History Department, UNO

ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEW WITH BIANCA PUGLIA CONCERNING HURRICANE KATRINA\r\n\r\nINTERVIEWED by ANITA YESHO on SEPTEMBER 18, 2006\r\n\r\nBiographical note: Prior to Hurricane Katrina, Bianca Puglia was a doctoral candidate in the counseling program at the University of New Orleans and the owner of a small house on Robert E. Lee Boulevard in Gentilly, a New Orleans neighborhood. On Saturday August 27, 2005 she evacuated to Houston with her parents and siblings; she does not have a car of her own because she is legally blind. \r\n\r\n\r\n\r\nINTERVIEWER: When I moved to New Orleans 16 years ago I wasn\'t used to hurricane evacuations and you are one of the people who taught me about the variety of New Orleans family routines for evacuations. Why don\'t you tell me about how your family prepares for hurricanes?\r\n\r\nBIANCA PUGLIA: Anything over a Category 2, we evacuate. When I was about 5, Hurricane Betsy hit. We lost the house. We lived in Arabi and the family business was in the Lower Ninth [Ward.] So we lost that. So ever since Betsy, we evacuate. We also were separated in Betsy, some of the family, some of the extended family. You know, we\'re [south Louisiana] natives on both sides of the family so we usually know where everybody is at all times. So my mother was very paranoid about this for years. We HAVE to be together and we HAVE to evacuate or she will pretty much lose her mind and that\'s pretty much how it\'s been. Even if you don\'t want to go, you HAVE to go. There\'s just no resisting. We have to go. \r\n\r\nINTERVIEWER: Who is we?\r\n\r\nPUGLIA: \"We\" is my mother, father, brother, sister, brother-in-law and second sister and me. When my brother was married there was his wife. There was just no breaking the pack. And the men always want to stay home because they want to \"protect the homestead\" and it\'s always a big, dramatic argument. Every. Single. Time. When Katrina was coming I was so immersed in my doctoral program that ONE, I didn\'t know she was coming and TWO, I didn\'t know how big she was. [Laughter.] I was glued to a computer in Gentilly and I got a phone call saying \"We\'re evacuating.\" And I just didn\'t want to do it. I didn\'t want the interruption. I was devoted to what I was doing and my mind was set on getting through this doctoral program and I was basically told \"PACK.\" I have two dogs, so I tried to use them as an excuse since no one likes to have the dogs in their car. It didn\'t work; we took the dogs. I really begrudgingly put on a pair of jeans that were too big for me, an old t-shirt, grabbed a nightshirt, and extra t-shirt, backed up my computer files, grabbed a laptop, and figured, \"OK, I\'ll be in a hotel in Arkansas for three days.\" We always go north�straight north up to Arkansas.\r\n\r\nINTERVIEWER: Don\'t y\'all usually go to the same place in Arkansas?\r\n \r\nPUGLIA: Yes, and I cannot remember the name of that little town. All I remember is cotton everywhere. That\'s all I remember is cotton and I thought god, we are in Arkansas. I did pack a swimsuit because we were going to be in a hotel and I figured I could swim. That works for me: swimming, school, and taking care of the dogs. But my sister called last minute and said \"Aren\'t you taking your jewelry?\" I kind of haphazardly scooped up some things. We tried to make hotel reservations and a friend of my sister called from Houston and said \"Come here,\" because everyone was leaving and Katrina was so huge. No one had seen anything that size. And we ended up at Houston at Barbara\'s house. I had to leave the dogs in Lacombe with my brother-in-law, who refused to leave. Then my brother decided to stay. And my father decided to stay with them. My father was 73 then. My mother was NOT happy. So the women went over to Houston and the men stayed in Lacombe. After we got to Houston all the footage, the media coverage, started. We were just in shock. My mother was about to have a breakdown because we couldn\'t talk to the men and her worst nightmare had happened. We were separated in another hurricane. At that time we didn\'t know what was going on over on the Northshore and the property there is old family property. There are five homes on the property�all Puglias�and there\'s a bayou at one end, so we had no clue what