Katrina — Stormy Stories

Circa 2009

Excerpts from Aldon E. Cotton

Born in 1968, Aldon E. Cotton is the youngest of six boys raised in Back of Town by church-going parents who worked around the clock to provide for their family. As a child Aldon showed talent for music, determination, spirituality, reasoning ability, and sociability were already clearly visible in Aldon before the first of many “nobodybut-Jesus” moments at the age of fourteen when a train accident changed his way of doing some things. At the age of twenty-two, he began pastoring at the only church he has ever known, Jerusalem Baptist Church in Central City. After doing everything possible to prepare his congregation of 160 members for the evacuation from the city, including Mapquest instructions and emergency phone numbers, he caravanned along with thirty church and family members to Greenville, Mississippi, on August 28, 2005.

This interview was conducted on February 14, 2008 in Luling, Louisiana, the site of Cotton’s temporary home and gateway to New Orleans, the city of his calling. The small home was comfortable, pleasant, and unostentatious. Cotton was wearing a beige, silk turtleneck sweater. A spellbinding storyteller, Cotton’s contagious smile, mellifluous voice, and hearty laugh animated his stories.

I was born in ‘68. I’m the youngest. Growing up in a house with five older brothers, I always had noise. Silence disturbs me.

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My mother came from a town called Vacherie, Louisiana. It’s about fifty to sixty minutes from New Orleans. I would spend my summers in Vacherie. My grandparents in the ‘70s were still living in a plantation house on the Laura plantation. As kids, we went in the sugarcane fields, but we played. My grandparents didn’t have a formal education, but my grandmother knew how to feed thirteen children with one chicken and you couldn’t cheat my grandfather out of a penny.

I grew up at in a shotgun house in an area called Back of Town. It’s adjacent to Central City, and it’s a few blocks from an area called James Alley, where Louis Armstrong grew up. We were known as the church-going family. We were always in the choir. We would have family rehearsals at home, and a lot of times we would be in there singing. Then we’d hear somebody say, “Sing another one!” We’d go to the door and we may have had ten to fifteen people standing in front of the gate.

When my mama planted something, it would grow. She loved flowers in the front yard, along and up the fence, everywhere. Mama was doing people’s hair when I was little. My father was working fulltime trying to go to school in Baton Rouge, where he went to Southern for his master’s degree. Sometimes he worked two jobs plus playing for three or four churches. He was working in Lockport, which from New Orleans at that time was like a two-hour drive. He was a vocal music teacher. That was the place that gave him a job. He would leave about 5:00 or 5:30 in the morning, drive, teach, come home, get about an hour’s sleep, go to choir rehearsal, come home, sleep, and then get up. We’d have to wake him up at 10:15 p.m. He was working at Mercy Hospital at night as an orderly and he’d have to be in at 10:30 at the latest. He was exhausted all the time. He was adamant that he would not abandon his children and just always wanted better for us. He’d always tell us, “I don’t want you all to be like me. I want you all to be better than me.”

All of my brothers and I didn’t have the faintest idea we were poor. We had so much love and joy in our house. I thought everybody had the silver can of peanut butter and the dried eggs and dried milk. I knew there were “rich, rich people,” you know, when you’d go on St. Charles Avenue and they’d say, “That’s where the rich people stay.” We had to watch the local news at 5:00, the world news at 5:30, and the local news again at 6:00. We would hear about the “lower class,” but we didn’t recognize ourselves in those depictions.

In 1982, August the 20th a friend of mine, John Buckley, and I were going to choir rehearsal at Jerusalem. Normally we would walk over the Broad overpass to church. The summer before, he had passed out from a heat stroke. When we got half way up the bridge, and it was kind of hot that day, so I said to him, “Say Bro, let’s get under this bridge, because if you have a stroke and fall over the side, bro, I love you, but I ain’t going over with you.” When we got half way across the bridge, there’s a ramp you can go down. So we went down that ramp and when we got to the tracks, the Amtrak train was there. This was the second time a train had ever been there, and we would always walk to church. The train was just sitting. They had maybe five different people standing there. I said, “Come on bro, we late.”

So we were about three cars closer to the end. So that’s what we did. If the tracks are like this, you just hop in the middle, then on the other side. That’s what my friend did. I was right there. The guy at the back of the train said, “No boy!” And when I looked up, I fell. The track was across my chest. I tried to get up and the rocks were slippery and I couldn’t get up. Then I heard them, “Start rolling.” So I tried to roll and the train started moving and it dragged me. I was catty-corner to the train tracks. The first wheel went completely across both legs. I was pinned under the train by the second wheel. It was literally on top of my leg.

