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Katrina memories fresh for displaced New Orleanians

Posted August 29, 2012
Updated August 30, 2012

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— Janice Seitzinger sat in her Raleigh apartment Wednesday morning, riding out Hurricane Isaac with family and friends in southeast Louisiana – through Facebook status updates.

One friend who lives on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain had been posting pictures of her back yard as water rose from the Category 1 storm, which, by Wednesday afternoon, had been downgraded to a tropical storm.

"It's kind of neat that I can keep up with friends and see what's going on," Seitzinger said. "Although, what's going on is really scary and reminiscent of things that happened seven years ago."

She means Hurricane Katrina.

On Aug. 29, 2005, the Category 3 hurricane, packing winds of up to 135 mph, unleashed its fury on New Orleans. Flooding turned The Big Easy into a ghost town for weeks, and the aftermath ravaged the area for years to come.

In the end, the storm claimed approximately 1,800 lives in Louisiana and Mississippi.

For Seitzinger, the memories are fresh, as if Katrina were just yesterday.

"I think back, and I can't believe it's been seven years. I left my job on a Friday, left my desk how I thought I'd find it on Monday," she said. "Little did I know I'd never go back to that job."

Or to New Orleans.

Seitzinger packed up her car with a few belongings, some photos and her two dogs and made her way to Raleigh – never looking back.

Her apartment, belongings and the life she had made in six years in New Orleans were completely destroyed. The only possessions that survived were a few family relics on an upper shelf in her closet. Janice Seitzinger Katrina memories fresh for displaced New Orleanians

"You think you have your life working in order, and then something like that comes along that you have no control over," Seitzinger said.

Shirley Chamberlain is another New Orleans transplant in the Triangle.

Ten feet of water flooded into her home eight blocks from the 17th Street Canal – where the first levee breached as a result of Katrina's torrential rains.

"We really lost everything, and there was only one way to go – and that was to rebuild our lives somewhere else, because we really didn't have anything really to go back to," she said.

She, her husband and two children chose Cary as a new place to call home. Chamberlain's priority was keeping a routine and getting the kids – then in sixth and eleventh grades – back into school.

It wasn't until much later that the reality of being uprooted from family and friends sank in.

"Somehow or another, you just go on autopilot. I just can't explain it," she said. "There was not much time to dwell on anything or not much time to think, 'Poor me,' or have a pity party."

Each anniversary, however, she takes the time to remember – through photos of her devastated neighborhood and a 4-inch-thick scrapbook her sister made for her of newspaper clippings chronicling one of the most destructive disasters in American history.

Katrina is part of her history.

"Every year, I somehow pull this book out and go through it and look at all we lost," Chamberlain said. "But I don't want to say I think about that too much either, because I think of all we (now) have."

She now owns Cyber Café – part restaurant and part culinary school – in Smithfield.

In observance of Katrina's anniversary, she organized a fundraiser Wednesday – complete with New Orleans favorites like gumbo – to raise money for the American Red Cross.

"The point of me wanting to do this today is to try to bring appreciation to the Red Cross. The Red Cross was monumental in our recovery," Chamberlain said. "Today's about giving back."

Likewise, Brian Battistella has rebuilt a culinary career in central North Carolina.

Brian Battistella Restauarateur rebuilds life in Raleigh after Katrina

The New Orleans native lost the home that had been in his family for generations and his job at a new restaurant when Katrina hit town.

"Five weeks before Katrina came through, I was a sous chef at a bistro uptown on St. Charles Avenue," Battistella said.

He waited until the last minute to evacuate, along with thousands of others along the Gulf Coast.

"After I left, I threw my golf clubs in my truck (and) some clothes and started driving up this way," he said.

Battistella now operates a restaurant with his name on it in the City Market section of downtown Raleigh. It regularly attracts other former New Orleans residents looking for food that takes them back there.

"It's a taste of home, and on a day like today, I felt my calling to be at home," customer David Galatas said.

Battistella said he's watching Isaac closely, talking with family members still in Louisiana, but he said he doesn't expect the storm to do as much damage as Katrina did.

"I'm one of the fortunate ones out of it," he said.

Seitzinger said she also feels fortunate for her new life, the friends she's made – and of course, her two pugs – even though she was laid off from her administrative job several years ago and continues to look for steady, full-time work.

"Life's been good to me in Raleigh," she said.

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