ABC News' Eddie Pinder was on the ground in New Orleans in the wake of Katrina, one of the most destructive hurricanes to hit American soil. Here is the second part of his account of life in the storm's wake through the eyes of the Parker and Gasper Families.
Day 8: Friday, September 23, 2005
Friday Afternoon, 4:30 p.m.
The family can hardly be described as hunkering down. Today is like Tuesday. Everyone is taking it easy. Not much to think about other than Rita. They don't seem worried at all. Terrence said that if they survived Katrina they can survive anything.
While they may be surviving, their homes are not. Their spirits were flattened when they learned from news reports that a levee was breached in New Orleans and their homes in the 8th Ward may get flooded again.
To remind her of home, Grandma Gasper is making a New Orleans staple -- red beans and rice. She's not sure when they will see a home-cooked meal again. She wants the entire family to have a stick-to-their-ribs meal before we find out the truth about Rita's allegedly dangerous knockout punch.
Terrence, James and Vanessa went to Snappy's Kwik Stop around the corner to get some ice, a colander for Grandma Gasper's kitchen and other last minute provisions. When they arrived, they were turned away by Houston police. Someone had already looted the store before Rita even had a chance to shut the power off.
It's not expected to make landfall for hours if it hits at all.
Later they found what they needed at the mini mart, one of the last remaining stores to stay open. They were letting customers in three at a time to avoid any pre-looting.
Right now, the adults are resting and the kids are listening to music, watching DVD's and playing video games.
I spent the day and last night with the Gaspers and Parkers and no Clarence Flemming. More on that later.
The headline is that there is no headline. Their little neighborhood in Houston was spared -- no loss of electricity, no wind damage, no flooding. I'm sure other parts of the country are suffering, but not this family. They did their tour of destruction duty weeks ago.
They spent most of the Friday meandering around, as the TV blasted news of Hurricane Rita's projected path. As it tracked north and east, a weight was lifted. People seemed less concerned about damage and more concerned about dinner. There was never any sense of urgency, fear or panic.
They were so nonchalant about the storm, they did a couple of loads of laundry at Washateria across the street late in the afternoon. Grandma Gasper was making her red beans and rice. James was cooking a shrimp and butter sauce dish. His son, Tre, was engrossed in an NCAA football video game. People were listening to music.
There was a storm inside the home though. Clarence decided to leave the Gaspers and Parkers and go out on his own. This decision seemed overdue. When I first met him, he was introduced as a friend of the family. I later learned that he was primarily Vanessa's friend, and they became friends during the period that Vanessa and James Parker were having troubles in their marriage. But then James, who had been staying with his mother, re-appeared during hurricane Katrina to save his family. He has never left. Since then, there has been an apparent uneasiness about this marriage of inconvenience, and yesterday it came to an explosion.
Vanessa says that words were exchanged with Clarence over James' presence. After that, Clarence, who was in the home when Katrina hit, is without home in Houston. Clarence called someone who took him in for now.
After Clarence left, the family had nothing more to do than wait. They played a card game -- Pitty Pat -- for hours until it was just after 11 p.m. Rita still had not arrived. In the wee hours of the morning, the hurricane was just a typical shower. There was never any deluge. Scant wind. They slept lightly but peacefully.
Day 9: Saturday, Sept. 24, 2005
This morning, Terrence, Vanessa, and Grandpa Gasper assessed the damage. It was not raining outside. There was barely a puddle. The wind was blowing, but they saw it as a cool breeze. They searched and searched, but there were positively no signs that the Little Nell Apartment complex was hit by a hurricane. They were spared.
This family, which had been through so much, finally got a break. Yet their thoughts were with the other families who were hit by Hurricane Rita. And their homes in the Eighth Ward, which were probably flooded again. The nearby Industrial Canal levee in New Orleans was breached.
