Bouncing back 

Katrina victims rebuild in Indianapolis

Katrina victims rebuild in Indianapolis

With no more than $1,500 between the three of them, Ben Phelps, Jennifer Fernandez and Tom Kellough climbed into two pickup trucks at 2 a.m. on Saturday morning with enough clothes for a week, a set of drums, a guitar, one dog and two cats.
Jennifer Fernandez and Ben Phelps, displaced from New Orleans, are currently working at MacNiven's.

“I thought it was going to be a five-day stint and we would come right back,” said Phelps, a 27-year-old Indiana native who had lived in New Orleans for three years. Phelps, a drummer, migrated to the Big Easy for the music scene and to join his friend Kellough, who is also a musician. Kellough worked at an Irish pub and managed The Funky Butt, a jazz club destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

The three New Orleanians headed northbound out of town on what was usually a southbound highway. There was no traffic and no sense of chaos, a contrast to the dramatic television images beamed to the rest of the country. All three agreed that they were luckier than most because they had both the ability to leave and the experience of evacuating from Hurricane Ivan the previous year.

“I felt like a pro,” said Fernandez of her packing ability. She was done in an hour and only regrets not bringing her and her boyfriend Kellough’s extensive CD collection. Phelps has a longer list of regrets: CDs, DVDs, a “sweet ass” leather jacket, a chess board from his travels in Europe and a Reggie Miller and Ron Artest jersey.

With things remembered and things forgotten, the New Orleans trio arrived in Indianapolis homeless and jobless. They spoke to a friend at Bazbeaux’s Pizza on Massachusetts Avenue who told them that the Scottish restaurant across the street was hiring. With serving experience, Phelps and Fernandez landed jobs at MacNiven’s.

Kellough hit all the jazz clubs before taking a job with the Rathskeller. They weren’t the only Katrina victims knocking on restaurant doors. Lawrence Shepard, an Indiana native and Bourbon Street bartender, was also hired at MacNiven’s while Erin Mills, originally from South Carolina, was hired at Moe & Johnny’s restaurant and bar on College Avenue.

“It was a quick and easy way to get a job,” said Phelps of his decision to work at a restaurant.

For those Katrina victims not wanting to work in the restaurant industry, the Red Cross, Indiana 2-1-1 and placement agencies are good sources for job connections. The Red Cross provides a job link on their Web site while Personnel Management placement agency is encouraging Katrina victims to call for job placement assistance. Indiana 2-1-1, a United Way organization, provides access to health and human services such as employment.

While Phelps, Fernandez and Kellough are all grateful to have a source of income, the present is still a bit daunting. “You think about your town under water and your friends scattered across the country. Sometimes you’re sad, sometimes your not. It really just hits you in waves. I’m just in a funk,” Phelps said.

Katrina has left Phelps’ apartment, a couple of miles from the French Quarter, flooded. His new home at North Oaks apartment complex in Indianapolis is rent- and utility-free for a year. He was able to furnish his apartment with furniture given away by Century 21 real estate group and a church garage sale, where he picked up his prized set of vintage McDonald’s Muppets drinking glasses. Fernandez and Kellough had better luck. They heard through friends in New Orleans that their house was neither damaged nor broken into. They are both living with their parents on the Northeastside of Indianapolis.

All three agree that the hurricane has forced them to analyze their lives and pay close attention to their future. While Kellough wants to get back to New Orleans as soon as there is infrastructure and a clientele for the service industry, both Fernandez and Phelps wouldn’t mind staying in Indianapolis for a while. Phelps will not return to New Orleans for a restaurant job and is taking his time in Indianapolis to figure out if he still wants to pursue a music career.

Fernandez, a certified massage therapist, thinks that Indianapolis may be the perfect city to practice. But her own personal form of therapy to deal with the tragedy of Katrina is simply to be grateful. “I’m really happy I made it out alive and for everything I have.”

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