Last updated on October 10th, 2023 at 10:34 am
On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina passed east of New Orleans, Louisiana.
It was a huge and powerful storm. The tidal surge destroyed the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The failure of the levee system destroyed the New Orleans of my childhood. The New Orleans I knew and loved.
I was living my dream as the owner of an upscale take-out business and café in the heart of New Orleans. It was in a beautiful old house with big oak trees in front. Hurricanes have always been a way of life for New Orleanians. It is another excuse for a time to gather, cook, eat, drink, and take care of one another.
Not this time.
This time, it was every man for himself. No one had a clue that the levees would break, but the storm’s size and energy were enough not even to think of buying beer and staying. I had a catering event for 750 people that evening. My refrigerators were packed with steamship rounds of beef, sides of salmon, and every kind of food you can imagine. I locked up my business, hugged my employees and neighbors, and locked the door. I considered not leaving.
My cousin, who is like the brother I didn’t have, begged me to get in the car and drive to Dallas, Texas. His job had transferred him there from New Orleans seven years prior.
I gave in and grabbed only a few things for three reasons-
1. I was only going to Dallas for a few days,
2. I waited too long to evacuate, so I had to get moving and
3. I was only going to Dallas for a few days.
I packed T-shirts, shorts, a bathing suit, laptop, and Seinfeld DVDs. I called my vet and asked him to have kitty Valium ready for me to pick up. I put my two cats, Yin and Yang, in their carriers. I decided to head north, then west. I drove away from New Orleans feeling a bit scared, but I decided to think of it as a mini-vacation.
It takes 8 hours to get from New Orleans to Dallas. This time it took 24. The interstates were on “contraflow,” meaning all lanes were going one way. I went a whopping 2-5 mph on the side of the interstate. I watched people’s cars overheat and people suffering from heat stroke, waving t-shirts with the words, “Please help us.”
I think this was the first time in my life I can remember experiencing discrimination. A group of cars got off of an exit in Mississippi to find a place to sleep. There were hand-written signs made of poster board saying,
“NO BATHROOMS OR BEDS AVAILABLE FOR EVACUEES.”
The others kept looking for a place, but I got back on the interstate and kept driving. I finally found a Hampton Inn. I pulled up to the door. Same sign, so I pulled into a spot in the parking lot under a light, went to the bathroom in the parking lot, and slept in my car. Yin and Yang were passed out asleep.
Every time I fell asleep, the sweat would start pouring from my body, and I’d wake up to start the car and run the air conditioning. I did this about five times until finally, I said, “Screw it,” and started the car in search of coffee.
I crossed the Texas state line at 9:00 a.m. I cried. I called my cousin’s house, and his wife Janis answered. I said, “I made it.” She started crying. I arrived at their house around 11:00 a.m. We got the cats settled and made drinks while watching the weather channel the entire time. The storm had passed through Louisiana and Mississippi. Everything seemed fine. I left the room for a few minutes. I heard my cousin’s wife scream,
“OH MY GOD, THE LEVEES BROKE. NEW ORLEANS IS UNDERWATER.”
My whole world seemed to kick into slow motion at that exact moment. I felt like I was in a tunnel. We were in stunned disbelief. I don’t remember much after staring at my city underwater on the television. For the following three weeks, I didn’t know if I still had a home to return to in New Orleans. I don’t think I did much of anything but stare into space, lost in a sea of shock and stress.
My best friend, Howard, had evacuated to Galveston, Texas. He finally contacted me to tell me that he had to evacuate from where he had evacuated because Hurricane Rita was heading toward where he was in Galveston. My family converted their office into a bedroom. We had another human and another cat needing shelter.
Howard and I ended up getting an apartment together. I thought about getting a job at Whole Foods in Dallas, Texas. I had no real dreams at the time. I was surviving on auto-pilot. I was living day-to-day, waiting for a word or a reason to return. I couldn’t think about tomorrow. I wouldn’t think about the past. It was too painful. My family furnished the apartment for us. Many churches gave us clothes, shoes, and necessities. I had never before asked for anything in my life. I felt humiliated and depressed.
I felt hopeless.
I told Howard we should get physicals and talk to a doctor. I guessed that I needed antidepressants because I was barely functioning. I saw that Howard wasn’t doing too well either, so we went to the doctor. Howard’s blood work came back all over the place. The doctor ordered a CT scan. They found stage 4 lymphoma. My whole life would change again. I ditched the idea of working for Whole Foods and began caring for my dying friend.
I returned to New Orleans on a press pass before anyone was allowed back into the city. A good friend (who was living outside of New Orleans in a pop-up trailer with her son after losing everything) wanted to go into the city with me. I was in denial. I responded that I was strong enough to do it alone and that everything would be OK. I needed to know how my home was doing. I needed to be able to make some plans.
She begged me to let her come. I picked her up, and she took my car keys. She insisted on driving me.
When we got to New Orleans, I saw dead animals everywhere. I saw dead human bodies. I saw cars in trees. I saw houses in the middle of the street. I saw children’s stuffed animals and blankets in trees. I couldn’t move or speak. It was too much to take in all at once. It was like nothing I’d ever imagined in my worst nightmares.
