After Katrina, One Sister Moves On; For Another, 'Tomorrow Never Came'

Aug 2, 2015
Originally published on August 14, 2015 3:45 pm

Ten years ago this month, the monster storm Hurricane Katrina thundered through New Orleans and coastal Mississippi and Alabama. Many who survived the storm and its aftermath are still feeling its terrible impact.

This week on For the Record: Hurricane Katrina's mark on one family, 10 years later.

In 2005, sisters Regina and Talitha Halley had just moved out of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans into a new house on Spain Street. Regina, now 33, took care of her sister full time while their mom worked as a professional caregiver.

In the days leading up to the storm, Regina had been paying attention to the news. When the weather alerts turned serious, the girls got worried. Their mother was at work and the family didn't have a car.

Regina stayed glued to the television.

"The mayor [Ray Nagin] came on and said ... 'If you have nowhere to go, you can come to the Superdome.' "

When their mom finally got home, Talitha says, they packed up a few things and left for the Superdome.

"I thought that it was kind of a big deal, but that we'd be able to go home maybe in a couple of days," she remembers.

They found a city bus that was headed to the Superdome and they got on, hoping they were moving toward safety.

But the scene when they arrived was overwhelming. Thousands were lined up outside. Talitha, Regina and their mom waited for seven hours before they finally got inside.

While the desperation was visible everywhere, Talitha, then 12, didn't see it.

"I felt like it was a big party in the beginning," she says. "My friends were there, and my brother's friends and my sister's friend were there, people from my neighborhood that I've grown up around, been around them my entire life."

It's one of many things Regina remembers differently.

"You know, you got to see a few people you know, and it was OK," she says. "By, let's say 2 o'clock in the morning, it was a third-world country."

Tens of thousands packed into the sweltering corridors and arena seats of the Superdome, eating MREs and waiting to go home. The girls' mother clicked into survival mode, especially when the storm ended and people thought they'd be able to leave.

She became obsessed with finding a way out, and eventually, Regina says, her mom started to lose her grip on reality.

"She would come wake us up out of our sleep and tell us, 'Come on, come on, let's go get into the line, they say the bus is coming! Come on, come on, let's go, let's go!' And I said, 'Mom, no bus is ... coming.' "

Regina felt it was up to her to get them through. Days passed and conditions inside the Superdome deteriorated. Talitha remembers small pieces of the ceiling falling on her. Going to the restrooms was nauseating.

"If you could imagine, even after a few hours at a football game or a basketball game, or even a concert, restrooms are horrific by the end of a night," she says. "So could you imagine that for seven days?"

Regina remembers the sinks in the restrooms — the kind with big bowls that a lot of people can use at the same time. She remembers one particular trip to the restroom with Talitha.

"When we got ready to get to the bowl, they have two children in the bowl. Their ages had to be between 3 and 5. It was a little boy and a little girl, and they were face-down. 'They can't be alive,' " she thought. "So, we ran out the bathroom, and they had a guard that was standing, I want to say, about maybe 20 feet away. And I told him, 'Hey, they got two children that's in the bowl in the bathroom!' He said OK.

"So, me and Talitha, she's looking like, 'That's all you going to say is OK?" Regina continues. "So I told him again, I said, 'Maybe I'm not explaining it right. There are two children face-down in a pool of water in the bathroom.' It took them three days to come get those kids."

Here, again, the sisters' memories diverge. Talitha doesn't remember two children face-down in the bathroom.

The chaos that unfolded in the Superdome was widely reported. Conditions were horrible, the experience traumatic. But 10 years later, it's still hard to determine exactly how many people died there.

Accounts vary. In surveying half a dozen different reports, NPR found the number ranges between six and 10. It's impossible to verify Regina's story about the two children, and NPR couldn't find any reference to children in the reports.

But there is no doubt that Regina Halley believes that is exactly what she saw, and it has haunted her ever since.

What Talitha remembers is getting out. After seven days in the Superdome, the buses finally came.

"And everybody was just — you could see a sense of relief, but so much pain and kind of, a lot of people just in shock," she says.

They arrived in Houston. Volunteers were there to help. They were given food and clothes.

"I remember just feeling clean," Talitha says. "We hadn't even taken showers, but just the feeling of being able to put on fresh underwear, and a new change of clothes. It was everything in that moment."

The Halleys had a relative in Houston, so they had a home until they figured things out. They knew they weren't going back to New Orleans, so Talitha got settled into middle school.

"And I was like, 'OK, this is not so bad,' " she says. "That's when I realized that it would've been OK. That the new life was going to be fine."

That's not how Regina felt.

"I still don't feel like I'm OK," she says. "Like, for us, tomorrow never came. We were supposed to go back to our house. My sister was able to push through ... I don't even know how she was able to cope with it as a child, or maybe her coping was to move forward and not let it stop her. But in me and my mom's case, it's totally different.

