Thousands of people died. Hundreds of thousands were left homeless. One young man beat the odds and turned tragedy into triumph.
Aug 29, 2005, the day that changed my life forever. It’s me (JB), my father, brother (Brandon), and sister (Ceira) and we are at home bracing ourselves against the rain and strong winds from Hurricane Katrina. The sky is black and I hear a loud whistling noise coming from the wind outside. The house is shaking from the wind and large objects are flying into our house. My sister is so scared that she is crying, so my father wrapped his arms around her and said, “It will be okay baby.” We all are in my father’s room sitting on the floor away from the windows. My little brother is sitting next to me quiet and not saying a word but I can see the fear in his eyes. I’m wondering to myself when will this hurricane pass because it seemed like minutes had turned into hours.
I get up to go to the bathroom next to my father’s room and after I’m done, I turn around to wash my hands and move forward towards the door until I notice I’m stepping in water. I open the door and more water came pouring into the bathroom. I immediately ran back into my father’s room to see my father, brother, and sister standing in water. My father tells me to get the flashlights and call 911, so I run into the front room to dial 911 where I noticed the phone lines are out. I peaked out the window and observed the water is flooding my neighborhood and it’s rising fast. The water is now at my knees. I dropped a flashlight in the water while racing back to my father’s room so now we only have one flashlight. “Hurry up,” my father said to me. I can see him lifting my brother and sister into the attic.
Now we are all in the attic except for my father, for he is running back and forth grabbing food, water, and other items and handing it to us. The water is at his chest so I tell him “That’s it, now get in the attic because the water is rising fast.” He replied,”I have to get one more thing. My black box in the other room.” He kept his money, documents, and other important paperwork in that black box under the bed. He has been gone for ten minutes now and hasn’t returned so we start screaming his name over and over again but we can’t see or hear him. The water is almost to the attic now, so my brother starts panicking and says,”I’m going get him because he needs help!” I told him “No, stay here you can’t go out there because it’s dangerous plus the water is too high.” I put my arms around him and my sister then told them “He is okay.” However, in the back of my mind I knew pops drowned and he was not coming back so we cried holding each other for hrs.
The water has now reached the attic and now we are trapped with no way out. I thought for sure we were going to drown but suddenly the water stopped. We are stuck in a dark and hot attic with one bottle of water, chips, and a flash-light. It was so hot in that attic it seemed like we were sipping water every 10 minutes just to stay hydrated. A day passed by and now we were out of water and food. The flashlight is starting to go out too. Both my sister and brother are starting to complain about how thirsty and hungry they are. Suddenly I heard helicopters flying above us so we screamed “Help” for hours but no one could hear us. My sister says,”JB they can’t hear us are we are going to die.” I said “No we are not going to die in this attic.”
It’s Sept 1, 2005 and two days have passed since we have been trapped in the attic of our home. My brother is now starting to panic. He started screaming to the top of his lungs “Get me out here – I don’t want to die.” Soon after his panic attack, we heard a voice from above saying “JB are you in there?” it’s my neighbor from down the road Mr. Harris. We immediately start yelling and beating on the attic wall so he can hear us. But we didn’t get a response from him so I’m thinking maybe he didn’t hear us. I just held my sister as she cried and then told her “We going to make it out here Ceira I promise.” Thirty minutes later I hear a loud noise hitting against the roof above our head. It’s getting louder and louder so as we sit back on the opposite side of the attic looking above, I see an axe cutting through our roof and now we start to celebrate because finally we are getting rescued. The axe cut a hole into the roof and Mr. Harris said to us “Come on,” so we climbed out the attic then start hugging Mr. Harris. It felt so good to finally get rescued from that attic and breathe fresh air into my lungs.
When we climbed into Mr. Harris boat, I noticed that my neighborhood is underwater. Then I stood up and did a 360-degree turn and realized that it’s not just my hood, my city is underwater. I mean as far as my eyes can see the only thing I see is rooftops and everything else is underwater. After passing by a few houses on my street, I start seeing dead bodies floating in the water. That’s when it hit me, we are so lucky to be alive because a lot of people didn’t make it through the hurricane. Eventually we made it out the hood and started heading towards higher ground. Mr. Harris dropped us off and said “Make your way to the Convention Center- y’all will be safe there. God bless y’all and be careful. I have to go back and rescue more people.”
