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They’re all planting flowers now


80 year-old Gigi Brown sits in the living room of her Habitat home. She always kept a duffel bag packed when she lived in Chalmette, Louisiana, prepared to evacuate whenever a hurricane seemed imminent.


Giselle Brown turns 80 this November, five years after Hurricane Katrina forced her to rebuild her life from scratch.

Brown, known as Gigi to her friends, has survived more than her share of tragedies in a long lifetime, including the untimely deaths of her husband and all three grown children. Since the 1970s, she has been on her own.

For 20 years, Brown lived in a small mobile home in New Orleans’ St. Bernard Parish. Katrina reduced it to scrap metal, and Brown decided to stay where she and a friend had fled during the evacuation, in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

“When Katrina happened, I was ready,” Brown said. Every hurricane season, she kept a duffel bag packed by the front door, prepared to leave on a moment’s notice. But unlike other times, this exit was permanent.

After Katrina, Brown endured nearly two years in exile, from a Red Cross shelter to a FEMA trailer in a state park campground, before applying for a house with Hattiesburg Area Habitat for Humanity. Through a combination of Social Security and VA benefits, down-payment assistance from FEMA and occasional odd jobs—including one at Domino’s Pizza—she qualified and started putting in her sweat equity.

The 4-foot-11 septuagenarian “hammered, painted, cleaned, scraped, caulked, you name it” alongside volunteers from all over the world. A native of Morocco, Brown first moved to the United States in 1955 with her husband, an Army staff sergeant who hailed from Ville Platte, Louisiana.

Two years after she moved into it, Brown’s Habitat house is easy to spot, nearly obscured by lush flowering potted plants on the narrow front porch.

“Look around here,” she said in a spicy French Cajun accent, pointing out the bounty of flowers on porches all along Annie Christie Lane. “My neighbors see me with all the beautiful plants, and they follow. They’re all planting flowers now.”

Gardening is a lifelong passion for Brown, who last year fulfilled a dream of traveling to France, where she visited relatives and took in the sights.

“There are beautiful places there,” she said, leafing through a gigantic photo album from the trip. “Castles and churches, and more castles and churches. All beautiful. But it was good to get back to my little house and all my flowers. That’s all I need.”