Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Tale of Two Katrina Survivors and Talented College Educated Brothers

A Special Article from the Washington University in St. Louis Magazine the alma mater of R2C2H2 Tha Artivist

Knocked Over, but Not Out

New Orleans residents Jarvis DeBerry and Oscar Donahue, both English majors, survived Hurricane Katrina, yet their stories provide a glimpse of a permanent watermark.


To borrow a title from a Raymond Carver short story, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina left "so much water so close to home" in New Orleans and other Gulf Coast communities. In the months since the storm, the maelstrom of controversy concerning how the local, state, and federal government did—or did not—come to the aid of these communities has threatened to dwarf the very real, very human consequences of this disaster. For two Washington University graduates, Katrina has irrevocably altered the paths of their lives—and changed the nature of their work.

Jarvis DeBerry, A.B. '97, and Oscar Donahue III, A.B. '78, both English majors and both residents of New Orleans pre-Katrina, do not know each other. DeBerry is an editorial writer and columnist for The Times-Picayune. Donahue (see Artful Response below) designs and sells artwork jewelry through his company, Oscar's Originals of New Orleans. Yet, the hurricane has forced each of them to forge a new and different relationship with the city that has become not-so-easy to live in.

Jarvis DeBerry is a columnist for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans. Above, he stands in front of his home, which was damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

Finding a voice

DeBerry's path took him from his hometown of Holly Springs, Mississippi, to four years at Washington University. He wrote features for Student Life, worked at his hometown newspaper during breaks, and was an intern at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. His senior year, he applied for an internship at The Times-Picayune for what he terms were "...very nonprofessional reasons." He was dating a woman who was going to school in New Orleans.

"The relationship did not work out, but fortunately the job did. I really landed at the right place," DeBerry says.

After a few months, the internship turned into a full-time position, first as a reporter on the police beat in the newspaper's River Parishes Bureau in LaPlace, then covering crime and courts in the St. Tammany Parish Bureau.

A 1998 guest commentary on National Public Radio by writer and storyteller Lorraine Johnson-Coleman prompted DeBerry to begin writing from a more personal perspective. The commentary focused on the decision by Merriam-Webster dictionary editors to continue to include a definition of "nigger." It triggered in DeBerry a memory. He wondered whether the newspaper's editors would allow him to write about the issue. The answer was "yes."

"My writing post-Katrina has become much more serious. There is no shortage of topics. I tell people that even before the storm everybody in New Orleans had a story, but now everybody has a story that is compelling."

"I recounted an episode when I was seven and a small group of young white boys about my age called me nigger and how I ran back home in tears and felt all the hurt that was communicated in that word. I knew it was meant to hurt, yet I still didn't think it should be removed from the dictionary," DeBerry says.

The piece was well-received by the newspaper's editors, but DeBerry did not feel compelled to write another piece for another six months. As the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday approached, DeBerry pondered how the civil rights leader was being remembered—or perhaps mis-remembered.

"I wrote about how I was going to try and spend the holiday without hearing the 'I Have a Dream' speech, my least favorite Martin Luther King speech because it has been overly simplified," DeBerry says.

Raising a voice

In the fall of 1999, DeBerry was asked to be a full-time editorial writer, a task usually reserved for reporters with more years of experience.

"I have had this quite unusual career arc in that I became an editorial writer really, really fast. That's not a boast. There are many unusual aspects to The Times-Picayune's editorial page. All of us are much younger and more racially diverse than [those on] the average editorial page," he says.

In addition to writing editorials on the newspaper's established positions on issues of the day, DeBerry began writing personal columns. His topics ranged from the crush he has for tennis star Serena Williams to the significance of Do Your Thing by Isaac Hayes, what it means to have one's "nose open," and a criticism of Baby Mama, the song by American Idol winner Fantasia Barrino, which generated the most responses—both positive and negative—of any of his columns.

In a move that now seems prophetic, just before Hurricane Katrina, DeBerry had begun work on a series of columns about people who were intimate observers of New Orleans' homicide epidemic. He completed only two before the storm—one about a pastor eulogizing a 30-year-old mother and her 7-year-old daughter who were murdered in their home, the other about a mortician who patches up the dead for their funerals.