My sister, brother, and I are now on higher ground and making our way to the Convention Center. We are hungry and thirsty but I tell them we have to keep moving. After an hour of walking, I can see people standing outside of a closed sandwich shop eating sandwiches. When we passed by, I stopped to ask one of the guys if he had any extra food cause we have not eaten in days. He went into the sandwich shop then came back with one sandwich and told us to split it up. We are now walking away and splitting the sandwich up until I heard gun shots coming from behind us. I turned around and it’s the police department, shooting at the crowd outside the sandwich shop. We dropped the little food we had then started running and ducking so we wouldn’t get hit by any bullets. I noticed a dumpster so we all jumped in the dumpster and closed the top. I opened the top lid to peek out then discovered the guy that gave us that sandwich was shot along with several other people. The police car sped off after the shooting. I told my brother and sister we have to hurry up and get out of here.
After walking for hours, we finally made it to the Convention Center but what I saw was not what I expected. I saw thousands of people with no food, water, or medical attention. A friend of mine ran up to me crying saying,”We have been here for days with no food or water and people are dying. My grandma just died in her wheel chair from dehydration. My baby hasn’t had milk in days and I don’t know if she going to make it.” That’s when it struck me that we have been forgotten in the lost city of New Orleans. I instantly felt a rush run through my body and now I’m in survival mode. Giving up and dying is not an option for us, so I told my brother to watch and take care of Ceira and my friend and I’ll be back soon. Now I’m roaming the streets of New Orleans searching for anything for us to eat or drink. Then suddenly I remembered two vending machines at a distribution company I use to work at several years ago in the employees lounge. I still remembered the code to get into the lounge but I’m hoping they didn’t change it. When I got to the distribution company, I climbed over the fence and broke the back window. Once I got to the locked door I started to get nervous and forgot the last two numbers to the locked door. I tried over and over and over again to punch in the right numbers to unlock that door but it just wouldn’t open. After 30 minutes of punching in different numbers and trying to figure out those last two numbers the door opened. To my surprise, instead of two vending machines, I saw four, two drink machines and two snack machines. I didn’t have a penny to my name but my first reaction was searching through my pockets for change. Anyways, I broke into those machines and grabbed as much food and drinks as I could then brought it back to my family.
Sept 3, 2005 it’s my birthday. I just turned 23 and we are still at the convention center, living like animals without any assistance from the city or state. Suddenly I saw lots of buses pull up in front of the Convention Center so all of us got up and ran toward them. I saw an older lady on the ground and people running over her so I stopped to help her up and told my brother and sister to keep going I’ll meet them on the bus. After I got the older lady to safety, I ran towards the bus my brother and sister got on but when I got to the door the driver said,”We can’t fit any more! The bus is too crowded. Get on the next bus son.” then he closed the door and pulled off. As the bus pulled off, I can see my brother and sister sticking their heads out the window screaming my name. I yelled to them “Everything will be okay – I’ll meet up with y’all soon. Brandon, take care of Ceira.” I balled up my fist and then hit my chest two times. The motion of my fist over my heart means,”I love you” and pounding my chest meant,”I will fight and die for you.” The bus disappeared and I got on the third bus after that.
I’m sitting in the back of the bus leaning my head against the window looking out wondering to myself what just happened in these past few days. I’ve lost my family, home, neighborhood and city all in one day from Hurricane Katrina. I’m hungry, thirsty, and weak and I have nothing but the clothes on my back. I closed my eyes then silently said a prayer asking God to watch and protect my family and all the survivors from my city. Then I fell asleep. Six hours later my bus arrived at a high school gym in a town outside of Houston, TX. When I entered the gym, I was given a Red Cross bag and assigned a cot to sleep on with a blanket in the middle of the gym. I didn’t get much sleep the first night because all I could think about was my brother and sister. The next day I went outside to get some air and eat peanuts on the bench when, I was approached by three guys. I remembered those guys when I first got to the gym the day before because they arrived on the last bus from New Orleans. They asked me what hood I was from, so after I told them they said, “We don’t get down with y’all and as a matter of fact I hate that part of town.” I’m like, “so I don’t care.” That’s when they jumped me. Luckily, a white lady, by the name of Ms. Gail; a local volunteer was outside to intervene. She got them off of me I felt like they were trying to kill me. After she pulled them off me, Ms. Gail ran to her car to get the first aid kit. After she finished cleaning my injuries, I told her, “thank you for everything I have to go now to continue searching for my brother and sister.” As I walked away, she noticed me limping then said “You can’t go back in there those guys will try to hurt you again. Come home with me and you will be safe there.” I declined her offer but she eventually convinced me to get in the car.
