Weekly Winners and the Katrina Album

Happy Sunday! Bear with me today because I’m going to be long-winded. If you aren’t interested, just skip to the bottom and see if you won a book. I hope you’ll hang around a while, though.

One of the bits of advice all authors are given is: Don’t read your reviews. I usually do for the first couple of months after a release, though, because they help me–if there’s a consistent message–learn what is and isn’t working. There was one review for Pirate’s Alley that took me aback, however. I don’t even remember where the review was, but while favorable, the reviewer said something to the effect that he or she wished I’d stop mentioning Hurricane Katrina because he/she was tired of it.

I had to stop and consider that for a moment. Of course, it stung, particularly because ten years ago, on August 29, 2005, about twelve hours after Katrina made landfall near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, the levees ringing New Orleans failed, dumping the water of Lake Pontchartrain into the bowl-shaped city and sending 80 percent of it underwater. Most people don’t realize that NOLA didn’t get a direct hit from Katrina, but that the levees broke due primarily to human failure on the part of the engineers who built them improperly and the parish officials who failed to maintain them. There was a successful class-action lawsuit by the people of New Orleans against the Army Corps of Engineers, who’d built the levees. My settlement was $43, and I won’t even dignify that with a comment.

The hurricane was the most transformative event of my life, and the whole reason the Sentinels series exists. The whole reason I became an author in the first place instead of finishing out my career in higher ed. Do I mention it too often in the books? Maybe so. I hadn’t thought about it before.

Originally, I’d planned to do a series of blogs this week about Katrina. I’d planned to share some stories: about my friend who was shot at by looters as she and her kids tried to escape after the flooding; about another friend trapped in his house for a month, refusing to be rescued because the rescuers wouldn’t allow him to bring his dog with him, even though his three cats had drowned in the first floor of his house; about the friends who evacuated and came back to total loss, and several who died of grief and stress within a year–they weren’t among the 1,600 New Orleanians in the official death total; about how the media got it wrong, and how they got it right.

I wanted to explain why New Orleans’ situation was different than that of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, which was absolutely decimated by a 30-foot wall of water that Katrina pushed ashore. It was different because within 48 hours, those folks could go in and assess their damage and consider their futures. New Orleans was a soup bowl full of toxic water that sat for more than a month before anyone could figure out how to pump it out. Eighty percent of the city was underwater. More than a million people were displaced anywhere from six weeks to six months, depending on where their homes were located.

But I’m not going to do that all week–just today. Because it’s done. It’s over. The city hasn’t fully recovered, but it has recovered a lot. I’ll just share my photos from those early days and call it done. These are all unedited images taken in mid-October, six weeks after the storm and the first time people who lived in my zip code were allowed back into the city. At this time, the Lower Ninth Ward and much of St. Bernard Parish were still underwater.

First, though, some winners–bear with me while I slowly catch up with my mailings! Email me using the contact link at the top of the page and send your mailing info. If you won a digital book, I’ll need format (Kindle, Nook, etc.) and preferred email address.

Winners of mystery books from my TBR: LIL and ERINF.

SANDYG won a book in Nina Croft’s Dark Desires series–these are ebooks.

RAFAEL won this week’s Readers Choice and selected MECHANICA.

And now the photo album. These are just a few of the hundreds I took, so at least I’m sparing you some of them!

Louisiana Avenue, a half mile from my house.

My house on Carondelet Street. My neighbor had already raked the debris out of my yard and bagged it up! His last name was Zrakovi :-). He and his wife had stayed during the storm and were trapped in their house for most of the month.

My backyard, where a 60-foot cedar tree had been blown over and uprooted by the storm. By this time, the floodwater had dried. i think one of my window screens is on the ground too.


6660 Bellaire Drive, my original house in New Orleans, where I lived the first couple of years after moving to the city (it’s a duplex and I lived in the left side). It was located in Lakeview, about two blocks from the main levee breach that flooded the city. The houses on either side of it were completely underwater and have since been torn down. This serves as Gerry’s house in the Sentinels series.

3523 Carondelet 8 copy

My house on Carondelet–all the stuff to the right, which stretched far down the sidewalk, is my furniture and belongings that were under the floodwater and molded. That trash sat there for about four months–it took that long for us to get garbage delivery back on a limited basis.


Looting was rampant, so signs like this on people’s gates weren’t uncommon.


Duplexes in Lakeview. Debris just got shoved out of the way to clear the roads. Dead refrigerators were everywhere! Imagine 300,000 dead refrigerators sitting on the side of the roads and that’s what the city looked like.


Lakeview, near “Gerry’s” house. The Lower 9th Ward got all the media attention, but Lakeview and Mid-City were destroyed.


On Dupre Street near my friend Dave’s house. This street had about ten feet of water; Dave was trapped for more than a month on his second floor.


