When Kate von Mende ’18 was six years old, the same nightmare haunted her every night for six months. Its name was Katrina.
“I’m in a stadium, with my dad next to me. In the middle of a stadium, there’s a bridge with tons of water underneath. All of a sudden, a helicopter comes and knocks the bridge down into the water, and all of the people walking across it fall,” von Mende said. “Sometimes I’m in the stadium watching people get hurt and sometimes I’m in the helicopter, or on the bridge and I fall into the water, too. Then I black out.”
She was six years old when her family decided to move to New Orleans to be closer to family. This was nothing new, as she had been visiting the city at least once a year since she was born, she said.
“I don’t remember a ton from when I was really little and I would go, but I do know that I considered New Orleans a happy place where I could just be carefree and have fun,” von Mende said.
“Since I was so young, I could understand that a hurricane was coming, but I took it too literally. I thought the storm was directly behind us and could hurt us at any moment as we were driving out of the city, and I just couldn’t stop crying,” von Mende said.
Her mother, father, brother, sister, uncle, aunt and grandmother were all squished into one Baton Rouge hotel room. One of her uncles had made the decision to stay in New Orleans, as he was convinced the hurricane would swerve away from the city. When Katrina did eventually hit, phone lines were down, and there was no way for her family to know whether or not her uncle had survived.
She said she remembers watching her family’s tears of fear and frustration transform into tears of joy and relief when they finally received a call confirming her uncle’s safety.
When New Orleans was finally safe for von Mende and her family to return to, they arrived home to discover their damaged homes and belongings due to flooding.
“The damage in my Grandma’s house was so bad, there was no possible way to fix it. She lost so many photographs, clothes, and books, and ended up having to move into an apartment permanently,” von Mende said.
The hurricane had also completely destroyed her family’s rental home, forcing them to move yet again to Atlanta, Georgia, and eventually back Los Angeles.
“Besides being traumatizing for Kate, Katrina for us as a family was just really disruptive,” von Mende’s mother Carol von Mende said. “That year, Kate was in three kindergartens and her sister was in three pre-schools, but it was just a matter of being without a home base for a few months while having little kids that was really hard.”
Von Mende said things finally went back to normal when she returned to Los Angeles. She and her family have visited New Orleans every year since Katrina, and have even participated in charity events to help those who lost everything in the hurricane. Her close friends said she was never shy about her experience, as they are all aware of what happened.
“I’d heard the story from Kate quite a few times, she never got emotional about telling it, and sometimes it would get brought up when I first went to her house, too,” von Mende’s longtime friend Batia Blank ’18 said.
Each summer when she returns to New Orleans, she sees all the progress the city has made since so much of it was destroyed in 2005. However, she also passes several dilapidated homes on her trips, which reminds her of Katrina’s lasting relevance, even ten years later.
“My experience doesn’t distract me on a day to day basis, but every once in a while, I’ll have the dream again,” von Mende said. “It forces me to remember the extreme terror I felt for months following the hurricane, and the experience is definitely something I’ll keep with me for the rest of my life.”