When Mark and Tiffany Manson talk about “home,” they don’t mean their new house in Dallas, which they renovated and moved into about a year ago. They mean the home they left behind in New Orleans during Katrina, the 2005 hurricane that ravaged the Gulf Coast, busted through flood walls and washed away neighborhoods across Louisiana and Mississippi, upending innumerable lives and ending almost 2,000.
Mark works at Richardson Bike Mart on Garland, and Tiffany pet sits in the neighborhood. They say the East Dallas community has embraced them since their arrival.
New Orleans was “a true community where people looked out for each other,” Mark explains — the kind of place where they could walk down the street and neighbors would be outside on their porches, and they’d say “hello.”
In August 2005, Tiffany owned a dog-sitting business in New Orleans and Mark worked in a bicycle shop where he was known and respected by the cycling community.
Hurricane Katrina wasn’t the first time the government issued a mandatory hurricane evacuation for New Orleans, but it was the first time Tiffany felt that clench in her gut.
“It happened around Thursday afternoon and Friday morning that my intuition started clicking,” Tiffany explains. “We’d never evacuated for a storm but something told me, ‘We have to go for this one,’ and [Mark] believed me.”
Mark questioned why they needed to go all the way to Dallas, but Tiffany insisted they should visit her mom in Mesquite for a few days. It would be like a vacation, she said.
Mark gave in, and they spent Saturday “battening down the hatches” at home and the bike store, packing backpacks with enough necessities for three days and preparing to haul four dogs — two of their own, plus two furry guests Tiffany was pet sitting.
Before they left, the Mansons ate at Sid-Mars, a famous New Orleans seafood restaurant, and they sat around the table chatting until the employees kicked them out, warning the city’s floodwalls were about to close. They didn’t know it at the time, but they would be among the last to ever eat at Sid-Mars.
It was still dark on Sunday morning when Mark locked the front door on their way out of the city, and it struck him that he might not see home again, he recalls.
“You have to at least consider it,” Mark says. “It’s always a possibility.”
They drove to Mark’s workplace to pick up his boss, Alfred Wang, who traveled to the Dallas area with them. All highway traffic was outbound during the mandatory evacuation as the trio headed west. It wasn’t until Shreveport that the Mansons began listening to the news reports.
“They were talking about a category 5 and 250 mph winds, and I started freaking out,” Mark recalls. “Those 200 miles between Shreveport and Mesquite were terrible. For the first time I was thinking, ‘We’re going to lose everything.’ ”
They got to Tiffany’s mom’s house and the three of them settled in. Then they learned the storm would not directly hit New Orleans.
Relieved, they went to bed Sunday night only to wake Monday morning to devastating news: Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge had breeched the levees that protected New Orleans from flooding.
“By the time we woke up, our house was already flooded because of where it was,” Tiffany says. “We were on the North side, and all the flooding came from the North.”
Even though they were prepared for the worst, when they saw a satellite image of their home underwater, they were shocked.
“Everything was just like, ‘What do I do? Oh, I can walk. I can do that,’” Tiffany says, trying to explain the confusion they felt. “Just so lost. On top of that, cell service wasn’t working, so we had friends we weren’t able to get ahold of that we were worried as hell about. We finally figured out that texting worked.”
They weren’t going home, they realized, at least not anytime soon.
They also couldn’t stay with Tiffany’s mom forever, so they needed to find jobs — pronto. The next few weeks were a whirlwind of insurance claims, applying for what little assistance was available and searching for jobs.
One day Mark was in Richardson Bike Mart and he struck up a conversation with general manager Woody Smith about cycling.
When Smith learned Mark was a Katrina evacuee, he asked Mark if he needed a place to stay. Then Smith was quick to offer him a job — a decision he hasn’t regretted.
“He’s a great, great employee,” Smith says. “I think the world of him. He has a lot of knowledge about bikes and he loves people.”
During the transition, people within the cycling community in Dallas embraced the Mansons, ready to help in whatever way possible.
“[Woody] was very willing to help us,” Mark says. “I told him, ‘Look, it’s only going to be for a couple of months. I’ll sweep the floor or whatever you need.’ He said, ‘No, we’ll set you guys up.’ They were great.
“The owner of the company was going to Italy with his wife, and he said, ‘If you need a place to stay, you can stay at our house. If you need a truck, we’re not going to be driving ours.’ I’d never met him. It was just unbelievable, and that’s when I really started to feel like, OK, things are going to be good here.”
