When Hurricane Katrina cast its first deadly cloud over New Orleans two years ago, CSU professor Kate Browne was a world away.
The devastation that would soon drown her home country suddenly seemed more important than her research in the French Caribbean.
“We needed to document this experience,” the anthropology professor said.
With her expertise in Afro-Creole populations, Browne knew that this disaster would carry heavy consequences on the people of Louisiana.
Already working with Emmy-winning filmmaker, Ginny Martin, Browne set out to tell the story of one family whose lives would forever be scarred by the nations’ deadliest natural disaster in recent history.
Now, Browne’s documentary, “Still Waiting” chronicles the family’s story.
Funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, CSU and the Women in Film Foundation, the documentary is being released, and will air across the country through September.
The film, Browne said, illustrates the heartbreak and hard times felt by those with ties to the region.
One family’s struggles
Connie Tipado, one of the family members who lived outside of the bayou of St. Bernard Parish, moved to Dallas 20 years before Katrina hit.
Only a year before Katrina took control over her family’s lives, she was battling breast cancer. And suddenly, she had 155 of her family members on her doorstep before the storm that destroyed 27,000 homes and displaced 67,000 people from St. Bernard Parish hit.
What was she to do with all of these people?
While at one point in the beginning, Connie housed 48 people under her roof, she spent countless hours on the phone trying to find her relatives housing elsewhere in Dallas. They were also trying to find shoes, eyeglasses, microwaves and other trivial things that had suddenly become necessities.
At the heart of everything, though, was food. Everyone was constantly cooking big pots of gumbo and crab and shrimp dishes, Browne said.
“Creole food is a big part of their attachment to each other and to the bayou home,” Browne explained.
Although the family members saw the destruction Katrina had caused on TV and in the papers, they still held on to the hope that they would get back to their home in the bayou.
They had to return home; there were several things lacking from their lives. Certain spices and condiments couldn’t be found to cook the food they’d grown up with. In Dallas, the family struggled to truly belong to a church, which played an important role in their lives.
Back home, each member of the church contributed to the service. This role and responsibility let people connect with something larger than them.
“There’s no good substitute for that kind of home,” Browne said. “They were all determined to get back home.”
The exception to that was Janie Johnson, one of the many family members. She and her husband had recently paid off their home; Katrina left four feet of water and mold up to the ceiling in her newly remodeled house. Without question, it had to be gutted. Johnson wasn’t sure she wanted to go back to that kind of devastation – an event that scattered her children to places all over the nation.
Taken from a section of the documentary, Johnson’s husband makes it clear what he thinks of the ruin that Katrina left in her wake.
“What it really did was split families apart,” James Johnson said. “Heritages have been lost.”
Tipado was worried that her family wouldn’t find what they were looking for back at home.
“I just hope home doesn’t disappoint them,” Tipado said in the documentary.
Once back in what used to be St. Bernard Parish, family members waited for months to receive Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) trailers in which to live.
When they did receive them, some weren’t equipped with electricity, so they had to buy generators with money out of their own pockets.
For Katie Williams, Tipado’s godmother, waiting for a handicapped trailer was long and frustrating. Williams has only one leg, so she needed a trailer that was handicap accessible; instead, she received a regular trailer.
In March of 2006, Williams stumbled trying to go up the stairs into the trailer and wounded what was left of her leg. She still can’t put use her prosthetic leg as a result.
The Road Home program, a federal program designed to give up to $150,000 to each homeowner, was supposed to help people who had lost everything.
Out of the 67,000 residents in St. Bernard’s Parish, 30,000 had applied for this money, Browne said. As of June 2007, only 25 people had received Road Home money.
“The title of ‘Still Waiting’ is appropriate,” Browne said.
Williams was one of the select few who received money from Road Home. Out of the $150,000 that could be granted, Williams only received $25,000.
Searching for something close to normal, the family finally left Dallas. But after they moved back to St. Bernard Parish, they began to wonder how they were going to make it through the day.
“This stripped people of the most basic kind of control over their own lives,” Browne said.
There was no way that anyone could regain control over their lives soon, along with difficulties in being comfortable in their own home town.
“What we used to have was comfortable. What we have now is misery,” one of the relatives said in the documentary.
For some, the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina serves as reminder of a disaster that shook the nation, but for those featured in Browne’s documentary, the anniversary is just another tally mark on a wall of frustration, sadness and separation.
“I want people to see the hurt of Katrina in the faces of these people,” Browne said.
But she still wonders whether Louisiana, especially St. Bernard Parish, will ever be the same community bound, vibrant place it once was.
“Will this place ever recover? I am not optimistic.”
Staff writer Anica Wong can be reached at email@example.com.