Guest Column: After years of exile, Katrina evacuee finally returns home

For as long as I knew her, Dot McLeod wanted only one thing in this world: to be back in New Orleans.

Dot lost her house in Hurricane Katrina. She spent the last 7 ½ years in a Fort Worth, Texas, assisted living facility, mostly confined to her apartment. Her main outlet to the outside world was a phone line. We spoke many times, and I can still hear her voice in my head, always the same words, trembling at the start and dissolving into tears at the end: “Natalie, I just want to go home.”

Dot died last weekend in a Texas hospice. Just as she’d long feared, there were no friends or family members by her side.

But she is finally going home.

Two of her friends in New Orleans are making the arrangements to fly her back and to inter her in a family tomb. There will be a funeral on Tuesday. All of the costs are covered; Dot prepaid for that.

I worry that there won’t be many people there. Dot, who was 91, didn’t have many friends left in the city. Her family, she told me, was also gone. Her closest companion, who lived with her in Fort Worth, does not like to fly. I guess I count as a friend, but I’m in far-away Philadelphia.

Dot, too, was worried about her own funeral. I just learned that, last year, she sent money to a friend. The reason? She wanted to be sure there were flowers at her funeral. She loved red and pink carnations. I didn’t know that when she was alive.

I’m beginning to think that I didn’t really know Dot at all. I thought I did, but it was only by reading her obituary that I learned she once sang with Tex Ritter and played piano with Liberace. She told me she’d lived in Germany for a time, but I didn’t know she’d spent three years performing in Europe or that she’d been married to a soldier. Did I fail to ask the right questions? Or was the stark, dark reality of her life when I knew her too overwhelming to allow for wistful memories?

I met Dot after Katrina. Not while I was in New Orleans, covering the storm for The Inquirer, but months afterward. Somehow, far away in Texas, she’d seen an article I’d written about volunteers gutting houses for free. She wanted me to help her find people to take care of her own property.

During our conversation, I learned Dot had a story to tell: She was seriously hurt while being evacuated by helicopter, suffering back and hip injuries. She was sent to a Fort Worth hospital to recover, then transferred to a nearby assisted living home.

Almost all of Dot’s possessions were lost in the floodwaters. She treasured the few things that did survive, like her grandfather’s pocket watch and the crucifix that had once been placed on her mother’s coffin. But I believe she would have given those things up if she could have had her beloved cat, Poupon, back.

The cat was found alive five weeks after Katrina, but died soon after. Dot cried as she told me how the cat’s rescuers held the phone to its ear so she could sing to it to sleep.

I first wrote about Dot in 2006. My visit to Texas was the only time we met in person. I remember seeing her stark room, with its bare white walls. I remember the only thing that made her smile was watching the birds that flittered outside her window. Unlike her, they were free.

Dot and I kept in touch by phone and letter after the article ran. When my husband and I joined the New Orleans rebuilding effort for four months in 2007, we went to her gutted house in her empty neighborhood and cut the waist-high grass and took photos so she could see what remained. We found her Virgin Mary statue amidst the backyard weeds and placed it in the care of a local friend.

“Don’t worry,” I told Dot. “You can get it back when you move home.”

Dot was desperately unhappy, and in truth, it was sometimes hard to be her friend. She was lonely so she could be demanding, accusing me of not caring about her if there were lapses between calls or cards. She was unable to get over her losses, and after a while, I grew tired of rehashing the same tragedy over and over again. I could have been a much better friend. I knew it then, and I know it now.

I don’t know if it was the storm and its aftermath that had shaped Dot’s personality, if she had once been a happy person who was then struck down by circumstance. I do know that, although she lived alone in New Orleans, she had a community there. She was friendly with her neighbors. She’d shopped at the same grocery store for decades. She had her independence, something she never had in Texas.

I can only think of one conversation in which Dot didn’t cry for her lost city. It was on Jan. 2, our last phone call, although I didn’t know it then.

Dot had been ill — shuffled between hospitals and nursing facilities — and had been unable to communicate for more than a month. That day, she was alert and her Texas companion called me.

When she took the phone, her voice was faint and crackly. I told her how worried we’d all been about her. She said she’d been worried, too, and she was so happy to hear my voice. And, of course, she told me she loved me. She barely knew me, and she always told me she loved me.

I don’t think Dot had known a moment of true joy since Katrina. I hope she can finally find some peace.

Former New Orleans journalist Natalie Pompilio lives in Philadelphia but escapes to New Orleans at each and any opportunity. You’ll find her at Fourth and Magazine, sidewalk side, when the parades roll.