A Belfast nun who spent twenty-seven years as an educator in New Orleans has written a harrowing firsthand account inspired by actual events she witnessed living through the most deadly and costliest hurricane of all time on the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
“Riding out the Hurricane” recounts Dominican Sister Maeve McMahon’s traumatic and catastrophic experience having worked amongst thousands of evacuees in the evacuation centres of Houma and Baton Rouge in Louisiana.
From the Falls Road in Belfast, Sister McMahon spent the majority of her adult life in New Orleans where she accomplished many things before the hurricane hit including teaching African American boys and girls, becoming principal of an award winning school in 1990 where she was honoured in the White House by President Bush and opening an innovative pilot school for five year olds two weeks before Hurricane Katrina devastated it.
Sister Maeve had just opened a primary school in New Orleans before the hurricane hit on August 29 2005.
“On the Saturday before any sign of the hurricane I was working at the school with two Catholic priests from the local Catholic senior high school and four of their senior boys and they were laying woodchips under the children’s climbing apparatus when I got a call to say that this hurricane was very dangerous and gaining in strength. I called everyone together to say they would have to go home to board up and secure their homes which was a custom in New Orleans and leave the city. People were saying this hurricane was the one people had feared all their lives” said Maeve.
Before they left, the pupils and priests helped her lift everything up four feet, of the belief that if there was flood water coming in from the storm that four feet would secure everything. “All the children’s computers, books from the library, rocking chairs and toys, everything was put in plastic bags, locked up and left” she said.
Maeve then went home to watch the television that evening as the commentary was increasing about the storm which was hottening up at this time.
The news informed the public how the mayor would more than likely give mandatory evacuation at dawn. However this was never given in the city of New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina.
“I was told the Dominican sisters would leave the next morning and we would set off for Houma where one of our sisters worked in a diocese there and thankfully she was able to get us accommodation to stay in an old three story convent which was above the floodwater” she explains.
That night the wind took down the electricity so the nuns had no light and air conditioning.
“This was the beginning that suggested that this was going to be bad” she said.
The next day Maeve got a call from one of the teachers who could tell her the flood water was rising in New Orleans beside their houses.
“This was the beginning of realising that New Orleans was disappearing under water and when the levies breaches, 80% of the city was flooded. Many people were in fact washed out of their beds and many people had to climb up to the attics to try to get away from the rising flood water but they were climbing up into attics that were not ventilated and the temperatures were rising over 100 degrees and some people died in their attics through the heat and dehydration” she explains sorrowfully.
Other hacked out onto their roves in New Orleans where everyone was told to keep a hatchet and an axe in their attic as if the hurricane waters rose the only way out would be onto their roves to get saved.
Sr Maeve’s book is based around the iconic picture of the time of a little black girl holding the hand of a white woman being wheeled out of the convention centre. “It was one of the iconic images from the evacuation of the convention centre in New Orleans: a weak and bruised elderly woman being wheeled away from the scene in her wheelchair, clutching the hand of a 5-year-old girl. Like the photo of the fire-fighters raising the American flag at Ground Zero after the September 11 terrorist attacks, the image which was reproduced on 1,600 Web sites, told the story of those who survived” said Maeve.
In Maeve’s book which is historical fiction based on fact, the protagonist is this African American girl, her grandmother and her old white neighbour Ms. Dangerfield. “The story is true however the real girl was only five years of age and I changed her age to twelve and named her Jade so she had the maturity to reflect on what she saw. I wove into the story everything I had experienced and heard and all I read in the papers” she said.
In real life the three people eventually take refuge on a nearby two-story house, and later a roof, where Ms. Dangerfield tied herself to the others with an orange extension cord to keep them from falling off.
The effects of the hurricane lasted five days where the people of New Orleans got no national help only local help. “Where we were people started to bring their boats to get the people out of their houses, people then began to be brought into Houma by bus from New Orleans. Many of them were washed out of their beds in their night gear in the middle of their sleep unexpectedly. There was no federal rescue for five days” said Maeve.
Maeve then began then to go with the Irish Dominican sisters she was living with to the local centre where people were being brought into a private banqueting hall which had been turned into an evacuation centre. “We went there to comfort the people and listen to their story and do whatever we could. I then went to work with the children who were coming in traumatised from all that had happened and try to provide some normal environment, you couldn’t but you tried” she said.
In the book, Maeve recounts all that Jade went through such as climbing into the attic, having to deal with two older women, being tied to the roof and chimney by the grandmother. “This was true as the grandmother thought they would be blown off the roof and drowned when the water was rising. They experience a descent into hell, spending days tied together on the roof and sleeping on an overpass and outside the Convention Centre before they are air lifted to the Astrodome, Houston, where they join 15,000 evacuees in a huge indoor arena” said Maeve. In the book we see Jade have the inner strength to overcome the sheer terror of the human tragedy caused by the hurricane. Her journey is dangerous but she does find safety to protect her Grandma, her elderly neighbour, Mary-Lou Smith and Bunty the little dog she rescues.
Maeve also brings her experience into the book from being on the road evacuating the city with a million and a half others.
“The people that I worked with were all those who couldn’t get out quick enough and had to be lifted out either by air or by boat or by bus and I worked with them in evacuation centres and listened to all that happened to them. So many people just lost everything, families were broken up and children were lost who I worked with. At one stage I was asked to put people on a bus that was going to Colorado and they were getting on that bus just by my word. They had nothing but lost everything. They were boarding buses going anywhere because they had faith in what I was saying was real” she sobs.
Maeve left New Orleans in the end because she was so traumatised by events she had seen and was advised to come back to Ireland for her health. “I had lost everything, my school, my work and my pupils and therefore the story wouldn’t leave me so I spent the last three years writing the book” she said.
The powerful and moving book of true events is written to let people know that even in the worst of times good can come out of it and not to lose faith.
“I heard incredible human stories of courage and faith and experienced the loss of all material things myself. All of my friends, black and white were affected, many losing everything. I just couldn't get my head around the fact that the richest country in the world had let its own people down while often coming to the immediate aid of strangers. I was particularly troubled by the fact that thousands of children were displaced from their homes and schools by Hurricane Katrina” she explained.
Her book is a beautiful and compelling novel about faith, hope and love, where Hurricane Katrina’s carnage was matched by heroism and human compassion.