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If I can put up with Katrina, I can do anything

 

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Deirdre Jackson, a schoolteacher, and her daughter, Destiny, lived in New Orleans East before losing everything to Hurricane Katrina.

   

Deirdre Jackson, a schoolteacher, and her daughter, Destiny, lived in New Orleans East before losing everything in Hurricane Katrina. “We had nothing to go back to,” said Jackson, who has resettled in Jackson, Mississippi, in a house built in partnership with Metro Jackson Habitat for Humanity.

She shares her home in the Poindexter Park neighborhood with her 9-year-old daughter, Destiny; 16-year-old nephew, Patrick; and two tuxedo cats, Adam and Eve.

When Jackson fled New Orleans, she packed up very few possessions: five days’ worth of clothes for her and her daughter, and a copy of her teaching certificate. She quickly secured a new teaching job and set about creating a new life. Less than five years later, she is finishing up work on her Ph.D.

“I always wanted to be Dr. Somebody!” said Jackson, who had toyed with the idea of going back to school for years but always found a reason to put it off. Now she has a new home and a good job, and Destiny is excelling in school. “No more excuses,” she said. “If I can put up with Katrina, I can do anything.”

Jackson grew up in a military family and traveled the world until her father retired and moved everybody back to New Orleans.

“I thought I was going to be there the rest of my life,” Jackson said.

Before Katrina, Jackson and her daughter had lived in New Orleans East for 10 years. She was leasing to buy a house in an area that was never expected to flood.

On the Friday before Katrina struck—before its full power was clear—Jackson gave her high school students their assignments for the weekend and said, “See you Monday.” On Sunday morning, though, Jackson realized she and Destiny should join the thousands of other people who were evacuating. Only later did she realize she would never really return.

“Even 30 years from now, I don’t believe I’ll ever get over Katrina,” Jackson said. “In 24 hours, my life completely changed. It’ll never be the same. I just knew I would be going back home Wednesday.

“Well, I’m still waiting for Wednesday to come. I’m still waiting.”

Jackson first landed in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, about 30 minutes south of Jackson, where she started seeing the news reports of broken levees and deadly flooding in New Orleans. Many of her relatives had stayed behind, and communication was getting more and more sporadic.

“I’m in this small town in Mississippi with my 4-year-old daughter, a 2-year-old cat, and I have $200 cash on me,” she recalled. “That’s it. I am crying. I cannot get myself together. My friend keeps telling me that everything’s going to be fine. But when you see the city at this point, it’s basically under water. What am I going to go home to?

“I’ve always been a person who’s been prepared for anything,” she said. “I’m educated, I’ve done all the right things. I go to church every Sunday. I pay my tithes in the offering. How can I be in this situation?”

Jackson was forced to rely on the kindness of strangers and friends of friends in the immediate aftermath. Quickly, though, she rallied and decided to do the best she could with the situation at hand.

Within a month, she had a job teaching in Hazlehurst and enough money to pay rent and get a car.

“I’ve been on the right road since,” she said. “That December, a commercial for Metro Jackson Habitat for Humanity came on that said, ‘If you’re thinking about staying in Jackson …’At that point, I knew I couldn’t go back to New Orleans, because there was really nothing to go back to. All the schools were closed. I called a friend and said, ‘If I get approved for the house, that means the Lord wants me to stay. If I get declined, that means I need to move back to New Orleans.’ ”

She applied two weeks before Christmas, and was approved two weeks after. Jackson and Destiny—along with their cats, Adam and Eve—moved into their new home on July 6, 2006.

Jackson now teaches cooperative education at Forest Hills High School and serves as cheerleading coach. Daughter Destiny recently made the cheerleading squad and is eager to show off her best cartwheel on the manicured front lawn. When she’s not spinning in the yard, Destiny is an excellent student. Her favorite subject is math, and she recently won an award for exemplary character, voted on by her classmates.

About a year ago, Jackson’s nephew Patrick moved into the third bedroom in the family’s house. His mother had died the summer before Katrina, and he had struggled since. A junior in high school, he’s doing well in his studies now and has already decided he’s joining the Marines.

“In our family, you choose from three professions: teacher, military or cop,” Jackson said. “I’m excited for him.”

Jackson makes frequent trips to visit her relatives who remain in New Orleans. And she has bonded with several other Habitat families on her street who also resettled here after Katrina. On every possible occasion, she cooks up a big batch of red beans and rice or gumbo and invites the whole neighborhood to party New Orleans-style.

“Some days I feel settled here, and some days I don’t,” Jackson said, nearly five years after Katrina. “I miss New Orleans, no question about it. But if something else was to happen, I don’t want my mom or my dad or my younger sister to have to worry about where they’re going to go.

“It’s just a bad situation when you don’t have anyplace to go,” she added. “I don’t think people really understood that part. When your whole family lives in the same city, where are you going to go? From now on, whenever there’s a hurricane, they can always come here.”