Lakeview. All the magnolia trees in the city died; the oaks were completely stripped of leaves. Some of the other trees did okay.


Mid-City fridges


Dead cars were everywhere. Most trunks and lids popped from being underwater, and the force of the water was great enough to skew them at odd angles. These Lakeview houses were completely submerged.


Louisiana Avenue, about a quarter-mile from my house.


Storefront in Lakeview. We used to order food from here! Windows and doors of most buildings were blown out.


Louisiana Avenue, about a quarter-mile from my house.


What was left of the Middle Eastern market and Mama’s Tasty Foods, a block from my house, where we’d always walk for lunch on Mardi Gras day. It never reopened.


On Louisiana Avenue, a half-mile from my house–the best way to get around the city for a few weeks after the storm.


My backyard again. It had a patio laid with hundred-year-old cobblestones that got ripped up by the tree roots. I ended up selling most of them when I had the tree removed.


All this crap came out of my yard. I’m eternally grateful to the Zrakovis for cleaning it up before I got back!


Yay! I had a tree on the roof and some water damage and needed new ceilings but my little house was still standing!


Dead, abandoned cars in the neutral ground (i.e., median) along Napoleon Avenue. It took months for them all to be hauled away.


Abandoned car and teddy bear in the middle of Napoleon Avenue.


Along South Claiborne in Mid-City.


Lakeview, about six blocks from the main levee breach.

What was left of the Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, bridge six weeks after Katrina. I.E., not much.

carrollton ave

Corner of Carrollton and Claiborne, Mid-City. This whole block of historic old homes burned about two weeks after the storm–it was surrounded by water and firefighters couldn’t get to it, so we all watched it burn on live TV. This was about two miles from my house.

dave's house

Markings of the citywide house-to-house search for bodies/survivors. Has the date, the unit that searched, etc. In the bottom center quadrant are number of bodies found. This is my friend Dave’s house–thankfully, zero bodies. At my house, they wrote on the window rather than spray-painting the house. I suspect the Zrakovis intervened.

dr bob

Dr. Bob is a local artist, and this was how he warned looters away from his house. People began using refrigerators for all kinds of messages–much of it aimed at President Bush and FEMA director Michael Brown, and not in a nice way. FEMA did well by me, however–I wouldn’t have made it financially without their assistance. It just took a lot of paperwork.


This photo still slays me. The Times Picayune from the day I evacuated–the day before landfall–was still lying at the foot of my front steps, waterlogged but still there. How did a hurricane blow over a 60-foot tree and leave the newspaper? We’ll never know.


Another shot from Lakeview, near “Gerry’s” house–my former house. You think I wasn’t grateful I’d bought a house in uptown instead of Lakeview? You bet.

st charles ave

When the media is not working and there are not phones or electricity, we find our own way to communicate! This was a rug shop on St. Charles Avenue near Lee Circle and the Central Business District.


21 thoughts on “Weekly Winners and the Katrina Album

  1. Oh, Suzanne. These are hard to look at as they bring back memories of that time…It is beyond amazing thinking about what it has taken for New Orleans to dig out. It’s mind-boggling. What has been done with the levees so this won’t happen again? Were improvements made to them? I remember reading so much about levees in other parts of the world.

    • Yes, there were definitely improvements made. The main flooding came from breaches of the 17th Street Canal levee, which is the overflow canal for Lake Pontchartrain, and the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (called Mr. GO). Mr. GO was reinforced and, in addition to re-engineering the levees, there was a ginormous flood gate built at the mouth of the 17th Street Canal that can be closed if another hurricane comes in at the angle Katrina did. The winds from a hurricane move counter-clockwise, so by going ashore a few miles east of New Orleans, it meant the brunt of the wind hit the city from the north, dumping the lake into the city, basically. Hopefully, the improvements will prevent such damage from happening again, at least on that scale.

  2. Really interesting photos. How very sad. Thanks for sharing. The fella at Oriental Rugs sure had a sense of humor. [I think!]

    • LOL. Yes, his signs were infamous, so the newspaper interviewed him at one point. He said, basically, if you can’t laugh at your situation, your only other option is to cry and he was tired of crying. I was worried for the dog for a while, though!

  3. Thanks for sharing your pictures. So many remind me of what Tuscaloosa looked liked after the April 27th tornado. I wondered what the numbers meant that they tagged the houses with.

    • Yes, very much like Tuscaloosa–except for all the mold after sitting in water that long. The numbers were the date, the unit number that searched the house, the number of bodies found, and….I can’t remember what the fourth one was.