Once we pulled up at her house, I’m thinking to myself this is a nice house. She walked me inside and showed me to her guest room. She sat on the bed and said “JB you are welcome to anything in my home; the bathroom is across the hall and my refrigerator is full so help yourself to anything you like.” I lay across the bed thinking to myself this is far from how I’m use to living. The bed was so soft it felt like I was lying on cotton balls. Over the course of two weeks, Ms. Gail showed me things I never experienced before like ice skating at the galleria mall, bowling, sewing, chess, and how to cook. Everyday was like a new adventure for us. She was like the mother I never had. Once I found out on the news that they are allowing people back to New Orleans, I told Ms. Gail it was time for me to go back home and thanked her for everything. She seemed very sad and hurt but she said she understood, and told me to be careful and no matter what happens you always have a home here. A friend of mine picked me up to go back to New Orleans the next day. Before I got in the truck Ms. Gail kissed me on the forehead and hugged me tight then said, “Be careful son I will continue the search for your brother and sister but don’t worry they are ok.” Then she gave me a cell phone so we could keep in touch. I said, “thank you Ms. Gail and I’ll be back to visit you soon, thank you for everything.”
Now I’m back on my street headed towards my house looking out the window at the damage Katrina did to my neighborhood. I see markings on each house, which indicate how many bodies where found in each home. We finally made it to my house. I walked through the door then became devastated. I can see a waterline on the wall throughout the house that showed how high the water raised in my home. The ceiling came down in most of the rooms and all the furniture is turned up side down. I was born and raised in this house and now everything is gone. Before looking through the mess Katrina did inside my home, I put my shirt over my nose and mouth because of the bad smell. While searching through my house for anything I could keep, I came across my dad’s black box in the guest room under a pile of wood. I noticed the lock had been broken off the black box so that told me someone had been there and stole the money out the box. Yes, I was right the money is gone but all my dads’ important paper work is still there. While browsing through those papers, I came across a business plan for a parking lot sweeping business start up. Over the past few years my dad would always say his parking lot sweeping business will take us out the hood. I would always tell him my Real Estate-company would be the one to get us out the hood. Ever since I was young, I always wanted to buy homes and rent them out to people. My dad and I would argue back and forth about the parking lot sweeping business. I would always tell him I don’t think it’s a good idea to invest into a sweeping business right now so you should give me the money to start up my Real Estate-business. He would always end the conversation by saying “Get your Real Estate ass out here and go clean the house. Make yourself useful around here.” Thinking about this conversation brought a smile to my face. After reminiscing about the good times we had in this house, I noticed it started to get dark, so I put my dads business plan in my pocket and started walking. There isn’t any electricity or power anywhere around my neighborhood so I had to find a place to sleep for the night.
I found a local Wal-Mart. It’s one of the first businesses to reopen after Katrina. They are in full operation now so I found a spot in the back of the store to spend the night. The next day I found a Wal-Mart uniform in a locker so I put the uniform on to blend in with the rest of the workers. I would sneak in the employees lounge to grab food and water then go back to my hiding spot to sleep. During the day, I would clean up my house and at night I sleep at Wal-Mart. One night I am awakened by a loud noise. I thought it would go away but after 20 minutes I went outside to see where the noise coming from. To my surprise its a parking lot sweeping truck cleaning the parking lot, and the first thing came to mind is my dad. So every night I would watch this guy clean the parking lot and study his every move and the way he cleaned it. I even followed him to three other parking lots then noticed he is not doing a good job at all. The next day I over heard the store manager talking to an associate telling him the guy cleaning the parking lot wasn’t doing a good job. The associate told the store manager that he is the only guy in town and there aren’t any other sweepers in the city. Now I have a new plan but first, I need to talk to the store manager.
