One step at a time

In Reports


Her eyes hurt from looking at the sun, so she closed them. Sweat stained her shirt. She had walked God knew how many miles that day. Ten maybe. She walked every day, her son, Jahon, growing heavy in her arms as she tried to find a way out of New Orleans.

Before the storm, Lee Ann Bemboom waited tables at the Clover Grill, a 24-hour diner on Bourbon Street. She had left an abusive boyfriend, and had been living in a women’s shelter. She was raising her 11-month-old son alone.

When Katrina threatened, Lee Ann and others holed up in a church. Afterward, she and Jahon walked into the Quarter to check on the diner. People came running from the housing projects nearby with babies in their arms and no shoes. Lee Ann followed. The city was flooding.

At the Superdome, old people jerked through seizures. Bullets flew, and Lee Ann covered Jahon’s head. Women went to the bathroom in groups for fear of being raped.

She wasn’t going to let Jahon die there. She set off toward the Convention Center. Bodies lay in gutters, and people covered their children’s eyes. Lee Ann wasn’t worried about Jahon seeing. He was too young to make sense of it.

In a Walgreens, she filled two backpacks with formula, pacifiers and baby powder. At night, strangers stood guard while she and Jahon slept. Looters handed out food, and gang members brought milk for babies and medicine for the elderly.

In the heat and chaos, Jahon weakened. With TV cameras trained on her, Lee Ann said she was having trouble keeping him awake. He was dehydrated. He needed antibiotics.

They finally made it out. Lee Ann didn’t know much about computers or the Internet, and she had no idea how far her picture had traveled. She didn’t know that Charlotte Hackman, a second cousin who hadn’t seen her in 25 years, had recognized her photo in the newspaper in Wilmington, N.C., or that Charlotte had sent e-mails and placed phone calls all over the country trying to track her down, or that thousands of e-mails had passed between Charlotte and people who wanted to help the woman with the naked baby in her arms.

Charlotte found Lee Ann at a shelter in Addis, La. The night Lee Ann and Jahon arrived in Wilmington, a half-dozen photographers met them at the airport. Jahon couldn’t stop smiling. He loves the camera.

They stayed with Charlotte for a while, then moved into a low-income apartment in Wilmington. People gave them hand-me-down clothes and furniture. They have no car, and Lee Ann’s phone is usually out of minutes. Unable to pay for child care, she hasn’t gone back to work.

“I think people just don’t understand,” Charlotte said. “You don’t just turn this into a Cinderella story. I think that’s what a lot of us had hoped: This is great, these people get to start all over. It’s not great and it’s not easy and it doesn’t always turn out that these people lived happily ever after.”

Jahon will turn 2 next month. Lee Ann has not made friends in Wilmington. She feels no connection to the city beyond the kinship that brought her there.

“But I have to think of my kid,” she said. “It’s safe and it’s clean, and that’s what matters for him.”

She thinks of herself as a free spirit. She hoped to raise Jahon in New Orleans, among artists and musicians in a city that often felt more like Europe than America. She wonders where else they could find that culture, that sense of being alive right down to the cells in your skin.

San Francisco, maybe? She stops herself. Too expensive. She has other things to think about. A job. A car.


First published in the St. Petersburg Times.


Vanessa Gezari
Vanessa M. Gezari has reported from four continents for The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Slate, The New Republic, Mother Jones, and others. Her book on the war in Afghanistan, The Tender Soldier: A True Story of War and Sacrifice, was published in 2013. A visiting professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York City, Vanessa is a former Knight-Wallace Fellow and a three-time Livingston Award finalist. She has received grants from the Pulitzer Center and the Fund for Investigative Journalism; an International Reporting Project fellowship; and a MacDowell Colony writing residency.

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