I said, “Jesus! Mama!” This peace, this calmness came immediately. My friend was losing it, because out of his peripheral vision, he saw the train backing up, and he looked back. I think he saw it drag me. I think it was the cook or somebody on the back hit the emergency brakes and the conductor came out of the train, looked at me, and ran back on the train. The crowd got larger and larger.

The doctor who came to the scene said that he never traveled that way home, but the normal way he was going, there was traffic. He just got off from his shift, sees the crowd, and said, “I’m tired. I’m going to go home.” He said, “Something just stopped the car.” He came over and saw me. He said, “I’m going to go underneath. When you hear me say “move it”, I want you to try to move the leg.” So when he came back, he said. “You’re moving the leg. That means the nerves are still functional.” He asked the conductor, “Is there a train that has a jack?” The conductor said, “Yeah, but that train is an hour away.” The doctor said, “This boy don’t have an hour.” He asked me where I was going. I said, “I was going to choir rehearsal.” He said, “Well, we have a priest here.” So they called for the priest, and he opened that black book. I just looked at him. “That ain’t good.” I’m hearing, “Lord receive his spirit” and all of this kind of stuff. “That ain’t the right prayer.”

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Then they said, “Listen, in order to get you from underneath this train, I’m going to have to amputate. I can’t give you nothing because we don’t want you slipping off into unconsciousness. We need you talking.” I said, “Go ahead, Doc. I’ll be alright.” He just kind of sat there and looked at me. I said, “You got something you want to go do?” They cut the leg off.

In the ambulance, I said, “I’m hungry. I want a Big Mac.” I was so skinny, you could count my ribs. They got me to Charity Hospital. They had to take the other leg off. And they told my family, “His heartbeat is low. Infection has gone throughout the body. We’ve done everything we could do. He’s going to die.” My family got on its knees and prayed right there in the hospital. They kept bringing me back and forth from surgery.

When I woke up, I had IVs all over.

I never went through any type of depression. At one point they had moved me from the fourth floor to the sixth floor because I had so many visitors and they figured that I needed more privacy. So I’m on the sixth floor and this psychologist came in. “I want to ask you some questions. Were you trying to kill yourself?” I said, “I just walked over a bridge. If I was going to kill myself, wouldn’t I have jumped off the bridge? And if I wanted to kill myself, why wouldn’t I have put my neck on the track?”

I got a certificate of prayer from the pope. One of the nuns who stayed across the street from us in the neighborhood was going to the Holy Father. Literally sacks of mail arrived for me. My mother and I read every piece of mail, and answered every piece of mail. My mother said, “You need to write them because they want to hear from you.” But I was still me. Even with people writing me, we remained humble, and we were grateful, because people don’t have to do that. My pastor would always say, “You be grateful because people don’t have to be nice. They don’t owe you nothing.”

My mama would say, “You still have your hands, you still have your mind. You just have to find a different way of doing these things.” I knew from the beginning that I was going to be alright. If the doctors say something, then you don’t have anything to worry about. God told me I was going to be alright. So that’s the foundation of why I’m able to even handle Katrina.

I grew up poor and lower class, been called a whole bunch of stuff, but I never was called a handicapped. All of a sudden this accident happened to me and people wanted me to go to an amputee camp. I said, “for what?” If you really don’t have a personal relationship with God, I think you’re a handicapped. I was walking with prosthetic legs at one time. I gave them up. With them I’m dependent on people. Without them I’m independent.

One day I was sitting in a class, me and this other guy. He’s paralyzed. And the teacher said, “I know y’all angry.” I said, “Tell me something else you know about me that I don’t know about myself.” She said, “You’ve never been angry because you’re in the chair?” I said, “no.” I’m too busy telling God thank you for saving my life to be mad with Him.

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I grew up in a Christian home. I grew up believing. Even in the hospital, God had told me, “I will call you to preach, but not now.” My pastor died in January 1990. I go to class the first week. The only thing that’s in my tablet is “Jerusalem Baptist Church: structure, outline, budget, programs.” I’m twenty two at the time. Sitting in class. I’m not listening to nothing that professor said. So I went to the registrar and I told him, “I’m dropping out.” He said, “No, Cotton.” I said, “Look at these tablets.” He said, “Son, you need to be where your heart is.”

