Starting over

83-year-old Hurricane Katrina survivor finds new home in Southwest

At first glance, nothing appears out of the ordinary at Marie Jamerson's small apartment tucked just off I-35W in the Windom neighborhood.

Her modest space in the recently built Walker on Lyndale senior living community is filled with sunshine and cozy furniture, and the 83-year-old retired medical assistant chats easily about her friends in the building and the snow that has made its way into the day's forecast. Talking about the weather reminds her of a few recent pictures she has in her purse of her grandchildren shoveling mounds of snow, and she gets them out, naming each smiling face with pride.

But there also are things in the apartment that tell another story. In this grandmother's home, there aren't any old photographs on the coffee table or children's trophies on the shelves. All of the furniture is new, as are most of Jamerson's clothes. Before she offers visitors a drink, she thinks about whether she has cups to serve them in. Piles of letters and paperwork spill from a plastic bag emblazoned with the bright red Salvation Army logo, and Jamerson is careful to keep them in order.

These are the subtle reminders that Jamerson is a Hurricane Katrina survivor.

More than six months after Hurricane Katrina devastated a region 1,200 miles to the south, a strong, independent woman who was born and raised in New Orleans is trying to create a new life and forget a harrowing ordeal.

But it hasn't been easy. Jamerson is still struggling to make sense of documents from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and get straight answers from her insurance company. She still is getting bills for utilities and insurance premiums at her home in New Orleans - a home that is little more than a shell filled with muck and mold. She is stretched to the limit, trying to pay rent and survive on her $451-a-month Social Security check while not thinking about the home she worked so hard to pay off in New Orleans. But of course, it's all she can think about. She's magnetized to television specials about New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina, and she rattles off the dates Oprah Winfrey and CNN's Anderson Cooper will be broadcasting from the devastated Gulf Coast region. And even just talking about the close call she had with the storm makes her tense up and visibly become stressed.

But at the same time, she wants to tell her story. The city she loves, that she will always call her own, is still hurting. And while the storm has faded from the minds of many Minnesotans, Jamerson never will be able to forget those few days last August.

&#8220For nights, I couldn't sleep,” she said. &#8220I would get the willies - that's what I call them, the willies - and then I would wake up and realize that I'm out of the storm and safe.”

‘This is the real deal'

But she still plays the scenario over and over again in her head. After more than eight decades of weathering storms in the Gulf Coast, Jamerson was unimpressed by the hurricane warnings forecasters began to issue late last August. She went about her normal business, selling Avon and chatting with a tight-knit group of neighbors who affectionately called her Mom.

She had her son buy an eight-gallon jug of water and extra food, and they planned to ride out the storm. But then neighbors started getting concerned because of New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin's increasingly urgent warnings that residents should leave the city.

&#8220There he was on the TV saying, ‘This is the real deal,' ” Jamerson said about Nagin's press conference on Aug. 27. &#8220He said if you decided not to leave, to have an ax ready to take up in the attic. It was shocking.”

Jamerson began to grow concerned, asking her son to get an ax and wondering out loud if they should evacuate. But those around her, including her son and two sisters, were less anxious. Even the delivery man who came with Jamerson's $900 Avon order was unaffected by the warnings.

&#8220He said, ‘How many times has the storm come and gone?' ” Jamerson remembers.

But when neighbors started packing up their children and possessions to leave town, Jamerson packed up all the food in her refrigerator and headed to her sister's home just eight blocks away but on higher ground.

&#8220There we all just sat around watching everything on TV,” Jamerson said.

As the storm grew worse, she repeatedly looked outside to see how high the water was and continually checked the basement for signs of flooding.

&#8220The windows rattled and it was like the roof was coming off,” she said.

And then came the moment that permanently scarred New Orleans: The storm-battered levees gave way and the city began flooding.

As her sister's basement flooded and water rose well above porches, Jamerson made the decision to leave. She originally planned to follow other evacuees to the now-infamous Louisiana Superdome, but one of her daughters called from Minnesota and said she would send a friend living in New Orleans to rescue her with a boat. The boat drove down streets filled with water and picked up Jamerson.