"To this day, if it's raining, my mom, she still packs a suitcase," Regina continues. "She goes through the cabinets and gets all her canned food, and puts it in her suitcase, and she sits it by the door."

Regina still lives in Houston with her mom, but she's not happy there. She's training to become a barber and sees a therapist to work through the trauma she suffered during the storm.

Talitha thrived. She did well in school and graduated from Howard University this spring. Last week, she moved to Baltimore to start a new job. She says she doesn't talk about Katrina much with her mother and sister.

"Never in depth," she says. "There are small conversations, but it's never, 'Let's have this big conversation about how we feel and where we think we're going,' and different things like that. It's a touchy topic."

"Me and her have our little bits and pieces," says Regina. "As far as in her talking about the stay in the Superdome, and all that different stuff, she don't talk about that. Maybe she goes through it on her own, but I think she just kind of blocks it out. And maybe that's a good thing for her, because she's stronger than I am now."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Rachel Martin, and this is For the Record.

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MARTIN: Ten years ago this month...

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The story is breaking at this hour. Hurricane Katrina, the monster storm, bearing down on New Orleans, coastal Mississippi and coastal Alabama.

MARTIN: For the Record today, Hurricane Katrina's mark on one family 10 years later. We're going to introduce you to two sisters who lived through the storm and its aftermath, and you'll hear that sometimes they remember things differently. That matters because how they think about this storm has had a very real impact on the lives they have led since. Here's their story.

TALITHA HALLEY: My name is Talitha Halley. I'm 22 years old.

REGINA HALLEY: My name is Regina Halley. I live in Houston, Texas. I'm from New Orleans, La., and I'm 33 years old.

MARTIN: The Halley family had just moved out of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans into a new house on Spain Street. Regina watched her little sister full-time while their mom worked as a professional caregiver. For days leading up to the storm, Regina had been paying close attention to the news.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Let's get right into the Gulf of Mexico, still tracking and monitoring the path and the progress and the strengthening of Hurricane Katrina.

R. HALLEY: I had followed it since it got in the Gulf 'cause something about that storm rubbed me the wrong way.

MARTIN: The weather alerts kept getting more serious. The girls started to get worried. Their mom was at work, and the family didn't have a car. Regina stayed glued to the TV.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAY NAGIN: Ladies and gentlemen, I wish I had better news for you, but we are facing a storm that most of us have feared.

R. HALLEY: The mayor came on and said, let this be your last resort. If you don't have nowhere to go, nowhere - no neighbor can't take you, nobody can take you - and you have nowhere to go, you can come to the Superdome.

MARTIN: When their mom finally got home, Talitha says they packed up a few things, and they left for the Superdome.

T. HALLEY: I thought that it was kind of a big deal but that we'd be able to go home maybe in a couple of days. So in my suitcase, I packed a teddy bear that I had gotten that summer, my new school shoes, which were a pair of Adidas, and just a few change of clothes.

MARTIN: They found a city bus that was headed to the Superdome. And they got on, hoping they were moving towards safety. But the scene when they arrived was overwhelming. Thousands of people were lined up outside. Talitha, Regina and their mom waited for seven hours before they finally got in the Superdome. And while the desperation was visible everywhere, Talitha, who was just 12 at the time, didn't see it.

T. HALLEY: I felt like it was a big party in the beginning. My friends were there. My brother's friends and my sister's friends were there, and people from my neighborhood that, you know, I've grown up around. I've been around them my entire life.

R. HALLEY: You know, you got to see a few people you know, and it was OK.

MARTIN: This is Regina.

R. HALLEY: By, let's say 2 o'clock in the morning, it was a third-world country.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: More than 20,000 people are still packed inside in sweltering corridors and in arena seats, eating MREs and waiting to go home. They've been told they could be here all week.

MARTIN: Both sisters remember how their mother clicked into survival mode, especially when the storm ended and everyone expected to just go home. Here's Talitha.

T. HALLEY: I can honestly say I don't really remember her sleeping much while we were there, but instead she'd just, like, walk back and forth from us to where the buses were supposed to be to see if they were ever coming.

MARTIN: Their mother was obsessed with finding a way out. And eventually, Regina says, her mom started to lose her grip on reality.

R. HALLEY: She would come wake us up out of our sleep and tell us, come on, come on, let's go get into the line; they say the buses is coming. Come on, come on, let's go, let's go. And I said, Mom, I was like, no bus is not coming.

MARTIN: Regina knew it was up to her to get them through this. Day after day passed. The conditions inside the Superdome continued to deteriorate. Talitha remembers small pieces of the ceiling falling on her and going to the restroom was nauseating.

T. HALLEY: If you can imagine, even after a few hours at a football game or a basketball game or even a concert, restrooms are horrific by the end of the night. So could you imagine that for seven days?