Jerusalem is in Central City. In our second year of pastoring, we drove around from Broad to Claiborne, from Washington Avenue to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, and took down every church name. We invited all of those pastors to come to a fellowship breakfast and recognized that the largest congregation in that area may have had three hundred members. We said to them, “If we work together, we can change this community.” We started having community revivals. We had some guys who were most likely selling drugs. When we would have church, they would sit across the street. And I would say, “Man, come on in.” “Nah, Rev. We’ve been listening.” I would go out and play dominoes with these guys and just talk to them. One guy told me, “Rev, I would come, but I don’t have no church clothes.” I said, “Look bro, this tie is yours. Now come on in.” And so sometimes they’ll see me just with a t-shirt going to church because I wanted them to understand, it ain’t about this at all.

In ‘04, when they were telling us to leave, about four families went to Rustin, Louisiana. While up there, we were saying, “We really need to expand this and make sure we know where everybody is.” So May or June they got together, had about four or five meetings, and came up with a plan. They shared it with the church and had assignments for everybody. We had a list of what everybody should pack for three days. We had all the members’ cell numbers. We knew who were going to leave and where everybody’s going. Those of us who were traveling had Mapquest. At 2:00 a.m. Sunday morning, I got a call. “Pastor I found a hotel for everybody. They got rooms enough for thirty people. They’re holding the rooms.” I say, “Alright! Where’re we going?” She said, “Greenville, Mississippi.” I said, “Do that show up on Mapquest?”

When all of this stuff happened, I was sitting in front of the television at the hotel in Greenville, Mississippi, and they’re talking about we won’t be able to get back in New Orleans for three years. I’m saying, “God, why would you give me a vision for Jerusalem in New Orleans on Fourth Street, and this happened? Somebody crazy and it ain’t me.” I was going back to New Orleans if I was the only preacher back. I would be the pastor of the city. I’ll pastor anything up in there. It was settled with me before I left. I’m going back to New Orleans.

Pastor Sean Elder, my twin brother in the spirit, called me while I was in Mississippi. He said, “Doc, I’m standing in front of your church now. It’s bad.” I said, “really? Look across the street. Do you see that multi-purpose building?” He said, “What?” I said, “Do you see a multipurpose building across the street? Do you see our new building?” He said, “Reverend, I see it.” I said, “If you see it, I’m coming home!” So it’s about what you see. It’s what you as the pastor sees in that community.

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The church is being what the church is supposed to be: a source of hope and inspiration. I have seen the transformation. People were coming with all of these questions. People were taking it personally. “How come this happened to me?” “If God just wanted to deal with you, do you think he would have put everybody out first? You can’t take this thing personally.” I dealt with their pain and their questions.

God was in Greenville, Mississippi. Every preacher I’ve talked to, wherever they were, says, “God was with us. God provided.” So what did we learn from this? He is omnipresent. He is faithful. There are certain sayings in the Baptist church among Black Baptists which you just grow up hearing. “He’s a doctor for the sick, He’s a lawyer in the courtroom, He’s a mother for the motherless, He’s a father for the fatherless. He’s a bridge over troubled waters.” We’ve got a roll call. We used to make fun of that as little children, but I understand it in such a clear way now, because He’s all of that and more. So all of these sayings that we grew up hearing has a purpose, a reason, a story behind them, and it is for my generation to understand, to know, and to embrace. This is how my people were able to deal with slavery and segregation, because they knew some way, somehow, God was going to deliver them. But you don’t really get it until you have an experience.

“Katrina” is an experience because what it did was reduce everybody to the same level. I lived in the Lake Carmel subdivision on the other side of I-10. Down the street is Eastover—that’s the million-dollar houses. I drove through Eastover after Katrina. Katrina respected them the same way it respected our house. The lesson to be learned is not just for the city, this is for the world.

I know what life is and what life is not. Jesus says it so well. “. . . a man’s life consists not in the abundance of things which he possesses.” I don’t need material things. It’s convenient. It’s nice, but that’s not my joy. When you see the lives of people change for the better, that’s what I’m about. In the few years I’ve been on planet earth, I’ve learned what it takes people decades to learn because I’ve been in a nobody-but-Jesus situation under the train. You learn to enjoy life. God says, “The just shall walk by faith.” I don’t need physical legs to walk by faith.

Excerpts from Cynthia Delores Banks

Cynthia Banks, the second oldest of eleven children, was raised in the Desire Project in the 1950s and early ‘60s. She attended college in Long Island, New York on a Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship, became an administrator at Hofstra University, married, and started a family of four. At the urging of her parents, she returned to New Orleans after the death of her husband. Working two fulltime jobs, Cynthia purchased a home on Lake Carmel in New Orleans East before the storm.

Her oldest son, Jermol Stinson, took a bullet to the neck at the age of twenty-two. Extra-familial networks of caring and creativity made it possible for a widowed mother of four to keep Jermol out of a nursing home in New Orleans by allowing her to orchestrate around-the-clock volunteer homecare.