was going on and none of us knew anything about our homes. And we were all just nervous�nervous as�I don\'t even have the words to describe it�just nervous. I just remember that the news was on 24/7 and at one point I just went nuts. I just couldn\'t take it. I couldn\'t take it because it was just too immense. I also was the only liberal in the house and I couldn\'t take the running commentary on the footage that was coming through. And I just kind of went numb and I stopped watching. I was mostly on the internet, not looking at Katrina stuff. And then the news came down that my sister\'s house was gone, in Arabi. And then we knew that my brother\'s house in Waveland was gone. And then we found out that mine was gone. In 24 hours we found out about two of the houses we thought mine was OK. My house didn\'t go until after the second, the London, canal broke. At first I was dry and then in 24 hours I was gone. \r\n\r\nINTERVIEWER: How did you find out?\r\n\r\nPUGLIA: The [TV] news. It was just a high of relief, and then sadness for my sister and my brother. And then 24 hours I joined them. And then the phone. I think my brother-in-law got through to my sister. Immediately my mother relaxed because the men were OK. They were miserable because of course they stayed in some little hotel somewhere with the dogs. My father said the dogs were OK but I found out later they were a hassle. \r\n\r\nINTERVIEWER: So you have how many siblings? \r\n\r\nPUGLIA:I have three�two sisters and a brother.\r\n\r\nINTERVIEWER: So out four kids, only one still has a house.\r\n\r\nPUGLIA: Yes, the one who lives next door to my parents. That\'s when we found out that Lacombe was OK. The property is called Terra Bella, \"beautiful land\" in Italian, and those two homes were OK. We had lots of trees down. It\'s a 19-acre spread that belonged to my grandparents, an old pecan orchard. It\'s beautiful. They had lots of trees down but the houses were fine. And I just remember my mother walking up to me and I was still all in shock and just numb. She put her arm on my shoulder and said, \"We can help you. Now I can help you get through this. We know what to do. We\'ve done it before.\" [Long tearful pause.]\r\n\r\nINTERVIEWER: How did that make you feel?\r\n\r\nPUGLIA: I was....touched by the gentleness in her voice, but horrified. I was horrified. You know, I was only 5 for Betsy and I didn\'t have the cognitive ability to process it. I remember the entire day of Betsy in such detail and it seems like in that moment after Katrina I understood it. Finally. I felt like I was floating. There was nothing I could do. I couldn\'t get in, I couldn\'t get out. I couldn\'t get in the city, I couldn\'t get out of that damn house in Houston. [laughter] I was just dying. My independence was cut off. I stayed in Houston a couple of weeks then moved to Baton Rouge. My niece was at LSU; we stayed in her apartment. My mom and my oldest sister Kathy, the one who lives in Lacombe, were dying to see my dad so I rode with them to Lacombe. I just needed some space. Lacombe still had no electricity. All the cousins who live on the property were there. They were running off a generator�you know, so many hours a day so the refrigerator would stay cold and you could only wash clothes at a certain time and they had it down to a system. When I arrived they were all sitting on the back porch of my parents\' place with the grill running�big backyard barbeque. One of my cousins owns a restaurant in Madisonville so they had gone in the freezer. So the \"refugee food,\" with no lights and all the bugs, was lamb chops and mahi-mahi and everybody was DRUNK. [Laughter.] It\'s all by candlelight on plastic plates and they say \"What\'ll you have? Lamb chops or mahi-mahi?\" and I just cracked up and went \"This is refugee food?!\" And they went \"Well, the restaurant....\" [Laughter] So I said, \"Well, umm, I\'ll have the fish!