Partners, Volume 15, Number 3, 2005


Personal Reflections on the Storm

Regional Community Development Manager Nancy Montoya in the Atlanta Fed’s New Orleans Branch recounts her experience riding out Hurricane Katrina in her home for eight days after the storm hit and the levees broke. In this article, Nancy examines how the events underscore our reliance on technology as well as reveal the ingenuity of individuals forced to create alternative means of communication in the midst of a natural disaster.

I have never been much of a fan of technology. After experiencing the initial thrill of personal computers in the 1980s, I started to feel that technology led to more work, not less, and had a dehumanizing effect on our lives and relationships. All of that changed after Katrina. There are now two time periods in my life: B.K. (before Katrina) and A.K. (after Katrina). My change in outlook began with a simple telephone call, something we take for granted every day.

Braving the storm
The night before the storm I had an old-fashioned land-line conversation with my father in Los Angeles about why I wasn’t evacuating. I chose to hunker down and ride out the storm in my 1903 Victorian with food, water, gas, cash and a good friend. I assured him that my house had lived through over 100 years of environmental assault and that I lived on some of the highest ground in New Orleans. After the final “I love you,” I hung up. It was 10 p.m. and the power was already off.

I won’t give you details about the storm, except to say that it looked exactly like it did on TV. But the TV doesn’t capture the sound of the wind moaning around the house, objects being slammed against and into the house, and the house rocking back and forth.

On August 28, the morning after the Saturday night storm, I used my cell phone to let my parents know that I was fine and asked that they call everyone else. This was before the levees broke. With that event, my whole world changed. Soon the water started rising, looting began and we heard the sound of helicopters ferrying people to high ground.

We waited for the National Guard feeling sure they would arrive in two days, by Tuesday. From the crank radio (low technology, but still technology), we heard our local leaders’ pleas for help, and from the window we watched for supplies. They finally appeared on the following Monday, September 5, when we saw bundles dropped to the school across the street. I don’t know what we expected but it certainly wasn’t cans of Slim Fast.

My cell phone battery lost its charge on August 29 when the levees broke. I defaulted to my work Blackberry to send e-mails to my manager and family. Conserving what little battery I had was important. Three days passed before my manager received my message and contacted my family. He’s now on the family Christmas card list.

By Friday I figured some order had been restored to the neighborhood so I ventured out in wading boots to find a land-line phone. The water was now about 1-1/2 ft high. One person down my street who had the only working phone in the neighborhood put it out on the porch for neighbors to call their loved ones.

After reaching my mother and hearing both her relief and anger at my stubbornness in refusing to leave, I reassured her that I was fine. In truth, where was I to go? From what I heard on the radio, the Superdome and Convention Center were absolute chaos. My mother in Los Angeles had heard news reports of roaming gangs of thugs shooting at anyone who moved in the neighborhoods. This surprised me as we were safe and sound and dry.

After I hung up, I went half a block to the corner where my friends and neighbors were peacefully talking and sharing supplies. We exchanged information about where our other friends were, where supplies could be found, and about any dangers we needed to be aware of. It was very low-tech communication, but very effective. Ahh, the power and simplicity of community. What I experienced didn’t match the news reports of chaos, violence and vandalism.

Finally, after eight days I was convinced by my manager to relocate temporarily to the Fed’s Birmingham Branch. By now I was holding on to both my cell phone and Blackberry like they were the Holy Grail. I had a newfound appreciation for the beauty of their utility. But it wasn’t until I got to Birmingham that my respect for the power of technology was fully ignited.

Reconnecting to a scattered community
They say that things can be replaced, but not people. After 16 years of living in New Orleans and ardently loving it—cherishing her noble and graceful architecture, experiencing the exhilaration of riding home down Bourbon Street, marveling at the majesty and shelter of her trees and other numerous gifts—I finally realized that it’s the people that really make New Orleans what she is. The communities, large and small, that exist in her 72 distinct neighborhoods are the “meat in the po’boy.”

This search for my people led me to my neighborhood blog, “Marigny/Bywater” on NOLA.COM. There I found my friends who were scattered to the winds in places like Houston, Savannah, rural Georgia and Mississippi, Austin, Taos and Los Angeles.

I also found new neighbors sharing information on everything from stranded pets to minutes from meetings with the local Councilperson. The blog included thoughts, concerns, gripes, fears, jokes, information bits and joys that make up a neighborhood. I discovered a virtual community, available right there through my fingertips.

Although I’m now back at home, I still have my virtual community. It has even become a part of my work. Through my neighborhood blog site I can monitor the pulse of current issues, such as the housing concerns for landlords and renters, how insurance companies are handling claims, where people are shopping and services they would like in the future, and the need for affordable housing for local musicians and artists.

I can’t get this kind of information anywhere else; my regular news sources and even our town hall meetings are unable to provide information this honest, blunt, bold, candid, forthright, uninhibited or even naïve. The blog offers a clear and irreplaceable window into the hearts and minds of our residents.

Building a virtual community development network
My neighborhood site was so useful that I began thinking about how we could build a virtual “community development community.” Most of the people that I have worked with in the city on community development issues are still displaced. Many of them have lost their own homes, neighborhoods and workplaces. Many of our housing counselors themselves have no homes.

Before Katrina about 469,000 people lived in the city. When I left eight days later, only 100,000 remained. The population estimate is now around 75,000 and it appears from observing the license plates that most of them are disaster and rebuilding personnel.

Where are my respected peers who know New Orleans literally from the ground up and have spent their lives and considerable talents building homes and families with their vision and sweat? They’re in Houston, Baton Rouge and Covington, La., longing to return home and help rebuild the homes and lives that have been destroyed.

How can we gather together to share our dreams and talents, to provide support for each other, to savor each other’s successes as we did B.K.? The answer might be in technology.

A virtual community could never replace the living, breathing, joyous and funny community I so love and treasure. But it can help us embellish an already rich fabric, pull together loose threads, push us to be a more open and democratic society, encourage more open and honest thought and conversation, and give us a chance to participate on a more expansive and inclusive level than ever before. Let’s use this tool to protect, promote and cherish what really makes New Orleans home: her people.

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