On a wintry Sunday afternoon in early January 2006, Cynthia Banks spoke openly about the impact of Katrina on her family. The setting was a sparsely populated waiting room in Kendrick Hospital in Dallas, where Jermol was recovering from an operation necessitated by his stay in a nursing home in Texas. The sensitive observations and retelling of the tribulations of others are particularly valuable in this account of a woman positioned in an uptown Hospital during and after Katrina. Many hospitalized and disabled residents had no means of obeying the mandatory evacuation order called the Sunday prior to the storm’s landfall. Their survival, with the help of families, volunteers, and some officials, is a story of persistence and triumph over difficult circumstances.

I grew up in the Ninth Ward, the Desire Project. A lot of really resourceful people came out of Desire. We opened Desire up after we lost our house to fire because of faulty wires. My family left around the time I graduated from high school in ‘63.

My dad, Richard Gullette, was a chef/cook. He cooked morning, day, and night. At first he worked Ochsner Foundation, the Brent House for the doctors. For thirty-five years he cooked for them. He cooked at one of those French Quarter restaurants on the weekends, and in between he cut all the neighborhood kids’ hair to make extra money to raise eleven of us. I remember an image of my mother at 4:00 a.m. on her hands and knees stripping hardwood floors, varnishing and polishing them. My grandfather on my mom’s side was one of those preachers in the French Quarter on Burgundy Street that had a heart of gold. His congregation was a lot of the French Quarter people, the jazz players and all of that, and he spoiled me rotten. He practically raised me.

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I graduated from Carver Senior High School in 1963. I got my LPN license in 1969 at New York State University, and got a job working nights. I graduated from the New York Institute of Technology in ‘74 with a B.S. degree in Criminal Justice. I completed a master’s degree in Counseling and Education in the early ‘80s. The week of graduation my husband died during open heart surgery. I moved back to New Orleans in 1985 at the insistence of my parents. I worked two fulltime jobs that allowed me to make a monthly mortgage payment on a house in a subdivision in New Orleans East.

My oldest son, Jermol, is thirty-six. Right after high school, he became a longshoreman, and he loved it. Two years later, Jermol came home and he said to me, “Mom! I love the water.” He said, “I got to get you to Africa. Mama, it is so beautiful.” The year he was shot, he had just come home.

On July 4, 1992, Jermol was coming out of a K & B drugstore in Gentilly, right up around Dillard University. My nephew had just come into town to do some recruitment for the Marines, and they were together. My nephew got in the car and he said he saw this guy walk up to Jermol but he thought the guy knew him. And the guy asked him, “What’s up?” Jermol said, “What you thinking, doc?” He said the guy pulled a gun and shot him right in the neck.

Jermol was in surgical intensive care for seventy-eight days. They couldn’t get him off the respirator. The doctor said to me, “If we don’t wean him off that respirator, he’s going to have severe brain damage.” We prayed and we believed God. The nurse called me at work one day, and she said, “Ms. Banks, you got to get here. We weaned Jermol off the respirator for thirty minutes and he didn’t have any problems.”

From that point, he went to rehab for a week. At rehab I was so angry. It took the rehab physician, medical doctor, surgical doctor, Rehab director, and physical therapy nurse to say to me: “There are no resources out there for him. We will have to put him in a nursing home because he is total care.” I said, “I’m looking at all of this knowledge and money sitting around this table, and you tell me my son’s got to go to a nursing home. I don’t think so. His emotions are worth the world to me right now, and you will not destroy him by putting him in a nursing home. It is my decision where he goes.”

I brought him home, and between myself and his brothers and his sister, we worked around the clock with him. I came to the conclusion, “When we go down, we all go down together.” We finally got the tubes out of his stomach, the trach out of his throat, and all of the other stuff that he had.

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When I was at work I would always wonder, “God, there’s no more money. I don’t know what to do.” There was a two year determination period before he could be eligible for Medicare. So when he first got out of the hospital I couldn’t work for about four and one-half months. It got to the point where you say, “This thing is bigger than me. I just don’t know what to do.” The nurses from Charity Hospital would visit us. “Ms. Banks, we could come over here two-to-three hours for you. You don’t have to pay me.” In the process of that he made so many friends: nurses, and nurse’s aides, and they would all come over. All of his high school friends would come and take him out for lunch. They learned how to operate his van and his wheelchair. He’s got a power chair that he operates with his head.

I’d do things like buy all kinds of goodies to keep in the house and the refrigerator. His friends would come over, “Do you want to eat something, Jermol? Do you want me to go in the kitchen and fix you something?” My food bill was enormous, but the medical bill would have been ten times worse.