Two days later, I browsed through the clothing section of Wal-Mart for a button down shirt, tie, and slacks. I went into the fitting room to change then made my way to the front desk. I asked the lady if I could speak with the store manager and when she turned around, my heart skipped a beat. Everything around her was in slow motion. She is the most beautiful girl I ever seen in my life. Her name is Quinn. I heard her co-worker call her name telling her she will be going on break in 30 minutes. I asked Quinn if I could speak with the store manager. She said, “hold up a minute and I’ll go get him.” She came back and said, “He will be with you shortly.” As I waited for the store manager, I’m just floating on cloud nine looking at Quinn. I was in another world until the store manager came. His name is Victor and I introduced myself to him then, told him I noticed his parking lot is filthy and I would like to offer my services to his store. He asked me if I had a sweeper truck and I said yes but of course I didn’t. He told me if you promise to keep my store clean, I’ll give you the contract to my store. He shared with me the amount of money he would pay me, to keep his parking lot clean. When he told me those numbers the light bulb went off in my head. I guaranteed him that I’ll keep his store clean and he wouldn’t ever have to worry about a filthy parking lot again. Victor said “Great! I need you to start in 30 days. Give your info to Quinn so she can set you up in the system. Quinn asked me the name of my company and I’m thinking to myself ummmm….JB Sweeping.
When I walked away I was the happiest dude on earth, I had just landed a major contract with Wal-Mart. I’m like a kid in a candy store. Then it hit me. Where do I get a sweeper truck? After doing some research in the employees lounge, I found a company that built sweeper trucks. I was so excited I couldn’t sleep that night. First thing the next morning, I called that company and asked them a bunch of questions about their trucks. The guy told me everything I needed to know about sweeper trucks. He said they are very easy to handle, and the control panel is simple to operate plus I don’t need a CDL license only driver’s license. That was like music to my ears until he told me the price range for sweeper trucks. It was $75,000 and up depending on the model of the truck. I’m thinking to myself, I don’t have a dime to my name but only lent in my pockets. So I told the sales rep I’ll let him know when I’m ready to buy. Immediately, I went to the bank to get financing and they denied the loan before I could even sit down. Most people in this situation would have given up but not me. Losing and quitting is not an option. There is a small window of opportunity and I’m not about to miss it. Everyday they denied me until one day I waited in line to speak with the new loan officer at the bank. She had my credit report in her hand and then called me over to her desk. She asked me a few questions then reviewed my business plan. She said you have excellent credit. Your score is 820. I will approve you for this loan but I need collateral. I told her I don’t have anything because I lost everything to Katrina. She said well you either give me collateral are give me a down payment of at least $6,000 for this loan. I told her I’d be back in a few days with the down payment.
I didn’t know how I was going to come up with the money, I just knew I had to figure it out fast. Over the course of four weeks, I did any and everything to make money. I worked for a guy gutting out houses. He paid me cash everyday. I also did debris removal, painting, and installation, so basically I was working around the clock non-stop but still found time to stop by Wal-Mart to say “Hi” to Quinn.
Now I only have seven days until I have to start my contract with Wal-Mart. I checked the mail one day and found a letter from Red Cross. I opened it up and found a check for $3,345.53 in my name. When I saw that check I started jumping, hollering, and screaming because I couldn’t believe it. I saved up around 4,800 dollars and with this check I have enough to make the down payment. I was so happy I must have waved and shook everyone’s hand on the way to cash that check at the local convenience store down the road. After cashing that check, I went back home to count all my money. Half way through counting, I heard someone behind me say, “Give up the money.” Then, I felt a gun behind my head. That’s when I realized someone followed me home from the store. I told him okay don’t shoot I’ll give you the money. I gave him everything I had. He hit me in the back of the head with the butt of the gun then ran away leaving me with nothing. I was so angry I started punching the walls I couldn’t believe after all those weeks of hard work someone just robbed me.
