North Texas Daily

Louisiana Girl

Louisiana Girl

September 05
20:14 2015

Louisiana Girl

Julian Gill | Copy Editor


She was packing like it was a short vacation, throwing handfuls of clothes in a duffel bag.

She collected her laptop, 2-year-old puppy and road-trip entertainment for Maraida, her 8-year-old daughter. Almost instinctively, she packed about 2,000 family photos to save them from the storm.

A Category 5 hurricane was nearing the Gulf Coast and threatening to flood Trish Brooks’ home in Marrero, Louisiana, a community 10 miles south of New Orleans on the West Bank of the Mississippi River. Meteorologists were predicting a 20-foot storm surge in the area, so she quickly left with the bare essentials on Aug. 29, 2005.

Brooks thought Hurricane Katrina would last only the weekend. She became one of the 400,000 displaced New Orleans-area residents, according to a 2009 U.S. Census Bureau Housing Survey. The storm would cause an estimated $108 billion in damage to the Gulf coastline and broke the levees in New Orleans.

“I had never evacuated before,” Brooks said. “But I didn’t expect to never go home again.”

Ten years later, Brooks, 44, works with special education students at Denton High School. With this year’s anniversary, she reflects on her hectic journey from New Orleans to Denton after the costliest hurricane in history ravaged her hometown.

The day before Katrina made landfall, Brooks was sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic on U.S. Highway 90 with a wave of evacuees. Her daughter and dog were sleeping in the back seat as the car crept along in a massive traffic jam.

They had been on the road for 12 hours and still couldn’t get out of Louisiana. Brooks had no particular destination, but the rainy drive was beginning to take its toll. After traveling only 200 miles in 12 hours, she decided to rest in Alexandria, Louisiana, at the only pet-friendly hotel she could find.

Brooks had to resist the urge to watch the news in front of her young daughter.

“I didn’t know where anybody was,” Brooks said. “I didn’t know where my family was after the first three days of seeing [the storm] on the news. So not letting my daughter see it was my priority.”

Trish Brooks' daughter, Maraida, who was 8 years old at the time, sleeps in the car as her and her family evacuate the New Orleans area ahead of Hurricane Katrina and head to Brooks' sister's home in Wylie.

Trish Brooks’ daughter, Maraida, who was 8 years old at the time, sleeps in the car as her and her family evacuate the New Orleans area ahead of Hurricane Katrina and head to Brooks’ sister’s home in Wylie. Courtesy | Trish Brooks

Brooks said she was extremely worried about her husband, Theodore Keelen, from whom she is now divorced.
Keelen was a Jefferson Parish deputy sheriff helping with the hurricane evacuation. While Brooks and their daughter fled the storm, he stayed behind with many law enforcement officers guarding buildings, directing traffic and living in his police cruiser.

When Katrina hit, all of the phone lines were blocked and anyone with a New Orleans phone number couldn’t make or receive calls. For four days, Brooks didn’t know if Keelen was alive.

“I was trying to find a way to bring my daughter some normalcy while I was going crazy,” she said “You just felt so disconnected, just completely helpless.”

Brooks eventually figured out a way to reach him through voicemail.

“You could leave a message on your own voicemail to let people know that you’re OK,” Brooks said. “We would listen to each other’s messages every day.”

After being assured of Keelen’s safety, Brooks was confronted by the magnitude of the situation. Keelan told her the broken levees submerged their house in 5 feet of water, and they would not be able to return home for several weeks.

“I was in shock a lot,” she said. “When he said we have no place to live, my focus became ‘What am I going to do with my baby? What do you mean we have no place to live?’”

Brooks called Keelen every day when the phone lines started working again.

They talked about Keelen’s 60-year-old mother, who was transported from the Louisiana Superdome to another shelter by a Blackhawk helicopter. And they discussed a family-owned auto-repair shop that was now completely under water.

Television broadcasts of people standing atop their submerged homes supplemented their personal stories.

“When you see somebody on the roof of an area where you’ve hung out,” she said. “Where you’ve eaten at a restaurant; where you’ve hung out at a baseball park; where you’ve gone to a second line or listened to the band or went to church, and it’s underwater, it’s total disbelief.”

Settling in
Brooks spent four days in the Alexandria hotel, which was filled with Katrina evacuees. The nightly rate went from $110 to $420, and the trio was forced to get back on the road with what little contents remained from their life in Louisiana.

Their new destination was Wylie, Texas, some 50 miles east of Denton, where Brooks’ sister lived.

But when they arrived in Texas that Friday after the storm, her sister was not able to accommodate the dog because she had a pet allergy.

Brooks elected to spend the first night in Texas sleeping in her Nissan Maxima with the dog while her daughter, Maraida, slept in her sister’s house.

