New Orleans native Catherine Flowers was in a much better position than the evacuees who had to be rescued after the levees broke. She was able to get herself and her children out of town before Katrina hit. Flowers says she was originally under the impression she might stay in Houston for only a few days.
“Especially because I thought I had to go right back to work. So it’s was just gonna be a weekend. I told my children to pack three sets of clothes, emptied out the car, not knowing that when we returned, we would have ten feet of water in our house. Lost the roof, lost everything.”
When Katrina happened, Flowers worked in the office of then-Louisiana Lt. Gov. Mitch Landreau, who is now the mayor of New Orleans. She immediately set up an extension office in Houston to help other evacuees. She says her boss wanted her to return to Louisiana within three months, but she eventually realized there would be no going back.
“Because at that time, my children were already in school, there would be nowhere for me to live, and so I had to make the decision to stay in Houston, because it was in the best interest for my children.”
Flowers is among the more fortunate evacuees. She’s now the executive director of a non-profit organization that connects people with affordable housing. And when she arrived in Houston, it wasn’t a struggle for her and the nearly 20 other relatives who evacuated, to find decent accommodations. But the experience still took a toll on her psyche.
“I mean, sometimes I wake up and I’m looking for something that I know I had, and all the sudden I remember I had it before the storm. And it’ll break my heart, and make me remember the loss. Even though it’s five years later, it’s still a struggle, because you’re still trying to recover.”
She says an ordinary thunderstorm can trigger flashbacks.
“The anxiety of, ‘oh my gosh, is it gonna flood?’ And just re-living that whole evacuation, ‘am I going to lose everything?’ It’s very traumatic.”
And when she makes one of her regular trips back home, the emotional pain becomes physical.
“Every time I go to New Orleans, I get migraines. Just being there, you still feel the heaviness of the city and I have to take a bottle of Excedrin migraine with me every time. It’s not the same when you still drive down streets and they’re dark. Or the stores you used to go to aren’t there anymore.”
Flowers turned to her faith, and took advantage of counseling provided by the Red Cross to improve her mental health. But she says other evacuees have trouble asking for help.
“Cause people in New Orleans, we got this. Nobody can mess with us. So there is this facade of ‘I can take care of myself, I don’t need you.'”
Flowers says she understands the reluctance among her peers to reach out. But she says talking about what she went through is still helpful to her, five years after the storm.