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American Routes Shortcuts: Katrina at 15 with Irma Thomas

Irma Thomas
American Routes

This is American Routes, fifteen years after the storm and flood that left 80% of New Orleans underwater. We’re still rebuilding. Many New Orleanians haven’t come back; areas of the city remain empty, and musical leaders and recovery advocates like Dr. John and Allen Toussaint have passed. Some things have changed for the better, but we still remember what it was like before the storm. New Orleans soul singer Irma Thomas was among many who lost everything to Katrina: her home and her beloved nightclub, the Lion’s Den. Irma set up a temporary home in Gonzales, LA, about forty miles upriver. When Irma returned to her New Orleans house for the first time, the muck was deep. Seven feet of floodwater ruined everything inside except for a few posters on the wall. Two years after the storm, she was back living in New Orleans East and working on the house. We caught up with her in that year, while her front fence was being spray-painted.



Irma Thomas: This house, my neighbor, they had just built this house; it wasn’t two years old when the storm came. So her and her husband are in Houston; he’s a lawyer, and he’s got a job with a law firm there, and she wants to come home, but he’s not ready of course. So they’re going to redo their house and rent it out to somebody. My neighbor’s in his house right there and the one next to that, they’re in there. He’s waiting for some minor work to get finished and his wife, she’s going to come back, I think, in about two weeks. But as you can see, there’s quite a few people that’s going to be coming back. 

Nick Spitzer: Inside her mostly empty house, Irma’s been sweeping the dust from the construction. She’s got a dining table, the cabinets are in, but no sink or countertops in the bathroom. We asked how it feels to be back home. 

IT: Wonderful. We kind of like camping out, because we have one functional bathroom kind of, sort of, so we’re showering in the shower. We’re brushing teeth and washing faces in the garage at the utility sink but camping out mode kicks in when you’re in this kind of situation. And the other side of that is, you’re not alone because I’m not the only person who’s living under that kind of situation to be here because you need to be at the house when you’re having work done. 

IT: I had made up my mind prior to coming in that whatever was lost in there was things. And the memories that I lost were memories. And I’m making new memories now. So I had already made the disconnect from the stuff that was lost. My career sort of had a resurgence because of the storm. This is the third storm in my life but I’ve always managed to come out of it a little bit stronger than the time before. 

To hear the full program, tune in Saturdays at 5 and Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at