Storm survivor forges ahead

For Marla Johnston, life away from New Orleans now 15 months after Hurricane Katrina is still challenging at times, but that's to be expected.

BY HEATHER MOYER | BALTIMORE | December 16, 2006

"We watched the news constantly that week."

—Marla Johnston

For Marla Johnston, life away from New Orleans now 15 months after Hurricane Katrina is still challenging at times, but that's to be expected.

"You manage what you're able to," said Johnston, now a resident of Baltimore. The journey to her new home city has taken some twists and turns, and through it all Johnston says there are many little coincidences making sure that she was meant to be where she is now.

As Hurricane Katrina crept up on New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in September of 2005, Johnston didn't even know about it. A resident of the city for more than two decades, Johnston was on vacation in Mexico, in a place with no TV and little internet access.

"Then one day I got an emergency phone call at my hotel," she explained. "It was my sister telling me about the storm. So we ran down to the internet cafe and the picture on the screen was huge. That was the Saturday evening, when (Katrina) had strengthened magnificently overnight."

Johnston and her friends knew there was no way they could get back to the city before it hit, so they flew back to Houston instead. "We made some frantic calls to friends to get our pets and cars taken care of. That was it, we said, 'See you in a couple days' and stayed in Houston. We were going to wait it out."

Hurricane Katrina marked the first time Johnston had ever evacuated New Orleans for a storm. A resident of an apartment several floors up, she'd stayed there through tropical storms and hurricanes ranging in category from one to three. "I'd been there with 20 inches of rain flooded the streets, and I'd been without power for two days."

Waiting through Katrina was frantic, she said, as so many of her friends were scattered around the country. Some stayed behind, too. An employee of Tulane University's hospital, Johnston was worried about her coworkers who stayed behind - especially when she heard that some of the hospitals were flooding.

"We watched the news constantly that week. On Monday we were paralyzed by it all. Then we heard about the flooding at the hospital. There was six feet of water there, it was unbelievable - how could they have water there?

"Tuesday we saw the people trapped there, we saw the social anarchy. It was just unbelievable. I was still trying to get in touch with people. I didn't know where everyone went. It was an absolute blur, very emotional and stressful."

Yet while being what she calls "emotionally paralyzed," Johnston said she was also thinking about what was next. She knew everything would be destroyed and that she'd most likely have to relocate.

And that's when the first of what she called "the little coincidences" happened. Johnston called a company in Baltimore she'd once consulted for. As it turns out, they had jobs available for her because those who once had those positions were now doing emergency work in New Orleans.

But before starting up work again, Johnston knew she had to get back into New Orleans to retrieve her belongings. She managed to link up with a friend with a car and they drove back into the city. The two made it past the multiple checkpoints and headed toward her apartment.

"There were many places we had to shift around due to trees and electrical lines being down," she explained. "An entire building had collapsed behind mine, too, and we had to get around that."

Entering the building's courtyard was when she noticed just how quiet everything was. "Suddenly we were in this surreal place, and it's really quiet. We don't know if anyone's around. We're only six blocks from the convention center and eight from the Super Dome. Then we walked up the steps and the smell hit us. Everyone had obviously left food in their fridges and there was no power."

Johnston said she was fortunate in that her apartment was not breached, and that her three cats were fine. Yet she knew she only had a short time to get what she needed and move on.

"My friend said we had to be in and out quickly, so 'get what you need.' At that point you're so happy because the cats are alive, but then you're packing a bag and thinking 'What do I need?' I knew I needed business clothes, some jeans, but then you're thinking, 'How long am I going to be gone?' I was just throwing things into a suitcase."

As she waited in the car for her friend at his place, military troops marched by with guns. "That was a really weird feeling," she said. "I thought, 'This is my city, this is my home - are we at war here? This is a fully armed military unit.'"

Johnston's car was still stranded in a parking garage by high water, so she and her friend left the city, unsure of when they would return.

From there her life was scattered, she said. She left the cats to stay with friends, traveled to Baltimore for a job interview and hopped around the country staying with friends and doing what work she could.

