From Despair To Hope: How One National Guardswoman Reconciles Memories Of Katrina

Sean Richardson

Major Ebony Carter was assigned to the Superdome during Hurricane Katrina, and now 10 years later, she's used every bit of that time to deal with the memories.

The girl was 8 or 9 and had cerebral palsy, and she was having a seizure. Of course, she was just one person among a crush of thousands who had gathered at the Superdome to escape the flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina, but she needed help, and she needed it immediately.

Ebony Carter, then a 2nd lieutenant with the Louisiana National Guard (she's now a major), heard the commotion and hustled through the crowd to see what was going on. She picked the girl up, cradled her in her arms, and started running.

The girl's mother, carrying an infant, followed Carter as she darted down the concourse. She reached the escalator, which wasn't working, and hustled up the steps.

Carter expected to find help when she reached the top -- that's where medics had been set up since people had started arriving at the stadium a few days earlier. But when she got there, the medics were gone. The Superdome had gotten so crowded that they had been forced to move to the convention center across the street. Somebody else grabbed the girl and took her to find help.

Flooded with adrenaline from her dash up the escalator, Carter felt helplessness wash over her. Thousands of people milled around her; they all had come here to escape death, only to find misery they couldn't get away from. With no power or running water, the Superdome teetered on the edge of lawlessness. Carter found her way outside so she could be alone.

"I just cried my eyes out," Carter says. "Like, what in the world was happening? ... When you go to Iraq, you're prepared for devastation over there. But not at your home."

For years after Katrina, Carter's memories of the Superdome were so powerful that she refused to return there. But 10 years after the hurricane, now that both the Superdome and many parts of New Orleans have been rebuilt, that famed football stadium has come to represent for Carter not destruction but restoration; not despair but hope.

***

Carter, now 37, joined the Maryland National Guard while she was still in high school. She transferred to the Louisiana National Guard so she could attend Grambling State University in Grambling, Louisiana, where she was a cheerleader for four years.

Courtesy Ebony Carter

Carter with her Grambling teammates at the 1999 NCAA Cheerleading Championships in Daytona Beach, Fla.

Each year, she cheered in the Superdome during the Bayou Classic, the annual showdown between Grambling State and Southern University, two longtime football powerhouses among historically black colleges and universities. TV cameras beamed images of the game, the bands and the cheerleaders to a national television audience, and she loved being there in the thick of the action. The hype, the lights, the attention and the crowd combined to give her a joyous high.

"I remember how mighty I felt," Carter says.

During Katrina, she was working down on the playing field one day, helping someone lying on a stretcher. When she looked up and saw that the stadium was filled with as many people as had attended the Bayou Classic, she thought of her days as a cheerleader on that same field. This time, though, she didn't feel mighty -- she felt sad and helpless and "so, so small."

During Grambling's games, Carter was an observer of the main action -- albeit an enthusiastic one. But when she returned to the Superdome the day before Katrina made landfall, she was a leader.

As a 27-year-old acting company commander, she estimates she had 60 soldiers working under her. She describes herself as soft-spoken and "five-foot-nothing," so she wondered if anybody -- soldiers or citizens -- would listen to her. "I had to give all these orders. I thought -- initially to myself, and I would have never said it out loud -- 'Oh, these guys are not going to do what I ask them to do, or they're not going to respect me,'" she says.

But they did. Under Carter's direction, her soldiers first provided security at the Superdome as 10,000 people arrived before the storm. That number swelled to 35,000 as breached levees caused flooding in the city, and Carter's duties expanded. She and her soldiers did everything, including screening people as they arrived, helping evacuees find loved ones and assisting those in need of medical care.

She thinks that being a woman, even one wearing a uniform and carrying an M16, helped her amid all that chaos. "I recognized, and I don't apologize for that, that a male soldier can say something, and I can say the same thing and get the same result, but the feeling is very different," she says.

The difference, says Louisiana National Guard Colonel Ed Bush, Carter's boss, is the wisdom and grace with which Carter gives orders.

The two met in the Superdome at the height of Katrina. Bush was a major in the public affairs office then. His job was to walk around the stadium with a bullhorn, refuting unfounded rumors of rampant crime and reassuring people that the National Guard cared about them and was there to help. Carter saw him and thought, I want to do that.

Every single time, I don't care how many times, I think, I cannot believe that happened there. It looked like a war-torn country. But now it's gorgeous.
Major Ebony Carter

"What I was doing is about as intimate as you can get. I was talking to people all day and trying to calm fears and solve problems," Bush says. "The caring side of her, that [work] appealed to her tremendously."

It appealed so much that Carter walked up to Bush and told him she wanted to work together. Bush wrote down her name and number and promised to call her. A few months later, he did, and he's been her boss in two different jobs since then. Today, Carter serves under Bush in the Office of Family Programs, where she works directly with families of soldiers in the Louisiana National Guard.

