On May 19, 2006, Mary Braud Harris, 70, a retired schoolteacher in New Orleans, reunited with Corinne Braud Elloie, 61, her youngest sister who lives in Inglewood, California. Both women talked about their roots and how much of their family was displaced outside the state following Hurricane Katrina. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.
Corinne Braud Elloie: Tell us about your childhood.
Mary Braud Harris: We were raised in Uptown New Orleans. My mother was from New Orleans. Wonderful parents who have unfortunately left us and have been praying for us, I’m sure. I am the oldest in our family. All of our siblings are living. Many remembrances of old New Orleans, like streetcars that ran everywhere, not just on St. Charles. The ice man, the people who sold fruit passing the house on wagons with mules. Our grandfather collected matchsticks, he said, from women who smoked because he didn’t approve of that. He was a dairy farmer. The Braud family lived here many years. My grandfather died before I was born, so we knew our grandmother, Virginia. All of my dad’s sisters and one or two brothers, they left New Orleans in 1948 and moved to Los Angeles hoping to find work and better living circumstances, which they did.
CBE: Tell me about you getting married.
MBH: We have 10 children, 17 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
CBE: Until Katrina, half of your children were living here.
MBH: Yes, we all evacuated together to (a daughter’s) house in Houston. Initially, there were 35 of us in that one house that first Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday. It was chaos. But it was good, fun chaos at first. But when it got unbearable, different people moved to apartments.
CBE: Tell me one good thing out of Katrina with the evacuation.
MBH: It brought not only our family but also many other families together. We were headquarters for several families coming out of New Orleans. They would stop by. And (their hosts) would give them possibilities where they could stay, and information like Red Cross and FEMA and churches and schools.
CBE: When you returned to New Orleans after many months away, what was that first trip back like?
MBH: It was bittersweet. By that time, we were definitely craving to come home. Our house was not really damaged. We have a back fence that was hit by a tree. Everyone’s house on the block had roof damage. Nobody had service. When the children came back and forth, they had to bring bottled water. There were sewer problems. When we came back at Christmas, things were pretty good, but it was quiet, not a lot of traffic, not a lot of people.
CBE: Did you ever tell yourself, “I will never return again”?
MBH: No. And probably because Uptown was pretty good and our church did not get much damage. We went to church and saw our friends and our pastor. So that was good, to rejoin people.
CBE: Did you see some of the outer damage?
MBH: The second day we were home. (My fifth child) Elena’s house had water. We passed by the whole Gentilly area, Xavier, all of that. The odd thing was, one of my children who had lived in several houses in the city, we passed by all of her former houses. Nothing was left, or very little.
CBE: What did you do to try to get some of your family members back?
MBH: We talked to people and told them what we saw and what we were feeling. There were still mixed feelings. We were confident that our great New Orleans was going to come back. I still feel that way, but it’s taking a long time.
CBE: I must say I was worried. If another hurricane’s coming, please evacuate immediately.
MBH: We are packed and ready. We decided that we would be ready next time. Everybody is trying to get settled in Houston, but the overwhelming kindness of so many people like you and your co-workers has helped.
CBE: I hear some people are coming up with various illnesses, things they may not have had before, and the (problems with) sinuses and allergies are great. But still they stay. They do not leave.
MBH: Because New Orleans is home. New Orleans is special.
CBE: I had all the intentions of retiring here. But it’s really on the back door right now. I would really have to see it get much better before I think of returning. I’ll visit, though. The one time that really struck me about New Orleans was the day Mayor (Ray) Nagin reported that ‘We can’t stop the water.’ I was on my way home, listening to the radio. I had to pull to the side and cry for my New Orleans family.
MBH: That’s how we were, watching the TV and watching parts of the city where we knew many people’s homes were covered with water. Some of them where the water went almost to the roof.
CBE: And knowing that you know people who were in those areas and wondering what happened to them, where are they? And all of the senior citizens — you think one day, “What happened to so and so?” Every time I would call, I would think of another person.
MBH: We have other Braud cousins that thankfully got out. They were not doing well in New Orleans, but they are now doing well.
CBE: They were ones who really went through the Superdome, the real ordeal. Just like your son, Louis, who is never going to return due to the ordeal they went through after Katrina.
MBH: I know. That is the hard part. And they may never return.
CBE: That is the worst part to know. But you have to go on if they can’t make it here. That’s sad. If we don’t have youth, what do we do?
MBH: You see it in the churches. All of the churches, even the ones that flourished with youth before Katrina, are finding it hard to put together a whole youth group now. One of the people we all miss, the children in the neighborhood — they’re not there.
CBE: What was it your granddaughter keeps saying about Katrina?
MBH: The poor child thinks the government caused the houses to be destroyed. When she couldn’t find her toys, she thinks the government had something to do with it. That’s because of listening to the adults. She kinda knew Mayor Nagin because she went to St. Peter Claver Church. When she saw his picture, she would say, “He’s the other person who tore down the houses.” Out of the minds of children, they don’t know quite how things happen.
CBE: That’s the hardest part; the children still do not understand why and how something like this could happen.
MBH: We can’t explain it to ourselves, so we can’t explain it to them.