Maraida Brooks

Maraida Brooks Courtesy | Trish Brooks

The next morning, Brooks enrolled Maraida in third grade at T.C. Birmingham Elementary School in Wylie, only nine days after Katrina hit the Gulf Coast.

“Since I was at such a young age, I didn’t really understand the magnitude of it,” Maraida said. “I remember I wasn’t really sad about it in the beginning because any 8-year-old is like, ‘Oh this is just a long vacation.’”

Maraida said she had to get used to riding the school bus. In New Orleans, she had ridden city buses to school.

“We would have a group that we would walk with, or cousins or family members that we would all go on the same bus,” she said. “Then, after school, we would walk home with our older cousins because they would get off earlier than us, and we might stop at a corner store or a market and get some food.”

Maraida said her grades never suffered from the move to Wylie. Some students might have been stifled by a sudden separation from friends, father and home. In fact, she made a perfect score on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, a standardized test that measures a student’s knowledge in certain subjects.

“My teacher told me about the TAKS and, at first, I didn’t think I was going to get a perfect score. The school in New Orleans I went to was really big on phonics, and in Texas its more about math and science. I remember going to the after-school program and studying those little multiplication flash cards every day.”

Maraida’s mother had gotten a job as a legal secretary in Denton and was commuting from an apartment in Wylie. When the hour-long drives became increasingly difficult, she decided to permanently relocate her family to Denton.

Louisiana girl
Two months after Katrina struck, Brooks returned to Marrero for the first time. She described the view of New Orleans from the airplane window as dismal: a sea of blue tarps covered water-damaged roofs.

It was not a pleasant homecoming. She immediately noticed the horrible stench of rotten food when she stepped into the house.

“It just wasn’t home anymore,” she said. “It was just a destroyed piece of property that you have a liability to repair.”

A thick layer of mud covered the floor, and the furniture was hopelessly warped. Brooks remembered seeing much of her home’s contents collected on the sidewalk.

“There’s a part of you that says, ‘This isn’t what we knew it to be,’” Brooks said.

By this time, Brooks had been working in Denton for several months, trying to get her and Maraida situated and comfortable. While Maraida was making new friends at Rayzor Elementary School, Brooks was connecting with other Katrina evacuees who ended up in Denton.

“I loved seeing someone from home and finding out what their story is,” Brooks said. “[Finding out] where they were during the hurricane, and asking them: ‘Are you going back home?’”

The Atlantic magazine reported in August that Katrina had scattered family members and friends to the four winds.
The largest concentration of Katrina evacuees in Texas settled in Houston, according to the Texas Tribune, with close to 250,000 people at its peak. Many of them eventually returned to Louisiana and Mississippi.

Trish Brooks looks through some of the 2,000 photographs she brought with her when she evacuated her home in Louisiana before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005.

Trish Brooks looks through some of the 2,000 photographs she brought with her when she evacuated her home in Louisiana before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005. Courtesy | Trish Brooks

Another calls Denton home
No one is quite sure how many Katrina evacuees now live in Denton. But Brooks is not the only one.

Felicia Lipp, 25, is a Denton resident and University of North Texas alumna who evacuated from New Orleans with her parents the same day as Brooks. She was 16 at the time and clearly remembers what it was like to be ripped away from her childhood home.

“For me, that was really my first stable home,” she said. “It was crazy to see that there was no chance of saving anything because the mold was everywhere.”

Lipp, however, considers herself lucky to have survived the storm and be living in Denton.

“All of the great things it brought me — I have a husband now and I graduated college — if that wouldn’t have happened, I wouldn’t have been on this path,” she said. “My cousin always said it was the best disaster to happen to me because we all grew closer.”

As for Brooks, she still looks at the family photographs she packed while evacuating from the storm. They hold memories of her Louisiana roots.

One of nine siblings born in New Orleans, she religiously ate red beans and rice every Monday, a tradition for many Louisianans. She even named the dog — the faithful companion for so many long hours on the road — Duplessis, after a street in New Orleans.

“Its kind of overwhelming when you think of those moments individually,” Brooks said. “When I look at my pictures, they are such a treasure to me because who would think to take their pictures at a time like that?”

A few days ago, Brooks sat down for an interview right after dropping Maraida off at college. She said Duplessis is still with her, grown and loyal. And she still thinks about her only true home.

“There’s a saying about us Louisianans and having the spirit of Louisiana,” she said. “It’s like having the big heart of Texas. I live in Texas, but the core of who I am is a Louisiana girl.”

Featured Image: Trish Brooks smiles in her home on Friday, August 28, 2015. Brooks is a Katrina refugee who found her way to Denton. Kristen Watson | Visuals Editor

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