[Eds. note: We will never forget how, in 2005, Hurricane Katrina brought destruction all over the Gulf Coast. Thousands faced devastating losses and those in the production community were not spared. Yet even in the face of this disaster, they inspire us with their resilience and determination to overcome. Over the next pages, we share some of their stories.]
A year after the worst natural disaster to ever hit the United States, the physical and financial effects from Hurricane Katrina are still being felt by those hit the hardest. Many of us in the recording industry have found ourselves wondering what we would do if such a disaster ever hit us. What would you do if your vintage Neve EQs and preamps were submerged underwater, or your original UREI 1176 compressors and API Lunchbox pre’s became buried underneath layers of toxic sewage-sludge? Worse yet, what would you do if you lost your entire recording studio filled with rare, sought-after pieces of gear that took you a lifetime to acquire? This is a topic that consumed many of my interim moments with Grammy Award — winning engineer Trina Shoemaker (Sheryl Crow, Queens of the Stone Age, Dixie Chicks) while working with her on a project earlier this year at Blackbird Studios in Nashville. Shoemaker was a 20-year resident of New Orleans before she lost her home and studio in Hurricane Katrina.
I met Shoemaker at the console of a classic Neve 8078 in Blackbird’s Studio A (beautifully redesigned by Michael Cronin) as she excitedly waved a FedEx envelope in the air proclaiming, “My insurance checks have arrived!” When I found out what the insurance check was for, Shoemaker’s captivating story unfolded.
Where did you live in New Orleans?
I lived in a beautiful two-story home of Cape Cod design, built in the 1940s in the Gentilly neighborhood of New Orleans, near Lake Pontchartrain. It was filled with lush flora and mature trees. Without getting ahead of myself, I should mention that this was next to the London Avenue levee that broke. Anyhow, I bought the house in May of 2005 after realizing I needed to live in a family-friendly area since I had a newborn baby and was a single mom. I spent about $75,000 dollars to convert the garage into my recording studio, and I lived and worked there for all of two months before the hurricane hit.
How did you prepare to evacuate once you heard the news?
I was in Alabama with my baby visiting Grayson’s, my fiancée and baby’s father, parents. It was on Friday the 26th that I heard the news of Hurricane Katrina making its way up through the Gulf. I had a very bad vibe at that moment. I decided to drive back to New Orleans and ready myself as best I could. I left at 4 a.m. on Saturday and arrived around 7 a.m., thinking I would prepare to have some wind damage to the house and maybe a little water. I figured the worst that could happen is that the first-level studio might get a few inches of water, or that the roof might leak and that I might have to replace carpet after the storm passed. So I boxed up my computer, my Pro Tools HD rig and some of my more-expensive microphones, which I stashed upstairs on the second level in plastic, hoping they would not get damaged.
At first, I thought I should take the whole studio upstairs, so I started bagging everything, but with an 8-month-old baby in my arms, no one to help me and sweating profusely in the hot, muggy weather, I realized that wasn’t going to happen. I started to panic because everyone was evacuating at that point, so I just took gear out of the racks, bagged the items and stacked them all on a folding table in the middle of the control room. Deep in my heart I was very frightened of this storm. Growing up, I had bad dreams about storms and here it was — really happening.
Did you manage to take any gear with you when you evacuated?
I took some hard drives and my Pro Tools iLok key, but that’s about it. I wanted to take everything, but I had a dog, a baby and a Volvo. I was limited to what I could fit into the car. I couldn’t risk getting caught in traffic in the excruciating heat with a baby. I should’ve taken pictures, tax returns, my passport, Irish linen from my great-grandmother, my turn-of-the-century Pittsburg lamp, my paintings — the list goes on. Everything I valued at its most basic level is what I took. What do you take, family photos or baby food? Compressors or diapers? Neves or my dog that I love?
How difficult was it to evacuate?
It wasn’t bad because I got out earlier. I left by 1 p.m. and went to the home of Grayson’s father in McIntosh, Alabama, to a cabin in the woods where we still got hit by the storm. Grayson, who is a singer/songwriter, was on tour at the time and couldn’t be there to help. It all went down so fast. I was terrified to find out the next morning on Saturday that it was inevitable Hurricane Katrina would hit New Orleans. We had lived in denial for 18 years as a city, thinking this would never happen.
What was your first thought after hearing the news?