\" It was just funny. They were eating well, drinking well, and everyone was sleeping on cheap air mattresses. It was actually nice to be home, even though it was still miserable. We went back to Baton Rouge and stayed with my niece for a couple more weeks and I managed to contact a couple of friends. It was just hard to fine everybody. We have a very large extended family and my mother\'s family is all in St. Bernard Parish. Her big joke is, \"If you meet anyone in St. Bernard Parish, just give me a minute and [I\'ll figure out how] we\'re related to them. She\'s [got a maiden name that ] ends in an \"ez\"�come on, in St. Bernard Parish? My 367 cousins are all homeless. We lost over 100 homes in St. Bernard Parish. People are just scattered. My mom is from Toco �lower St. Bernard�and my dad is from New Orleans. They all got wiped out, the ones in Lakeview and Gentilly. I lived in Lacombe for two months and we managed to get to the city we did the houses as they became available. My brother had this plan. He was going to do his house, then we figured my house would open next, then Arabi. But it didn\'t happen in that order because of the re-flooding. My brother really was the hero through this. He made it his personal mission�even though he was leaving the city to find work, to start over again�to make sure everyone was done. Because again, my parents are older. \r\n\r\nINTERVIEWER: By \"done\" do you mean gutted?\r\n\r\nPUGLIA:Yes. We ended up doing my house last because the London Avenue canal was really messed up. What was interesting to me was how each house smelled different because of the different types of floodwater. \r\n\r\nINTERVIEWER: Really? The smell was different? That\'s fascinating to me because you remember I was born without a sense of smell. You need to enlighten me... \r\n\r\nPUGLIA:Ah! That\'s right. \r\n\r\nINTERVIEWER: I thought Katrina stink was Katrina stink.\r\n\r\nPUGLIA: No, marsh water is a LOT worse than lake water, let me tell you. [Laughter] My brother was in Waveland so his [flood water] was from the bay and that water was cleaner than the lake. My sister in St. Bernard Parish got the marsh water than came up. I\'m talking NASTY. My brother kept going over there and doing things to the house before he let us come over and pick through the stuff. He would knock out the windows and say \"Oh, no. We need to air this out for three days.\" My mother was just nagging him because he wouldn\'t eat on the days he was working on the houses. She\'d say \"You\'re just running yourself down\" and she was worried, you know. And the first day we went to help to start gutting my sister\'s house he wouldn\'t let us in the house. He said \"You can\'t take it.\" I said \"What are you talking about?\" He was handing stuff out through the windows�like some sort of drive-thru window�and we would go clean it. Well, I went up to the window and the house smells awful. He was in the house 15 minutes and he was running out, his eyes were watering, he was choking and gagging and dry-heaving. He was heaving so bad it scared us. We all said, \"George, don\'t go back in.\" And he said \"No, it\'s OK.\" Well, nobody ever nagged him about not eating again. [Laughter.] It was scary. All we were thinking was: it\'s not worth it. Then we all got a little panicked about what kind of illness he could get in there. He had this rash all over his scalp, which he hid, being a man. [Laughter.] But he wanted it all done and if we had seen the rash we wouldn\'t let him do it, so he hid it. We took stuff to Lacombe because we had the space to spread things out and clean them and see what we could save. We had a stream of relatives coming by to store things, bringing their salvage. That\'s how we learned where everyone was, because they needed a place to store stuff. In a way we\'re a lucky family because we had a place like that and we hadn\'t lost anyone. \r\n\r\nINTERVIEWER: Maybe this would be good time to talk about the people in your family you lost after the storm, the Katrina deaths that aren\'t officially Katrina deaths...\r\n\r\nPUGLIA: But they are. My first cousin Rose lived on Franklin Avenue, near Gentilly. She did not evacuate because she has one of those high houses on a hill and she had to be airlifted out.\r\n\r\nINTERVIEWER: She was on the Causeway? Dropped there after she was rescued?\r\n\r\nPUGLIA: Yes, for three days. Rose was 59 years old and she was a large woman. Her health was not great, but not poor. She had the average health problems of a big woman of her age. But the three days on Causeway and the trauma of it...she went from there to the airport, to the makeshift hospital. A friend from Houma eventually found her. Rose would call and talk to us but we had no way to get to her. I just felt so helpless with her. She never got over the trauma. She could never drive past that section of Causeway again. Her health just spiraled. She passed away this summer. She never made it back to her house on Franklin. \r\n\r\nINTERVIEWER: Where did she die?