The storm that changed America

By Jasimine McCowan
SF Goodwill

At Goodwill, we often talk about the organizations, events, and people that inspire us in our work. Material Donations Associate Jasimine McCowan wanted to blog about her friend, Denise (one of our Donations Ambassadors), whose story of perseverance, pain, and redemption in the aftermath of Katrina has been something that has constantly inspired her.

Hurricane Katrina, in August of 2005, affected so many lives, forever. I would like to share the story of a courageous woman, Denise Rothschild, who truly is an inspiration to me. Throughout all of her experiences, she’s always been a caring, and loving person with a truly impressive work ethic.

Her experience and ability to stay humble after everything she’s gone through inspires me nearly every day.

Denise was born and raised in Mid City, New Orleans and when the first warnings about Katrina hit, she did not take them as seriously as she should have. Denise was at work when her manager began sending everyone home explaining that the warning was not a false alarm – it was a matter of life or death. Denise has three children: Montoya 14, Dedrica 13, and Alex 11; of course, they were her first concern. The two older children were with relatives and wanted to stay with them, so Denise picked up her youngest son Alex.

She decided to stay at a friend’s house which she thought would be a safer shelter then her own home. Police patrols were warning everyone to stay inside, there was no electricity, and things were beginning to get worse.

For 3 days they prepared food using a gas stove in the dark. After the third day, they begin to realize how bad things really were. At 6 am, Denise woke to very loud crashing noises. She began to get up from lying on the couch and realized that the house had begun to flood; the water was up to her knees (Katrina had just hit New Orleans).

Quickly, Denise gathered Alex and everything that she could carry. The water was rising; they had run out of food and water and were also very concerned about her other children. One hour later, the water had risen to Denise’s waist. Two hours later, Alex had lost a shoe, everyone was hungry and thirsty and the water was now up to Denise’s neck.

With Alex on her back, she began to get close to another friend’s home, which was on the third floor of an apartment building. They stayed there for two days before running out of food. After the fifth day, they decided they better come up with a plan because the water had risen all the way up to the third floor so they would only be able to go up to the roof.

They moved to the roof using the fire escape, transporting the children first by passing each child between adults and then assisting them onto the roof. Once they reached the roof they were able to see hundreds of people on the roof tops as far as their eyes could see.

Helicopters were flying over the area, attempting to rescue the elderly and critically injured first. After 24 hours of faith and prayer, which included witnessing a mother fighting to save her drowning baby, Denise saw a man below them in a small boat helping to transport people from the roof to the Super Dome, which was about 1 mile away. He made a dozen trips before reaching Denise and her group.

They reached the Superdome and things were not any better there, people were fighting for food, shots were being fired and elderly women were being sexually assaulted. Denise never went inside the Dome.

Denise was finally able to get on a Greyhound bus headed to Houston. When they arrived they were treated like refugees – people threw bottles and rocks at them, claiming they didn’t want them there because they carried disease. They stayed on that bus for four days before safely unloading at an Army Base in Oklahoma City.

Denise was hospitalized three months later due to stress and one of the nurses in the hospital decided to help Denise try to find her family, because she had no contact with anyone since the hurricane hit. A nurse that took care of Denise looked online daily until she found all 20 members of Denise’s family here in San Francisco.

A ministry that visited and prayed with Denise paid for two bus tickets for her and Alex to get to California to reunite with her family. She would eventually return to New Orleans , but found that her home was now in San Francisco, and returned to stay shortly after.

Hearing Denise’s story, in addition to the work I do here, and the people I work with, fellow employees, participants, donors, always remains me that we all have so little to complain about and so much to be grateful for. Denise’s story, reminding me of how our lives can quickly change, is one that will be with me forever.