Vanessa was feeling so relieved that she admitted to her younger brother that it was a good idea to turn around and ride out the storm. It was a gamble. Terrence said it was like rolling the dice. Grandpa Gasper was exultant that Rita had been nothing more than a rain storm. When I left, he was making his morning cup of coffee, thinking about his family and wondering what could possibly be next. Hurricane season has a month to go.
The city is dead now. Gas stations, restaurants, grocery stores, pharmacies and Home Depots are all closed. Nothing left to do but cook all the food they were stocking for a rainy Rita that never came.
Day 10: Sunday, Sept. 25, 2005
For many families, including my own, Sunday is a day of rest… and football. The Gaspers and the Parkers are no different. Nothing much was done today. The big highlight of the day was the Eagles 23-20 last minute win over the Raiders. And the trip to the Sam's Club to purchase a queen sized bed for the Gaspers. Grandma Gasper says she can't stand sleeping on the floor any longer. But it will be longer because they have a $200 bed but no mattresses.
Help is on the way though. Over the course my time here, I've been amazed by the generosity of the family guardian angel, Beth Wardecke. I'm starting to believe that "guardian angel" is too cheap of a way to describe her, she's more like a savior. Today, she called to say that she's organized a furniture drive in her hometown, Dayton, Ohio and is coming back with truckloads of free furniture. The news was startling to Mrs.. Gasper but Mr.. Gasper was more reserved preferring to "wait and see."
They are also waiting to see if Clarence will return. He called today to say that he's coming back but as of seven o'clock, he was not back home.
Day 11: Monday, Sept. 26, 2005
Today was back to business day. There are so many things to do when you're putting your life back together in a new city. You need a car, telephone service, utilities, a school, a job, a bed, some furniture, health insurance, an address, a bank account and everything you can imagine. For Vanessa, James, Terrence and Clarence, everything they had except the clothes on their backs and the one bag they were allowed to carry is gone. They were renters who lived from paycheck to paycheck. Vanessa keeps saying "we have to start from scratch" as if she's baking a cake.
She says it with such aplomb, she appears deluded. She is ruthlessly undaunted. So are the Gaspers because at least, they are insured. They have flood insurance, home insurance and car insurance. When they call All State Insurance, they wait on hold at the risk of using daytime minutes which they can ill afford. Or wait for their All-State insurance adjuster to return their messages. He never calls even as they advertise on the local radio station that they have catastrophe teams ready to go if you call 888 54 STORM. One claim check from their insurer will make things easier for them. They suspect things are taking so long because claims adjusters have no way of getting to their cars and homes to verify claims. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin hasn't opened that part of the city yet.
When I arrived this morning, James was sitting outside the front door with a bag packed. He told me that he was leaving his family and going to Arlington to stay with his mother. He said he doesn't think Vanessa needs him any more. Remember they are separated. He thinks his kids want him around but Vanessa is not sure what she wants. He told her he was leaving but he changed his mind hours later. After my conversation with James, I started to see how troubled this family was. Katrina ripped families apart but these divisions were there long before the first drop of rain. And it became clearer to me that their family squabbles were not the story. I'm going to ignore the Clarence, James and Vanessa side show. I'm here to see them get back on their feet.
Part of getting back on their feet is getting some wheels. The family returned their rental car this morning and then went car shopping. They still have Beth's car but it's due back at the end of the month. They need transportation. The Enterprise rental office told them they also sold cars at another lot. They were looking for SUV's and Buick sedans. The Gaspers said they were just window shopping but Vanessa and Terrence were shopping shopping. Terrence couldn't close on the car because of his credit status. Grandma Gasper thought it was strange that neither Terrence nor Vanessa have jobs but they want to spend $16000 on a car. Vanessa told her that Houston was too big to get around without one. She thought car payments are too big without a job. Tomorrow, Terrence starts looking for one.
