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 mycat and my dog. I was in and out of the apartment for two hours. Then Ithought, “You need to stop. You can’t bring any more stuff, because ifyou try to save it, you’ll be here all night.” I drove 14 hours to staywith 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?
Itleaves you kind of numb. It always happens to “someone else.” When Isaw the corpses on TV, floating under the interstate where I used todrive—it just puts you into shock. I had a second floor apartment inNew Orleans. When I went back after the storm, the first floor was justgone. It’s like watching your house burn down. But my documents, myfamily history—they aren’t there anymore. They just don’t exist.
Othertimes, I feel disoriented. I reach for a saltshaker, and I don’t haveone. But I’ve overcome 25 years of HIV. I’ve faced my own death andburied most of my friends. [Yet] I see so many hurricane survivors justlose it and become helpless, when all they’ve lost is two or threeweeks of their lives.
What additional challenges did being positive bring?
Ifyou’re HIV positive, and you face this type of thing, you think,“What’s it going to be like afterward?” Sure enough, all the supportthat was there before is gone. All of the hospitals and doctors areoverwhelmed or closed down. Your HIV doctor is gone, too. I’d just hada bad reaction to an HIV drug before I left and stopped taking it. Mydoctor said to go get new blood work and come back in a few weeks fornew meds. Then I had to evacuate.
By the time I finally gotblood work done in Dallas, my viral load was up to 22,000, but I’mreally glad that I stopped taking the meds when I did and I had thosethree days to feel better. If I’d still been feeling that badly whenthe 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?
Ihad ID to prove who I am, but I didn’t think to grab proof that I’m HIVpositive. People need to think of that [because you need it to get HIVservices in a new location]. I was one of the first to come through theResource Center of Dallas. They were an enormous help. The caseworkerthere said, “We’ll find out what your needs are, and we will take careof everything.”
They retested me and gave me a new letter ofdiagnosis to help get the care I needed. That’s more than any otherorganization has done. Don’t get me started on the Red Cross or FEMA—Idon’t know what planet they’re on.
What’s it like starting over?
Imoved into my own apartment in Dallas in October, and I’m staying. I’ma country boy, raised in Alabama. I feel comfortable here. I like thehorses, the rodeo. I’m a member of the Gay Rodeo. I’m thinking, “I’mhere, why should I spend $2,000 to go back to New Orleans?”
Also,there are no floods here, and the people have just bent overbackward—offering Katrina victims deals at furniture stores and newmattresses at a fraction of wholesale. Friends I’d made online inDallas drove me around showing me apartments and to the resourcecenter. 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