Carolyn Perry's late husband Bob was diagnosed with cancer in 2004. The next year, in August 2005, the disease had progressed to the point that he had to be admitted to Memorial Hospital – just before Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, flooding the first floors of the hospital, killing the power and forcing doctors and patients out of the main structure into a parking garage, where they waited for rescue for days without reliable food, water or information.
Shortly after her husband’s original diagnosis, Perry had begun to keep a notebook with her at all times in order to keep medications, doctors and dates organized. The notebook was with the Perrys in Memorial, and in between intervals of caring for her husband, foraging for provisions and trying to find out just when the hell they were going to be able to get out, Perry jotted down her observations. The notebook was the basis for her recent book, For Better, For Worse: Patient in the Maelstrom. The memoir chronicles the couple’s perspective on the city’s communal storm story, from admission to Memorial through their separation in the parking garage to what happened in the days that followed.
The book began life as a 12-page essay, but by attending a writers’ workshop at the Arts Council of New Orleans, Perry transformed it into a full-length narrative—at times touching, at others harrowing, but never forgettable.
Ms. Perry agreed to discuss the memoir, her life with Bob and both of her storm stories (yes, both) for MyNewOrleans.com. Here’s what she had to say:
Where did you meet Bob?
At the University of Dallas [where she attended as an undergraduate]. He was a faculty member there. …A very young, very new faculty member there.
And you both ended up teaching at…?
Lock Haven University. [She was director of the Writing Center.]
Have you written books before?
No, this is my first; it's actually the first time I've tried something creative. Everything before this has been academic writing. …I taught Business Writing.
How did it work, going from somebody who taught writing to somebody who was taking a workshop for writing?
That workshop was fate, or luck, or something. I have really enjoyed it. I was led to enroll back in 2007 in the spring; I had a draft of the book, which was 12 pages, dry, uninteresting, terrible. I knew I needed help. So I saw the ad for James Nolan's "Tell Your Hurricane Story" workshop – that's what he called it then – and I enrolled, and that was the best thing that ever happened. I learned the craft of creative writing and I've been in that workshop ever since.
I ask her take on the different ways in which people have told their storm stories.
Everybody who lives through that experience has a story. It takes a while for those stories to come out, and they come out in different forms. The early ones were journalistic; now, we've got plays, like from John Biguenet…those came out fairly soon and were incredibly powerful – are incredibly powerful. My story is strictly memoir; it's the storm, but it's more than the storm, more than disaster.
It's incredibly detailed. What was the process of going back and finding people and dates?
When my husband was first diagnosed with cancer back in 2004 and he started treatment I got in the habit of having a notebook with me all the time because there was so much to take in; we were both overwhelmed. So I got in the habit of writing things down. And so when we landed in Memorial Hospital right before Katrina, I had that notebook with me. And then, after the storm passed and the flood started and we were trapped for hours and hours and hours, there wasn't much else to do. I started taking notes. Somehow I sensed I would want to remember those details. It dawned on me early on in the experience that, hey, this was a significant historical event, and I wanted to remember it. I didn't really plan to write about it at that point, but I'm glad I kept those notes.
Backing up, living in Pennsylvania, you had to evacuate for Hurricane…?
And that was in…?
1972. [There is a section early in the book about how she and Bob had to clamber out of their home and paddle away through the floodwater – in Pennsylvania.] There was another one…I remember the first summer we were married, one came and almost hit Galveston. That was the one that hit Missisippi so badly, Camille. I remember being in Galveston and being worried about the hurricane. We moved up to Pennsylvania and we thought, "that's the end of hurricanes." But Agnes just blew up there. …It just stopped, and dumped rain on us for days and days on Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We lived right on the Susquehanna River – Lock Haven's right there on the river – and the town flooded. So that was our first hurricane.
How did you and Bob decide to move to New Orleans?
We just fell in love with the place, like so many people do. We came down first for professional conferences…we came for those and just loved the city, and just kept coming back.
I ask about the process of adding rich, personal detail – of which there is a great deal – to her text.
It was happy to write about. Remembering the good times is what gets me through, really.
At other times in the book it feels as though your writing is very restrained…how did you stick to a strict memoir?
Well, I felt – and I feel – a responsibility to try to stay true to what I experienced. And actually I was only an observer there. …That's all that happened, so I didn't try to extrapolate or make it more than it was.
You never felt like mounting an investigation…?
Well I talked to some of the nurses…I was really curious about what happened to some of the staff. They were so wonderful to the patients; it was just amazing. And you know, they never really got any recognition. That was hard work in those days. And the nurses and doctors and nurses were really great. I don't know what would have happened without them.
How did you deal with information (or the lack of information)? Did it seem like there was some sort of informational hierarchy?
I didn't really think that much about any kind of hierarchy; I mean, it just seemed so chaotic. We didn't know anything; nobody seemed to know anything. And when I tried to question people – there's a scene when I try to get information – the answer was always "We don't know." There seemed to be no plan. We were in this tiny, cut-off world for four days. …I never doubted we would get out, I think. And I was so worried about Bob, because really, he was in bad shape when we went into the hospital. The experience of having to sit there and wait was hard on him. So I was focused on him and everything was happening around me – looking back, it's chaos.
Bob and Carolyn were reunited in Thibodaux, where they rode out Hurricane Rita together. Bob Perry died of cancer in Dallas two months after Hurricane Katrina. His obituary in The Times Picayune read thus:
Robert O. Perry, age 70, retired university professor, died peacefully, Sunday, November 6, 2005 in Dallas, Tx. of cancer. Mr. Perry was a resident of the French Quarter and was evacuated from Memorial Hospital in the aftermath of Katrina. He is survived by wife, Carolyn; one brother, one sister; and a large extended family. Funeral services were Wednesday, November 9, 2005 At Restland Wildwood Chapel, Dallas, Tx.