THE POET AND AUTHOR Oliver Wendell Holmes once
wrote that “the great thing in the world is not so much
where we stand, as in what direction we are moving.”
For many displaced people of New Orleans, where they
stand hasn’t changed much in the last year.
The floodwaters have receded and promises of restoration have
been vowed, but the most damaged sections of New Orleans are still
a long way from recovery. Perhaps even more devastating than the
wreckage left by Hurricane Katrina is the appallingly slow progress
that has followed.
Jacob Steubing, Florence Herman and Lynn and Bill Turnbull are
strangers to each other, but they are bound by a common thread:
They were each, in their own ways, changed by the hurricane and
by the city that bore the brunt of the damage.
Jacob, a student at Loyola University when the events unfolded,
learned a lesson in humanity and altruism that could not be
taught in a college classroom. Florence forfeited her New Orleans
home and all that she owned to the floods but would not forfeit
her life. And the Turnbulls journeyed 1,100 miles and spent nearly
a month in the most devastated areas helping the city—and some
of its people—inch closer toward recuperation.
These are their stories.
Jacob Steubing: A Continuing Education
Jacob Steubing picks me up outside
my hotel in New Orleans on a warm,
muggy day driving a black pickup truck
that has seen better days. After clearing
a space for me on the passenger seat—littered with an assortment of papers—we make our way up a bustling Canal
What’s immediately noticeable about
Jacob is his laugh—a hearty, resonant
vibrato that seems to start from his feet
and work its way up. In the course of
the next hour, he’ll laugh often.
We find a comfortable coffee shop on
the corner of Magazine and Race
Streets—a busy intersection of unique
housing units. Jacob, a native of San
Antonio, Texas, and 2006 sociology
graduate of Loyola University in New
Orleans, sips his drink only occasionally,
pausing to recount the days after
the city flooded.
“There was so much going on it was
overwhelming at first,” Jacob says. “I
was just wondering how everything
would end up being O.K.”
For a short-lived moment, Jacob, 21,
weighed his options. “It would have
been pretty easy to just give up and go
back to Texas and hang out.”
But he didn’t. Instead, Jacob dove
headfirst into rescue efforts through his
work with Catholic Charities. Immediately
after the floods hit, he and other
volunteers transported 10 displaced families
to his home state in 15-seater vans.
“I was able to evacuate people back
to Texas with the help of my family. We
drove them back that Friday night and
I was with them that weekend.”
Once there, Jacob helped to arrange
for a retreat center, doctors and social
workers to meet with evacuated
families. When he returned to New
Orleans—after the emergency evacuation
had been lifted—Jacob went back
to work with Catholic Charities doing
shelter assessments and serving as a
liaison to FEMA.
“It was an amazing experience,” he
says. “When the city was still under
emergency evacuation, I had access to
the evacuated areas.”
Jacob would do such work in the
weeks and months after the hurricane.
It’s oddly fitting that this catastrophe
occurred on the cusp of his senior year
of college. A new education awaited
An Age of Uncertainty
Part of that learning curve involved
Jacob putting his passion for social justice
and service into action.
“It’s a lot easier to deal with everything
that’s going on if you know that
you’re doing your part,” he says. “I
don’t think I would have been able to
handle seeing everything on the news
and not do anything. If I wasn’t doing
it, I wouldn’t feel O.K.”
That doesn’t mean the experience
was any less demanding or deeply frustrating.
Despite unparalleled chaos and
devastation, for Jacob, it was the strain
of not knowing how the future would
unfold that was his greatest hurdle.
“There was so much confusion and
so much uncertainty. And that was
really eating people up—not even being
able to come in and see whether or not
they were going to have a place to live.”
When most of the country was quick
to blame FEMA for a series of resounding
failures, Jacob was mindful of the
bigger picture. “FEMA wasn’t equipped
to handle something like this—they
do brushfires and small floods,” he says
with a slight laugh. “I think the way
someone put it was, ‘A failure of imagination.’ The government didn’t recognize
early on how massive this was.
“All the systems were overwhelmed,”
Jacob continues. “They could have
brought in the military a lot sooner.
The military wouldn’t be good for a
long-term recovery but they could at
least mobilize resources quickly.”
But focusing too heavily on blame,
for Jacob, is counterproductive, especially
in this era of rebuilding and
renewal in New Orleans. His strong
sense of self and his service to others
both drive and anchor him.
“When everything is unclear about
what’s going to happen with your life
and with the world around you, it helps
to have an understanding of the type of
person you should be and the type of
world you should be working toward.
That kind of understanding is what
kept me steady.”
