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Expats in New Orleans

Expats in New Orleans

Much has been written about Hurrincane Katrina since, but the story which has not been told is the effect the storm had on the ex-pat population in New Orleans. Compared to other large cities like New York or LA the ex-pat scene in the Big Easy is small but tight-knit. Everyone knows everyone else, and many members of the community meet every weekend at Finn McCool's Irish pub to watch English and Scottish football.

Thankfully it's been a quiet hurricane season and the United States came through 2009 unscathed. But that was not the case in 2005 – the year of Hurricane Katrina – when an incredibly violent few months set all kinds of records.

Katrina was the third-most powerful storm ever to hit the States, while five names were retired after hurricane season – the most ever (Dennis, Katrina, Rita, Stan and Wilma). There were 28 named storms that year, so many that scientists ran out of letters and were forced to use the Greek alphabet!

Katrina did an unbelievable amount of damage to the Gulf Coast, killing more than 1,800 people, impacting Louisiana and Mississippi to the tune of an estimated 150 billion dollars, and leaving debris strewn over roughly 87,000 square miles in six different States – an area the size of Britain.

Much has been written about Katrina since, but the story which has not been told is the effect the storm had on the ex-pat population in New Orleans. Compared to other large cities like New York or LA the ex-pat scene in the Big Easy is small but tight-knit. Everyone knows everyone else, and many members of the community meet every weekend at Finn McCool's Irish pub to watch English and Scottish football.

A dozen or so were gathered there on the morning of Saturday August 27 – less than 48 hours later some were clinging to roofs battling for their lives, others were swimming out of the flooded city, while another had to loot an ATM machine to get cash to bribe a bus driver to take him to safety.

When they did escape the modern-day Atlantis they then had to live as internal refugees for months while the Crescent City was pumped dry. When some returned they had lost their jobs, their homes or everything they had ever owned. Some lost all three.

Paul Medhurst for instance, a banker originally from London who has been in the States since 1986, recounts his first look at his home in the Lakeview area of the city.

"I got to the house and had to break down the backdoor with an axe. The fridge was embedded in the wall on its side. I got my passport, credit cards, Green Card, and my girlfriend's jewelry and left. We went back the following week and pulled out all her clothes and started cleaning up. We needed a sledgehammer to get the fridge out.

"I was totally unprepared. It was devastating. I'd never seen anything like it in my life. It seemed completely hopeless. I thought, “˜What am I going to do?' Everything was messed up and there was stuff everywhere. I felt angry and bitter when friends came back and they'd lost nothing or when people told me how blessed they'd been, and I wanted to be surrounded by mates who were going through the same thing.

"The first day back at work everyone was in tears but it was great being around other employees and knowing we'd all made it through. But I was losing my temper when customers said, “˜I had two feet of water.' Well to hell with you! I had six feet! I'd get into arguments and be more than happy to get back in their face and tell them not to treat my staff like rubbish.

"An employee lost her baby through stress and my assistant's brother-in-law drowned trying to save his son caught in the undertow. I was annoyed I not only had to deal with my own stuff but comfort the staff as well, and it was very, very hard with everyone coming and bitching to me."

But four years later things are looking up for Paul and the other Brits who returned to rebuild their lives in New Orleans. Many of those who lost their homes moved in with other Irish and British residents whose houses had not flooded. The indefatigable will to continue, the support and comfort of their fellow Brits, and the "Blitz" spirit played an important part in helping these exiles recover after their lives were literally washed away.

The story of the ex-pat community in New Orleans before, during and after Hurricane Katrina is told in a new book by New Orleans-based Belfast native Stephen Rea. Entitled Finn McCool's Football Club: The Birth, Death and Resurrection of a Pub Soccer Team in the City of the Dead and published by Pelican Press, it is available across the nation or online. Check out his website www.stephen-rea.com for more details.