All information derived from Clarion Herald article.
Story and photos by Beth Donze, Clarion Herald
Jill Gomez compared the odor to the moldering stench of flowers left in a vase of water for too long.
“Let’s multiply that smell; let’s think about when water sits – what it does to everything around it,” said Gomez, formation director at Brother Martin High School, describing one of her most vivid memories of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
“You would see a distinct water line in the city, where everything below that line was just dead and rotten and nasty,” Gomez said. “It’s hard to explain when you’re driving down the street and every single building is destroyed.”
Although sensory recollections such as these are etched into the minds of more than a million south Louisianians from that dark time in 2005, those who are too young to remember the disaster – or who had yet to be born – must rely on the firsthand accounts of others.
That was the impetus behind a recent living history program at Brother Martin that asked faculty and staff to share their Katrina “war stories” with every eighth grader during two days of classroom visits.
In addition to learning Katrina-spawned vocabulary words such as “MRE,” “blue roof,” “canned water,” “Katrina trailer” and “the ‘X’ sign” that marked the doors of searched houses, the 14- and 15-year-olds felt history come into sharp focus through their teachers’ personal anecdotes of despair and hope.
When in doubt, hibernate
Gomez was a Brother Martin guidance counselor and the mother of a 3-year-old when she evacuated to Bossier City and Baton Rouge for Katrina with nearly two dozen members of her extended family.
Her main concern at the time was the whereabouts of her elderly grandfather, who had ridden out the hurricane in a flood-prone area of Metairie.
“This is how he got word to us that he was OK,” Gomez told the eighth graders. “He walked to my house, which was about a mile away; broke into my back window; took the keys to my truck and drove to Baton Rouge.”
Gomez related another story of survival: the discovery of her mother’s pet ferrets, safe and dry, on the top floor of their flooded home.
“They had hibernated. It was pretty cool!” Gomez said. “It was a little piece of God right there that my mother’s animals had lived.”
Catholic High a ‘sanctuary’
Jerry Ursin III, a Brother Martin junior at the time of Katrina and his alma mater’s current assistant dean of students, said he and his twin brother initially thought the storm would cause the usual weather-related disruption: the closure of school for “a couple of days.”
Ursin realized the seriousness of the situation when he saw televised images of the levee breaches along the 17th Street Canal while evacuated in Florida. His family’s home was a mere five blocks away from the levee break, on the devastated Orleans Parish side.
“Everything was gone,” Ursin said. “A positive for me is that’s when my faith life really started to build and become much stronger than it was. Before, when I went through a hard time, I would lean on my parents; but right then, we were all going through the same thing. Everything my parents had worked for was underwater, so I relied on my faith to help me get through that.”
Testing that faith was the eerie sound of the wind whistling through gutted houses on West End Boulevard and the agonizing work of salvaging items from his ravaged home. Ursin and his Brother Martin classmates found solace in attending classes at Catholic High in Baton Rouge, which like Brother Martin was founded by the Brothers of the Sacred Heart and opened its campus in the evenings to displaced students from around the Archdiocese of New Orleans. The first person he saw at Catholic was Greg Rando, Brother Martin’s then principal and current president.
“We use that term ‘sanctuary’ so much – the idea that this place is holy ground,” Ursin told the eighth graders. “Well, (reuniting at Catholic High) made that idea of ‘sanctuary’ real for us. We realized it wasn’t the physical building that was our sanctuary; it was Brother Martin High School – the people, the students. Brother Martin High School was alive and well in Baton Rouge, even though the city was underwater.”
Katrina made him stretch
Some of the most poignant stories came from math teacher Micah Silver, who experienced Katrina as a Brother Martin freshman. The monster hurricane delivered a one-two punch to Silver’s home in Meraux: 12 feet of water and a backyard oil slick, courtesy of nearby Murphy Oil Refinery. A boat had crashed into the backside of his house, and a truck was comically lodged in a dense patch of woods nearby.
“The eeriest thing about being in the house, besides the smell of the fridge, was a picture of my brother that had gotten stuck against the wall,” Silver recalled. “The water had disintegrated the actual photo, but it left an ink stain – so you could vividly see my brother’s face on the wall.”
Silver, who spent his evacuation ensconced with 30 family members in a three-bedroom house in Gonzales, said his silver linings included learning two new sports at Catholic High – cricket and rugby.
He remembered how Brother Martin ROTC members scrappily stepped in to fill out the roster at the high school’s first post-Katrina football game in New Orleans, while Silver himself, a saxophonist in the Crusader band, was asked to play the tuba to compensate for a missing band member.
He still chuckles at the memory of the band’s first post-Katrina field show, a deliberately simple, eight-minute routine that had band members spelling out Brother Martin’s initials of “B.M.”
“In the end, the show was terrible, but we ended up getting into the beat somehow and the crowd went crazy,” Silver said. “Everyone had a smile on their face because we were back!”