    • Thanks, Miki! I really hadn’t thought about how often it was mentioned since it was the reason for DJ’s job changing so much, but I think the farther out the series gets the less it needs to be mentioned, so I’m at least aware of it. 🙂

  4. You know I have been watching anniversary shows and following my St. Bernard group all week long, and I still can’t wrap my head around the destruction. And the mistakes. And the mess. And the … ____ <fill in the blank.
    I remember being unable to get in touch with my parents in Mobile. They left their home to ride out the storm at a local hotel, in case trees fell and emergency vehicles couldn't get to them, or they couldn't get out. Frederic taught them that – massive oaks blocking egress.
    Anyway, it took three days to hear from them finally. Phone service was out, but they were safe and had food, water and company. Plus they did not have the devastation that my uncle and cousins in NOLA had.
    All of them left the parish that my great grandfather built over a hundred years ago. The lumber company is still in the family though – with a water line painted on the new walls, twenty feet up.
    And my childhood house made it, but slabs and demolition Xs throughout the rest of the block.
    Now the mayor wants people to come home. Not happening. Not unless the Army Corps of Engineers teams up with some private construction companies to make a better levee… I don't care what they say about the wall surrounding Chalmette. I hope and pray it holds for the people who are making their way down to the parish, but not too many who lived through that hell are going back.
    And that's the shame of it. We all knew the parish as a place where generations of family lived – my own is one example. Vetter Lumber has been in business in the family over 125 years, and still is, but none of us live there any longer. So many touchstones of our childhoods – gone.
    Well, St. Bernard is coming back and looks great.
    But if I go back to LA, more than likely I'll move to Baton Rouge or someplace further inland and higher up.

    I'm so glad your inspiration took hold through this monster!

    • St. Bernard just broke my heard, Pamela. Of all the people I knew in Chalmette, only one of them went back and the stories of snakes making dens in her house….shudders…I think New Orleans is probably okay, but I’d be afraid of St. Bernard and New Orleans East and, moving westward, the southern parts of Plaquemines, Terrebonne, LaFourche and Jefferson. I’m not convinced the work the government is doing down there can hold against a big storm. Like you, if I move back to Louisiana, I’ll probably settle in Slidell or Mandeville or maybe even Lafayette. At least north of Lake Pontchartrain, for sure.

  5. I think that you shouldn’t let someone’s insensitivity prevent you from remembering an event (that directly impacted you and where you live) how you want. I think there’s a huge disconnect between those who lived it and those who watched it. This was just as devastating to you as any other major natural and manmade disaster. And I think it’s only only natural that you include it as theme in your writing. After all, your books are set in New Orleans and no one living there would not be impacted, real or fictional. Let’s just hope that this same “reviewer” doesn’t feel the same for events like 9/11 or they will definitely find themselves with their foot in their mouths. Thanks for sharing your memories, even as hard as they were!

    • Thanks, Erin! I don’t think the reviewer meant to be insensitive and probably didn’t realize it came across that way. But I agree, like with 9/11 and Superstorm Sandy, those who were impacted by Katrina are always going to be sensitive to it. I think 9/11 even more so than the storms because it was a deliberate act.

  6. Thanks for sharing your photos. The devastation is hard to comprehend unless it directly effects you or your family. I’m so happy you were able to use this event to launch the Sentinel series! Great natural disasters and tragedies are always remembered and discussed. After all, we still travel to Pompeii to see what happened after the volcanic eruption a very long time ago!

  7. Thanks for sharing your photos and describing the situation. It is wonderful that you were able to find inspiration from such an awful event.

  8. I have never gone through anything like this before, thank god, and I find it fascinating, though heartbreaking, to see others accounts of what happened. It’s an event that doesn’t need to be forgotten so I applaud you for showing these! Never worry about what others think!!!

  9. This has to be one of the BEST blogs you’ve ever written and posted! I truly wish you’d include more pictures. I cannot believe you had the cajones to live in a house that had 666 in the address! lmao. I would have been petrified to even live on the same block!

    Our oldest son had just gotten out of the military.. He had been home no more than a month.. when Katrina happened. Hubby’s company needed new employees willing to live in NOLA as they received a federal contract. He ended up living down there for two years. The photos he took.. still amaze us. So much destruction. So much chaos. So much spirit!

    • Thanks, Cherei! Yes, it’s hard to convey, even with photos, how widespread the damage was. Take these photos and spread them out a hundred miles, and then you get an idea. People either didn’t come back or didn’t come back willingly, or they came back and became the city’s biggest fans and advocates. I was one of the latter. I always loved New Orleans, but I loved it so much more when we almost lost it.

  10. Thank you for posting these pictures Ms. Johnson. I’m a native New Orleanian and I have been searching for years of just one picture of my family’s business that was located uptown. I am the son of the former owner of Mama’s Tasty Foods which was located at 1641 Louisiana Avenue. Our family resided in St. Bernard Parish. To lose both our homes and business was extremely difficult on us. As like many others we lost all of our pictures. The picture you posted of our former business is the only one we now have. This picture sort of brings closure. Many great memories were made at that restaurant. If you have any other pictures of that location can you please contact me?Thank you for posting it.

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