It’s weird, but my first thought was that my Pro Tools rig and remaining hard drives would be destroyed. I didn’t have much time to dwell on that, though. We knew the storm would more than likely hit us in Alabama, too. I had brought as much baby food as I could, knowing we’d probably lose power in Alabama. We watched the TV as the storm began to hit, then when we lost power, we huddled around a 3-inch black-and-white battery-operated television to watch the news unfold. The most terrifying moment came the next morning when I changed the channel to see footage from a helicopter showing the yacht club at Lake Pontchartrain burning and the surrounding area under water. That’s when the newscasts announced the 17th Street canal had broken and there was massive flooding. All of this was right near my home.
By 6 p.m. on Monday, we still had no power, so I decided, against the wishes of my family, to take the baby and a girlfriend who had also evacuated and drive to Fair Hope, Alabama, and find out what was going on. We came to a bar that had power and a working television tuned to Fox News, and what we saw made our mouths drop to the floor. By Tuesday, I found a way to connect to the Internet and began to download satellite images of New Orleans, make calls, wait for calls and view blogs. I didn’t even know what a blog was until after this happened. Our lives were upside down and everything seemed surreal. I’d nurse in front of the computer. I’d give the baby baths and change his diapers in front of a TV in a bar.
What did you do in the interim?
While in Alabama, and not long after all this went down, I received a phone call from Queens of the Stone Age to mix their live album. So I packed up and flew to Los Angeles to work. I mixed and kept an Internet-connected computer next to me the whole time so I could keep in touch with friends who had lost everything and to keep up on the latest developments. We waited to be told what to do. I knew my house was flooded, but there was really nothing I could do. Sheryl Crow was very kind to extend an invitation for my baby and myself to stay with her for a portion of the time there, which we did.
When did you return and what was it like?
I returned from Los Angeles to a litany of insurance disasters. FEMA sent a $2,300 check, which everyone affected by the hurricane received in the same amount, and four-and-a-half weeks after the disaster, I was allowed to go back under stringent conditions to assess the damage to my property. First we had to prepare bins, rubber boots, ventilators, bottled water, bleach, video camera and insurance documents. We had to go through security checkpoints just to get into the area.
I thought I was brave enough to see it all, but no photos or TV footage could prepare me for the smell, images and the lack of anything green or living. My lush garden-like New Orleans was brown, covered in mud and debris. My wood fence, pecan and Cypress trees, and roof were all gone. The National Guard had spray-painted cryptic code on the side of my house. It looked like remnants of a crack house in a war zone. I had Grayson kick open the front door and I almost fainted from the smell of sewage, rot, chemicals and mold. I started to cry. Everything was in the wrong place. Inches of muck covered the floor. I went outside and puked. I remember not wanting anyone to see me so affected. I went into my studio and dared not walk completely in. The gear was all under a thick sludge comprised of sewage, benzene, gas, antifreeze, bits of dead things and other unspeakable debris. I could make out the outlines of my original API Lunchbox; McIntosh 2205 power amp; Audix Nile 5 monitors; Neve 33114s, 550as, 560s, 512bs; original-issue UA 1176s; and the list goes on. The gold on my Grammy Award was eaten through from the corrosive water that sat for so long.
Did you try to salvage any of it, despite the conditions?
Who’s going to fix a damaged, bloated, corroded, slimy box filled with toxic mold that can cause a brain virus? What do you say? “Here, Brent Averill, please die for my API?” I did bag the Grammy Award to send back in hopes they would reissue another. I couldn’t even cry about it until I heard Mary J. Blige sing U2’s “One,” and the words just summed it all up for me. Thanks, Mary.
As far as the gear goes, I had no insurance on any of it. My insurance company wouldn’t insure for flood. If it had burned, been stolen or was hit by an asteroid, I’d have gotten something. But it is a complete loss. It is what it is.
That sounds pretty bleak.
Yeah, but there is a silver lining to this story. At the end of September , I received another phone call to come to Nashville and mix Joanna Cotten’s album. While in Nashville, the producer, Peter Collins, learned of my situation and introduced me to Beth Hooker, a local real estate agent, who took me out to an 11-acre property with a barn that had been converted into a home that was for sale. I bought the property and immediately moved in with my baby boy. It’s been a great career move. I don’t desire to travel with a baby, and being in New Orleans made me have to do that. You just have to take what you’re given and do the best with it you can. New Orleans is a legacy and an important part of my life journey. Now Nashville is the next phase, and I’m happy where I am.
Kregg Barentine is a producer and writer in the Phoenix and Nashville areas.