The Journal Gazette
Tuesday, March 15, 2016 10:00 pm

Hurricane's havoc changed local lives

Frank Gray The Journal Gazette

It was 10 years ago as of Saturday.

Kathleen Alter, the former director of the Three Rivers Festival, was in her fourth week of what you might call a dream job, the head of an organization called French Quarter Festivals in New Orleans, the party capital of America.

Michael Bultemeier, a plumber, was marking the end of summer and might have been aware from news coverage that a storm was approaching the Gulf Coast but otherwise comfortable in his home in Fort Wayne.

And Mark Downey, now assistant basketball coach at IPFW, was in the process of moving from a third-floor apartment in New Orleans to a first-floor apartment in a different part of the city. Downey was also thinking about the coming basketball season, his fifth as assistant basketball coach at the University of New Orleans. 

It was late Friday night that Downey went out to find something to eat. It was only then that he noticed that some gas stations were closed, pumped dry, and the stations that were open had long lines of cars fueling up. He sensed something was up.

"If I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have had a clue," Downey said.

Looking back, what was about to happen would change Downey, Alter and Bultemeier, not as savagely as it would change thousands of others. But their lives around the Big Easy would never be the same.

And for others, like Andrew and Claudia Montgomery of Markle, and Mike Manz of Fort Wayne, who responded in the aftermath, their memories would be seared by the destruction left in the storm’s grisly trail.

While Downey was too busy moving and thinking about basketball to know what was about to happen, most of the assistant coaches, he said, seemed to have no clue, either. 

Downey went home and turned on the Weather Channel and realized what was happening. But Downey wasn’t too alarmed. Originally from West Virginia, Downey said he’d heard horror stories about what could happen in a hurricane, but most locals said evacuations had been ordered a hundred times, but nothing ever happened.

Downey, the rest of the coaching staff and the team soon fled the approaching storm, though, scattering across the South. When it was over, they gathered 400 miles away in Tyler, Texas. Little did he or anyone else know that they would remain there for months, living in apartments rented by the university and taking classes online. 

When they finally returned to New Orleans, they’d be playing in a 30-year-old arena for a university whose enrollment had dropped from 17,500 to 7,000 students.

The school’s regular arena wouldn’t be repaired for three years.

Downey was actually lucky. He had moved clothes and other personal items to his new apartment but everything was put into closets. The apartment looked vacant, protecting it from looters. His furniture, electronics and other items remained in a third-floor apartment, high enough to stay dry and protected by floodwaters from looters.

When the team was finally able to return to New Orleans in the second semester, it was craziness, Downey said.

"It was a new adventure every day," he said. He didn’t have an office, just a chair in a room full of computers. The restaurants weren’t open, so lunchtime staff meetings were held at picnic tables with food served by street vendors.

"It was crazy, something I’ll never forget," Downey said.

Downey left UNO at the end of the season, and has moved several times since.

As much a hassle as it might be to move over and over, "When I look back, nothing seems as hard" as that period in New Orleans.

Hard, though, barely describes Alter’s experience.

Like almost everyone else, Alter fled the storm, but "I just felt, right after, that there was no way I’m not going back," Alter said.

What she returned to, though, was a city that was three-quarters underwater, with destruction everywhere and wreckage that remained for years without being cleaned up.

Alter spent five years in New Orleans after the storm, longer than she should have, she said. It had its impact on her.

Everyone was depressed, Alter says. Doctors were handing out antidepressants like candy. People were jumping off of hotels in the French Quarter. The suicide rate, according to the New Orleans coroner’s office, nearly tripled.

People who moved into FEMA trailers expecting to live there for six months ended up living in them for years. Rents became insane. Dumpy rooms that cost $500 a month soared to $1,200 a month.

Alter’s job became almost impossible to do. Her organization relied on donors, mostly businesses, but many businesses were gone, and those that remained were worrying about their employees.

Alter had a staff of 10 at her organization, and in the five years she remained in New Orleans, her staff turned over three times. No one could stand the post-storm conditions.

"You had to be there to realize how much of the city was gone," she said.