"She's tremendous at it because that is who she is," Bush says. "She cares. She genuinely wants to help. The way to make Ebony quit is to stick her in a cubicle and make her do paperwork all day long. That would drive her insane. She needs to be connected to people and help them."

And the Superdome was full of people who needed help.

***

On Saturday, Aug. 27, 2005 -- two days before Katrina hit -- New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin ordered the evacuation of the city and labeled the Superdome a "shelter of last resort." By the time Katrina arrived, Carter was one of 550 National Guard soldiers already stationed at the Superdome, and one of 3,000 total National Guard troops in the New Orleans area.

At the peak of the Katrina recovery effort, 51,039 National Guard soldiers from all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and three territories worked in Louisiana and Mississippi, making Katrina by far the biggest domestic deployment in the Guard's 378-year history, according to "In Katrina's Wake: The National Guard on the Gulf Coast," a book about the storm produced by the Guard.

According to Combat Studies Institute Press, six people died at the Superdome during the aftermath of Katrina, but none were crime victims. All the talk on the news about rape and murder and assaults at the Superdome -- it was all wrong. In reality, the Superdome was a disgusting, filthy mess, and it seemed to always be one lit match away from turning into an inferno. But the fire never started.

Eighty percent of the city was underwater, which meant people couldn't leave. The Superdome became Carter's entire world. One day, one of her soldiers had a medical emergency, forcing her to fly in a helicopter to a hospital in Baton Rouge. As she sat in the waiting room, she watched a TV tuned to the news, which was dominated by horrific images of flooding.

"Where in the world is that?" she asked.

"New Orleans," a woman sitting next to her answered.

"I couldn't wrap my mind around it," Carter says. "It was the most surreal thing to ever see."

Days and nights passed with little change in the circumstances at the Superdome. The heat and stress left soldiers and citizens exhausted. "Our sweet little dome," as Carter calls it, was strewn with garbage. Toilets were overflowing. The stink was overpowering. The scale of it all was overwhelming.

But there were hints of grace amid the depravity. One night Carter looked up, and through holes in the roof she saw a faint light -- stars looking down on the city. Then she heard singing. Soft at first, it grew louder. Soon the whole stadium joined together in "This Little Light of Mine."

"I was like, 'This is probably one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen,'" she says. "You've got all these people who have lost everything, but they've found a silver lining, a little piece of hope."

She wanted to spread the hope. She tried to help a man who was looking for his wife; he carried everything he still owned in the world in a black Hefty trash bag. There was a boy who couldn't find his mom, so he followed Carter around. And then just as suddenly as those two had appeared by her side, they melted away. So, while she doesn't know how those Superdome stories ended, she was surprised to find that her own led to a happy ending.

***

Buses started to arrive to evacuate the Superdome on Thursday, Sept. 1, three days after the storm. They kept coming -- 822 of them, most headed to Houston -- until the last person climbed aboard on Saturday. Carter stayed and helped with cleanup for a few more days, and after that, she "lived" at the Morial Convention Center and worked on relief efforts elsewhere in the city. She didn't return home to Baton Rouge until December.

As the years passed, Carter's resolve to never go back to the Superdome softened. She started to wonder if returning would help her find closure. In 2010, she was home on leave from a deployment to Iraq, and as a birthday present for her future husband, she bought two tickets to a game between the Saints and Falcons.

She became nervous, teary even, as they walked in together. She couldn't believe how beautiful it was. She tried to describe to him the devastation she had seen the last time she had been there, but words failed her. All she could do was point. Over there in the parking lot, that's where we slept at night. That's where people with their pets were. In that corner, there was a chalkboard on which people wrote the names of missing loved ones. Over there is where we handed out water and MREs. And all of it was covered in trash.

Since then, Carter has moved to New Orleans to work at Jackson Barracks, the headquarters for the Louisiana National Guard, which flooded and was evacuated during Katrina. She drives by the Superdome often. "Every single time, I don't care how many times, I think, I cannot believe that happened there," she says. "It looked like a war-torn country. But now it's gorgeous."

She wonders what happened to the girl having the seizure, to the man with the trash bag, to the boy who couldn't find his mother -- she happened to see him interviewed on the news from a shelter months later but never found out his name. She thinks of the soldiers who followed her commands even when she thought they wouldn't, and of how many people said, in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, that the Superdome should be torn down, that New Orleans would never recover.

"That Dome being the way it is now says so much about the city of New Orleans. It says so much about the service members who protected that Dome and the people who were there. It says so much about all those caregivers who took care of children they didn't know, of elderly people they didn't know," she says.

"Our sweet little dome," which first made Carter feel mighty and then made her feel helpless, now makes her feel proud. "It's redemption for us all," she says.

Doug Thornton, manager of the Superdome, looks back on the damage that Hurricane Katrina inflicted upon the iconic building and the emotional moment when it reopened. (Photo: George Steinmetz)

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