In the 10 years since Harry Pryer fled New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, he has settled into a quiet and rural Iberville Parish community backed against a winding bayou.
“I can’t go back to New Orleans,” said Pryer, my husband’s cousin. “I get sensitive about going back.”
Before Aug. 29, 2005, Pryer made a decent living collecting “junk” and antiques to sell at the French Market and along the New Orleans riverfront. Katrina changed everything.
The Category 3 storm resulted in levee system failures in New Orleans, heavy flooding in the city and at least 986 deaths, according to the Data Center, formerly the Greater New Orleans Data Center.
“It’s a memory and a bad memory,” said Pryer, 74, whose family’s home in the Seventh Ward was destroyed.
Pryer sent his family to the Convention Center in New Orleans, but stayed behind to help others who were stranded in an area of the Lower Ninth Ward, where levees and flood walls failed following Katrina.
“I never ran from the storm; I ran to it,” he said. “I did not evacuate because people were still locked inside their homes in the Lower Ninth Ward.”
Two things helped Pryer reach stranded families. He knew how to swim — he says he grew up swimming at the mouth of the Mississippi River — and he knew how to do some carpentry.
High water inside flooded homes made it almost impossible to open doors, Pryer said. “You cannot get the doors open and the Sheetrock does not break easy. I had to use a maul hammer to knock through walls,” he said.
He said he swam through rising waters to rescue people who were stranded, and he secured survivors to telephone poles to prevent water from sweeping them away.
Pryer said casualties from the storm, including floating dead bodies, are still etched in his mind. He said he covered his nose in Vicks VapoRub to deaden the smells he encountered.
Post-Katrina, Pryer said he moved to Atlanta, where he stayed in a camp for hurricane evacuees. His family remained in Louisiana.
He later moved to Lafayette, where he lived in a hotel with help from FEMA until he could get back on his feet.
Once he settled into Maringouin, where his parents were originally rooted, he continued to do some carpentry work and collect and sell junk and relics and car parts.
For recreation, “I ride horses,” he said. “I go to rodeos and trail rides.” He also enjoys spending time with his 3-year-old grandson.
Through it all, including the deaths of two of his children that were not related to Katrina, Pryer is still grateful for the life he has.
“I lost a lot,” he said, “but God gave me my life and he blessed me with my children and grandchildren.”
Chante Dionne Warren can be reached at email@example.com.