Life after Katrina

My message is prepare, and prepare for the unthinkable.

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WRITTEN BY Martha Anne Carr, DDS

My message is prepare, and prepare for the unthinkable.

y home and dental office are in the wooded city of Mandeville, La., nestled north of Lake Pont-chartrain and New Orleans. On July 5, 2005, I was proud that our office moved to a new location, thanks to a new loan and two months of blood, sweat, and tears to get ready. We had televisions in each operatory with cable and awesome music, and a top-notch office team.

Things are different now. On Thursday, Aug. 25, I watched as the Category 1 Hurricane Katrina approached Miami, with a projected path back up the East Coast. I remember thinking that my brother in D.C. might be affected. On Friday, I was attending a function at my five-year-old’s school and celebrating my baby’s first birthday on Saturday. Nothing prepared me for what actually happened.

Plans for a party become plans for evacuation

We had evacuated with hurricane threats before. Hurricane threats in the Gulf region are routine, so going ahead with our daughter’s one-year birthday party seemed like a good idea. Just the year before, fear turned to fun in Memphis with our friends, when the threat of Ivan turned out to be a sunny and perfect day. However, with each passing hour, we learned the dire predictions for the mandatory evacuation: Katrina was headed for Lake Pontchartrain, and the below-sea-level bowl that is New Orleans. The party plans were truncated, with a brave few showing up. Quickly, we blew out the candles, opened presents, and hurried to prepare for the worst.

Making sandwiches for a car trip with our three children, we packed our most important papers and pictures, with little time and less space. We walked Aaron, our oldest who is 12, to his room, and asked him to pick something to take with him that could not be replaced. He helped Cecilia, 5, do the same. Baby Elise just had to trust us. At home, we moved things off the floors, knowing that if Lake Pontchartrain flooded … we couldn’t even think about it. At the office, computers, paperwork, electronics, and boxes we had not yet unpacked from our move two months earlier were elevated. My thought was that our home might flood. I didn’t imagine that the office would. We sandbagged the office’s front and back doors, and I took a complete back-up of the computer system records with us.

On Sunday, Aug. 28, we left Mande-ville with the Cohans, our evacuation partners. We decided on Atlanta at the last moment because they had a friend who called, offering a vacant, furnished family home. Thank God for the Bailey family and their gift of shelter. Traffic was bad, and the radio stations filled us with fear. I remember worrying as we drove, not knowing what was going to happen, trying to console our children and myself.

Katrina hits with her wrath

Monday, Aug. 29, we watched and thought that New Orleans was spared when we found out that Katrina had hit east of the city. Poor Mississippi! We really consider that area as part of our community, and our extended play area. Then, on Tuesday, we found out what we had feared: New Orleans was NOT spared. Devastation hit. The levees broke. Watching the news stories, I felt grateful and guilty that my family was safe and sound. Not everyone could say that. Many members of families in my community are still among the missing or homeless today as I write this, and even as you read this. You know the story from the news reports.

What happened back home?

The Weather Channel reported first from Mande-ville. We watched with tense anticipation at the havoc of nature’s force. Mandeville was bad. Slidell, 17 miles to our east, was much worse. St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes, New Orleans, Biloxi, Bay St. Louis, and Waveland were devastated, and the list went on. Letting the reality sink in was difficult, and we busied ourselves with distractions. Days passed and we needed to get away from the television. Our cell phones were useless. We took the children to the museum, to the mall, anything just to keep busy.

Not until Thursday did we learn that our home and that of the Cohans were still standing, with little visible damage. My friend Nikki’s home was OK, but her parents’ was not. Paige lost her home to a 30,000-pound oak tree. Donna’s home was sliced by two trees into a cross and totalled. Trees cracked forcefully through the concrete slabs of homes, with our nephew Mike’s home one of them. It is still hard to comprehend the widespread destruction.

My husband, Jeff, was called back to work on the following Tuesday. Friends sustained us while he went back: Dr. Margaret Scarlett had us over for dinner and the kids played at the park near her home; Dr. Lori Trost called, elevating our spirits; and Dr. Mary Martin sent a package full of goodies. Many others called and many couldn’t get through with our limited cell phone service and Internet access. I was worried for Jeff about the reports of violence and looters in the area and no basic services. Still, I was overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and friendship of AAWD.

Jeff’s calls to Atlanta reported on the situation back home. There was raw sewage in the ditches. Trees and debris were all around. There was no electricity. Our refrigerator was awful, and the outside freezer disgusting, full of rotten meat and fish. Wind damage and a tree on our home require that we get a new roof, but at least we didn’t have trees through our roof like our neighbors on either side. We have so much to be thankful for. For the first time ever, St. Tammany Parish was a “dry county,” and there was no phone service, no cable, and no 911. On Thursday, Jeff returned to Atlanta, after sleeping on the floor at his workplace for three nights. We loaded up at Atlanta stores with supplies for survival in a primitive area. We clung to each other, and continue to do so.

