Finding Salvation in the Floodwaters of Katrina

In early 2014, award-winning Washington, D.C. journalist Susan Orlins started working as a volunteer editor at her local street paper, Street Sense. There she became friends with one of their vendors, Katrina survivor Gerald Anderson.

Over the next months, Gerald told Susan his story – about how he used the skills he learned in prison to rescue people during the aftermath of the hurricane, and his current situation sleeping on people’s floors in Washington. She also learned about his “family” of customers who buy Street Sense from him each fortnight.

These discussions were published in Street Sense. Now, 10 years on from Katrina, they have come together into a dramatic book, Still Standing: How an Ex-Con Found Salvation in the Floodwaters of New Orleans. Here, Susan explains how she and Gerald met, and introduces an extract from the book.

Gerald and Susan. Photo: Lily Thneah

By Susan Orlins 

I entered a room on the second floor of The Church of the Epiphany, where the writers’ group was already underway. It was my first day as a volunteer editor at Street Sense, Washington, D.C.’s street newspaper, which is written and sold by homeless vendors. A large, dark-skinned man — wearing a black hoodie, baggy jeans and worn-out running shoes — sat in a corner, hunched over a scrap of paper. When I walked over to him, he looked up.

He told me his name was Gerald Anderson and that he was a Katrina survivor. For the upcoming issue of the paper, he was writing words of appreciation to his customers, who had pooled airline miles to send him back to New Orleans for the first time since he had been evacuated eight years earlier.
“What was it like being back in New Orleans?” I asked.

“One of the best parts was meeting new family members,” Gerald told me. “My nieces and nephews are grown now and introduced me to they own families. ‘This is my daughter.’ ‘This is my son.’”

Although he had stopped going to school after seventh grade, Gerald knew how to write. But he liked the idea of my taking notes as he spoke. So I tapped on my laptop, while he told me about laughing with old friends, cooking gumbo, and seeing how his hometown had changed.

After finishing his story for the paper, Gerald told me he had rescued a lot of people during the flooding. I knew immediately he had a big story and a gift for telling it.

The following week I said, “Let’s write a series for the paper about your Katrina experience.”

Others had approached him about writing his story, and he told me he wanted to think about it. Gerald wasn’t ready to trust me. I kept asking, and finally he agreed to meet me at Starbucks near the Gallery Place Metro Station, where he sold his papers.

We pulled a couple of stools up to a counter at the window, I bought two egg salad sandwiches, I opened my laptop, and Gerald began telling me what happened.

That was February, 2014 and he has been telling me his story ever since. Each week at Starbucks, he talks, I type. I ask questions, he answers.

First we chat about what’s going on in his world; the drama of his present life overlays the drama of how he used skills he learned in prison to rescue others during Katrina.

When Gerald and I met, he was 45 years old and had been out of prison for almost a year, one of his longest stretches of freedom since he was 15. Here’s how the cycle went: drugs, burglary, prison, drugs, selling drugs, prison. Now he was homeless, sleeping on assorted people’s floors. One man charged him three hundred dollars a month to sleep on his floor, and then within weeks he locked Gerald out and stole his clothes.

Six months after meeting Gerald, I produced a show called ‘Homeless Lives: Unforgettable Personal Stories’ in which professional actors read homeless people’s monologues, created in my writing groups. The program included two of Gerald’s pieces.

A week before the show, Gerald appeared with me on a TV talk show to promote the monologue performance. Dozens of his newspaper customers, whom he refers to as family, watched the program in their offices.

Within a day, they began to outfit Gerald for the night of the show. One woman brought a suit that had belonged to her husband. Another customer bought dress shoes for Gerald. The day before the show, he paid a barber ten dollars to cut off his short cornrow braids.

On the night of the performance, after hearing his Katrina story read on stage, Gerald walked out of the theater for several minutes. He later told me he had felt emotional, as though he were right back there in New Orleans, reliving the hurricane, battling chin-high floodwaters to rescue a man “who ain’t got no legs.”

During the time Gerald and I worked on his Katrina memoir, he twice failed to report to his parole officer, which meant he missed two urine tests for drugs. On one of those days I was with him. Snowflakes as big as gumballs were falling and he said he didn’t want to go that far in the snow. It turned out he had reason to avoid the drug test. Soon after, he was ordered to report to court.

When I walked into the courtroom, Gerald was sitting beside his court-appointed lawyer with his head down. His urine had just tested positive for drugs.

He cried that morning; his tears, he said, reflected the shame he felt for having deceived me as well as others who believed in him. In fact, the judge held up 22 letters from Gerald’s supportive customers, his “family.”

