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Five years later, Hurricane Katrina resonates with two Columbia women

Sunday, August 29, 2010 | 3:39 p.m. CDT; updated 4:18 p.m. CDT, Sunday, August 29, 2010
Xiomara Mann, a Hurricane Katrina survivor, thumbs through her father's old records — some of the few belongings she brought to Columbia after evacuating five years ago. Though her journey was exacting and tiresome, the New Orleans native has found a new home in the Midwest.

Xiomara Mann,  a 46-year resident of New Orleans, knew it wasn’t just another hurricane.

“The night before I left (New Orleans), I looked out the window, and there was black, black, black,” Mann, 59, said. “This was one we weren’t going to weather.”

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Five years after Hurricane Katrina, Mann still carries the experience of evacuating her long-time home and moving to Columbia.

“Around the anniversary, there’s a certain sadness,” she said. “It hits (survivors) around the time of Katrina. I don’t think we have any control of it.”

Mann stays connected to New Orleans with her State Farm Insurance co-worker Christy Carson, 31, who is also a Hurricane Katrina survivor. With Mann, Carson said she feels more comfortable discussing what happened in New Orleans.

Mann said they like to focus on the positive when talking about their former home.

“We always talk about the good times. We keep the spirit of the Saints in us,” Mann said, referring to their hometown Super Bowl champions.

Carson said although she and Mann have been able to move on with their lives, they still think about what their city went through.

"We're not forgetting the past," she said.

Leaving New Orleans

The day before Hurricane Katrina began ravaging New Orleans and sections of the Gulf Coast, Mann made plans to evacuate with her younger daughter Maya Wallace, her mother, two of her sisters, her sister’s partner and two of her nieces. The group crammed in a van for a seven-hour trek to Lafayette, La. In Lafayette, the group gathered with other displaced friends and family in the home of one of Mann's niece’s in-laws.

There were 26 people and eight dogs.

After a week in Lafayette, Mann and her younger daughter made plans to travel to Columbia to join Mann's older daughter, Beatriz Wallace. Unable to afford plane tickets, Mann said she was lucky enough to find two free tickets on Craigslist from someone willing to help Katrina evacuees.

Mann and Maya Wallace's stay with Beatriz Wallace, then a graduate student at MU who was renting a room in a house on Eighth Street, was cut short. After three weeks, the landlord forced the two women to leave. According to a previous Missourian report, the landlord wouldn’t allow more than one person to stay in the room any longer.

“I had no car,” Mann said. “We had to walk to the Regency (Hotel) in the middle of the night with our stuff.”

On the move

Christy Carson was driving home to New Orleans from Houston when her parents called her and told her to turn around, she said.

She returned to her hotel in Texas and her parents headed to Little Rock, Ark., to stay with her younger brother at his girlfriend's home.

Her older brother, a security guard at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center where many evacuees were temporarily housed, was missing for two weeks. When city officials declared New Orleans' under martial law, he was not allowed to leave the convention center, Carson said.

“He saw people crying," she said. "He saw people getting hurt. He heard people yelling for help when they were getting attacked at night…It took us a while to get him back to a normal state of mind.”

After a few days Carson eventually ran out of money for her hotel room, so she drove to Baton Rouge, La., to stay with a friend — only to encounter Hurricane Rita.

Fortunately for Carson, Rita did little damage to the area where she was staying.

It was after arriving in Baton Rouge that she first saw video footage of her home on the news.

“The house was halfway flooded,” she said. "When I saw it on TV, I was distraught."

Her grandmother’s home suffered a more severe fate.

“The hurricane lifted her house and dropped it down the block," she said. "The house was in the middle of a bunch of trees.”

In Baton Rouge, Carson struggled to find work.

"I tried to get a job in Baton Rouge every single day just like everyone else," she said. "I really didn't even know if I could start over. I didn't know if I could get a job."

After three months of unemployment, Carson left to meet up with her family in Little Rock, where Alltel Wireless, her brother’s employer, as well as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the American Red Cross, provided them with housing, clothes, medical care and other necessities.

