New Orleans Families Forge New Beginnings
ALLISON KEYES, host:
And we continue our conversations on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. We're checking in with some of the personal stories from the Gulf region. The lives of more than a million people changed dramatically after the storm tore through the region. Some returned to try to rebuild their homes and others moved permanently to cities and states near and far.
We're joined by New Orleans native Gralen Banks, who stayed behind during the hurricane while his family evacuated. We've spoken to him several times over the last five years to check in on the well being of his family.
Also with us is Sylvia Shields. She and three of her children evacuated to Jackson, Mississippi with only a change of clothes and a little money. Today she's a homeowner who's managed to build a new life. Welcome, both of you, to the program.
Mr. GRALEN BANKS: Thank you.
Ms. SYLVIA SHIELDS: Thank you for having me.
KEYES: Sylvia, you know, we spoke a little earlier with former Mayor Ray Nagin, did you heed the evacuation order?
Ms. SHIELDS: Yes, ma'am.
KEYES: Where were you and what did you do?
Ms. SHIELDS: I woke up that Sunday morning about 11 o'clock and I walked outside. And one of my neighbors who normally just don't leave when they're say evacuate, she was leaving that Sunday morning. So I figured since she's leaving, best that we leave too, because she never leaves. So I decided to get me my kids and we went on down to Jackson.
KEYES: You guys drove?
Ms. SHIELDS: Yes, ma'am.
KEYES: What was the ride like?
Ms. SHIELDS: Oh, the ride was so heavy. The traffic was real heavy. We left about 11 o'clock that morning and we didn't make it to Jackson till, like, 3:30 or quarter to 4:00 that Monday morning right before Katrina actually hit New Orleans. So the traffic was real backed up, real, real heavy. By grace of God we made it.
KEYES: What's the thing from that night, from that scary travel that you remember most, something that sticks in your mind still?
Ms. SHIELDS: Trees was falling down, limbs falling down. It was really raining real hard and you barely could see because you're trying not to hit no one. The traffic is back-to-back bumper-to-bumper. So it was more like the wind blowing so hard that the trees was falling in a way was just, like, scary. And I was the only driver. There was no one to drive for me switch drivers so I was really scared because that the wind was blowing so hard - for the trees were falling.
KEYES: Wow, that's awful. Gralen, what about you? You did not heed the evacuation order, did you?
Mr. BANKS: No, no, I was at work.
KEYES: Why not? But, then, okay, when you got done, you didn't say, okay, I need to get out of here because this was about to be bad?
Mr. BANKS: Oh no, I had unfortunately, pre-Katrina, there was a phenomenon down in south Louisiana that was called vertical evacuation. Because of the fact that we had been through so many storms that we lived this life, folks from south of Louisiana, from down the bayou and down in Plaquemine and down Lafitte, in those are areas, they evacuate to New Orleans. They are real low-lying land.
So at that time I was the director of safety and loss prevention at the Hyatt Regency right by the Superdome. And I had 5,000 people in my hotel when the storm hit and 1,200 when the levees broke. So there was no leaving for me because I had work to do. And at that point after the storm hit, when the levees broke, that's when my hotel became the command center.
Everybody was there, the mayor, the chief of police, when Russel Honore, General Russel Honore, the hero, finally got to town, he came to the Hyatt first. And, listen, there was no leaving for me. I had work to do.
KEYES: Really briefly, let me ask you, you know, we spoke to former Mayor Ray Nagin before, how do you think he did before and after the storm?
Mr. BANKS: He did an exemplary job after the storm. The politics that came into place once everything, for lack of a better phrase, calmed down a bit, maybe there could've been more decisions, better decisions made. But I was there and I knew the reality of my city, of the mayor's city that we had seen the devastation and so many people say what they would have done. So many people say how they would've handled it different.
And a phrase that comes to mind is Monday morning quarterback, because unless you're there watching the lady in the multicolored nightgown floating next to the heliport by the Superdome, unless you could smell that smell, unless you could hear the cacophony of silence that surrounded the city during that time, it's very hard for anybody to fly in on a helicopter that morning, take a couple of pictures and then go back to the ice cold and air conditioned comfort of a hotel room in Baton Rouge, when folks down here were not benefit of those type of luxuries.
KEYES: Sylvia, you live in Jackson, Mississippi, now. You own a home where you rented before. What do you think about your situation now?
Ms. SHIELDS: My situation is much better. It's comfortable for my kids because they do have a home that they can call theirs. And we're not renting and this feels like they are at home, even though they're not home, just living in Jackson, but it's home now. And they're comfortable. So it's good.
KEYES: Gralen, you once said you would rather live in a FEMA trailer in New Orleans than any place else and now you're back in your house. You happy as a clam? Are you glad you never left? Glad to be in your same city?
Mr. BANKS: That sentiment has not changed, will not change, as long as I'm drawing breath. I understand we've had an exodus of our people, New Orleanians, when you talk about the (unintelligible) of the city coming back, it's a lot of folks who are back. But citizens who were here, native-born New Orleanians, a lot of them aren't back. And they have better lives in a lot of places and there are success stories and even more.
But for me, no, I just don't fit anywhere else. I would have to find a way by hook or by crook...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BANKS: ...New Orleans to make sure that I was a part of this city that I love so much.
KEYES: Sylvia, very briefly, are there a lot of other people from New Orleans that live in your neighborhood? Have you guys connected at all?
Ms. SHIELDS: Actually, there's 10 houses on my block and it's nine of us are from New Orleans. And one lady, she's from Biloxi and we do (unintelligible), we get together sometimes. We barbecue. We sit at each other's houses. We cook for each other. We take time, so, you know, and these people I didn't know in New Orleans, but since being on the block together, we've known each other, grew closer together as a family and we look out for each other.
KEYES: Gralen, I'm curious, what do you think about the way the city is being reconstructed is going? Do you think it's fair? I was just down there a couple of weeks ago and I heard a lot of complaints from people that think that resources are, shall we say, skewed?
Mr. BANKS: Yes. There are a lot of plans and there's a lot of money that about to come here, but there's also different agendas, you know. I mean, one in particular that comes up is the biomedical quarter the collaboration between the VA hospital and LSU. It's a wonderful idea. The biotechnical field is exploding and it would bring a bunch of great jobs and resources here to the city. They have appropriated a swatch of land in Mid-City to build this complex.
But one house in particular on this plot of land is the S.A. Green Mansion(ph). And it was built in 1908 by a black man, Mr. Green. And it's the 17-room mansion. The Klan actually tried to burn it down when it was halfway through. The point very simply is I do not mind progress, but we cannot do that without some empathy for the past and some understanding that some things have to remain, especially one of the finest examples of African-American architecture in this city.
KEYES: Sylvia, let me ask you one more question. Tell me a little bit about how different your life is in Jackson than it was in New Orleans. Are you proud of some of the accomplishments you've made since you've made this transition?
Ms. SHIELDS: Yes I have. I did a wonderful job (unintelligible). I started going to Hinds. I went to Hinds, did, like, two years at Hinds. I have a job. I have a good job. I'm working for Jackson Public School sitting on the bus as a bus attendant. It's really, really been good for me here. I'm living comfortably, I'm living well and I'm able to really take care of my kids.
KEYES: Sylvia Shields is a former resident of New Orleans who evacuated to Jackson, Mississippi, and stayed to build a new life. She joined us from her new home, which she owns. Gralen Banks is a New Orleans native. He joins us from the home he loves in the city he loves. Thank you both.
Mr. BANKS: Thank you for having me.
Ms. SHIELDS: Thanks for having me.