That court appearance was the best thing that could have happened, because instead of sending Gerald back to prison, the judge allowed his parole officer to arrange a bed for him at Phoenix House, a residential drug treatment program. For the next ten weeks, instead of meeting downtown at Starbucks, Gerald and I met every Sunday—visiting day—in a courtyard at Phoenix House in Northern Virginia, where he continued telling me his story.

He progressed so well that in less than three months, he moved to a nearby recovery house, where he currently lives with nine other men.

Three weeks before publishing his memoir, Gerald stood waiting for a subway when a man fell on the tracks. Gerald jumped down to rescue the man, whom others helped pull to the platform. It was steeper than Gerald had realized, and the others helped him up too. Moments later Gerald boarded the train in time for his meeting with his parole officer.

In Gerald’s words, “This is my story, how I remember it, like it happenin’ now.’”

Four days after Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast, many parts of New Orleans remained flooded. Navy photo by Gary Nichols

During Katrina, Murder as Usual

By Gerald Anderson

I seen a lot of dead bodies during Katrina, while paddling around in a boat my homeboys and I took from a driveway in an evacuated house in the Garden District, but the worst was Miss Mary.

My homeboy KK, keep cryin’ and repeatin’, “Y’all hear ‘bout my grandma and my little cousins?”

KK’s grandma was Miss Mary. I used to clean her yard. She like a grandma to all of us. She’d cook us mustard greens and pig tails and cornbread. On Fridays, she’d make fish plate and fried chicken. Her cookin’ make you say, “Mmmm.”

Miss Mary always have a family day at the park with so much food you could bring a doggie bag home. It was a good family, a party family.

But now KK say, “We went to check on our grandma and our little cousins. My grandma and my family dead. Somebody come in the house and kill them.”

KK say they get there and see Miss Mary and the kids shot up and stabbed up, house all bloodied up, the beds, the kids’ rooms, everything. And KK saw the safe. It was open and empty. I thought, It had to be someone who knew she had a safe.

As soon as we heard that, we started bringing all the kids in the projects more close to us. The kids was scared and we was scared. We knew we had to watch them even more now. Somebody had to stay on post.

Up on that big, long balcony, we was just like if we was protecting the president’s house; someone always on lookout. You come up? We pat you down. We had no metal detector or nothin’, but we gotta make sure everything all right.

I put my head down and say, Lord I’m glad my family’s away. For those whose families ain’t away, they ought to get away.

We feel the pain of Miss Mary’s family. As I said, the lady was like a mother to us all. We had to go and see what was happenin’ in that house.

We didn’t go empty-hand. My homeboys put all kind of thing in that boat: bush knives, screwdrivers, hammers, little hand-saw blades. We didn’t know if someone still be in the house. We wasn’t lookin’ for no trouble. We just tryin’ to come outta this alive.

A lot of us went over there, like 15 of us, including KK and some of his older cousins. We all piled into the boat, which was long like a canal boat. Mind you, Katrina was still goin’ on with pouring down rain and rattling thunder. Water flooding and wind that feel like an elephant against your chest. People looking lost, desperate.

On the way to Miss Mary and them kids, we passed a house with a sign on the door that said “DEAD BODY INSIDE,” but we know only thing that kill that body was Katrina.

We paddled a few more minutes and then Miss Mary’s little white, wooden house come into view. So far, it look normal.

As we floated nearer, we could see the windows and back door wide open. We pulled up close. That way we could wedge the boat to keep it from drifting and we could climb right onto the porch. But we make sure one of us stay and watch it.

We entered Miss Mary’s house and knew not to touch nothin’; we use rags off the boat to touch the front door. The rug was squishy but there wasn’t too much flood, because the house sat some steps up off the ground, even though those steps were now washed away.

Inside the house, ain’t no power, no electricity, no phone, no police, no nothin’. The first body I seen was Miss Mary stretched on her back on the sofa, wearing one of them grandma dresses. If you know how Miss Mary be when she call you into the house to have some gumbo or go to the store for her, you think she just laying on the couch watching her daily stories, like “The Young and the Restless,” the way she always do. Except now you see blood all down the front of her grandma dress.

It put chills in my body. As good as that lady was, it took everything outta me to see her that way. It was like you wanted to say “Goddamn!” We was all in big shock, lookin’ at each other, putting our heads down. Who gonna do this to her?

You feel so weak, it feel like you dead. I ain’t gonna say every day—but just about every week most of my life—I might be seeing three or four dead bodies that been shot in the project or that somebody found in an abandon building. You see families fighting, stabbing each other. Boyfriend and girlfriend fighting.

So I was used to seeing dead people, but I ain’t never seen anyone murdered that open her heart to you like Miss Mary. She meant so much to me.

I knew the grandkids was in they bedrooms, and now I had the hardest thing: to follow KK and see them kids all bloodied up.

Still Standing: How an Ex-Con Found Salvation in the Floodwaters of Katrina is out now.