Carson found work as a claims service assistant at State Farm Insurance, where she handled Katrina insurance claims.

“The calls were exactly what I was going through,” she said.

After eight months in Arkansas, she was offered a similar position at State Farm Insurance in Columbia, which she accepted.

After a harrowing year, her life began to calm down.

A new home

Mann said she quickly decided she wanted to stay in Columbia.

Although her home in the Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans experienced minimal flood damage, she wasn't allowed to return until October, she said.

There was a lot of violence and looting, though many of the looters were just trying to survive, she added.

Mann stayed connected to her home through broadcasts on cable news channels.

“It was really painful to watch," she said. "Painful to see it happen to New Orleans. Whatever house they showed, I felt like was my house.”

Maya Wallace had been living with her father, Mann’s former husband, before the hurricane. Their house was badly damaged, and when Wallace first visited New Orleans after the hurricane, her father gave her the remaining possessions from their flooded home.

Everything she had left fit in one shoebox.

Mann used computers at the Columbia Public Library to submit an application to FEMA. After one night at the Regency Hotel, she made contact with the Red Cross, which helped her get a room at the Red Roof Inn, where she and her daughter stayed for one week.

In addition to using the library to connect with FEMA and her family, she began applying for jobs, she said.

“I used the library for everything,” Mann said. “It was a lifesaver.”

After a week in Columbia, she worked a temporary position at the Columbia Daily Tribune, she said. A few days later, she switched jobs and began working at State Farm Insurance in a call center, where she worked a 12-hour shift, seven days a week. 

Despite the difficult hours, Mann said she was grateful for the money.

After about a month, Mann had enough money saved for an apartment deposit, and she and Wallace moved out of the Red Roof Inn. Wallace also began attending Hickman High School shortly after arriving in Columbia.

In November 2005, Mann was offered a permanent position as a customer service assistant at State Farm Insurance.

Although she struggled at times and occasionally received assistance from family and a church in Maryland, she was close to fully supporting herself and Wallace about three months after leaving New Orleans, she said.

Mann had little difficulty embracing her new city.

“When I came to Columbia, I just fell in love with it,” she said. “I had seen too many changes in New Orleans that weren’t in the best interest of New Orleans.”

Mann said she appreciated the open-mindedness of Columbia residents.

“I didn’t have to show my Katrina scars," she said. "They just accepted you. I could go to Lakota and get a cup of coffee for a dollar."

She and her daughter enjoyed listening to music downtown. Mann also began playing poker at the Thirsty Turtle and Lakota, where in 2008, she met a man who changed her life.

Even though Steve Mann beat her in a Texas Hold ‘Em match, they fell in love and were married in September 2009, she said.

“I began to see more of the good things in life,” she said. “He brought a lot of peace in my life which I didn’t have before.”

Returning home

Over a year after Katrina flooded her home, Carson returned to visit New Orleans with her family, which would stay in the city. She said there were red markings on houses in her neighborhood that indicated how many people lived in a house and how many bodies were inside.

“Fortunately, ours said five and zero,” she said.

She credits the strength of her family in helping her move on with life after the hurricane.

“Whenever I’m down in the dumps, I got ten people to pick me up,” she said.

Despite working an additional position as a sales clerk at Dillard’s, Carson said she tries to visit family back home as frequently as possible.

“Being separated from my family has been a shock for me," Carson said.

Moving forward

Five years later, the women and the city of New Orleans continue to rebuild.

Carson travels to New Orleans where she participates in Kaboom, a State Farm Insurance volunteer program where employees help rebuild playgrounds of schools that were damaged by the hurricane.

“There is still need in the city," she said. "There are still people that are displaced. There are still people who need health care. They need people to volunteer and go down there and help out.”

Mann also is concerned about the future of the city and continues to carry the experience with her.

“In Columbia, I started to want to try harder every day until I finally was in a place where I could find peace," Mann said. "I'm almost there."


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