Survivor looks back 5 years at Katrina

Michelle Colon, a health care lab director living in Whitewater, remembers when a sheriff’s deputy came knocking on her door in a New Orleans suburb the morning that Hurricane Katrina hit. The deputy wasn’t panicked, Colon recounted, just serious.

The word Michelle Colon used to describe Hurricane Katrina is not fit to print.

Although she had nothing nice to say about the hurricane and its effect on her native New Orleans, Colon is happy to have found a new home in western Colorado.

Colon has been so content in her Whitewater home and so focused on her job as regional lab director for the Mesa County Health Department, she couldn’t believe five years had passed since Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast.

On a recent Thursday evening, over a cup of Community Coffee that Colon has shipped in from New Orleans because, “I don’t drink what y’all drink,” the 47-year-old Mardi Gras-lovin’ and gumbo-eatin’ woman talked about the days before and after Hurricane Katrina made landfall in her hometown

After all, she was in Louisiana for it all.

On Friday, Aug. 26, 2005, three days before Hurricane Katrina hit, Colon worked her normal 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. shift at Charity Hospital on Tulane Avenue in the city. No one talked about Hurricane Katrina when she was at work because the hurricane wasn’t expected to hit the city, she said.

By 9 p.m. that night, Colon’s mother called to let her daughter know Hurricane Katrina’s path had shifted. Bummer, Colon thought, but “I didn’t plan on leaving. I had never left before.”

On Sunday, Aug. 29, 2005, the morning of the day that Hurricane Katrina made landfall, Colon’s neighbor, a deputy with the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Department, knocked on her front door and told Colon, “I want you to go. I will watch the house.”

He wasn’t panicked, he was just serious, Colon said.

She and roommate Joyce Vergith, a 30-year resident of the city, packed up their Subaru Forester and drove to Shreveport, La., where Colon’s brother lived.

Nearly 20 days passed before Colon and Vergith were allowed to return home. During that time, they saw on TV their Metairie neighborhood flooded. Metairie is a suburb of New Orleans. Six inches of water seeped into their 30-year-old house, damaging everything.

“Mold was up the wall, up furniture legs, growing in the damndest of places,” Colon said.

However, there was no structural damage.

“We were lucky,” she said.

She spent every waking moment — because she lost her job after the hospital where she worked was flooded to the first level — gutting her home to sell it to someone who wanted to move closer to the city to work on his ravaged home.

By April 2006, Colon left New Orleans for good with Vergith, their dog, Heidi Marie, and five cats. Their destination was Fruita, where Vergith, now 63, had family. Both women had visited western Colorado and longed to move there.

“It took a hurricane to blow me out of there,” Colon said, now able to laugh about the whole experience.

The women still own Heidi Marie, who bounded around their Whitewater home while they drank coffee.

In February, the women threw a Super Bowl party with two kinds of gumbo, red beans and rice, and a turducken, which is a turkey stuffed with a duck that has been stuffed with a chicken. Then, the New Orleans Saints won. Colon is still ecstatic about the victory. The Saints had never been to a Super Bowl before.

In a way, the Saints represent New Orleans, Colon said, because they were labeled losers but never gave up.

And Colon has heard people label New Orleans a city of poverty, crime and corruption that was destined to be flooded. And that all may be true on some level, but, she asked, “How would you like someone to say that about your hometown?”

Like the Saints, however, the city isn’t about to give up.

Colon visited in 2007.

New Orleans is “scarred,” which breaks her heart, she said. Charity Hospital, where she worked, still hasn’t reopened.

But don’t give up on New Orleans because “it’s so hard to describe how special that city is,” she said.. “It’s just ... different.”


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