Day 12: Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2005
Today the family went shopping for cars, clothes and household needs. They shop every day -- and always at Wal-Mart. At times, it seems redundant but I have to remember that they have lost everything. In fact, Vanessa's brother, Irving, who's a cop in New Orleans, took a look at their homes today and told them to prepare for the unimaginable when they return. Total destruction is what he described. Of all their possessions, more than anything, they hope to get back family photos. So as they plotted a clandestine early return trip (possibly next week) to salvage any thing, they shop for everything. Every one except Terrence..
Things have changed since the days when I had to go door to door to fill out an application for a job. Maybe, I'm old fashioned. I remember wearing a shirt and tie. I remember my mom and dad grilling me about professional and social graces. That was then. This is how Terrence Gasper went looking for a job as a barber. First of all, he wore 2 white tee shirts, a pair of blue denim shorts and a long silver chain with a cross dangling near his belly button. His dad tried to convince him to at least bring his shears and clippers in case he needed to audition for the job. He walked into the first shop, Images of Color, and basically talked slang and asked questions. He was told that the booth was $150/week and they charged $10-12 for a haircut. The place was in business only a couple of months and needed a barber of Terrence's caliber. He's not shy about telling people how gifted he thinks he is. He said the same thing over and over again. "I'm on fire with the clippers, ya heard me?" We traveled over 50 miles looking for just the right conditions -- low booth rent, high price per cut, established clients plus a good opportunity for walk-ins.
At SW Finest, the booth rent was $125 and they charged $12 a cut. Total Images was too tucked away plus they told him that he would definitely have to hand out flyers and business cards to generate some clients. Headz Up in the mall was the perfect location, reasonable booth rent and a decent price but they had a waiting list for barbers trying to get spots. Terrence is not sure what he's going to do next but he wants to make a decision soon. He has $1600 left on his FEMA debit card and needs the cash for a car, food and furniture... if Beth Wardecke doesn't come through. The family guardian angel, Beth called today to say that her plan to organize a furniture drive had fallen apart. After some research, she discovered that it was too expensive and consumed too much time. She has, in stead, hooked up with Lindsay Trinity United Methodist Church to use funds to buy furniture on the internet and have it delivered. The first items to arrive will be mattresses on Monday. Her goal is to get them beds, dressers, dining tables, chairs and living room furniture so they can spend their money on other needs. The family is grateful but cautiously optimistic. Beth is optimistic but cautiously introspective. She sent me this quote: I shall pass through this world but once; any good, therefore, that I can do or any kindness that I can show to any fellow creature let me do it now; let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again. -- Stephen Grellet
Day 13: Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2005
In the black community, we have what we call "CP time." "CP" means colored people. "CP time" means late. That might offend some but everybody knows it's a harmless figure of speech. The only harm comes when you're the victim of it. Yesterday I was told be at Vanessa's home at 8am. She, James and the kids were supposed to be dressed and ready to go. Vanessa says she was going register the kids for school at the local district office. They have already been out of school for more than a month. When I arrived this morning, 4 minutes early… a groggy James answered the door and told me that everyone was still asleep. Not everyone, actually. Her parents next door, Yvonne and Rudolph Gasper, were having their morning cup of coffee and watching Good Morning America.
James continued. He said Vanessa had a headache and didn't think she would enroll the kids today so instead I went with the Gaspers to the All State Insurance office to check on their claims. On the ride up, they spoke about their disappointment in Vanessa's handling of the children's education. She doesn't appear to be taking things so seriously to me either. Other students from New Orleans have managed to find their way into Houston schools. Vanessa's children, Loreal, James (Tre) and Vajae spend most of their days watching TV, playing video games, running errands or watching each other while mom and dad run errands. The grandparents are sick of it. They told me that Vanessa is "dragging her feet." When they arrived at Sal Ortiz's Office on FM 1960 Road, they learned that their claims adjuster was suffering from the same slow foot malady.
