|Jesse Morrell waits at a shuttle stop for the Mardi Gras World.
Bonnie Kingdon ’02 and Jesse Morrell ’03 are roommates—practically combat buddies. They’ve had terrible things happen. They’ve also thanked their lucky stars. They’ve lost everything and have gained more than they counted on. Living in New Orleans has been a wild ride, and they don’t plan to get off anytime soon.
First, there was fire.
On a June day in 2004—a full year before Hurricane Katrina blew into town—Kingdon and Morrell noticed a strange orange glow outside their apartment window. Turned out, the house next door was on fire. They grabbed the cat and a computer and ran outside, only to watch helplessly as a massive, six-alarm blaze consumed everything they owned.
That event had two important emotional consequences: It made them somewhat numb to the loss of personal property … after all, losing your stuff is never the worst thing that can happen. And it helped them understand the character of the people in New Orleans.
“After the fire, endless strangers appeared,” Morrell says. “They said things like, ‘You’re our neighbor … you’re family.’ They wanted to help us. The sense of community in New Orleans is huge—it’s city-wide in scale.”
Those lessons left them uniquely prepared when, a year later, the rain came … and the wind. And then the levee broke.
Kingdon and Morrell were among those who had heeded the warnings to leave in advance of Katrina’s arrival. And they were among the fortunate ones who had a car and gas money, so they were able to leave.
“There were so many people who were stuck here,” Kingdon says, making it clear that those who suffered the most—and continue to suffer—are never far from her mind.
Kingdon and Morrell drove 220 miles northwest to a hotel in Alexandria, La. Along for what turned out to be a six-week road trip were their cats, Kevin and Oliver, and fellow New Orleans refugees Melanie Baird ’01 and Charles Herold ’04.
Once the extent of the devastation became clear, these Dickinsonians decided to make the best of the fact that they couldn’t go home. They drove to Houston, Austin and Dallas. They swung through Tulsa, Okla., and then hit Memphis, Nashville and the Gulf coast of Alabama. Cats and all.
While they were gone, it was hard to know what was really going on in New Orleans. “The media had a bad grasp of the neighborhood names and boundaries,” Kingdon says. “There was a lot of misinformation.”
Finally the city ban was lifted, and they were able to come in for one day to assess the damage. Of course much of New Orleans was in ruins. But Kingdon and Morrell found their apartment building in the Uptown section was not severely damaged. What possessions they had built up since the fire the year before were still there, miraculously right as rain.
After leaving again for a visit with their families in the Northeast, Kingdon and Morrell came back to New Orleans for good in early October 2005. It was hard at first. There was a lot of heartbreak in the air. Supplies were limited, gasoline was hard to come by and, Morrell says, it was hard to find food that wasn’t “creepy.”
Morrell and Kingdon sustained losses that might have seemed like a big deal under different circumstances. They both lost their jobs in the storm surge, for example. But they knew they had fared better than most and, since then, they’ve both found work that they like even better. Kingdon now is a marketing coordinator and executive assistant at an architectural firm. And Morrell is executive assistant to the head of the Louise S. McGehee School in the Garden District.
In the aftermath of the storm, Herold moved to New York, but Baird is still nearby—living just downstairs from Kingdon and Morrell.
“There is risk everywhere. I’m not afraid to be here,” Kingdon says. “This city, its diversity and its culture of celebration—it’s like no place else. This city is ready for people to come back.”
Morrell says he’s been watching a “steady progression back toward normal. There was never a question that I was coming back here,” he says. For him the city is like a family member—imperfect and beloved. “When I introduce newcomers to this place, I feel proud of her the way I’m proud of a hardworking relative—like she’s Aunt New Orleans.”