I called my sister right before I left that Sunday evening to go to the hospital with my son. I said to her, “Gwen, Jermol will not feel like he was deserted by the entire family on tomorrow.” Jermol had gone to Methodist Hospital before the storm for some evaluations. He was moved to Kindred Hospital, a private hospital, after the tests because he developed a fever. In the process of that the hurricane hit. The week in the hospital was one of desperation. I think the greatest concern was the one that nobody really had before the hurricane—the flood. We knew that there was a hurricane coming and we needed to prepare to have food and water. We knew that we needed to be able to make sure that the places and the areas that people were in the hospitals were safe, that there wouldn’t be flying glass, but nobody, nobody dreamed that in the week to come the situation would become worse. So we all prepared for two or three days.

The staff showed so much compassion for the patients in the process of trying to prepare them for the move from New Orleans, and at that point they didn’t know where they were going to be evacuated to. The hospital had already negotiated for the patients to be airlifted out and taken to another hospital that Wednesday. Some patients were already on the first floor on mattresses on the floor preparing to be removed.

I think the hardest part of that process for me was when the National Guard came in. I think that’s when even more confusion ensued. They arrived that Wednesday and said, “Nobody will be airlifted. You have a generator that’s giving you a little light. We have places that have no generators at all.” We understood that. We had no idea that it was going to take from Wednesday till Friday. The buses that they had negotiated to come in were on hold. The federal marshals wouldn’t let them through.

We scraped and really scrapped to save water for those that really needed the water. There were patients that were in ICU there that had no water, no food. Those individuals, of course, came first. You had so many people there: workers and the workers’ families, other patients and those patients’ family members. Everybody wants something to eat. Everybody is in fear because when night comes the hospital is dark. Everybody is asking the question when. People are becoming anxious and impatient, and they just want out. They no longer want to hear that we’ve got a plan, and we’re implementing that plan. So we had people lying on the floor from Wednesday till Friday not knowing how we were going to get out of there. At this point my major concern was, “Lord, don’t let me have to put my son downstairs on that floor in that doorway of the first floor, where people are constantly in and out. His intravenous is not going to work there. It’s too unsanitary.” They wanted to move him down, but I just refused. They were also very empathetic with me. I kept him up there in that room until the emergency units were not only at the hospital but were ready to go.

I let them take Jermol down, and when they took him down, they took him right into the emergency unit, which was a little more sophisticated than an ambulance, because it had enough equipment in it to sustain hours of travel by land. When they began to move those emergency units out, all they could do was put two patients in there at a time.

The National Guard that was at the hospital, I must say, were very, very human. They were firm, but they were very human. They took the time to explain and talk about what happened. They explained that when they left, there were stories of all kinds of looting and stuff that was going on in the city. They explained that they would find routes that would avoid having to go through the water.

It took us hours to get to Texas because of the route they had to take to avoid water, a lot of trees and electrical lines that were down in the street and things of that nature. It was getting dark. But once we got into Pasadena, Texas, those people at that Kindred had food ready, drinking water, and bath water to bathe the patient. They had a welcome party waiting for those people. The young lady that came into my son’s room earlier tonight, she was one of the people in Pasadena. When my son and other guys came in that were completely handicapped, even though she knew it was time for her to get off from work, she said, “We need to bathe these guys up and get them comfortable so they can have a good night’s sleep.” So they brought comfort into a situation where people were just physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted.

I was told that the fastest way to get services for my son is to put him in the nursing home for forty-five days, because it will take forty-five days to go through the paper trail. And if he’s discharged from the nursing home to home, he will have completed the required paperwork, determined whether or not he’s really eligible for state benefits, and he’ll be able to get services right away. Otherwise, he’s going to have to go on a two-year waiting list.

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It has been almost ninety days now with my child in a nursing home. It was hard on him psychologically to be in the nursing home. He said, “Mama, there’s five different levels of urine in here you smell from the time you hit the door till the time you get to my room. I don’t want my friends to come in here.” He was ashamed. It is psychologically, emotionally, and socially challenging. He had to have an operation because he developed a bed sore on his hip that got infected. He wasn’t being turned. He couldn’t eat the food because there was no taste to it.

Jermol’s home care in New Orleans worked with him building relationships with people pitching in to help. That has placed a lot of uncertainty in our lives now. All of that has been disrupted, and he keeps saying, “Ma, what are we going to do?” I think he’s got an inner fear that presents itself in our conversations sometimes of going back into the nursing home from this hospital. He keeps saying, “Mom, you worked so hard for twelve years to keep me out of a place where I’ve now ended up in.” I keep saying to him, “Jermol, God was ever present in the beginning, he’s present now in the middle.” We thank Him on a dayto-day basis and just keep moving forward.