They wanted to find out why they haven't heard a thing since their initial contact. Sal Ortiz seemed surprised too. He got on the phone and learned in one hour more than the Gaspers had heard in 3 weeks. First, the car policy hadn't been assigned yet. The flood policy was not given a claim number yet. And Ortiz's own computer contact logs show that the claim adjuster on the home insurance policy has not tried to reach the Gaspers since September 22nd. He called to find out why and even he got a persistent busy signal himself. He was frustrated. He tried to find a working number for the agent… to no avail. He moldy demanded answers and requested that someone try to expedite the claims. For the first time, the Gaspers were starting to feel like they were actually "in good hands with All State."
Things at the post office were not so promising. It had been moved miles away from the Reliant Arena to the George R. Brown Convention Center. It was organized confusion. People were complaining that they waited for hours. One woman took four buses to get there. I was mobbed by people who thought I could help them hold FEMA accountable for this mess. The Gaspers patiently waited to find out -- still no mail. It made Grandma Gasper curious. Back home, she got mail everyday. At least once a month, both would get their fixed income checks. They're waiting and wondering where it is. Back home, she called 800 ASK USPS and all she was told was that her mail is "on hold." She's worried about how she can put her creditors and bill collectors on hold.
Day 14: Thursday, Sept. 29, 2005
Nothing happened today. They went to the bank, to the Rent-A-Center, to the Factory-2-U outlet, the Academy Sports store and a furniture store. There was no effort to register the kids in school. No one looked for work. My first big nothing day. I shot only a little bit of broll. The next big day is Monday when the mattresses and other furniture should arrive. Also there's talk that they are going back to New Orleans next week to see their homes for the first time and salvage what they can. Vanessa's brother, Irving, the cop is going to sneak them past the checkpoints. Their zip code is not legally allowed back yet.
Day 15: Friday, Sept. 30, 2005
Yesterday was the longest day of my 2 weeks here. It started at 8 o'clock Friday morning and ended at 2am this morning. Friday, Mrs.. Gasper called to say that the Harris County Housing Authority wanted to see all the Gaspers and the Parkers because there was a problem with their housing voucher. FEMA gave them each a voucher to cover their rent for a year. Grandma Gasper couldn't tell me what the mix-up was about but since nothing in life comes for free, she feared the worse. They walked into the office with their games faces on. They thought someone was going to pull the Persian rug right from under them. It turned out that all they needed to do was sign some papers. It's hard sometimes to get this family to believe in good possibilities.
Next, they had to keep their promise to return the Hertz Rental car they were loaned from Beth Wardecke, the family guardian angel. While they were there, they decided to pick up a Toyota 4Runner for themselves at a weekly rate of $329. Money is precious so they haggled and deliberated over the cost of insurance. Some said it was too expensive. Others thought it was too costly not to have it. Mrs.. Gasper was unwilling to put her faith in the good possibility that they could avoid car accidents so she voted to get the coverage which would push the total cost close to $500. Money is too tight now, she was out-voted. They left without the full coverage.
Amazingly, their first stop was to a nearby furniture store. I was amazed because Beth had told them over the phone that she was working with a local church to furnish all three apartments. It was clear to me. It was clear to Grandpa Gasper. But as Vanessa and Grandma Gasper checked out $549 living room sets inside the Affordable Furniture store on South Post Oak Road, a mild argument began. "Why in the hell would you buy furniture when Beth says she's bringing us free furniture?," Mr.. Gasper wondered. Mrs.. Gasper told him, "I don't want to argue about this. I was only told about mattresses." One phone call straightened it out. Again, hard to believe in a good possibility.
Just after lunch, Vanessa decided on a whim to go pick up her daughter, Laumel, who's a freshmen at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, LA. Like most freshmen, Laumel was home-sick. And like most mothers of first time college students, Vanessa missed her daughter too. Missing her so much, she thought nothing of the 333 mile drive from Houston to Hammond, LA. That's at least 5 hours in normal traffic, 10 hours roundtrip. But we hit plenty of traffic. We left around 1:15pm and didn't get there until 7:30pm. On the way there, we drove through Hurricane Rita's path of destruction in Lake Charles, LA and Beaumont, TX. Downed trees. Missing roadway signs. A toppled church. It was eye-opening for me to see what a category 3 hurricane can do. When we reached the university, the reunion between Vanessa, James (her dad), Loreal, Tre and Vajae was a hurricane itself of emotional hugs, kisses and I love you's.