DeBerry's experiences before, during, and after Katrina could fill many pages and are worthy of a film adaptation. He weathered the storm at The Times-Picayune office. He fled New Orleans a day later with 27 other reporters, staff members, employees, and their families by riding in the back of one of the newspaper's delivery trucks. All told, 12 Times-Picayune trucks carried away approximately 250 people. DeBerry worked from a makeshift office in Baton Rouge before returning to New Orleans in early October. His home was flooded with eight feet of water and ruined from moisture and mold. His Toyota truck drowned in the newspaper's parking lot. He did manage to salvage a box of photographs.

The first three days after the storm, the newspaper published only internet editions. The Friday after the storm marked the first post-Katrina printed edition of the newspaper. That Sunday, DeBerry was the primary writer for an editorial with the headline "Dear Mr. President." It marked a definitive change in the nature of his writing.

"It allowed me to get out a lot of anger. It ushered in this real fighting spirit. None of us ever imagined that we would be writing and defending our very right to exist. We became the voice for New Orleans," DeBerry says.

DeBerry has become a key contributor to this collective voice. His columns have ranged from harrowing to poignant to a call to arms. The headlines, such as "Chorus of Doubters Won't Drown Us Out," "Too Bad Our Levees Get No Dam Respect," "Mail Slow, Insurers Grudging—If You're Lucky," and "When Life's Haven Turns Deathtrap," exemplify the change in his writing brought about by the storm.

"My writing post-Katrina has become much more serious. There is no shortage of topics. I tell people that even before the storm everybody in New Orleans had a story, but now everybody has a story that is compelling. What has changed the most is that everything is still about Katrina. Nothing is really happening in New Orleans that doesn't have everything to do with the hurricane," he says.

And that is why DeBerry envisions his writing will continue to bear the watermark of Hurricane Katrina for a long time to come.

Artful Response

Like Jarvis DeBerry, Oscar Donahue survived Hurricane Katrina and emerged from the other side of the storm a changed man. He also gauges his life pre- and post-Katrina.

Pre-Katrina, Donahue was a colorful fixture at the New Orleans French Market, an upscale, sophisticated flea market where he had a kiosk and sold his wearable art. Donahue began his business, Oscar's Originals, in 1989. He created the business as a way to fulfill his artistic craving while still making a living.

"I make the jewelry from a metallic resin. I chose this medium because I saw someone doing a poor job with this material. It was like 'Eureka!' I haven't looked back since. I am blessed that I am able to be so creative and survive," he says.

Since then, he has been a regular exhibitor at the Jazz and Heritage Foundation and the Essence Fest. He estimates he has sold more than 250,000 of his handmade pins to people from around the globe.

"I was open seven days a week and had pretty much of a cult following of my work. I was very fortunate that people really loved what I did," Donahue says.

Like many others, Donahue fled New Orleans to avoid the hurricane. He drove to Newnan, Georgia, to stay with his parents.

Donahue's home was located in the Gentilly area, one of the most devastated areas of New Orleans. Yet, his house was one of only 5 percent that survived the storm. Unfortunately, within two months, it was uninhabitable.

"My house experienced only minor damage from the storm, but I had to abandon it because of monster termites. I thought I had gotten away with it only to have my house go under from termites. Talk about a kick in the stomach," Donahue says.

For the first several months after the hurricane, he continued to make a living by selling his jewelry from his Web site ( while staying in Newnan. He created four Katrina tribute pieces that have been popular sellers and a whimsical new "FEMA" pin, poking fun at the 11,000 wasted trailers in Arkansas. By February, Donahue had re-opened his business on weekends only, but he does not plan to move back to New Orleans, although he makes regular visits.

Because the French Quarter did not sustain any damage, he says, it's possible to stay in that area and have the illusion that things are normal.

"If I stay in the French Quarter, I can fool myself that everything is okay. Then I go into the city and see the devastation," he says. "I don't believe I can go back and live there because I'm an emotional and sensitive artist, and I channel all that sadness and get depressed. It's gut-wrenching."

Donahue has changed more than his address since the hurricane. He has decided to maintain his jewelry business while pursuing an old love: painting. He wants to take his artwork to a different level and reflect, at least in part, the impact of Katrina.

"My real love is to take the brush and canvas and do the traditional thing. I want to do some paintings to reflect my innermost feelings about Katrina. I don't want to do anything that is sad, but I do want to do something that will make people think," he says.

C.B. Adams is a free-lance writer based in St. Louis.

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