Living through flood and fire

New Orleans native Gerlaine Brewer survived a Whittier apartment fire.
New Orleans native Gerlaine Brewer survived a Whittier apartment fire.

First in Hurricane Katrina, and now in a Whittier apartment fire, Gerlaine Brewer twice lost everything she owned.

“One thing I’ve taken from this experience is that people really are kind,” said Brewer, the front desk manager of the Fox Den Salon. “…Humanity’s not all bad.”

Fire investigators said they believe an unattended charcoal grill caused the late-night fire Aug. 30 at 2448 1st Ave. S.

The night of the fire, Brewer said, she chatted on the balcony with neighbors who were grilling. They offered to share the grill, which was still running hot, but she declined and went to bed.

A heavy sleeper, Brewer awoke later that night to the sound of her partner screaming that they needed to rush out of the building. She couldn’t find her cat Omar, but she knew they needed to leave when the windows started popping.

“I must have been the last one out,” she said, describing how she watched the building burn before the fire department arrived. She suffered burns on her arm and down her back.

“One thing I learned from Katrina is survival mode,” she said. “You shut down your emotions so they don’t get in the way.”

After the fire was extinguished, residents were allowed back into the building for 15 minutes. She piled clothes into two suitcases.

“Once we have a place to live, we’re going to be fine,” she remembers thinking. “Everything else is secondary.”

That’s a lesson she learned from Hurricane Katrina.

Brewer was born and raised in New Orleans.

“I lived there my whole life, and hurricanes were never a big deal,” she said.

Before the hurricane hit, her sister — usually the first to raise an alarm — still hadn’t called, so Brewer wasn’t very worried. Expecting a typical hurricane scenario, she didn’t pack much and checked into a hotel in Chattanooga. Her mom packed an oil painting of her great-grandmother that the Smithsonian once expressed interest in purchasing.

At the hotel, they watched the television in disbelief. They saw water reach the eaves of a two-story house, and a boat floating down Pontchartrain Boulevard. Newscasts featured a flooded corner of her mother’s street, as well as a restaurant located down the street from Brewer’s apartment.

“Reality set in that we can’t go home,” she said.

She and other family members (plus three dogs and a cat) stayed with family in Virginia, then moved into a hotel, then rented a house together. They worried about Brewer’s brother-in-law, a police officer who stayed behind and became exhausted by the work. At one point he was rescued from a flooded location by helicopter.

Brewer worked in the marketing department at a hospital, and she returned to New Orleans in late September, when the hospital required that all staff return to work.

Showing ID to prove residency, they returned to New Orleans to find her mother’s Lakeview neighborhood had been hard hit. Houses had shifted, and a car that was parked in the driveway now leaned sideways against the gate. Mud covered the floor of the 1940s bungalow, everything in the kitchen was in the wrong place, and perfectly-made beds were covered in patches of mold.

“The place all of us lived our entire lives was unrecognizable,” Brewer said. “…In the blink of an eye, my entire childhood was gone. My first 35 years of stuff was gone.”

One of her sister’s houses was largely fine, but in her other sister’s neighborhood near City Park, chairs were hanging from chandeliers.

“The boat had been stolen. Hopefully it saved a life,” she said.

En route to her own home in Mid-City, she passed a downed helicopter with broken propellers. The water line reached six feet inside her building.

“One revelation I take from Katrina: When you walk into a house that hasn’t had power for a long time, don’t ever open the refrigerator,” she said.

Brewer said rent spiked in New Orleans following the hurricane. Now in Minneapolis, she said she felt lucky to find a new apartment close to the burned building. Housing is the most difficult issue for the apartment residents, she said, as rent at the building was cheap and Whittier housing is expensive. The building was condemned in October, according to property records.

Building owner Philippe Petit said he expects demolition to begin soon, and he’s working with an architect on a new building design.

Brewer’s partner is an album collector who lost 1,000 catalogued records in the fire. Brewer once collected things like bobbleheads and blue glass, but not anymore.

“It’s only stuff,” she said.

Staff at the Fox Den Salon started a fundraising campaign for Brewer at youcaring.com, which has raised more than $5,000. Upon learning that Brewer lost her bike, her primary mode of transportation, the Grease Rag Ride & Wrench group offered bikes, gear and clothing.

“I’ve never been so overwhelmed in my entire life,” Brewer said. “…I’m not one to ask for help.”

Brewer said her experience has been challenging and surreal, but it’s gratifying to see so many people want to help.

“I wish people felt like that every day, and not just during those horrible events,” she said.

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