Evacuee embraced by Tahoe
CHRISTMAS VALLEY – Heidi Porter counts herself among the lucky.
A New Orleans resident for 13 years, she fled the city before Hurricane Katrina drowned the Big Easy with water and chaos – an escape route that led her to the higher, safer ground of South Shore.
Porter brought her 6-year-old son, Mikey, and cat, Lovey, with her to stay at her parent’s place in Christmas Valley. She also grabbed birth certificates and passports, but regrettably ditched her beloved books and journals when she heeded advice to evacuate the city Aug. 28, a day before Katrina hit land.
“It’s so violent and devastating,” Porter said while sitting on a sun-splashed deck with her mother, Bonnie Driscoll, looking on. “Those are my people and it’s my chosen city and sometimes I can’t read the newspaper or see what’s going on. It’s still really unbelievable.”
She believes her house survived the hurricane – and the levee break – and intends to return to New Orleans in January.
Lake Tahoe Unified School District has two students, including Mikey, who enrolled after being displaced by the hurricane. An eighth-grade boy is at South Tahoe Middle School but is expected to be at the school for only two weeks.
South Tahoe High School Principal Marcia Kaster said the school received a call from “somebody in Houston” who inquired about enrolling three more displaced students.
“If they come we’ll take them but we haven’t got any official names yet,” Kaster said.
While New Orleans and other areas hit by Katrina attempt to regain a sense of normalcy, so does Porter. Her son is enrolled at the new Lake Tahoe Environmental Science Magnet School. And Porter, a kindergarten teacher and published writer, is also finding time to pick up the pen.
Before the hurricane hit, Porter and her son had returned to New Orleans after spending their summer in Tahoe. Porter was attending classes in Fairfield. She her time here helped smooth the transition.
But she wonders what happened to the Hill School where she teaches, and the 14 students in her class. She saw one image of people in armpit-high water at the intersection of Claiborne and Napoleon avenues, just two blocks from the school.
“I drive by that intersection everyday,” Porter, 41, said.
She clutches her chest, and chokes up a bit, when the topic turns to children in the ravaged areas. One scene of a boy who was torn away from his dog sticks in her memory – the thought of it makes her glad she brought Lovey on the trip. A hamster named Cookie, which her son saved $40 to buy, was left behind in Houston, which she left Sept. 1 and where her daughter and relatives are.
The last time Porter evacuated New Orleans was for Hurricane Ivan last year. Each May, at the start of the six-month hurricane season, residents are reminded to prepare for disasters. But the repetitive nature of the reminders may make some people complacent, she said.
Only one house on Porter’s block was boarded up. Driscoll calls the houses “shotgun houses” because if a shotgun was fired through the front door the shot would exit through the back.
Still, Porter said she kept an ax in her attic as an emergency out during a flood. Many New Orleans residents used axes to get to their roofs and the hope of rescue.
And Porter didn’t grab an address book. She’s unsure if friends survived, or if they did, where they are now.
New Orleans, despite its extreme poverty, can be rebuilt and remain special, Porter said. One potential upside of Katrina is the possibility that residents who return to New Orleans will share a common bond and a desire to restart their lives.
“I think people will come back for the right reasons,” Porter said. “It’s unlike any city in the world … It’s on the consciousness of everyone now and when there’s a consciousness, that’s when things happen.”
Driscoll, who has lived in New Orleans, is deliberating what organization to send money to but likes the mission of Habitat for Humanity which builds houses for those who have lost theirs.
Future homeowners can help in constructing their homes, an aspect Driscoll likes and calls “sweat equity.”
“(Right now), they don’t have a sense of pride because they don’t have anything,” Driscoll said.
The future, of course, is unnerving for a person like Porter who embraces structure so much that she finishes school papers two weeks before they’re due.
Porter said she plans to stay at Tahoe with her mom and Dave Carneggie, two “wonderful, big-hearted” people, until January. Although she detests the cold, the timespan should provide time to ponder her next move.
Her son has already adjusted, she said, by being at a school he can ride a bus to and has a cafeteria. Donations from businesses like Raley’s and K-Mart have helped along with the worldwide outpouring of assistance to stricken areas, Porter said.
“I think that is an inspiration to live like you support your fellow earth-dwellers,” she said.
A Lance Armstrong yellow “Livestrong” bracelet circles her right wrist. When asked about it, she looked down at the gift from her brother in Oregon.
“It’s a good reminder of resiliency and going on because I know when comes down to it, the fact that we got out and have our lives is the most important thing,” she said.