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THE STORM [home page]
an interview with jamie bonck

Jamie Bonck is a New Orleans native and since 1981 has lived in Gentilly, a community close to the lakefront near the University of New Orleans. He is a self-employed motorboat technician and lost his truck, boats, and tools in the hurricane. FRONTLINE conducted this phone interview with him in mid-November 2005. The photos on this page were taken by Jamie Bonck and his wife.

Have you gone through other hurricanes?

All of them. I've never evacuated.

How was Katrina comparable or different?

Well, this is totally different. This is the first time the entire city filled up with water. When Betsy happened, I remember I went with my Dad on the boat on St. Bernard Avenue and we went and picked people up from their porches and roofs.

Water damage.

Why didn't you evacuate with your family before Katrina hit?

I always stay home to tidy up the place and board up the windows. My wife and child, mother-in-law and one dog, they left the day before the storm and went to Houston and I stayed here throughout the storm. After spending three or four nights here, I can't remember exactly, I had made up my mind I was gonna leave.

How many of your neighbors did you have staying with you?

Three of them were my immediate neighbors, and when the water started coming up, I swam to their house. Water was up to their chins, and I told them to come on, come on in. Two more neighbors came by boat (Monday night), literally swam in through the front door.

What happened to all of them?

Three immediate neighbors and myself crossed Lake Ponchartrain (on Thursday). Took five hours. One man walked out through the University of New Orleans and through Jefferson Parish. One man took a helicopter out and eventually wound up in Texas. I took the boat across the lake to the North Pass to the highway. My neighbors had a family member in Springfield, La., and so I dropped them, men and dogs, there and I had a friend pick me up and drive me to Lafayette where 31 extended family members were. My wife and son drove down from Houston Thursday night.

Bonck's overturned boat.

When were you able to return to New Orleans?

I returned to New Orleans about 10 days after arriving in Lafayette, in mid-September. I couldn't get to my home until a full three weeks after the storm, my neighborhood was the last one in the metropolitan area to get running water. I left with nothing but a pocket knife. I stayed in the city ever since to help people with hauling and tear-out and to stay busy until I could get to my house.

What's the state of your house now?

It is structurally sound and can be repaired. I change my mind almost daily about whether to rebuild it or start over. It's a hard decision to make. A lot of people are faced with this undertaking. It can be repaired, I just don't know how long it will take. Construction is slow because everybody needs it. I'm involved in the tear out and rebuild business.

Where are you staying now?

I'm living in Metairie at a friend's house. I'm searching to rent a house. I've been doing so for the last month, trying to rent a suitable place to live. Housing is the biggest problem with people coming back into the city. There is just absolutely no place. I've applied for a FEMA trailer, whichever comes first, an apartment or the trailer. I don't know how soon that will become a reality.

The remains of the house

What happened to your neighbor, the man you filmed swimming down your street?

Don't know where he came from or where he went, I was locked in. I just happened to gaze out the window. I was in awe why someone would swim away from his house. … Chances are he wound up at a church near my house where people were being rescued.

Will you wait out future hurricanes?

I'm sure I would. I know the potential, I was never in any danger in my house. I know what its structure is like.

Any thoughts on Katrina and its aftermath?

The biggest thought is how quickly can the state and fed government come up with a plan to prevent it from happening again. It's just going to be luck that it doesn't happen again … but if the same storm comes again next year you'll see the exact same result. There's no way they can fix anything in one year. They can bring it back to where it was, but where it was wasn't efficient. I know plenty of people rebuilding already.

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posted nov. 22, 2005

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