After Hurricane Katrina battered New Orleans, many flocked to North Texas. Meet Kenny and Annette, a couple born and raised in the Greater New Orleans area, just two blocks from the Lower Ninth Ward. The hurricane played a role in splitting up their previous marriages. In North Texas, Kenny and Annette found each other.
Ten years ago, Kenny Choina was running a mobile DJ business in the Arabi neighborhood next to the New Orleans Lower Ninth Ward. He was wrapping up a gig in the French Quarter the night of Saturday, August 27, 2005.
The hurricane was just 30 hours away.
“I left at 1 p.m. on Sunday,” Choina recalls. “So I was actually feeling the winds. It took me 12 hours to drive two hours north.”
Kenny drove north with his wife and daughter to Mississippi. And that’s where they stayed when Katrina hit. Hours after sunrise, Monday morning, August 29, his neighborhood filled up with six to 10 feet of water. More than a week later, he went home to check out the damage.
“When I walked inside, they had six inches of feces in my house, because the wastewater treatment plant was about two-and-a-half blocks away on the other side of the levee,” Kenny says. “I couldn’t go down my street without the proper gear. I had the facemask, boots, coverall, in order to go down my street. The smell was like, I couldn’t even tell you what it smelled like. It’s nothing like I ever smelled before, absolutely nothing. It was just gross.”
Kenny’s wife didn’t want to be in Louisiana and he says she drove to her family in Florida. Kenny wanted to stay. Within a few months, the marriage was over.
Across town, Katrina was about to melt another marriage. Annette Daigle was planning to celebrate her birthday August 28, the day before the hurricane hit.
“That that particular morning, 4 a.m., my dad showed up at my door and said 'get the boys together,'” Annette recalls. “We’re evacuating. My husband at the time was working for Southwest Airlines and so he had to stay as part of the crew to help the airline, which had brought in extra planes to actually evacuate people.”
They moved to Arkansas for a few weeks. She says her husband, alone in New Orleans, started drinking. Annette’s employer found her a job in Fort Worth. Her husband transferred to Dallas, and they moved to Grapevine. But he kept drinking. She blames Katrina.
“It was a complete life and game changer for anyone who was there, and if they tell you it’s not, they’re lying,” she says. “I think he fell into a depression and that’s how he self-medicated.”
Annette eventually got a divorce.
Meanwhile, Kenny quit his job in the New Orleans area working for a company that rented recovery equipment. He was depressed and wanted out. His best friend lured him to Texas.
“I didn’t want to do anything I didn’t want to go anywhere,” Kenny says, who had battled depression before. “I was thinking of all my friends. Thinking about what I had lost. Forty years of my life down the drain. What did I have to live for?”
Psychologist Madhukar Trivedi isn’t surprised. He runs UT-Southwestern’s Center for Depression Research.
“If you get a stressor like this,” Dr. Trivedi explains, “especially a stressor that’s associated with loss, because they lost a lot of things, personal, emotional, physical etc., that, coupled together leads to new episodes of depression.”
Annette did not suffer from depression. She thanks her faith and her strength.
“You can only deal with the deck you’ve been given," she says. "I refuse to be a victim. I’m always going to be a survivor.”
By 2006, Annette and Kenny were single and rebuilding their lives North Texas.
They met at a TV watch party for a New Orleans Saints pre-season game. Eventually, they married.
“And when I met her we worked together,” Kenny explains. “She needed me to help her with the kids. And I needed her to be my rock.”
“My ex wasn’t there for me and my family,” Annette says. “He-- Kenny -- is always here for me and my family. He wanted to help. He wanted to be there for my kids. He wanted a family. And I wanted a family, too.”
Kenny and Annette still go back to New Orleans, but it’s just to visit.
“I know what it means to miss New Orleans, I’ll say that,” Annette smiles, quoting the song. “It’s New ‘Orlins’ but that’s the song, New ‘Orleens.’ I’m getting teary eyed because in my heart of hearts I would love to go back. But, in my head, it says no."
“I flooded through several hurricanes,” Kenny says. “I’m tired of it. I miss the food I would say the most but I miss my family the most. It’s much better here for my stepchildren, for school. And it’s much cleaner here.”
This week, on the 10th anniversary of Katrina, these Louisiana transplants will celebrate Annette’s birthday. She and Kenny and the teen boys will cook some Louisiana food -- and think about the storm that brought them together.