Sunday, August 30, 2009

Hurricane Katrina: Deaths After the Hurricane

In the year after Hurricane Katrina, people died. Of course, people die all the time, but somehow these post-hurricane deaths became part of the whole trauma of Hurricane Katrina. The hurricane heightened the sadness of these deaths. In fact, these deaths loomed in our minds, certainly in mine. Here, I'd like to write about some of these post-hurricane deaths, plus two deaths that weren't exactly post-Hurricane Katrina but still seem related.

GAVIN MAHLIE. Gavin Mahlie's death affected me deeply. It still does. I didn't know Gavin personally, but he was my favorite New Orleans actor. I miss him. I had seen Gavin in many Shakespeare plays at the summer Shakespeare Festival at Tulane and in "Twelve Angry Men" at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre and in other plays. I LOVED Gavin Mahlie, as did so many New Orleanians. Gavin was a prince of the theater, a down-to-earth, humble guy, dedicated to his craft. Gavin died in April 2006 in his sleep of heart problems at age forty-one. The whole city was shocked at Gavin's death. I write of Gavin's death with tears.

BATTLE BELL. Battle Bell was a well-known Jungian psychotherapist in New Orleans. I heard him speak several times at the New Orleans C. G. Jung Society. Battle also helped one of my friends greatly. My friend was going through a difficult family situation and had a series of vivid related dreams. She turned to Battle for dream interpretation work. Whether or not you believe that dreams have messages for us (I do), what happened with my friend is that she and Battle, using the dreams, worked out healthy ways to understand and respond to the family situation, which helped my friend a great deal. My friend remembers Battle with gratitude. Battle died in June 2006 of a stroke at age sixty-one.

CHEF AUSTIN LESLIE. Chef Austin Leslie was a beloved chef of New Orleans soul food. He was the chef at Pampy's Restaurant at the time of Hurricane Katrina and was especially famous for his fried chicken. My sister Maria loved Chef Leslie and his cooking. She was devastated by his death. Chef Leslie, at age seventy-one, was rescued from his home two days after Hurricane Katrina and died about a month later in Atlanta, Georgia. The very first jazz funeral to be held in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina was for Chef Leslie. I think New Orleans is still mourning for Chef Leslie.

JOE CASAMENTO. Joe Casamento was the son of the founder of Casamento's Restaurant on Magazine Street in New Orleans. Joe Casamento's father founded the restaurant in the early 1900s. Joe lived above the restaurant. Joe Casamento died at age eighty, immediately after Hurricane Katrina. In fact, I think he may have died right after or even during his evacuation. I grew up eating at Casamento's--always oyster stew or oyster loaf served on Casamento's special pan bread. Casamento's always closes for the summer, during the months without the letter "R": May, June, July, August. Once my mother, speaking in favor of the idea of having school year-round, said, "Now, really, do you know any other business that closes for the entire summer?" and my sister Janet immediately replied, "Casamento's." All New Orleans misses Joe.

MARY AND ERNEST HANSEN. Mary and Ernest Hansen operated Hansen's Sno-Bliz on Tchoupitoulas Street in New Orleans for over fifty years. Ernest invented the ice shaving machine that makes the most wonderful thin snowball ice, and Mary created the recipes for the many flavored syrups. I certainly ate my share of Hansen's snowballs as a child and teenager. Mary and Ernest Hansen were in their nineties at the time of Hurricane Katrina. Mary died in September 2005 and Ernest in March 2006. Their grand-daughter, Ashley Hansen, now runs Hansen's Sno-Bliz. Generations of New Orleanians grew up on Hansen's snowballs, and we miss Mary and Ernest Hansen.

PAM MURPHY. Pam Murphy was an all-around creative person, brimming with innovative ideas. A major theme of Pam's life was increasing people's self-esteem. She did a weekly local television show on self-esteem, created a board game to build self-esteem, and wrote a series of lively animal tales for children. For several years, I belonged to a small writers' group that met in Pam's home. Before moving to North Carolina in April 2006, I met Pam for lunch. I emailed Pam when I got settled in North Carolina and then sent her a Christmas card in December. Upon receiving the Christmas card, Pam's husband called me to say that Pam had died during the fall of 2006. She just got sick and died, her husband said. Pam's husband attributes Pam's death directly to post-hurricane stress.

BIG CHIEF TOOTIE MONTANA. Well, Big Chief Tootie Montana actually died in June 2005, two months before Hurricane Katrina. This was so close to the hurricane, and it was such a huge loss for New Orleans, that Tootie Montana's death gets connected with Hurricane Katrina in my mind. Big Chief Tootie Montana was the Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas Mardi Gras Indian Tribe, and he was also recognized as a kind of Father Chief by all the Mardi Gras Indian tribes. He died quite dramatically, speaking before the New Orleans City Council at a hearing about the way New Orleans police had interfered with and disrespected the Mardi Gras Indians during their St. Joseph's night march. I mean, Big Chief Tootie Montana actually fell to the floor in the middle of his speech. He had died of a heart attack. He was eighty-two. We all miss Big Chief Tootie Montana.

RUTHIE THE DUCK LADY. Okay, Ruthie the Duck Lady died well past Hurricane Katrina, actually at the time of Hurricane Gustav in 2008, but I want to include her anyway. Ruthie lived for years in the French Quarter, roller skating around, followed by her ducks. Everyone in New Orleans who ever went to the French Quarter knew Ruthie, or at least recognized her. At the time of Hurricane Gustav in 2008, Ruthie was living in a nursing home in New Orleans. My brother Michael lived in the same nursing home as Ruthie from 2003 to 2005 because of a stroke, and whenever I visited Michael, I also spoke with Ruthie. She'd be sitting on a couch in the lounge, surrounded by stuffed-animal ducks. Ruthie evacuated to Baton Rouge for Hurricane Gustav with the other residents of her nursing home, but she was ill and the evacuation was hard on her. She died in September 2008 in a Baton Rouge hospital at age seventy-four. I imagine her in heaven, reunited with all the ducks she loved over the years.

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