Photo by Sydney Cromwell
Most of Barry and Fran Ivker’s belongings were destroyed after Hurricane Katrina, but they managed to salvage over 500 pounds of Mardi Gras beads stored in their attic. They brought those beads to their new home in Hoover.
The electronic harpsichord in Barry and Fran Ivker’s living room doesn’t immediately draw the eye. It’s covered in picture frames and papers and dwarfed by the two pianos that also share the room. However, the harpsichord holds a special place because it is one of the few things the Ivkers could rescue from their flooded home after Hurricane Katrina hit.
On Sunday, Aug. 28, 2005, Barry remembers wondering if his house in New Orleans East would survive the Category 5 hurricane forming in the Gulf of Mexico. The Ivkers decided to evacuate with Barry’s 91-year-old mother, a couple they knew and three of their cats that they could put into carriers. They packed three days’ worth of clothes, moved a few possessions to the second story and put out food and water for the two cats that remained behind.
The Ivkers decided to wait out the storm in Birmingham, where their son Joshua lived. The journey normally took five hours, but that Sunday it took 12. Katrina hit the next day and then the levees broke, flooding New Orleans. In Birmingham, Barry pulled up a satellite picture of his home only to find that water had reached the roof of the car in their driveway.
In the coming weeks, the Ivkers managed to get back home and rescue the remaining cats. Except for a few possessions like the harpsichord, the house was a total loss. Their clothes, important papers, photo albums, books and furniture were destroyed in the flood, and mold spread throughout the building. Barry got a fungal infection while attempting to clean out the attic, and the mix of chemicals and sewage in the water ate holes through the soup spoons in their kitchen drawer.
“The houses were toxic because it was the summertime. It’s 95 degrees. The humidity is 98 percent. The mold was everywhere: up the walls, on the ceiling,” Fran said. “We just abandoned everything.”
Despite the loss, the Ivkers knew they were lucky even among their own friends. They had acquaintances who had to swim to safety or watched their own parents’ home get swept away.
“The point is, you handle it because at that point, what’s the alternative?” Barry said. “By comparison, we got off easy.”
They found generosity at every turn in Birmingham, from a consignment store that gave them free clothes to a storage company that let them store their possessions for free for three months. Barry recalls meeting a man who traveled to New Orleans every weekend for months, volunteering his time to hang drywall in new buildings.
“We met a lot of people like that with absolutely no fanfare, who were down on the Mississippi coast rebuilding,” Barry said. “I really appreciated the talent and the humanity of the people here who took it upon themselves.”
Meanwhile, New Orleans as a whole was “total chaos.” Rebuilding and relief efforts were hampered by inefficiency, poor planning, lack of resources and people attempting to make money off the catastrophe. For six months, Barry and Fran watched the city attempt to rebuild, and they couldn’t decide whether to return to their home of 37 years.
“If we were 30 when this happened, we might have gone back to rebuild. But at 65, I’m not interested in being a pioneer for 10 years to rebuild something that I’ll never live to enjoy,” Fran said.
The Ivkers bought a house near the Hoover Country Club. It was different in many ways from their home in New Orleans: built on a hill and shaded by trees that separated them from their neighbors. They began to enjoy the changing seasons and more friendly culture of Hoover, and the couple got involved with their grandchildren, the Jewish community, local dance groups and a choir.
Barry remembers watching the struggle of the civil rights era in the 1960s. He had once been convinced that Birmingham was never a place he could live, but Barry came to consider the city home.
“It was just refreshing,” Barry said.
Now, as the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approaches, Barry and Fran haven’t cut ties with New Orleans. They visit every three weeks to see old friends, and Fran continues her well woman practice in the city. Some of her patients have been coming to her for 30 years or more.
They still attend Mardi Gras and other festivals, and every year, one of Barry’s former folk dancing students or Fran’s medical students will emerge from the crowd to greet them.
“We’re really split between the two cities,” Fran said.
“Thirty-seven years of friendship is not something that you can just throw off and shrug your shoulders. I can do without Mardi Gras, I can do without the Jazz and Heritage Festival,” Barry agreed. “It’s pleasant to be there to do it, but the people that came back that we only see infrequently — that’s the biggie.”
Besides the harpsichord, there are a few other mementos of New Orleans around the Ivkers’ Hoover house: a stained-glass picture with floodwater stains still on the frame, a piece of Nigerian art given to Barry for performing a wedding the day of the evacuation and two of the cats who made the journey to Birmingham.
They have seen their old home and neighborhood, which are mostly rebuilt and, Fran said, more beautiful than before. Both Barry and Fran agree that New Orleans is “worth going back to,” but not for them.
“The young people could go back. There was something to rebuild. At our age, I didn’t feel there was anything worth making the sacrifice in order to rebuild,” Fran said.
“We came to Birmingham and we’re happy here,” Barry agreed.