their lifeless eyes, Thomas could feel the puffy, cold flesh in his hands through the latex gloves he wore. He became sick after carrying in the remains of a young man whose body had been ripped apart by the jaws of an alligator.

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How does one simply go on after experiencing what he had experienced? Thomas later found his home to be completely destroyed. Everything he owned fit into a plastic grocery bag. His dog never returned. Thomas bounced around between the generosity of friends and the few shelters operating in the city, all of which were overrun with other souls not any better off than was he. He worked odd jobs to help pay for food. At night, his mind would fill with memories of the Superdome…memories of the bodies. The air around him still reeked with the stench of death. He became a prisoner to darkness and a slave to alcohol. After several years of barely getting by on the damaged streets of New Orleans, Thomas managed to save a little money and took a bus to Houston. He had heard of others who came to Houston and were able to find work and get off the streets.

The day we met was a stunning early November morning with crisp air and soft rays from the Sun. Thomas had been living on the streets of Houston for nearly six months. After sharing his story, I offered him a couple granola bars from the camera bag and the few dollars I had on me, to which Thomas raised his hand in protest and simply said, “thank you, it was nice to have someone to talk to.” We said goodbye and wished one another more blessings tomorrow.

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Hurricane Katrina first struck the U.S. on August 25, 2005 and tore through the Gulf Coast, ravaging homes and cities until August 29th. She took the lives of 1836 people. Several hundred people are still missing or unaccounted for, including prisoners of Louisiana jails who either escaped or were swept away by water. Animals and wildlife suffered equally with thousands of homeless pets left after the water receded. Hurricane Katrina is one of the fifth deadliest hurricanes in U.S. history and damage estimates totaling some $108 billion. The city of New Orleans is still in recovery nearly ten years later. In this moving rendition of Bob Dylan’s 1967 song- I Shall Be Released, famed New Orleans Jazz musician- Al “Carnival Time” Johnson is backed by New Orleans brass band- Bonerama and OK Go, from the You’re Not Alone lp that raised funds for displaced New Orleans musicians, including Mr. Johnson who had become homeless as a result of Hurricane Katrina: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mDz7i1sgD8M

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