Faith in a Forgotten City
The areas of New Orleans most affected
by the hurricane are beyond description,
even a year after the fact. Many
sections still resemble ghost towns—streets are desolate, houses stand in
ruin, deserted cars look like muddied
Since Jacob has been in the thick of
it from the start, his faith has most certainly
changed. “Faith is always something
that you’re growing—it’s not at all
static,” he says.
“But I do have a different faith now,
probably more applicable to where I
am in my life and the world around me.
I wouldn’t say it’s weaker or even necessarily
stronger. It’s active in a different
“It’s about knowing what the right
thing to do is and being open to it.
That can really keep you from despairing.
And I would say that would be
how my faith fostered me.”
Jacob believes that individual faith is
dependent on action, on service to others.
One feeds from the other. “Having
a strong individual faith is important,
but I think that sort of faith is dead if
it isn’t grounded and growing in a supportive
and concerned community.”
After such a disaster, many blamed
God. Jacob took a different path. To
him this was a failure not of God but
of man. “I was never looking at this
as divine judgment or even as a test,
necessarily. It was something that happened
as the result of human structures.”
Though the city of New Orleans is on
a path—jagged and uneven as it
seems—toward recovery, Jacob’s work
for the poorest of Louisiana is unfinished.
It always will be.
As the parish social ministry coordinator
for the Archdiocese of New
Orleans, Jacob spends most of his time
organizing initiatives, developing programs
and writing grants.
A significant organization that Jacob
is involved in is the Louisiana Bucket
Brigade, an environmental organization
that works with communities that
border the state’s oil refineries and
chemical plants. The group works to
assist residents in the protection of
His hopes for the people of New
Orleans are all-embracing: secure levees,
safe neighborhoods, affordable housing,
jobs with decent pay and opportunities
for education and personal advancement.
But he tries to keeps his hopes within
reason. “I’ve been trying to keep myself
steady because, if you get yourself too
hopeful, then you’re setting yourself
to go out and say, ‘Oh, never mind,
this is impossible,’” he says. “I’m just
trying to keep my focus steady and the
goals realistic and attainable.”
In the meantime, Jacob is concerned
with pacing himself. “I don’t want to
burn out,” he says. “It’s like running a
marathon. You don’t want to sprint if
you don’t have to.”
Florence Herman: Weathered and Wiser
It’s easy to fall in love with the little
house on Vicksburg Street in Lakeview,
a suburb of New Orleans. Painted a
faint canary yellow, it sits on a small,
level piece of land in a picture-perfect
The house, outwardly small, feels
just the opposite: Rooms are spacious
and open. As one walks through, it has
the feel of well-lived-in home—a place
replete with memories.
It’s also completely hollowed out—an empty shell with stains left by over
10 feet of water. The walls have peeled
and crumbled. Dirt, dust and debris
have conquered nearly every inch of
the floors. And the air inside doesn’t
move—it’s thick, earthy, unnerving.
Florence Herman, 65, owns the house
on Vicksburg Street. Sitting on her front
porch, the semi-retired managing editor
of Clarion Herald (the newspaper of the
New Orleans Archdiocese) shows an
admirable calm when discussing the
days after Hurricane Katrina.
In a rich, Southern drawl right out of
a Tennessee Williams play, she describes
her 48-hour ordeal when she
stood on top of a chair in the corner of
her living room and clung to the wall
as floodwater, which seeped through
the floor furnace vents, began to rise.
The Steel Magnolia
For Florence, those desperate hours
aren’t just unclear, they’re almost unaccounted
for: She has little memory of
the hours that followed the floods.
“A friend of mine who is a psychologist
says that the term is ‘disassociated,’”
Florence says. “I had no clue of
where I was or what was going on. But
I always knew I was in water. That consciousness
never left me.”
After two days, a battered and disoriented
Florence was rescued by two men
in a flatboat who heard her cries for
help. “It wasn’t pretty and it wasn’t
elegant, but they got me in that flatboat,”
she says. “We motored out of
here along rooftops. That’s all there
were, just rooftops.”
Eventually, Florence made her way to
the airport—a holding station for thousands
of evacuees, some of them living,
some of them dead. “It was chaos,
absolute chaos at the airport. Even in
my state, I could tell that,” she says.
Florence, bruised and barefooted,
meandered around the airport in a
blurred state for two days until she
boarded a plane for San Antonio, Texas,
where her sister lives.
If New Orleans during those days
was her season in hell, then San Antonio
was a little piece of heaven: Florence
and the other evacuees had access to the Red Cross, cots, hot food,
showers, counselors and telephones.
After finally reaching
her sister’s house, Florence
slept almost the entire day.
When she woke, she began
the long road to recovery.
But deep wounds are slow
to heal. Returning to New
Orleans, Florence lived like a
gypsy for months, moving
from one friend’s house to
another. She then signed a
lease for a one-bedroom apartment
in the lower Garden District.
