Hurricane victims adjust to life outside of New Orleans
Two months after the hurricane that turned their worlds upside-down, Hudson natives Kelly Butler and Becky Gherty are settling into life outside of New Orleans.
Kelly, her husband, Julius, and their two sons are residing in a rented house in a suburb of Jackson, Miss.
Julius Butler, a respiratory therapist at the New Orleans Veterans Administration Hospital when Hurricane Katrina hit, has been transferred to the Jackson VA hospital.
Kelly is taking a graduate-level social planning course online from the University of New Orleans, as well as looking after 2-year-old Nolan. She was registered to take three courses this fall at the university, where, ironically, she is working toward a master's degree in urban and regional planning.
"A little bit of that is going to be going on in New Orleans now," she notes.
Becky, Kelly's youngest sister, moved into a St. Paul apartment this week to be closer to the Pottery Barn Kids store in the Mall of America, which she manages. Five years ago, Becky opened the first Pottery Barn Kids store in New Orleans and was managing it when Katrina struck Aug. 29.
Becky learned of the opening at the Mall of America store while staying with her mother in Hudson following the storm. "I was transplanted up here right with the company," she says.
Many Hudsonites are acquainted with Kelly and Becky's mother, Roberta Gherty, from her job at the Old World Bake Shop on Second Street. She's "Bert" to most folks who stop in for pastries or a loaf of bread.
Kelly, 37, graduated from Hudson High School in 1986. Becky, 28, is a member of the HHS class of 1995.
They also have a sister, Dawn, 36, who still lives in Hudson.
Their father, Lawrence Gherty, and stepmother, Elaine, reside in Woodbury, Minn. Their dad is the older brother of Hudson attorneys Terry and Mark Gherty.
Kelly relocated to the Big Easy at the age of 26.
"I moved there because it was a place that didn't have snow. I know that probably won't sit well with a lot of people from Hudson who love snow. But I did not love snow and I picked somewhere warm," Kelly said in a phone call from her new residence in Madison, Miss., last week. "I planned to stay for about a year and I fell in love with New Orleans and that was it."
Kelly waited on tables in the French Quarter upon her arrival in New Orleans. Eventually, she returned to school, earned a bachelor's degree in history from the University of New Orleans and got married.
"You hear the cliche that it's a city like no other. It really is," Kelly said. "It's culturally diverse. It's every kind of mixture that you can think of - race, ethnicity, class, the food, the atmosphere, the fun... New Orleans is full of festivals that invite everyone. It's not just geared toward one sector of the population. It's geared toward everyone. I miss it. I definitely miss it."
Her younger sister has equal affection for the city.
Becky recalled how in 1997 Kelly had invited her to visit New Orleans after she had spent a year at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul and discovered it wasn't for her.
"I had planned on going there for two years and then maybe moving on," Becky said. "I absolutely fell in love with the city. (I) was ecstatic to be there. (I) loved the people and loved the culture."
She'd still be there if not for Katrina.
The sisters' escape from New Orleans hours ahead of the hurricane is a trip they'll long remember.
Becky had been living with Kelly and her family temporarily while she looked for a different residence.
The Butler home is in a part of the city called Gentilly. Kelly describes it as a "classic New Orleans neighborhood" of single-family houses, located near the University of New Orleans and Lake Pontchartrain.
A couple of days before Hurricane Katrina made landfall, Kelly went on the Internet and booked a room in the nearest motel to the east that would accept the family dog - a yellow lab named Sandy. The reservation was for a Motel 6 in Columbus, Ga., normally a five-and-a-half-hour drive away.
Kelly awoke Sunday morning, Aug. 28, to news that Katrina had reached Level 5 force and decided they indeed should evacuate the city. And she knew they couldn't wait for Julius to get off from work late in the afternoon.
She and Becky loaded up the family car, and at 11 a.m., they and 13-year-old Julius Jr., little Nolan and the dog joined a caravan of evacuees fleeing the city.
The traffic was bumper-to-bumper through Mississippi, where people also were fleeing Gulf Coast communities. They were grateful to find a gas station where they could refill their tank near Biloxi, Miss., even though it meant waiting in a line 20 or 25 cars long. The convenience store had been cleaned out of supplies and the restrooms were dirty.
They arrived at the Columbus motel at 2 a.m. Sunday after 13 hours on the road.
The travails of Kelly, Becky and the children didn't compare to what Julius would experience, however.
By the time he was able to leave work, looters had begun pillaging the city. He found the windows broken out of his truck, which he had parked near the hospital.
The truck was damaged badly enough that Julius decided not to attempt leaving the city, but to ride out the hurricane at the house with his brother. The house survived the hurricane winds that racked the city during the early hours of Monday, Aug. 29, but that evening water from a broken levy began rising in the neighborhood. Within three hours, the water was six feet deep on the first floor of the house.
Tuesday, Aug. 30, a neighbor with a boat took Julius and his brother to dry ground a few blocks away, where they spent the night outside a hardware store. They thought someone would come and take them out of the city from there, but it didn't happen.
Wednesday, Aug. 31, they walked to an expressway and spent the day and most of the evening there, again expecting to be rescued, but to no avail. With nightfall approaching, they set out walking through chest-deep water "and all kinds of stuff" to the Superdome, according to Kelly, and arrived there sometime in the night. They slept on the Superdome bleachers that night.
Thursday morning, Sept. 1, they attempted to enter the VA hospital, but found it flooded, too, and returned to the Superdome to wait in line for a bus out of town.
They waited in line until they were able to board a bus for Dallas Friday night, Sept. 2.
Kelly didn't hear from her husband between getting a cell phone call from him at 5 p.m. Monday and Friday night, when he was able to use his phone again after leaving the city.
"From Monday through Friday I had no idea. I just sat there watching (TV) in horror, watching people up on rooftops and wondering if he was one of them. It was quite an ordeal. It really was," Kelly said.
Kelly and the children stayed with Roberta Gherty in Hudson from Sept. 11 through Oct. 13. Julius was in Hudson most of that time, too, but left earlier to start work at the Jackson VA and find a place for them to live.
The Butlers initially planned to relocate to this area, but Minneapolis VA said it couldn't allow Julius the time away from work that he wanted to make repairs to their New Orleans house.
Kelly said the relocation is the hardest on Julius, a native of New Orleans.
"He's definitely a typical New Orleanean who gets accustomed to the life there - the laid-back, take-it-as-it-comes (pace)," she said. "He's having a hard time adjusting to other places, let me say that. He's definitely missing his home and his city, as we all are."
Kelly said they're hoping to return to New Orleans eventually, but that could depend on what happens to the VA hospital there and how much of the city gets rebuilt.
"I am hopeful," Kelly said. "I think the city will be rebuilt. A lot of people think that it would be crazy to move back there, but I can't imagine New Orleans not existing. There's too many people that have their heart and soul in that city... It's a place like no other."
Julius Jr.'s school was destroyed, she noted, and most of the houses in their neighborhood will have to be demolished.
The storage facility where Becky had most of her belonging was badly damaged as well. "From what I understand, it's either going to be waterlogged or blown away somewhere," she said.
Kelly and Becky both expressed gratitude for the Hudsonites who contributed to a relief fund set up at the local Wells Fargo bank on their behalf.
Other people brought gifts of clothing, toys and personal care products to their mother's house.
"Everybody knows my mom, and they know where to find her," Becky said with a laugh. "Everybody has been so incredibly giving and supportive. They've been our rock."
Randy Hanson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org