The drive back took 6 hours too. We were almost stranded. At one point, I had to call 911 because Rita knocked out the power and most of the gas stations for miles. Their car was running out of fuel. The Parkers thought they had dodged hurricane Rita a week ago... At 1:30am, Laumel got to se her new home for the first time. She told me it was nice but it was nothing like New Orleans. Vanessa took a different attitude. She said that Houston was growing on her. And that if she could make it work for her financially, she would like to get a place in Houston and keep a permanent home in New Orleans. Someone was finally believing in good possibilities.
Day 16: Saturday, Oct. 1, 2005
Nothing happened on Saturday. After that long exhaustive drive, the family slept in late. I slept in late. They took the day off. I pretty much took the day off too. The only thing they did of note was shopping. As I've said before, they shop everyday. And yes it was Wal-Mart… Always. The only difference was this time, they were shopping for Laumel who was home from college and needed or wanted some clothes. The other headline: Irving, Vanessa's brother, made another trip to visit with his family. While I was visiting, I was told that the family made a surprise decision to leave for New Orleans on Monday. They want to see their homes for the first time.
Day 17: Sunday, Oct. 2, 2005
It was deja vu all over again…
Someone decided to go back to New Orleans on Monday. No other decision was made after that. The result was chaos and confusion. As the family gathered to have a cook-out, I asked what time, cp or otherwise, I needed to be there in the morning to meet the family. All the adults were puzzled. No one had thought about it. So they began thinking. Then they began arguing. Questions were raised. Voices were raised. Raised questions were unanswered. Raised voices were questioned. It devolved into a big meltdown. People were storming out and storming in like Katrina. They knew the "what?", the "where?" and the "why?" but they never got to "when?" ;"how?"; or even "who?" for that matter. This indecision and bickering was almost exactly like they night they quibbled about whether to leave or stay as Hurricane Rita approached. They argued for hours.
Where: Southeastern Louisiana University, Hammond, LA and New Orleans, LA
What: They had to bring Laumel back to Southeastern Louisiana University. Vanessa and her family wanted to rent a U-Haul truck to bring back any possessions left in their homes that remained in tact. And her brother Irving would be their guide past the checkpoints since he is a cop.
Why: They wanted to salvage what they good and see, up close, all the damage that they've feared.
Who: Once word got out, other family displaced cousins, who are also in Houston, said they'd like to come too. Even James's mother, Vanessa's mother-in-law phoned in a request from Arlington, Texas that they stop by her house on Desire Street to pick up a few of her belongings. Vanessa demanded that any one who uses the truck puts up $150 each to cover the cost of mileage and fuel. And she wanted the money up front because she was suspicious of some family member's who were looking for a free ride. She asked that they come the night before and put the money in her hand. Neither happened, much to her chagrin. Then it suddenly dawned on them that they have one SUV and one U-Haul truck which seats 3 in the cabin. Those two vehicles would have to carry Vajae, Tre, Loreal, James, Mr.. Gasper, Mrs.. Gasper, Laumel, her friends Erica, Courtney, and Rae Dawn plus Uncle Irving who weighs 300+ pounds. Terrence was going to ride with his cousin, Shawna and various other family members. Clarence was never even considered. Terrence was about to be left behind too. His dad counseled him that his few belongings (in the 9th ward) have probably "floated away" so he should cut his losses and stay home. Terrence persisted.