I’m committed to Dallas as long as it takes New Orleans to come out of its blight and begin to do something to create an environment that would look anywhere near healthy for my son to move back to.

It’s taken me some time to find a home for my son and I was fortunate enough to get it through HUD because my home is in the disaster area and because I have a son that’s handicapped. They tell me those two things together qualified me. The lady from HUD called me: “Ms. Banks I found a house for you. It’s in Louisville, Texas.” I said, “Where is that?”—“It’s about two hours from where you are now.” I’ve created an environment for my son here where I’m working on resources. I found out here in Dallas that there are independent services for the disabled. I had just gone through being able to access services in DeSoto county. So I said, “It needs to be somewhere close to this area where I am. His doctor is here.” Then she found a house that was in Lancaster, Texas. I said, “Great!” I go to the house and I see this raggedy, falling down gate and this filthy rug—it looked like they had a dog in the house. I stood there and I closed my eyes, and I said, “Lord, this could become a mansion.”

So I went and bought some paint. Then I got on the phone and I was able to get in touch with St. Michael’s Church. And they said that they would do what needed to be done in order to make it handicapped accessible, and they would work with ADA. They’re widening the bathroom door, putting a shower in the bathroom, and stuff like that. I met a Mexican guy who worked with floors, and I talked to him about some carpeting. He said, “I have a huge piece of carpet left from some work I did. I’ll let you have it. You just have to pay for the labor.” “Come put it down,” I told him. “I don’t care what color it is, I don’t care what it looks like. Is it clean? That’s all I want to know.” I said to him, “I don’t want carpet in my son’s room on his floor. I’d like to have some ceramic.” He had all of this ceramic that he had from a church that he’d done, and he told me it was like $2.00 and something a square foot, and he let me have it for $.50 a square foot. “Bring it!” It’s beginning to really take shape and look like a home I’d feel good about bringing my son to.

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I believe God allowed me to go through this whole process to show me how getting New Orleans back together is going to happen. It’s going to happen with little parts of everybody’s heart coming together saying, “This is what I have.” And then us being able to have a vision to say, “I don’t care. Bring it.” It would be a beautiful thing to be a part of seeing the lives of so many hurting people being mended.

I’m not a singer, but during my times of greatest concern and greatest fear of what tomorrow’s going to bring, I always hum old spirituals and I find so much relief. It’s like new energy. It’s the same kind of built-in resilience from experiences that will bring the citizens back to New Orleans to begin to rebuild and to work through the issues that they’re facing right now with the system and its own agenda. We’re all seeking for the same identical purpose: to be heard, to be treated fairly and with justice. I look at tomorrow as being very promising, because it leads to learning new strategies of being able to overcome, to be able to find a way to make a way.

Excerpts from Jermol Stinson

Born in 1969, Jermol Stinson joined the Merchant Marines at the age of eighteen and traveled around the world. While home on leave four years later, Stinson was a victim of violence that left him paralyzed from the neck down. In New Orleans, friends and family provided round-the-clock care at home, even before there was money to pay anyone. A practicing Muslim, Stinson was recovering from an infection at Kindred Hospital in uptown New Orleans immediately prior to Katrina. He was trapped in New Orleans during and after the storm, and during the storm’s aftermath he wandered in his mind throughout the city, as he actively worried about his family and friends. Once he was stabilized in Dallas, he entered his first nursing home. Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent flood seriously damaged or disrupted the sources for Jermol’s independence. He lost his expensive, adaptive equipment and an intimate familiarity with his city of residence, but more importantly, the storm scattered his extended network of friends and family, who enabled both Jermol and his mother, Cynthia Banks, to live full lives. The constant stream of visitors in and out of his hospital room is an indication of his charisma, essential to restoring his stability so that he can draft a new roadmap for his life.

I was born in 1969. I grew up in New Orleans East in the area called the Gap, where my grandmother lives. My grandmother’s house was full of love—full of hugs, kisses, kids, grandkids, and a lot of aunts. Good food all the time. It was a beautiful childhood. In the mid80’s, we moved to Lake Carmel, a middle-class subdivision in New Orleans East built around a small lake. There were always a lot of kids from the neighborhood in my house. We’re still friends until this day. We played football and raced from one streetlight to the next streetlight.

My grandfather Stinson lived in the Uptown area off of Louisiana and Freret Street. He repaired refrigerators and ran a bar and lounge on Washington Avenue. I would catch the bus up there and spend the day with him, learn about him and his life and what it was like. He accepted me, showed me things, and taught me how to cook my first pot of neckbones. I just knew my son and I would have been thick as thieves.