“I did it to stop me from
making countless hops,” she says. “To
force me to sit.”
The Calm After the Storm
Part of Florence’s healing process has
been her ongoing work at Clarion Herald,
whose offices were nearly destroyed
by the floodwaters. For her, the newspaper
and its staff were welcome distractions.
“It’s been a panacea, a help, a stability,”
she says. “It was a routine and a
structure. I could put aside thinking
about the other things. If I had to sit for
seven days a week staring at the four
walls, I probably would have gone
’round the bend.”
Part of the healing journey
involved returning to
the house she shared for 27
years with her husband,
who died in 1997. It was a
step Florence was initially
reluctant to take. When the
insurance adjuster called
and requested they meet to
survey the damage, she hesitated.
“After I hung up the
phone, I cried. I didn’t want
to come back,” she says. “I
didn’t want to see it. I know
what I lost.” For Florence,
the uninsurable items were
the ones truly missed—mementoes, photographs,
memories that were spoiled.
Touring the house for the
first time, Florence was able
to gather a few lingering
souvenirs that were not swept away:
an overnight bag, her passport and
Though Florence—unlike the poorest
of New Orleans—has the financial
means to start over, she’s unyielding
about making these distinctions in light
of such devastation. Tragedy is tragedy.
“The memories you can’t replace,
no matter what your income is,” she
says. “This was an equal-opportunity
An Unsinkable Faith
The floodwaters may have devastated
Florence’s house and nearly taken her
life, but the best of her remains intact, most notably her faith.
“I never viewed God as having a
hand in it. To me it was nature and it
was a man-made disaster, a compound
series of errors. To view it as the wrath
of God—that way lies madness. People
walk around saying, ‘Why did God let
this happen?’ Don’t even bother to go
Florence’s faith is written so clearly
in her constitution that she’s almost
unaware of it. “My faith is such an
ingrained part of who and what I am,
I’m never conscious of it. It’s been part
of my life all of my life,” she says.
Still, the road to higher ground is
never an easy one to travel. But
Florence, along with thousands of other
survivors, has had no other choice but
to go on.
“You just put one foot in front of
the other. If you’re lucky, you have
family and friends. People who evacuated
with their families had each other,
even if that’s all they had.”
That sense of resilience would not
spread to all in Florence’s parish at St.
Dominic in Lakeview. In the months
after Katrina, she saw several former
parishioners at other church services.
The congregation, she realizes, will
never be as whole.
“My poor faith community has scattered
to the four winds,” she says.
Much of the picturesque Garden District
in New Orleans is lined with trees
as old and as seasoned as the city in
which they grow. Customarily, with
trees of this age, the thick and gnarled
roots often penetrate the sidewalks.
Like these trees, Florence has a good
many roots in the city of New Orleans
and she has no intention of leaving it.
The fourth-generation Louisiana native
is, without question, stubborn.
“The people of this city won’t let go.
They can’t let go and I’m probably just
like them. I won’t let go of the city. I
don’t know anyplace else. These are
Her house, on the other hand, isn’t
something she’s eager to hold on to.
In the months after the hurricane,
Florence has numbed to the house on
Vicksburg Street. As we tour the ravaged,
vacant rooms, she escorts me
around with a calm detachment, as if
walking through a stranger’s residence.
On the floor in a bedroom, Florence
is surprised to find her old cigarette
case—tattered and ruined. She gives a
broken smile and tosses it back on the
floor. It doesn’t belong to her anymore.
When asked if she finds it difficult to
walk through her house, her answer is
quick: “I’ve already said my good-byes.”
For Florence, the past has long since
been written. She has greater issues
with the present. “It’ll be easy to look
back at this in five years and put it all
into perspective, but watching it unfold
can be excruciating. Living history, day-to-day, is no fun.”
The future, in her eyes, looks somewhat
promising. “Long-term, I see the
city surviving. People think there is a
future—if our political leaders would
just stop fighting and start being proactive.”
As for herself, she doesn’t know what
the next step will be. “I still haven’t
resolved that in my own mind.”
For now, Florence plans to work and
to stay put in her one-bedroom apartment
with her only two belongings: a
bed and a chair.
Lynn and Bill Turnbull: Tenderhearted Tourists
Lynn and Bill Turnbull loaded up their
RV in late February and left their home
in Oxford, Michigan, headed for New
Orleans’s first post-Katrina Mardi Gras.
Though hesitant, the retired couple
wanted to offer support to the beleaguered
city in presence and in pocket.
