It was 10 years ago that Lois Rice began counting down the rest of her life in the number of breaths that remained in those few inches of air between the water and the ceiling.
Soaked, shivering and 60 years old, she was trapped under the roof of her childhood home in New Orleans for hours before rescuers arrived.
She had been asleep on an air mattress on her great-uncle’s old, brass bed when the flooding started. By the time she woke up, the water — “creepy, how quiet that water was coming in” — had filled the bedroom, and Rice, who is paralyzed, was floating toward the chandelier. Her wheelchair was far below, underwater, and she couldn’t move.
Her rescue was one of the memorable Katrina photos, sent around the world on the Associated Press wire and pressed into a photo book about Katrina by the Times-Picayune.
She never saw the photos, never knew that people all over the world saw her harrowing rescue.
When I showed them to her, she sucked in a little breath. And then she quickly wanted to move along to talk about the Washington area or social work or politics.
She is bright and upbeat and talkative, her hair held up by stylish, rhinestone barrettes and her impish banter the clear highlight of her Takoma Park, Md., nursing home.
But she is among those who don’t want to revisit what they endured in New Orleans.
“I can’t go back. I won’t go back,” she said from her wheelchair in the nursing home. “It will never again be the city I knew.”
As the rest of the nation marks the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Lois Rice is among those whose ties to the city were forever severed. By Katrina itself, and also by the aftermath.
Rice, now 70, grew up in New Orleans, in that house on Lamanche Street where she floated to the roof and was saved when rescuers chain-sawed her out.
She has left New Orleans many times in her life, but she swore that day in the water 10 years ago, when she was strapped to a lime-green ironing board wearing nothing but a blanket printed with orange flowers, that leaving this time would be for good.
The first time she left New Orleans, she was an Army brat, and her father was stationed in Germany. But she returned, spent the rest of her childhood in the Vieux Carre as a Catholic schoolgirl and graduated from Xavier University.
She left New Orleans again in 1967 to attend Howard University for graduate work and became a social worker in Washington. She eventually settled in Silver Spring, Md., after she married another social worker and they started a family.
As with so many New Orleanians, there’s always the thought that they may go back someday.
These are the people who visit the city often, who have Mardi Gras beads hanging on their rear-view mirrors year-round. Who still have their “mama and ‘em” back home.
And New Orleans was always in Lois Rice’s back pocket.
That summer in 2005, Rick and Lois Rice planned the Great American Tour for their grandkids. Florida, New Orleans, the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas.
But when they got to New Orleans, Lois saw that her great-aunt was ailing and the house on Lamanche Street was ailing. She decided that her husband should go on with the grandkids, and she’d stay and help.
When the reports came that a hurricane was coming, Rice and her kin didn’t flinch.
“Pftt. It was nothing. We always thought it would be nothing,” she said. And they settled in to sleep through the storm. She drifted off thinking about what kind of tea she would have in the morning.
Her great-aunt got out through the roof. One cousin tried to kick in a small hole to get Lois off the floating air mattress and out.
Meanwhile, another cousin who was trying to get to them drowned along the way.
When a New Orleans police officer managed to get his father’s chain saw and cut a big hole in the roof, and a Times-Picayune photographer got the ironing board from a neighbor to support her half-broken body, Lois Rice finally began to believe that she had more than a few breaths left, she told me.
On the way to the St. Claude Avenue Bridge, she knew she would never be back.
A man from Northern Virginia who had a private plane flew Lois Rice back to Washington from the Baton Rouge hospital where she had been taken. She can’t remember his name. She really doesn’t want to remember.
A week after she was pulled from her childhood home, she was back in Silver Spring, watching the death of her childhood city on television.
“It was surreal,” she said. “I was there, and then a week later, I was part of the rest of America, just watching New Orleans die.”
Her great-aunt and the remaining cousins relocated to Houston, where they all remain today.
“For some of us,” she said, rolling back to the dining room of the nursing home in time to catch the afternoon entertainment, “we just had to say goodbye.”