I was injured in 1992. I was twenty-two. Even during the accident, I always felt safe in New Orleans. As far as I’m concerned, I look at it like the enemy was assigned to me that day to take my life, but he didn’t have God’s permission.

At first, all I thought about was myself, what I lost, what I wouldn’t be able to do, how alone I was, and how I wouldn’t be able to be a lover to my girlfriend, or a father to my son, and a big brother to my family. I wanted to die every minute that I was awake, every day. I couldn’t breathe. I had to be suctioned, it seemed like every fifteen minutes, and that was a pain I will never forget. I couldn’t be left alone. I had giant bed sores. I felt like my life was over.

My mother is a soldier and so is her sister Pat. They have everything except the combat fatigues. In the beginning it was so hard, because my mother fought tooth-and-nail for Medicaid/Medicare. And I watched my mother suffer and felt that she didn’t deserve what life was giving her as far as her son was concerned. She wouldn’t let me go in the nursing home. I wanted to go in the nursing home, because I knew in the nursing home I wouldn’t survive very long. But I would wake up and my mother would be sitting at my bedside. Whether I was at the hospital or at home my mother fed me. She has stuck by me for thirteen years.

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After I began to realize that the enemy took two arms and two legs away from me, but God blessed me with hundreds of more arms and legs, I realized that I wanted to live. After I started wanting to live, I started to see the sun through the cracks of my windows. I would be like, “Open up my curtains!” No matter how my day went, I would always look for one good thing out of a day, and think about that thing at the end of the day.

In the beginning, I had a male aid that would come and take care of me seven days a week. He would suction me, give me a bed bath, shave me, and change the dressings on my wounds. I had two giant wounds on my hips, a wound on my sacral, and both of my Achilles tendons were exposed. It would take him like two to three hours of his own time.

I have a friend by the name of Calvin Fletcher, and my brother, Dwyan, when this first happened to me, they went to C & A School to become certified nursing assistants, so they could take care of me. Calvin, I’ve been friends with him for almost twenty years. He brought me more awareness of what it means to be a Muslim. My brother, of course, is my number one. Guys that grew up in that neighborhood, I mean they were younger when I was growing up, but they would come and get me up, and take me out. You know, “What’s going on?”

As a matter of fact, one of my best friends, Anthony, I met him when he was fifteen, he was going to St. Aug. I was maybe twenty-five. I was just coming out of my depression. Instead of this kid being out on the street playing and doing the things that a fifteen-yearold should do, chasing girls or whatever, he was in my room suctioning me, coming home from school, and doing his homework on the floor. “Are you alright J?” He grew up to be the kind of man that I expected that I would be. When I tell you that these guys are family? They’re my brothers.

Back home I could go anywhere I wanted. We would go out to the movies, to plays, to dinner, and to parks. They would have this thing in the park every other Sunday during the summer, and we would go out and enjoy the cook outs. I mean you had to step over the people.

We hardly ever locked our front door. And we’re talking about New Orleans. We’re talking about the place where crime was outrageous. I mean the front door was left open. If someone wasn’t there, someone was on the way.

The people in my neighborhood, I mean north, east, west, south. My neck was always hurting from waving with my neck. Somebody was riding past to talk to me, “How you doing?” I love the people of New Orleans. I miss my family. When I say my family I mean everybody. I wouldn’t want to be a quadriplegic anywhere else, not even in New York, but in New Orleans, because the people there made themselves so available to me.

I would talk to young offenders at Bridge City in Jeff Parish. There would be a group of young kids that would come into the room, and I’d already be waiting for them. They’d be doing their thing, and being as thuggish as they possibly could, so that they could be hard. By the time I finished telling them my story, they would be crying like little girls. And I would be crying because I would explain to them in graphic detail about what had to be done just to take care of me, and how much my mother had given up, just because of someone else’s recklessness, because they couldn’t control themselves for whatever reason. It was real therapeutic for me.

My doc transferred me from Methodist Hospital in New Orleans East where I was undergoing tests to Kindred Hospital in Uptown a few weeks before the storm. I did not know how extensive the damage was, because where we were, it was dry. There was just a lot of down trees. My room was the only room that had a television and an air conditioner that was working. My mother, my aunt, and my little cousin were in that room, and I was friends with everyone.

When the food started running out, it got a little tight, and everyone was uptight worried about their family. We were able to watch the news on the television. Everyone shared with everyone. I couldn’t have been in a better place. Kindred did everything it could to make sure that my family, myself and other patients were comfortable and taken care of. They didn’t abandon us when they had every excuse to. I was actually one of the last patients to leave. And someone was there from Kindred until the time we left.