They lived with Tiffany’s mom for a couple months before moving into an apartment and later into a house on Lower Greenville. It was the closest thing to New Orleans they had.
“There were multiple gossiping sessions that happened in the middle of the street between neighbors,” Tiffany says. “The neighbors would host a quinceañera and everyone would bring food.”
“There was a month when I rode my bike every day to work,” Mark says. “It was great. We loved going to eat at the Char Bar. We loved going there to talk about football.”
They avoided the news as much as possible, and both were hit with a heavy dose of survivor guilt.
“We felt like here we were in another city instead of in New Orleans helping to repair the city that we loved more than anything else in the world,” Tiffany says. “We both had that guilt.”
Both vividly remember the first time they saw their home after the flood.
“Driving into the city was surreal,” Mark remembers. “Everything was covered in this funky grey film.”
“It was like watching a black and white film out your car window,” Tiffany describes. “Not muddy brown. Grey. And the smell was unlike anything you could ever describe. It was a mixture of chemicals and mold and death.”
“When we drove down the main street into our neighborhood there was nothing — nobody was around, nothing was stirring, there was no movement,” Mark explains.
“No birds, no sound,” Tiffany says.
“We didn’t even speak,” Mark says. “We were just driving in silence.”
“Crying,” Tiffany adds.
They pulled up to their house with a sense of “morbid curiosity,” Mark says. They wanted to see it and didn’t at the same time.
“I got out of the car and collapsed onto the lawn,” Tiffany says, her eyes welling up with tears at the memory. “Mark was saying, ‘It’s going to be OK. It’s going to be OK,’ and all I kept thinking was, ‘This is not OK. There’s nothing about this that’s OK.’ ”
The number of items the couple was able to save could be counted on one hand — a piece of fine art, a handmade cabinet from Mark’s great-grandfather, a full set of depression glass.
“We don’t have a picture of our wedding,” Tiffany says. “We found my garter from our wedding, although it wasn’t very pretty at that point.”
They couldn’t afford to gut their old home until about a year after the hurricane. Even then, their neighborhood was still in bad shape.
“It’s a blue-collar neighborhood that’s still not rebuilt completely,” Tiffany explains. “The neighborhoods with all the money, they were rebuilt the fastest. People provided the poor neighborhoods with the resources to rebuild. The people in our neighborhoods who have always worked, we all went somewhere else to get jobs and couldn’t come home. We fell through the cracks.”
After they salvaged what little they could, they trashed the rest.
“At that point, I didn’t care what happened to the stuff,” Tiffany says. “Our life has now been separated into ‘before and after’ forever — and the after just never seems to quite measure up to the before. If you’re a New Orleanian, then you’re a New Orleanian and you’re never quite going to fit in anywhere else.”
After a pause she adds that they “have a good life here,” almost as a bittersweet afterthought.
“Which is why we didn’t go back,” Mark says. “We always planned to go back. I used money to fix the roof of the house, and we had someone take care of the lawn for a while. Until very recently we planned to go back, but we were just kidding ourselves.”
“The more we talked to friends that were still there, the more I didn’t want to go back,” Tiffany says, “because the reports were always, ‘It’s not the New Orleans we all knew anymore.’ ”
Richardson Bike Mart promoted Mark to a manager position at its Garland Road location, and Tiffany’s pet sitting business took off in East Dallas.
“Things are working really, really well now,” Mark says of his job.
The folks at Richardson Bike Mart feel the same way about Mark.
“I thought he was just going to be here a year or two,” Smith says. “That was the agreement. Here it has been 10 years and he’s still here, thank God.”
When the Mansons finally accepted that they weren’t going back, they decided it was time to plant some roots and buy a home in Dallas. They had lived on Lower Greenville for more than seven years, but as much as they wanted to live in East Dallas, they ended up finding a home in Oak Cliff instead.
They finally bulldozed their home in New Orleans because the property was worth more without it, but they managed to glean a few parts — doors, windows and hardwood flooring.
They love their neighbors, and they’ve been working hard to make their house a home. Mark has been using the parts from their old house to build a memorial for New Orleans in their backyard.
“It’s functional as a wall, but it’s more like an art piece,” Mark says. “I’m not an artist by any means, but I like the symbolism. I want to finish it by the anniversary, but it’s a work in progress. So that has been really healing.
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