Hurricane Katrina, One Year Later: UT Alum Says Life is ‘Two Steps Forward, One Step Back’

KNOXVILLE –- “Recovery feels like ‘two steps forward, one step back,'” New Orleans social worker Mary-Ellen Harwood said.

Mary-Ellen Harwood
Mary-Ellen Harwood
Harwood, a Memphis native and an alumna of the University of Tennessee at Martin, is director of mental health services at the NO/AIDS Task Force in New Orleans. As such, she’s spent the last year helping the community’s AIDS patients recover from the storm.

“The way I look at it, as there are more steps forward than there are back, we’re all still ahead of where we started,” she said. “This is a resilient community.”

On Saturday, August 27, 2005 — two days before Katrina would make landfall and devastate much of the New Orleans area — Harwood heard a local TV weatherman issue a warning like she’d never heard before.

“The weatherman looked straight in camera and said, ‘This is the big one. You need to get out of there.’

“It just scared me,” Harwood said.

She spent 45 minutes gathering up her most treasured belongings. She packed three days worth of clothing into her car and then she, her partner and their two dogs headed to Memphis.

“The people of Memphis were wonderful to us during the evacuation last year,” she said. “I will always appreciate the way they responded to the evacuees with such genuine care and support. I am proud to call Memphis my hometown.”

Although Harwood knew she needed to evacuate New Orleans, her thoughts were with the many AIDS patients she worked with every day.

After graduating from UT-Martin in 1987, Mary Ellen Harwood moved to New Orleans to pursue her master’s degree in social work from Tulane University. She fell in love with the city and stayed.

For the past 10 years, Harwood has worked with the NO/AIDS Task Force, a non-profit agency that provides a statewide AIDS hotline, testing, prevention services, as well as food, housing and counseling services to people living with HIV and AIDS.

Harwood didn’t make it back to New Orleans for more than a month after Katrina hit. When she returned, she found much of her city — and the NO/AIDS Task Force — struggling to survive.

Her home, in the community of Jefferson, La., just west of New Orleans, sustained roof damage and interior flooding from wind-driven rain. Windows were blown out and her fence was gone.

“The things that happened to my house would be considered a big deal if it weren’t for what happened to my neighbors and friends,” she said. “What I had was repairable.

“The majority of my friends and co-workers lost their homes. Our office was flooded.”

In the immediate aftermath of the storm, Harwood and other NO/AIDS Task Force workers feared their agency would die for lack of funding. But thanks to donors around the country, the agency survived — and now workers busied themselves fighting to make sure their clients, who had been scattered about the country, also survived.

Now, a year later, fallout from Hurricane Katrina continues to hamper the NO/AIDS Task Force.

“We had an electrical fire on June 19. Wires damaged by flood waters were not properly replaced. So our agency is once again without a centralized office. We are searching for new office space, but with a shortage of office buildings and skyrocketing rents, it’s been a challenge. We are serving our clients through small satellite offices, a mobile medical unit, and home visits.”

Personally, she’s recovering well.

“We have made all of the necessary repairs to our house. It took some time, but it is quite a relief to be finished! There are still outages in cable service and phone service, as well as problems with mail delivery. These problems are improving, just not fully resolved yet.

“My friend who had a FEMA trailer in my back yard has been able to buy a home. The trailer is now on the list to be picked up.

“Fatigue setting in is evident,” she said. “But our weariness is countered by stubborn determination.”


Contacts:

Amy Blakely, (865) 974-5034, amy.blakely@tennessee.edu