Alter finally left New Orleans in 2010, taking a job in Dayton and finally returning to Fort Wayne two years ago as executive director of the Women’s Bureau.

"For my emotional well being, I should have left sooner," Alter says. The depression that plagued so many people affected her, too. It wasn’t until last year that she fully got over it.

As for returning to New Orleans, just for a visit, "I don’t know when I’ll go back. I don’t know when I’ll be prepared. There are so many bad, sad, sad memories."

Michael Bultemeier has witnessed the conditions that crushed so many lives. 

In the months after the storm, Bultemeier headed for the Gulf Coast, hauling supplies for the Red Cross and eventually joining teams of volunteers to make repairs to homes, offering free labor at a time when contractors were demanding premium prices for their labor and materials.

In the 10 years since the storm, Bultemeier has spent at least half a year of his time in coastal areas, working sometimes with teams and sometimes by himself, trying to get people back into their homes.

Two weeks ago, Bultemeier returned to the area, this time with a large team of volunteers who planned what they called a blitz build, plans to build five houses in one week, give them to new owners and dedicate them on the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

The stories show that the suffering that was visited on the people of the region remains today.

Among the families that Bultemeier and other volunteers built or rehabbed homes for is a Vietnamese family that since the storm has been living in what could be described as unbelievable conditions. The father is a shrimp fisherman. His boat is small. Last year he made only $15,000, Bultemeier said.

Near where the boat is docked is a semi-trailer, and underneath it the family has spread a 10-foot by 12-foot rug. There is a hammock strung underneath the trailer. That is their home. That is where they have lived for 10 years. When the weather is bad, they retreat to the cabin of their small shrimp boat.

Then there is the family made up of an Army veteran, her husband and their teenage son. Since the hurricane, they have been living in a FEMA trailer. In a kickoff dinner before last week’s blitz build in which the family will get a house, the couple’s son approached him, thanked him and gave him a huge bear hug.

"That’s my paycheck," Bultemeier said.

The destruction along the Gulf Coast isn’t as evident as it once was. Much of the wreckage has been cleaned up. New condos are being built. Much of life has returned to normal, Bultemeier said.

But some people are still struggling, he said, so he will continue to return to the area and help people rebuild "as long as I’m able and enjoy it and someone is leading the charge."

On his first day in Moss Point, Mississippi, Andrew Montgomery was given a job that nearly broke his spirit. Part of a team from Markle United Methodist Church, he was sent to the ruined home of an elderly woman who had died without next of kin just after Hurricane Katrina hit.

"It was just a shack," he recalled last week. The team was told to pick up the pieces and put everything at the curb.

"I started pitching stuff out and I had a really, really hard time coming to grips with this – taking her little chest of drawers and the few clothes she had and throwing it away. â ¦ I kept thinking, ‘This was somebody’s life.’ "

But at another cleanup, family members arrived, "And they were so thankful we were picking out all the personal stuff, like the photos that once had been over the fireplace.

They were so grateful we were being careful," says Montgomery, whose wife Claudia, also 69, then a hospital social worker, used her skills to counsel residents.

"It was actually a high point of my life, going down there," Montgomery said. "That’s just what God wants us to do."

Paramedic Mike Manz of the Three Rivers Ambulance Authority will never forget the stench. He was assigned to wading through muck while going house to house in New Orleans to check for survivors and victims.

"The thing that sticks in my mind the most – maybe it sounds weird – was just the smell. We went into areas where the water had just receded, where it was all muck, and everything was in it – the contents of everyone’s refrigerator and freezer, dead animals and sometimes dead people, just all the debris and rotting garbage. That smell was overwhelming," he said last week.

A few days later, Manz, who grew up in Paulding, Ohio, rode out Hurricane Rita in a high school gym in Baton Rouge.

"There were about 200 of us on cots, and we lost all electricity and all cellphone contact. Just the noise (was terrifying). And it just kept coming and coming and coming, just hour after hour after hour.

"Being from this part of the country, I had never seen a hurricane before," Manz said. "It was pretty scary."

Rosa Salter Rodriguez of The Journal Gazette contributed to this story. 


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