Later that night Ms. Gail gave me a call telling me she will be in town tomorrow morning and that she had a big surprise for me. She could tell from my voice that something was wrong, but I told her everything was okay. She knew how I was saving up to get the down payment for my sweeper truck so she asked if I saved up enough money yet. I told her no, I’m still working on it. The next morning while renovating my house I heard someone call my name from outside. I ran to the door and it’s Ceira, Brandon, and Ms. Gail. That was the first time I had seen my brother and sister in weeks. Ms. Gail told me she found them in Arizona, and then flew them to Houston before driving to New Orleans. It felt so good to see my family again. My brother and sister started telling me stories about the kind people in Arizona. Ms. Gail asked me how much money I saved up. That’s when I told her the truth about getting robbed. She asked are you okay? Did you get hurt? I said I’m okay but I have to leave in a few for my next job. She reached into her purse and gave me a big envelope with my name on it. When I opened that envelope I saw $10,000 dollars cash. My eyes opened wide and then my mouth hit the ground because I couldn’t believe Ms. Gail gave me that much money. We all hugged her tight while tears started to roll down my face. She said that money is for your down payment and supplies you’ll need to start your company. I just hugged her and said, “Thank you.”
It’s January 1, 2006. The sweeper truck arrived just in time, on my first day of business with Wal-Mart. I can remember like it was yesterday. I think I cleaned that store at least 5 times the first night. I had that parking lot so clean you could eat off the ground. That store had the cleanest parking lot on the block and other store managers noticed my work. Two weeks later I received a phone call from a Wal- Mart store manager down the road asking me to clean his parking lot. He said that he needed me to start ASAP. A week after that, I got another phone call from a store manager requesting my service. It then became a domino effect because a lot of store managers and property owners wanted me to clean their parking lot. My business started growing so fast that I hired a few people to help me clean my client’s parking lots. JB Sweeping became an instant hit. I was even getting phone calls from people outside of New Orleans in other parishes.
A few weeks later I bought another sweeper truck and another, two weeks after that. Now I’m on pace of dominating my market and becoming one of the fastest growing companies in Southern Louisiana. I was 23 years old and making over $35,000 per month. Not bad for a homeless guy who lost everything to Katrina. Then the media picked up on my story and now I’m featured in newspapers and magazines across the country. I even made the front cover of Black Enterprise Magazine.
On May 8, 2009 I received a phone call from a family member of Ms. Gail’s telling me that she was rushed to the hospital. Over the last few years, Ms. Gail was fighting breast cancer. She beat it once before but it came back a few years ago. I jumped on the next flight out to Houston rushing to get to the hospital. Once I got to her room, I rushed to her bedside, I saw her hooked to a bunch of wires that were connected to a machine. She opened her eyes and then gave me a big smile. She spoke to me in a low tone saying “I’m proud of you JB. Your story has inspired many people. I always knew you would be the one – I could see it in your eyes. I don’t have much longer because God is calling me home but do know that I love you son and I will always be watching you.” She balled up her fist put it over her heart then hit her chest two times. After that she rolled her head over and closed her eyes. As I turned around to speak to the doctor about her condition, suddenly I heard a long flat beep from behind me. That’s when I knew she was gone. I just leaned my head down and started to cry because I just lost my mom. Family members in the room told me she fought cancer long and hard and she couldn’t leave with out speaking to me one last time. They gave me a picture of us when I first arrived at Ms. Gail’s house. I just looked at the picture and said “Thank you for everything. I love you mom.”
Today JB Sweeping is a million dollar company operating throughout Southern Louisiana. After all these years, my dad was right. The parking lot sweeping business is a gold mine.I also have two other businesses; one of them is the Real Estate business I’ve always wanted. My brother and sister are doing great. Brandon is working along side me managing the businesses. Ceira just graduated from college and was recently accepted into medical school. Remember Quinn, the most beautiful woman I have ever seen? Well let just say I’m hearing wedding bells in the near future! There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about my father and Ms. Gail. I just hope I made them proud. I have learned that life is short. You can be here today and gone tomorrow, so make sure you tell your loved ones you love them before it’s too late. Life is a beautiful thing, but you will be tested and faced with different obstacles. How you handle them will determine your success. I don’t care about your race, age, or financial situation you can be successful. All it takes is hard work and dedication. Always remember it’s not how you started the race, it’s how you finish..