Hurricane Katrina survivors love new life
Monday was his second day on his job at Park City High School. Calvin LeBlanc calls himself a janitor, a title he likes better than custodian. In a matter-of-fact way he likes to recount how he and his wife have come to love Utah, ending up here after surviving Hurricane Katrina two years ago.
He was born and raised in New Orleans and is getting used to the snow of Utah, he claims he has no desire to return to the life that he knew, a way of life that no longer exists. "They’re not rebuilding that place like they should," he said. "They’ve still got of homeless people down there. They’ve got rats as big as dogs. Why go back to somewhere where they don’t care?"
LeBlanc grew up in the North East 8th Ward of New Orleans. It was there that he almost died when the levee broke and Hurricane Katrina hit. LeBlank and his then fiancée Karen, now his wife, first had to survive the levee breaking before the Hurricane. "They deliberately busted the levees so the water wouldn’t go into the French Quarter and downtown," he said.
LeBlanc was used to hurricanes in New Orleans, and never considered leaving his home for one, but he had never seen anything like Katrina. He has changed his mind. "If they’d say a hurricane is coming here, I’d be the first to leave."
The water from the levee quickly flooded his home, which he rented from his mother. He and Karen climbed into the attic, where they stayed for 12 hours as the storm raged. The winds were so high, combined with rains that he believes they would have been killed if they had tried to leave during the brunt of the storm.
No one came to help, and the couple swam for their lives in darkness. "The only reason we’re alive is we didn’t wait for rescue," LeBlanc said. They found a wooden pallet. Karen got on as he clung to it with a stranger, a person who after that night, he never saw again. They paddled with sticks they found floating. "You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face," he said.
"The response wasn’t good at all, LeBlanc said. "Helicopters were flying over our heads. They rescued people when they were ready. I kept hope. I kept faith."
They were fortunate and did not encounter any corpses, but they imagined some of the things floating could have been bodies. "She would have flipped," LeBlanc said about Karen, but all the dark objects turned out to be branches and other debris.
LeBlanc said they were in the water a total of 14 hours, at one point finding a boat that turned out to have a hole in it, and soon sank. They later held on to a floating door, before coming to water they could stand in. The water was cold. "I’d say I’m a good swimmer, because I’m here. I wouldn’t be trying to win no Olympic medals, but I can survive," LeBlanc said.
Some fellow survivors let the couple sleep in their car. The next day they were taken to a town called Mellvile, and were sheltered in a church.
The LeBlancs had the good fortune to meet Stacia Robitaille, who came to the Gulf Coast to help rescue people. Robitaille, and her husband, former Los Angeles Kings hockey player Luc Robitaille, "adopted’ the Leblanc’s and three other families, paying the costs of their relocation and helping them make a new life. The LeBlancs are grateful for the Robitaille’s support, and now they are trying to help the Robitaille’s humanitarian effort, Shelter for Serenity, which continues to provide aid to victims of the Gulf Coast disaster.
LeBlanc and his wife live in Heber, after being in Utah for two years and he is holding three jobs to get back on his feet financially.
His brother is trying to fix his mother’s home. LeBlanc’s mother was moved to Houston after the flood. She hopes to get back to her home in New Orleans, but LeBlanc is skeptical due to the hardships that still exist there. He is happy in his new job at the high school. "Why people are going back, I don’t understand," he said. "This is better. Much better."
For more information about Shelter for Humanity, or to contribute, visit http://www.shelterforhumanity.org
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Thanks to COVID-19 cutting into visitation numbers, Park City’s seasonal workforce is sufficient. In any other winter, “the hiring situation would be dire.”