\r\n\r\nPUGLIA: In the hospital in Houma. She never made it back home. \r\n\r\nINTERVIEWER: I remember Rose as a hostess, mostly.\r\n\r\nPUGLIA: That\'s right. You went to her Endymion parade parties.\r\n\r\nINTERVIEWER: You had another first you want to talk about him?\r\n\r\nPUGLIA: Yeah, I will....It\'s all right...It\'s just that Rose died on a Thursday morning and I was very close to her. And on Friday Philip committed suicide at the age of 25. \r\n\r\nINTERVIEWER: Oh my. I didn\'t realize he was that young. I thought he was in his 30s. \r\n\r\nPUGLIA: Philip had schizophrenia. He had his first psychotic break two or three earlier but he was fine. He was on meds. He was one of the lucky ones; meds worked for him. He had just gone back to college. He was at Southeastern and he had been back a year when Katrina hit. We\'re not really sure what happened. We haven\'t been able to trace the events. But he went to the airport and jumped off one of the levels of the parking garage. \r\n\r\nINTERVIEWER: I\'m so sorry.\r\n\r\nPUGLIA: It\'s horrifying. He was such a sweet spirit. He was a musician and one of the most loving people you ever wanted to meet. But he just never recovered. He couldn\'t handle the trauma and I can just imagine, for him, working so hard, dealing with schizophrenia, finally getting back on the road he wanted to, being interrupted....It was so important to me to get back on track, it must have been so difficult for him. I feel like that\'s what killed him. \r\n\r\nINTERVIEWER: So those deaths happened one right after the other? \r\n\r\nPUGLIA: Thursday morning, then Friday. That was not a good week to be a Puglia. Then we started having a broken hip here, then lots of depression....It\'s just taken the wind out of so many sails...At a certain age they just can\'t face starting over. I know how hard it was for me. I remember standing in Wal-Mart with a pack of white underwear in my hand and looking at it and thinking \"I\'m a grown woman and my mother is buying me underwear. This is what my life has come to.\" And then I laughed. Because it is kind of funny. But whoever thought I would be here, living like this, at the age of 47? Thank god my mother was there to buy me the underwear because I didn\'t have a clue....I am on leave of absence from the doc program. I kind of crashed this summer from avoiding the house. There was a fire. The house next door to my flooded house burned down and damaged the side of my house. It happened in March and I noticed it sometime in May [laughter] so that tells you something there. \r\n\r\n\r\nINTERVIEWER: You got some tattoos this summer....\r\n\r\nPUGLIA: I did. Did you know my tattoos trace my Katrina journey?\r\n\r\nINTERVIEWER: I did not know that. I thought there might be a connection, but I did not know there was a narrative. \r\n\r\nPUGLIA: There is a narrative. It kind of happened naturally. I chose each image because it resonated with me, and they I realized later how they went together. I had no tattoos before Katrina. Now I have five.\r\n\r\nINTERVIEWER: Five! Last I heard it was two!\r\n\r\nPUGLIA: No, five! On my right leg there\'s a fleur-de-lis, which signifies I am a New Orleanian wherever I go. The butterfly on my right thigh is my emergence from Katrina, my rebirth. The third one is the flower arch on my right upper arm�this symbolizes an archway to well, an archway to wherever and whatever I want. Because Katrina is a sad journey but it truly did free me from a lot of things, you know?....I have three shooting stars on the right side of my chest to symbolize my re-connection to the doctoral program. The three stars are me, Micah and Stephanie. The teardrop [a sort of a teardrop-shaped peace symbol] on my left breast means peace, my inner peace. I like the teardrop because it was a bittersweet journey. And that completes my tattoos.\r\n\r\nINTERVIEWER: And that sounds like a good place to complete your story.\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n


“[Untitled],” Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, accessed May 24, 2022,