MARTIN: Regina remembers the sinks in these restrooms - the big bowl sinks you see at sports stadiums - the kind a lot of people can use at the same time. She remembers one particular trip to the bathroom. She went with Talitha.

R. HALLEY: And then when you came out, I said, oh, let's go back and wash your hands. So when we got ready to get to the bowl, they have two children in the bowl, their ages had to be between 3 and 5. It was a little boy and a little girl. And they were face - like, face down. They can't be alive. So I - we ran out the bathroom. And they had a guard that was standing, like, I want to say about maybe 20 feet away. And I told him. I said, hey, hey, they got two children that's in the bowl in the bathroom. He said, OK. And so me and Talitha, she's looking like, that's all you going to say is OK? So I told him again. I said, maybe I'm not explaining it right. There are two children, face down in a pool of water in the bathroom. It took them three days to come get those kids.

MARTIN: I asked Talitha if she remembered that happening.

Do you remember finding those two kids?

T. HALLEY: Finding - I'm sorry?

MARTIN: Your sister told a story about finding two kids who were in the bathroom, their faces down in a pool of water.

T. HALLEY: No, I don't remember that.

MARTIN: The chaos that unfolded in the Superdome was widely reported. The conditions were horrible. The experience was dramatic. But 10 years later, it's still hard to determine exactly how many people died there; accounts vary. In surveying half a dozen different reports, we found the number ranges between six and 10. It's impossible to verify Regina's story. And we couldn't find any reference to children in those reports. But there is no doubt that Regina Halley believes that is exactly what she saw, and it's haunted her ever since. As we just heard, her younger sister, Talitha, has no memory of such an event. She's also far less traumatized by the storm. What Talitha does remember is getting out. After seven days in the Superdome, the buses finally came.

T. HALLEY: And everybody was just - you could see a sense of relief, but so much pain and kind of a lot of people just in shock.

MARTIN: They arrived in Houston. Volunteers were there to help. They were given food and clothes.

T. HALLEY: I remember just feeling clean. We hadn't even taken showers, but just the feeling of being able to put on fresh underwear and a new change clothes, it was everything in that moment.

MARTIN: The Halley sisters had a relative who lived in Houston, their aunt. So they had a home base until they figured things out. They knew they weren't going back to New Orleans. Talitha got settled into a middle school.

>>T. HALLEY And I think once I got into that school and I was like, OK, this is not so bad, and so that's when I realized that it would have been OK, that the new life was going to be fine.

MARTIN: That is not how Regina felt.

When did you finally start to feel like you were going to be OK?

R. HALLEY: I still don't feel like I'm OK. Like, for us, tomorrow never came. We were supposed to go back to our house. My sister was able to push through. I don't even know how she was able to cope with it as a child. Or maybe her coping was to move forward and not let it stop her. But in me and my mom's case, it's totally different. Still to this day, if it's raining, my mom, she still packs a suitcase. She goes through the cabinets and get all her canned food and put it in a suitcase, and she sits it by the door.

MARTIN: Regina still lives in Houston with her mom, but she's not happy there.

R. HALLEY: I don't like Houston at all. Not to say I hate them; it's just that it's not home.

MARTIN: She misses New Orleans, the food, the music, everything. So does Talitha, but she feels differently about her adopted city.

T. HALLEY: Houston is a part of me most definitely, and I love it more than anything.

MARTIN: This is just another indication of how differently each woman reflects back on the storm. Talitha sees it as a horrible thing that happened to her family and so many others, but they survived. Life went on, and she thrived. Talitha did well in school. This past spring, she graduated from Howard University. And she just moved to Baltimore to start a new job. Her sister, Regina, is still figuring things out. She's trying to look forward. She's training to become a barber, and she sees a therapist to work through the trauma she suffered during the storm. Talitha doesn't spend as much time looking back.

Do you ever talk with your sister or your mom about the storm?

T. HALLEY: Vaguely, never in depth. There's small conversations, but it's never, let's have this big conversation about how we feel and, you know, where we think we're going and different things like that. It's a touchy topic.

R. HALLEY: Me and her have our little bits and pieces.

MARTIN: This is Regina.

R. HALLEY: It's still hard for her to talk about. You know, Talitha has been sheltered. You know, she was the baby, so anything her little heart desired, we were on it. But as far as in her talking about the stay in the Superdome and all that different stuff, we - she don't talk about that. And I - maybe she goes through it on her own, but I think she just kind of blocks it out. And maybe that's a good thing for her 'cause she's a pretty - she's stronger than I am now.

MARTIN: Regina Halley and her younger sister Talitha Halley. NPR will have stories all this month about how New Orleans and the Gulf Coast are getting on 10 years after Hurricane Katrina. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.