Why Those Who Stayed Stayed and Why They Might Now Want to Leave

A family sits on their porch in the Treme area of New Orleans, which lies under several feet of water after Hurricane Katrina hit August 29, 2005. (Photo: Reuters/Rick Wilking)

Why Those Who Stayed Stayed and Why They Might Now Want to Leave

Sunday morning August 28, 2005, a tiny fraction of the members of Christian Unity Baptist Church showed up for an early morning service. To my memory, there was no sermon preached. We who were there stood in a circle and said whether we were leaving or staying. Then we held hands, prayed and said our goodbyes.

Elizabeth Tillman, a 24-year-old mother of two, was there that morning. She lived in Harvey and had caught a bus to report to work as a housekeeper at the Ritz Carlton on Canal Street.

She had only had her job for three weeks, and with a 5-year-old and a 1-year-old, it was important to her that she keep it. That's why she faithfully reported to work that Sunday morning. "I didn't want to lose my job or anything." But when she arrived some time before 8 that morning she was told to go home.

I've thought of Tillman every time I've heard people badmouthing New Orleanians and calling people stupid for being in town when the levees fell apart. First of all, there wasn't much time between our hearing that the hurricane could come and the hurricane landing on the Gulf Coast. Second, Tillman is one of many people I've met who thought leaving would cost them their job.

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Back then there were folks who held it as an article of faith that hurricanes predicted to hit the city would always turn away from the city at the eleventh hour. Then commerce would immediately resume. So they thought it in their best interest to be available when that happened.

The irony is that the skeptics predicting the storm would turn and hit Mississippi were right. Our levees fell apart.

Prayer and fellowship weren't the only things Tillman was seeking as she walked from the Ritz Carlton to church that Sunday morning. She was hoping somebody there would give her a ride back across the bridge to her apartment on the West Bank.

My memory was shaky Thursday. Did she ask me directly for a ride? I don't remember ever having talked to her before that morning. What words did we exchange before we got in my Toyota Tacoma pick-up and headed across the Crescent City Connection? She remembers announcing her need for a ride to Harvey. "And you said, 'I'll bring you home.'"

As I drove her to Harvey, I couldn't help but wonder if I was not driving her to her death. Why doesn't she get out of here? Doesn't she know how bad this storm is expected to be?

My friends and relatives were asking the same questions about me and my decision to stay. But it was easier for me to recognize the danger Tillman was in than the danger I was in myself. I worried about how she would fare during the coming wind and rain -- especially when I saw that the apartment I took her to was flat on the ground with no elevation.

It wasn't until our conversation at her 7th Ward home Thursday that Tillman rode out the storm in about the same place I did. She came back across the bridge later that Sunday, she said, and she and her family hunkered in an apartment at the B.W. Cooper housing development. That's just a stone's throw from The Times-Picayune building.

The newspaper employees who reported to work left that building Tuesday in the cargo holds of the newspaper's delivery trucks. On Wednesday, Tillman's uncles - who had had to walk across the bridge to retrieve a truck -- put Tillman and her children on an air mattress and floated them until the water was just waist deep. From there they trudged their way to the bridge.

Tillman spent time in Algiers, in Donaldsonville, in Dallas and in Georgia before returning to New Orleans in December 2005. Her determination to return so quickly made Thursday's news that she now wants to leave all the more surprising.

She can't find work, she said. She doesn't think the schools are good enough. And she doesn't think her 11-year-old son is safe from the streets or the police.

So as hard as she fought to come back home, she's now looking to leave.

"This is where I was raised at, where I was brought up at... but at the same time, I have to look past that. For my kids. So everything can be better for them."

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