Johnston said she eventually repopulated the city for several weeks before moving on to Baltimore. Seeing the new way of life then in New Orleans convinced her it was time to move on. "That was an incredible time. There was only one gas station. This was once the 35th largest city in the US. There was no mail, no grocery stores. I'd go to restaurants where they continued to cook everything on grills outside. There was a curfew in place. The military presence was everywhere. The smell, the trash, and the flies were everywhere.

She also toured the hardest hit areas while still in town, and said the scene was shocking. "There were still cars in trees, boats that were miles from water were sitting in the road. Everything was covered in a grayish-white color from the saltwater. As we drove through these neighborhoods we didn't see any people. It was desolate. You'd go miles before seeing anybody. We stopped by one place where I used to play volleyball for years, and at that point I lost it. It was destroyed. Everything was gone.

"It just drove a point home. The city is not safe and it's not habitable. I think I made the right decision to leave, but I don't think I looked beyond that decision at what challenges lay ahead for me."

Johnston has been in Baltimore for a year now, having only returned to New Orleans once since then: for Mardi Gras last February. The adjustments to a new life in a new city have been hard, she said, yet there were signs that Baltimore was the place for her.

"I don't know, they were just small coincidences. The day I flew here for the job interview everything went so smoothly. And then the first car I saw in the parking lot at the company was the same kind of car as mine back in New Orleans. I even thought, 'My car is already here.'"

The job helped move her life along, but struggles still came to the surface. Johnston said she dealt with sleep disturbances for months. She felt extremely homesick, had a hard time meeting new friends and balancing her busy, travel-filled work schedule. As she made adjustments to help her settle in, life slowly got better.

Johnston said too when she was deciding to stay for a while, she had a talk. "I just kept trying to say that there was some kind of reason all this went so well and I am here. I decided in July that I was going to stay in Baltimore for a few years and that I would need to buy a place to live. I remember saying, 'You know what, God? You brought me here, so if you really want me to stay here and do whatever it is that you want me to do, give me a little sign. Maybe find me a house.' Then the third time out with my realtor I found one and it just fits me like a glove."

Since then, life has been much more on the upswing and Johnston said she's been "monumentally happier."

She stays in touch with friends who remained in New Orleans and others who ended up scattered around the country. Johnston also acknowledges that she had an easier time since she did not lose a home or belongings.

"I was lucky to have the financial reserves to make the decision to move here," she said. "Many of my friends lost everything. I didn't lose everything, so I felt guilty at times. Also, my friends that stayed - they have children to deal with. But, you know, it's hard if you stayed there and it's hard if you left. We all have to realize that we have to give ourselves some time after this. That's the feeling I get from my friends down there, that life is very hard. Everything is moving forward very slowly."

Johnston misses the life left behind, but the friends who did stay behind tell her life there is not the way it used to be. "Anything I had there is not there any more. When I told my friends I was sad and I didn't like living here, they'd say, 'You wouldn't like it here either' and 'the life you lived here doesn't exist.'"

The emotions of the Katrina survivors are stretched thin, she added, and have been so for too long now. She worries about her friends still in New Orleans, those medical field coworkers she said are coping with a cracked health infrastructure and too much work.

The hope, though, is that brought in by the many who are trying to help the city rebuild. Johnston said she's overwhelmed by how many people travel to New Orleans to help rebuild homes. "I think in many ways the people of America opened up their hearts and homes and felt the magnitude of it all, and they wanted to help. They continue to help, people are still going down there to help. I think that's good for those people to see the city and it's good for the people there to receive this assistance."

Johnston herself received a kind of assistance when she moved to Baltimore - which might seem trivial to some people but meant the world to her: She made two friends that have helped her readjust and settle in. "I feel in some ways that maybe the two friends that I did make here very quickly are just the sort of people I really needed at that time."

And Johnston's job? Maybe too perfect a fit, she laughed. "I'm now considered an expert nationally for health care centers and disaster management. I have an internal motivator to urge communities to plan."

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