We arrived at my home, and everything appeared fine. The glass on my front door was broken from the National Guard going in to check if anyone was dead inside. I walked into the house, and I heard water pouring. My house didn’t flood, but ¾ of the roof came off, so the ceilings collapsed and rained inside the walls. The mold had set in.
All I could do was walk in a circle until my friend led me out of the house. She said,
“Take care of it by calling the insurance company. There is nothing you can do. Now, would you like to go visit my sister or would you like to go to The French Quarter and drink?”
I just looked at her and said nothing.
The French Quarter was not affected. 90% of the bars were open. We sat at a bar, drank, and talked to others. The owner had a charcoal grill outside and was selling burgers. I decided that I needed to go back to Dallas, Texas. Once I was back in Texas, Howard’s daughter came to Dallas from Birmingham, Alabama, to retrieve her father and take him back with her for Hospice. I hugged him so tightly that I thought about never letting him go.
He said in my ear,
“I don’t know if I will ever see you again. I’m not going to be here much longer.”
It was December 1st, 2005, when he left. I stayed in the apartment to move the furniture out. I cleaned. I went to the liquor store. I sat on the floor in this empty apartment and drank until I was numb. I decided that I had to return to my home in New Orleans.
Living back in New Orleans after Katrina was awful. While fighting with the insurance company and FEMA, I was trying to salvage my parents’ home. I lived without electricity for three months and slept on my sofa, wrapped in a comforter with a lantern on the floor. My cats Yin and Yang were still with me and toughing it out right along with me.
I finally got some men to replace my roof and do some work on my home. My cell phone started ringing at odd hours when I was home alone. It was always a man’s voice who would say,
“I am working in the neighborhood and we are watching you come and go. You live alone. We are going to rape and kill you.”
I bought a .38 Special and hollow point bullets. The gun went everywhere with me. I prayed I’d die before being killed by some stranger. I drank until I passed out, so I wouldn’t care or know.
In June 2006, a client who lived in Sonoma, California, called me. She had been searching for me on the Internet trying to find out if I had survived Katrina. She asked me how I was coping. I responded that I had contemplated suicide several times. But in speaking with her, I suddenly realized I had a new dream. My new dream was to leave New Orleans because I didn’t want to die there. And I knew if I stayed, I would die.
She flew me to Sonoma for a week to get my head together. I looked around. It was my dream place that I didn’t know I was dreaming of. It was so completely beautiful that words cannot describe what I thought as I gazed upon the rolling hills, the oak trees, the rows and rows of vineyards, the soft blue skies with their puffy clouds. This gentle ocean breeze came up from San Francisco through the Delta every afternoon. The birds seemed to sing along with the cattle, and everyone loved drinking wine with their meals.
Had I died and gone to heaven?
My new dream was to figure out a way to move to Sonoma County, in Northern California, but I didn’t know how I was going to swing it. I had burned through my savings to try to repair my home. And like the universe always does in these situations, if you don’t panic, you receive the help you need.
Then I received that phone call.
Howard passed away on May 15, 2006. He told me before he died,
“Maria, you are a beautiful and talented woman. Your dream is to cook. Please consider starting your life somewhere else. You can do it!”
Howard’s daughter told me her father left me in his will. He had a letter for me and enough money for me to move somewhere else to begin my life all over again. He died and gave me a new life.
I moved to Sonoma County, California, on September 17, 2006. I was 52 pounds heavier, diagnosed with Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and my blood pressure was 220/110. Staying in New Orleans was indeed killing me.
I’ve learned from this experience that you’ve got to hang on to your dreams no matter what you are going through. You must believe everything will work out if you don’t give up. You must tell people if you have fallen on hard times because you never know where help may come from. People can’t help you if you don’t let them know. I am living proof that you can survive. You can start a new life from scratch. It may not go how you imagine, but if you are open to the idea that you can do it, the universe will offer you options.
I recently visited New Orleans for the 1st time in almost six years.
I shot the video in Treme, a historic New Orleans, Louisiana neighborhood. Notice my voice and shortness of breath. It was from the mold in the air:
If you are in a place where you feel stuck–that unhappy, hopeless place where you think you can’t make your dream a reality, read my story repeatedly until your faith returns. No one said it was easy, but if you can dream it, you can do it. You can survive and start a new life.
My dream awaited me at the end of a long, winding road to Northern California. Dream roads are waiting for you, too. They can end well. But no one said that it was going to be easy.
Chef Maria Vieages now resides in New Orleans and is known for working with clients such as Carlos Santana, Dan Rather, Rue McClanhan, Jeff Bezos, The Manhattan Transfer, Cards Against Humanity, Facebook, Google, P!NK, and Steph Curry–to name a few. She’s been featured on HGTV, The Rachel Ray Show, The Hallmark Channel, and various news special interest segments. Maria travels the U.S. and beyond, creating New Orleans and Multi-Regional pop-ups, which include cooking demos, classes, wine/spirit pairings, and pop-up restaurants, incorporating these events into her writings and podcasts.
Enjoy this special 8WomenDream Guest Contributor story submitted by new and experienced big dreamers throughout the world, edited and published to capture a dream perspective from different points of view. Do you have a personal dream story to share with 8WomenDream readers? Click here to learn how to submit dream big articles for consideration.
Note: Articles by Guest Post Contributors may contain affiliate links and may be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on an affiliate link.