The National Guard was very concerned about me. They were very concerned about all of their patients. It was real tense because they had their weapons out. And 26 ABILITY it was a serious situation. But they took time to come, sit down, talk with me, make sure that I was ok, and that I was comfortable. I was treated real, real well by the National Guard.

I was told I was being evacuated to Houston. I ended up in Pasadena, Texas. When I got there, they were ready. The first half hour that I got there, I was bathed by Felicia, a nurse who worked past the end of her shift. I really needed it. I was fed and put in a clean bed. They gave me a cell phone to call my mom, and I had never really cried for years, but when I was on the phone with my mom, I’m not going to front, I cried like a girl because I knew that she was safe.

After Pasadena, we were evacuated to a Kendrick in Dallas, and once again I needed a bath when I got there. The young lady who came in with her husband this evening, Teresa, was the person that gave me a bath. I slept for two days. She was the last person I saw before I went to sleep and the first person when I woke up. She’s my first friend that I made here in Dallas.

I’d never been in a nursing home before Katrina. The nursing home was every bad experience that I had ever heard about. It wasn’t clean at all. One of the first times I walked down the long hall—the levels of piss that I smelled—I was like, “I can’t believe this.” It didn’t make me cry. I think at times they tried to. There were like forty people to one nursing assistant. I didn’t have a call light. I had to depend on my roommate, a blind guy, to pull the call light.

They didn’t have an adequate bed for me. I got bedsores as a result of not being turned enough because of the bed. The bed that I’m on now in Kindred Hospital is pretty much like the bed I had at home, so I really didn’t have to be turned as much at home. When I was at home I was up and out more. At the nursing home, I was surrounded by people that had Alzheimer’s, so that really didn’t give me a reason to want to come out of my room. The food was ridiculous. My mother brought me something to eat every day. But in every bad instance, I’ve always been able to find a friend. I found two or three people there that took good care of me.

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When I came back to Kindred for surgery because of the bedsores, my doctor let me know that I was depressed because of the nursing home. When I was in the nursing home, there were no phones in the rooms. You had to take what they gave you and be satisfied. I shucked and grinned a lot. But what I really missed was access to my family and my friends.

I made real families at Methodist Hospital in New Orleans, where I heard there was so much disaster. I knew all the nurses. I knew the cafeteria workers, all the doctors, the CEOs and the ancillaries. I knew everyone right down to the janitors and the gardeners. They’d even come and speak with me. I really, really miss New Orleans! There is no other place like New Orleans. My community, my neighborhood, and my city are gone now.

I lost my computer in New Orleans. The state troopers had a one-time deal where they allotted me and a lot of other quadriplegics a grant where we were able to get equipment, and be able to get our equipment fixed. I lost my Dragon Dictate, where it allowed me access to the internet, to turn on and off a television, my radio. It was all voice activated. It answered my phone and raised my head on my bed. It enabled me to turn the lights off and on, and even to answer my front door, even though it was always unlocked. I could be left alone. I was connected to the rest of the world with the internet. I really miss that part of my independence.

One day not long after I arrived in Dallas, I called a local mosque, and explained to them that I had lost everything. They understood that included the Koran. Before the day was over, the Imam made a delivery with his son. For the record, Allah is the best Knower of all things. There is no God but Allah. Jesus is the Messiah. My faith and my mother kept me strong through this ordeal.

It will be a while before I’ll go back to New Orleans. My greatest heart’s desire is if I go back, I would like to go back with a degree in something dealing with the body, so that I’ll always be in the loop knowing what’s available for people not very much unlike myself.

I look forward to new relationships. I feel that where I am right now is where God wants me to be. I expect to discover a lot about Dallas. I guess the only thing I’m really afraid of is disappointing God at this point. But I miss my city.

I know going home to the new place my mom has fixed up will make a difference because there will be some normalcy. There’ll be a routine between home health, my girlfriend, and my new friends.

I know that she’s struggling, trying to find work now, whereas she had her own business, and she was pretty much on the road to being self sufficient and independent. I see my mother aging very gracefully, but I see the worry in her eyes. I know for certain that my mom worries about what’s going to go on with me. Should anything happen to her, what would happen with me, because my family is so spread out. Whereas, if we were in New Orleans, all of those answers were self evident. I see her exhausted, and it saddens me once again because she doesn’t deserve it.

If I had to explain to the president what displaced, disabled New Orleanians need, what I would say is this: I think they need as much assistance as possible, because, if they were at home, they’re probably in nursing homes now. And I promise you, it’s hell!


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