When: This was the hardest part. The U-Haul office on Beechnut opens at 7am and they wanted to sign for the truck and be on their way by 8am. The first stop was bringing Laumel and her friends back to school and then link up with the U-Haul truck at one of the police checkpoints. The problem is that time was working against them. They had to drive at least 5 1/2 hours to get there and that left them with about 5 daylight hours before a mandatory 6 o-clock curfew. They had 6 homes to assess and repossess what the could: Vanessa, James' mother, Mr.. and Mrs. Gasper, Irving, Terrence and cousin, Shawna. They began to realize that there weren't enough hours in the day so they made a half hearted fruitless attempt to book hotel rooms. After that failed, someone suggested that since Vanessa rents a 2 story house, everyone should spend the night there even though it is potentially contaminated with water, mud, mold and has no power or water. Vanessa thought this was a insane but she did not get one empathetic listener. We leave tomorrow.
How: We will find out but I suspect that the hand of the Lord will be heavily involved.
Day 18: Monday, Oct. 3, 2005
For a day that defied the designed plan, things went well yesterday. I met the Gaspers and Parkers at 7 in the morning and we were out the door and on the way to U-Haul by 7:11am. U-Haul was supposed to be opened by that time but the manager came in one half hour late. When they finally got the truck and loaded up the SUV, there were 10 of them. Seven adults were crammed into the two rows of the SUV. Terrence, Grandpa Gasper and Irving rode in the truck. That meant Vajae, Tre and Loreal were no longer coming and had to stay behind with their Uncle Jaynel. They finally used better judgment. After a few false starts and arguments, it took another hour and a half before we left for Southeastern Louisiana University at 9:12AM and did not arrive until just before around 2:30 in the afternoon. The college kids were deposited on campus and it took another hour and a half to get to New Orleans and the Gasper home at 2114 Mandeville Street.
The U-Haul truck made it to New Orleans before the SUV, so I was not there when Terrence, Irving and Grandpa Gasper saw the damage for the first time. But I was there when Grandma Gasper walked through the sludge, overturned damp furniture and molded walls. The place was dark and retained a putrid odor that I could still smell through my mask. It was heartbreaking to me. But Mrs. Gasper walked around as if she were royalty. She didn't flinch. She didn't fall apart. With her mask securely clinging to her face, she stepped over piles of debris with grace, dignity and strength. She never cried or bemoaned anything. She knew what to expect when she got there and now, she was already expecting a new beginning… with God's helping hand. It was humbling to see such courage in the face of such destruction. Outside though, her husband and daughter weren't doing so well. Grandpa Gasper teared up when he found the collage of pictures of his children over the years. Vanessa was crying because the home she lived in since she was 5 years old was gone. She became emotional when she thought about how lucky she was to have her parents alive. Vanessa says that if they had not chosen to ride out the storm in her 2 story home with her, they would be dead today.
We went to her home at 1820 St. Roch Street and spent ten minutes inside before she declared everything a total loss and didn't want to see any more of it. She needed the computer with the family pictures on the hard drive and that was pretty much it. The back door of Terrence's home had to be kicked in to gain entry. He was saddened by the loss of everything but happy to see that his big screen television may have made it. Irving, the New Orleans police officer's home was destroyed. Completely destroyed. He knew what he wanted to retrieve too. Oddly enough he packed up 8 bottles of booze and some clearly contaminated new clothes that he had never worn.
One other observation... I once heard it said that "every one in New Orleans can cook." That must be true because at every home, they grabbed some pots and pans. Every home. Some pots were small. Some pots were stainless steel. Some were brand new. One pot, called a seafood broiler, looked large enough to cook a meal for an entire Army platoon. That pot was going back to Houston. In the end, they barely had enough items to fill a quarter of the space in that 17 footer U-Haul truck. There wasn't much to take but enough to start over. The saddest moment came for me when they said that because they had no where to go, they were going to sleep in Vanessa's home amidst the contamination and odor. It was not safe but they had no other choice. When I suggested they spend the night in a Red Cross shelter, Mrs. Gasper, the pillar of strength, said, "We'll be fine." I don't know if they will ever be.