Our return home was Saturday, Sept. 10. We had been gone two weeks, but it seemed like a different place. We received power to our home the day we returned. The orders to boil water were challenging, especially for our children. We had to ensure that there was enough water for drinking, brushing teeth, and cleaning scrapes and cuts. Intermittently, we would lose power or phone service and there was no mail. Schools were closed. Stores were nearly empty, and people wandered them with a distant, confused gaze.

We began to try to make things normal, with our town awash in a flood of temporary workers and displaced people, grieving from the loss of many others. One day while driving, my daughter, Ceci, noticed my sadness and I explained, “So much happened to so many people. We were so lucky and it just makes me a little sad sometimes.” She said, “Mommy, a lot happened to us too, and it is OK to cry for us.” So, sometimes I weep.

The condition of the dental office

Up until three weeks after the hurricane, I hadn’t focused on the office. We just wanted to normalize things at home. The office had flooded, which I hadn’t expected. I didn’t have flood insurance. There was no power until the end of the third week. It was hard to focus on the office when so much else had happened. A patch of mold was growing on the carpet, and there was water damage and mold on the waiting room furniture. A large pine tree fell, breaking the concrete outside our office, and with it, our plumbing source for water. The air conditioning units were lifted up at an angle, but thank goodness still functional. A portion of the roof blew off and the attic has an unplanned, small skylight. My brother-in-law temporarily restored water to the office until the landlord’s contractor could come.

We had planned for disasters for our office, but not well enough. I had overhead protection, and disability insurance after 30 days. But I hadn’t planned for three weeks of a closed office. I had no cash reserve to pay my employees or myself during the crisis. My full-time hygienist decided to permanently relocate after evacuating to Florida. The insurance adjuster for our office contents policy is not encouraging that anything will be covered by my insurance. My landlord’s insurance seems vague as well. That adjuster visited, stating that flood insurance is only activated if the surrounding two acres around the office were also flooded. His other policy states that water which comes from rain driven in by the wind is not covered. Now, it seems that the damage to the contents of my office will not be covered, despite all this insurance. Luckily, the damage is not overwhelming.

We started seeing patients VERY slowly at first. We still have no television at the office, but at least we have Internet through DSL, and we now have phone service. We had no mail service until four weeks after the hurricane, with occasional service even now. Some of our patients have relocated, and others are leaving. Since not all of our patients have phone service, it is difficult to maintain a schedule. One week at a time is our motto. We have not worked Wednesdays or Fridays. Friday was traditionally our busiest day because of the practice by oil companies’ employees working what is called 980s - they work nine days 80 hours, with every other Friday off. Friday is now a dead day.

We still have no outside signage, but our records and supplies are intact. The old signage bearing a colleague’s name was taken away by the wind. At least the new signage permit is one worry with the municipal government that I don’t have anymore.

How we stand today

I am grateful for our family and the fact that we are back home. There are inconveniences to be sure, and reminders that things are not normal. School has started again. Adjustments have been made by lengthening the school day and shortening the school holidays. The continuing stories are hard to hear from friends, neighbors, and patients. One patient from Arabi in St. Bernard parish who lost everything is temporarily housed in our community, and is trying to find a rental house for her, her mother, and her family. Her first relocation to Lake Charles ended with Hurricane Rita. Too proud to say she needs winter clothes for her 17-month-old daughter, she says that she is fine and doesn’t need anything. That spirit of prevailing in the midst of adversity is here. She knows her family is among the lucky. Everywhere there are stories of heartbreak and the spirit of strong-willed survival.

Hope for the future

I am filled with hope for the future, even as I mourn the present and immediate past. In New Orleans, there is a new sign of hope, “Fear Not, Brothers and Sisters. Jazz City will Swing Again. Peace.” And another, “New Orleans, Proud to Swim Home.” So, I will eat my red beans and rice on Wash Day Mondays, and order my shrimp poboys with Louisiana Hot Sauce and Zapp’s chips. New Orleans will be back. Ya’ll come down and visit when you can. I am proud to call this place my home. Blessings to all!

Donations are still needed for those impacted in the Gulf Coast area, especially during the holiday season. Please see the Table of Contents page in this issue for a list of places accepting donations.


The front of our house
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The back door of my dental office
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Ominous signs
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The back door of my dental office
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My daughter, Ceci, and stepson, Aaron, in our backyard
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In a nearby neighborhood
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Friend surveying damage to his New Orleans home
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Signs of hope in New Orleans
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Martha Anne Carr, DDS

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Dr. Carr is a dentist in Mandeville, La. She resides there with her husband, Jeffrey Falkenstein, a native Louisianian; her stepson, Aaron; and her two daughters, Cecilia and Elise Claire. She would like to thank her brother, George Carr, and her soulmate, Jeff, for their incredible work of clearing the trees and debris from the Carr/Falkenstein home during the weekends. She is full of hope and is learning every day of the incredible human spirit of giving and love and connection.

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