By Ericka P. Thompson
Special to the NNPA from The Intelligence Report
Two days before Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of New Orleans, Kandis Williams, along with her three children packed a weekend's worth of clothes and headed to Memphis, Tenn.
"I had no idea we would only be left with the clothes in those bags," Williams, 43, told the Recorder.
A native of New Orleans, Williams says her large, close-knit family was used to tropical storms and hurricanes. With a threat of a storm approaching, they would pack enough water, batteries and canned food, and together wait until the storm passed.
"People wonder why so many stayed behind and I can tell you," she says. "People didn't have money to pick up and go. All you could do was hope and pray for the best. I left New Orleans with three kids packed for the weekend, a tank full of gas, six dollars in cash and a wallet full of credit cards - that's it."
However, this time was different. "We knew we had to leave," she says.
With four carloads trailing each other to Memphis, Williams says the normal six-hour trip took nearly 18 due to heavily congested traffic on the highways as people tried to escape the hurricane.
"It was like you were in a bad dream," she says. "There were broken down cars on the side of the road, people running out of gas and gas stations were closing. At one point we had to shut the engines off and wait. It was like a nightmare."
As the disaster's Aug. 29 anniversary approaches, Williams feels slightly conflicted. On one hand she misses New Orleans terribly and her family, but she's also thankful for how her life has changed for the better.
When close friends Carla Shelton and Christy Anderson learned that Williams and her children were staying with relatives in Memphis whose home was extremely overcrowded, they begged her to make a way to Indianapolis. She did, with an additional eight relatives.
"It didn't matter how many people she brought with her, I had no choice but to help," says Shelton. "She was my friend."
"We were greeted with so much love and warmth," adds Williams. "People brought us clothes, food, money, and whatever I needed for the kids. It was a phenomenal show of love from people we didn't know."
Thanks to the help of Shelton, Anderson and Eastern Star Church, Williams was able to move her family into a new, furnished home on the Eastside of the city. After meeting Father Boniface Hardin, founder and president of Martin University, and explaining her situation, Williams was granted a full scholarship to pursue a bachelor's degree in business accounting.
Since 1986 Williams had worked in the banking industry and before Hurricane Katrina was holding down two jobs as a loan processor at a bank and mortgage company.
"Finishing my education is an answered prayer and a long awaited desire," says Williams who attends school full time while working part time as a substitute teacher. "I have the experience in banking but never had the opportunity to advance because I lacked a degree."
With New Orleans always in her heart, Williams often reminisced when she returned home two months after the hurricane.
"It was an unbelievable sight," she says. "It was like a deserted city, a place I didn't recognize."
Wearing protective masks and gloves due to mold, Williams describes seeing the inside of her home for the first time as heartbreaking.
"We tried to salvage whatever we could and that was minimal," she says. "Everything was piled on top of one another, the roof was too severely damaged to be fixed and the water damage was unbelievable. Marks showed that the water had reached as high as five feet."
Williams was able to salvage a few pictures and a 13-inch television.
"It was devastating to go through Katrina and lose everything, but I'm gaining more than I lost," she says. "It's going to work out in my favor and all of us that were affected. We survived for a reason."
Although her 17-year-old son was unable to make the adjustment and has since moved back to New Orleans to live with his father, Williams' 15-year-old daughter began her first year of high school last week and her 6-year-old son loves his new home.
Since being displaced, the majority of Williams' family has returned to New Orleans but will visit Indianapolis when the Colts host the Saints Sept. 6.
She jokes, "Indianapolis has been good to me but I only love the Colts when they're not playing the Saints."