KATY, Texas—On the dining room table of her suburban Katy home, Elois Teno has carefully labeled a few photographs.
One of them shows an empty field where grass partially obscures an overgrown driveway. Another shows the same patch of property a few years ago, when small concrete piers mark the spot where her home once stood. And another shows something else she lost during Hurricane Katrina: a smiling man wearing the red robes of a hospital chaplain.
"This was my husband," she says.
Mrs. Teno dug out the pictures and marked them for an exhibit at a ceremony scheduled for the seventh anniversary of Katrina’s landfall. Survivors of Hurricane Katrina who’ve made Houston their home gathered at the SHAPE Community Center for a remembrance of the storm that changed their lives forever.
Sadly, many of them – like Elois Teno – lost not only their homes, but also people they loved.
"I just begged him to leave," she says, recalling the day her family decided to evacuate. Her husband, a chaplain at New Orleans’ Charity Hospital, decided to stay behind.
"My grandkids was hugging and kissing him, (saying) ‘Paw-Paw, please, let’s just leave!’" Teno remembers. "And he said, ‘No, I’m not going anywhere, I’ll be here when y’all get back.’"
Hurricane Katrina survivors who settled in Houston have spent this week watching the news out of New Orleans with an uncomfortable mix of grief and anxiety. Many of them still have friends and relatives back in the Crescent City, so they’ve watched Hurricane Isaac’s approach with growing unease. At the same time, the anniversary of Katrina’s landfall has aggravated painful memories of lost homes and lost loved ones.
"So there’s a lot of pain, a lot of memories that are not pleasant about today," says Dr. Mtangulizi Sanyika, who leads the New Orleans Association of Houston. "Yet at the same time, after seven years, we’ve learned to be resilient."
As Isaac spun toward the Louisiana coastline, hotels along Interstate 10 in Texas once again filled with evacuees fleeing an approaching storm. Although the crowds were nowhere near as large as the flood of refugees from Katrina, Houstonians once again opened their homes to friends and relatives fleeing for safer and drier ground.
"It ain’t Katrina," Sanyika said with a relieved smile. "Brother Isaac ain’t Sister Katrina.I am just so thankful that Isaac is not, in fact, Katrina."
Nonetheless, it’s enough to bring tragic memories back to Teno. She’s visited New Orleans, but not for very long.
"I can’t stay in the city very long," she says."It’s just too much emotion for me."
She smiles when she remembers giving her husband a hibachi grill that he cherished. The last day she saw him, he had just bought some ribs and he was looking forward to grilling them and eating them on his porch.
"He says, ‘I’m not going anywhere,’" she recalls. "He says, ‘Y’all just go on. I’m gonna fix my ribs. I’ll be on the front porch eating ribs when you come back."
She spoke with her husband by cell phone several times as she drove to Dallas. In their last conversation, he told her she shouldn’t worry about him.
Joe Teno’s body was found about three months after the storm, buried in the deep rubble of the Lower Ninth Ward, about two blocks away from the house where he lived and died.
The chaplain left behind an unfinished writing project based upon his experiences at Charity Hospital. The notes and the manuscript were lost in the storm, but his widow plans to write her own version of it because the subject seems so strangely apt: Grief.
"Unfortunately, mine is going to be very, very personal," Teno said.