Roy O’Keefe, 58
Evacuee from New Orleans
You escaped from Katrina in time?
Yes.I left during the mandatory evacuation on Sunday. I’d dropped off my cat and my dog. I was in and out of the apartment for two hours. Then I thought, “You need to stop. You can’t bring any more stuff, because if you try to save it, you’ll be here all night.” I drove 14 hours to stay with my brother in Houston, but the city was overwhelmed with evacuees. So now I’m in Dallas.
What has it been like for you since you fled New Orleans?
It leaves you kind of numb. It always happens to “someone else.” When I saw the corpses on TV, floating under the interstate where I used to drive—it just puts you into shock. I had a second floor apartment in New Orleans. When I went back after the storm, the first floor was just gone. It’s like watching your house burn down. But my documents, my family history—they aren’t there anymore. They just don’t exist.
Other times, I feel disoriented. I reach for a saltshaker, and I don’t have one. But I’ve overcome 25 years of HIV. I’ve faced my own death and buried most of my friends. [Yet] I see so many hurricane survivors just lose it and become helpless, when all they’ve lost is two or three weeks of their lives.
What additional challenges did being positive bring?
If you’re HIV positive, and you face this type of thing, you think, “What’s it going to be like afterward?” Sure enough, all the support that was there before is gone. All of the hospitals and doctors are overwhelmed or closed down. Your HIV doctor is gone, too. I’d just had a bad reaction to an HIV drug before I left and stopped taking it. My doctor said to go get new blood work and come back in a few weeks for new meds. Then I had to evacuate.
By the time I finally got blood work done in Dallas, my viral load was up to 22,000, but I’m really glad that I stopped taking the meds when I did and I had those three days to feel better. If I’d still been feeling that badly when the storm hit, I would have just laid down [and not fled].
Did you have everything you needed, medically speaking, when you made it to Texas?
I had ID to prove who I am, but I didn’t think to grab proof that I’m HIV positive. People need to think of that [because you need it to get HIV services in a new location]. I was one of the first to come through the Resource Center of Dallas. They were an enormous help. The caseworker there said, “We’ll find out what your needs are, and we will take care of everything.”
They retested me and gave me a new letter of diagnosis to help get the care I needed. That’s more than any other organization has done. Don’t get me started on the Red Cross or FEMA—I don’t know what planet they’re on.
What’s it like starting over?
I moved into my own apartment in Dallas in October, and I’m staying. I’m a country boy, raised in Alabama. I feel comfortable here. I like the horses, the rodeo. I’m a member of the Gay Rodeo. I’m thinking, “I’m here, why should I spend $2,000 to go back to New Orleans?”
Also,there are no floods here, and the people have just bent over backward—offering Katrina victims deals at furniture stores and new mattresses at a fraction of wholesale. Friends I’d made online in Dallas drove me around showing me apartments and to the resource center. That’s more overwhelming to me than having the roof blown off.
How one cowboy fled Katrina’s fury and found generosity, support and a new home
Roy O’Keefe, 58