They would end up giving much
In a phone interview from their
Michigan home, the couple recount
how their lives were forever changed
after reading an e-mail from a friend
and fellow parishioner who had just
returned from volunteering in New
Orleans through Catholic Charities’
Operation Helping Hands. For Lynn
and Bill, an idea took root.
“They needed couples to supervise
the influx of volunteers that were going
to be there in March because of spring
break,” Lynn says.
Initially, Lynn and Bill agreed to a
week of volunteering. Then one week
turned into two; two turned into three.
And in that time, the couple, who had
been to New Orleans several times in
past years, saw the city they loved in a
wholly different light.
The Salvation Vacation
The first images of New Orleans, in
particular the desolate Ninth Ward,
shook the couple.
“When we first got there in the
Ninth Ward,” Bill says, “you couldn’t
even get through it. There were houses
and cars and everything right in the
street. You could see where the water
rushed and tore up a lot of the houses.”
“It looked like a war zone,” Lynn
continues, the shock still evident in
her voice. “It was an absence of people.
It was just unbelievable—neighborhood
after neighborhood. Some of the homes
were ruined to the point where we had
to take everything down to the studs.”
But shock and sorrow soon made
way for admiration that still lingers.
In charge of facilitating a legion of dedicated
934 the first week of the Turnbulls’
stay—from across the country, Lynn
and Bill were at once in awe of the students’
altruism and inspired by their
“These kids were fantastic,” Bill
explains. “They gave up their week to do
something like that for somebody they
didn’t even know. They put their whole
heart into what they were doing.”
The influx of volunteers wasn’t the
only thing that gave the Turnbulls
strength. It was the group’s shared
ambition to mend not only homes but
In order to do this, Lynn feels that
work of this nature required strength in
body and in spirit. “People needed to
have strong bodies and strong arms to
lift and to carry things, but they also
needed a strong faith and a strong sense
Working in the Ninth Ward after such
a disaster might not seem like fertile
ground for grace. But Lynn and Bill
found it in abundance. They call them
Those shards of hope made the difficult
work bearable. The buoyant spirits
of the Ninth Ward residents, even as
they stood in the remains of what was
once their homes, moved and motivated
“The people that we worked with
said that they loved New Orleans—it
was their life and it was their home.
They were just fixing up and moving
forward,” Lynn says. “They were faith-filled
people that said, ‘O.K., Lord, I’m
just going to pick myself up and we’re
going to move, one step at a time, and
build my life back up.’
“So many people that we worked for
touched our lives in so many ways,” she
says. “Every experience that we had—I liken it to making a spiritual connection.
We were given the gifts of faith
Bill feels those three weeks will stay
with him for life. “It opened my eyes up
a lot more than they were,” he says.
“This opened my eyes to something
In a small way, the experience hit
Lynn and Bill where they lived—literally. After accidentally burning out
the wiring in their RV, the Turnbulls
would work all day on other people’s
homes and then spend hours repairing
“I felt that was one of those ‘God
moments,’” Lynn recalls. “You work
all day and you come back and you
have to fix your home just like everybody
else. At that moment, the Spirit
We Are Family
After their three weeks ended, Lynn
and Bill say they received much more
than they gave. One lesson reinforced
was a belief that humanity is a unified
family, regardless of race or religion.
“We’re all part of God’s family,” Lynn
says. “Whether we live far or near,
whether we are related by blood or not,
we’re all one family.”
And that family extends beyond the
city where they worked. “Even though
New Orleans is one of the largest metropolitan
areas affected by the hurricane,
it wasn’t the only city hit,” Bill
says. “We happened to go along the
whole Gulf Coast and cities from Tallahassee
to Texas have been demolished.
The Red Cross and other service organizations
are down there looking for
funds, looking for ways that they can
help these people.”
Lynn was amazed by the hope that
was ever-present among New Orleans
citizens in the face of great loss. “Most
of them were very hopeful,” she says.
“They were all good, hard-working people
that have lived in New Orleans for
years, and generations before them
have lived there.”
There and Back Again
Changed by their experiences, the couple
are planning another trip to New
Orleans to volunteer again.
“We’re already thinking about plans
for next year,” Bill says. “They’re going
to need help for years down the road.
We are going to do everything possible
to try and go back down there.”
In the meantime, Lynn and Bill
brought back with them a souvenir
that they carry always: a Ninth Ward
sensibility. “We are trying to live more
simply,” Lynn says, “and to spend more
time working and helping others.”
Lynn and Bill turned what could
have been a vacation into a vocation.
Amid rubble and ruin, in the wake of
tragedy, Bill found an unmistakable
beauty. “It’s terrible to think this way,
but major disasters like this bring out
the best in people.”
Christopher Heffron is an assistant editor of this
publication. He traveled to New Orleans in late April
for this story.