As she rode away in the boat, all Jamerson could think as she looked at the carnage that was once her home was &#8220This is horrible.”

The next day, she was on a plane to Minnesota, where her two daughters - Minneapolis resident Debra Garibaldi and Vadnais Heights resident Marsha Conner - were waiting for her.

Going back

Still adjusting to the shock of the events that had changed her life in a matter of days, Jamerson returned to New Orleans for the first time just weeks after she left. Bracing for the worst, she found she was not prepared.

Water had flooded her home to within a foot from the ceiling. The furniture was tossed everywhere. The water had tipped over the refrigerator. Thick muck and mold lined the walls and floor. Absolutely everything was destroyed. But what Jamerson can't forget is the smell.

&#8220It was such a stench,” she said. &#8220It's an odor I can't describe.”

And Jamerson lost more than just her possessions. One of her nephews and her niece's husband both died in the storm, as did one of her friends.

&#8220I don't even know how she died,” Jamerson said of her friend.

Unable to do much, she came back to Minnesota and waited to return to New Orleans until after Thanksgiving. This time, her family brought cleaning supplies in and tried to start clearing out the mess. During their three-day stay, they took everything out of the house and found most of Jamerson's things ruined.

&#8220It really does something to you,” Jamerson said. &#8220I felt like I could have cried, but I didn't.”

The only possession Jamerson was able to save is a wooden clock that was hanging on her wall just above the flood line. Running on batteries, it was still ticking when she found it. It is a small symbol of survival, of life after the storm. She clings to it now, carefully displaying it in her Southwest apartment.

A new home

Still reeling from the tragedy of the past six months, Jamerson plans to make Minnesota her permanent home.

&#8220I don't have nothing there,” she said of New Orleans. &#8220I don't have a home to go to.”

She moved into Walker on Lyndale on Nov. 1 and has found the community fits her needs.

&#8220I'm just trying to adjust,” she said.

Kelly Amundsen, the assistant manager at Walker on Lyndale, said Jamerson frequently stops at the facility's main office to chat, and after she returned from her second trip to New Orleans, she shared in detail what she had seen there.

&#8220I think she likes to talk about it more so than just keeping it inside,” Amundsen said.

Trying to create a new life from the tatters of her old has been difficult. Without a birth certificate or any other important documents proving her identity, everything from applying for federal aid to arranging for a place to live has been challenging.

&#8220Everything you do, you need papers,” Jamerson said.

She has turned over the responsibility of what's left of her house in New Orleans to her children and is trying to move beyond the storm. But as she battled health problems recently, Jamerson's doctors said they think she may still be in shock and grieving everything she's lost.

But residents here have supported Jamerson in some of her darkest hours. Walker on Lyndale representatives helped Jamerson arrange for one of the facility's apartments despite her lack of identification documents, and churches and charity organizations donated furniture and basic living necessities to help get her back on her feet.

Walker Methodist Chief Operations Officer Jon Lundberg said the timing of Walker on Lyndale's Nov. 1 opening made it the perfect situation for a Hurricane Katrina survivor. As the organization got its start, it offered a helping hand.

&#8220Knowing that we had a number of low-income apartments and suspecting there would be a number of people displaced by the hurricane, we communicated with a number of organizations locally,” Lundberg said.

Jamerson connected with Walker on Lyndale through the Red Cross. Moving in at the same time as other new residents was good in that she was able to form new friendships right along with everyone else, Lundberg said. That, too, is part of the healing process.

&#8220That's one of the things that disappeared with the hurricane - all those connections and friendships,” Lundberg said.

Amundsen said Jamerson is starting to find a sense of community in her small Southwest abode.

&#8220Everybody's always asking, ‘Where's Marie?' ” Amundsen said. &#8220All the residents really like her, and they say she's such a sweetheart.”

As for Jamerson, she's just happy to have found a place to heal. &#8220I'm just blessed to be here.”