Thursday, October 23, 2014 · 2:39 a.m.

Strength to survive: UTC's Jahmal Burroughs navigated Katrina's wrath

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As a 15-year-old in New Orleans, UTC senior Jahmal Burroughs lived through the devastation and havoc created when Hurricane Katrina slammed the United State's Gulf Coast in August 2005. Driven from the safety of a friend's house, he lived on a highway overpass for three days, saw the anarchy of the Louisiana Superdome and was shipped to Houston on a bus. All the while, Burroughs was faced with the question of whether his mother survived the storm or not. (Photo: Billy Weeks)

The disease-filled, scum-covered water lapped against the chest of 15-year-old Jahmal Burroughs. He forged ahead, trying to ignore his reality.

Tethered to his hand, an inflated pool lagged behind. In it sat a 4-year-old, a 6-year-old, a 10-year-old and a newborn—a child so young a birth certificate had yet to be printed. The nieces and nephews of Chris Woods grasped the sides of the makeshift raft being dragged down Tulane Avenue by Burroughs, Woods, and his Woods' mom, sister and brother-in-law.

As the world watched the scenes of New Orleans’ unimaginable plight unfold like a movie, Burroughs lived out Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath minute to minute. When he let his mind wander, it went where he didn’t want it to go. Where is my mom? Is she alive?

So he kept forging ahead.  

Survival. That was the end game.

Trudging ahead up Tulane Avenue, a highway overpass leading up to Interstate 10 crept closer and closer. 

It would end up being Burroughs’ home for the next three days.

***

Jahmal Burroughs stands 6 foot 5. His long, wiry frame and relentless playing style make him coach John Shulman’s “glue guy.” As a starting senior forward for the Chattanooga Mocs, he leads the team in floor burns and hustle plays. 

“He’s lived a surreal life,” Shulman says. “Jahmal has the it factor. He has no ego. He doesn’t care about scoring. He just plays hard. The kids respect him—everyone respects him.” 

Burroughs’ senior season at UTC has been a well-documented struggle for the Mocs. Nothing has unfolded like he planned.

But, really, that’s nothing new. 

In 2007, an LSU professor presented a study stating that 38 percent of New Orleans citizens who survived Hurricane Katrina experienced post-traumatic stress disorder. The storm and its aftermath still impact survivors nearly seven years later.

Burroughs survived. In the years immediately following Katrina’s wrath, he wasn’t open to talking about it. As a Division I basketball player at the University of New Orleans and later as a junior college player at Neosho County Community College in Southeast Kansas, journalists asked to hear his story. He politely declined. It wasn’t until transferring to UTC last year that he finally told his tale.

On the court, UTC's Jahmal Burroughs is averging 3.8 points and 4.0 rebounds and shooting 51.5 percent from the field in 16.6 minutes per game. (Photo: Billy Weeks)

Now, sitting comfortably inside McKenzie Arena, Burroughs points to a map showing, block by block, how he navigated the devastation of August 2005. At 21, he’s remarkably poignant and surprisingly funny.

“Once you tell the story a few times, it relieves the stress,” he says.

Dragging his finger along the route up Tulane Avenue, though, his pauses grow longer, his eyes become distant. 

***

Looking out beyond the guardrail, Burroughs saw the faces come into focus. They kept streaming up Tulane Avenue. On the other side of the overpass, more were coming up Airline Highway. Over 5 feet of standing water had turned both streets into canals. When Burroughs and the Woods family arrived at the I-10 overpass, about 100 people were already there, seeking shelter, searching for rescue. That number would climb to 200. Then approach 300.

At this point, America had a name for them—refugees. 

Three days under the Louisiana sun turned that overpass into an asylum. When food ran out, Burroughs followed the men back into the festering waters. They broke into a nearby supermarket. The shopping list was canned goods and anything that hadn’t spoiled. 

This wasn’t looting. This was survival.

Even when food came available, Burroughs wasn’t interested. His body was hungry, but he didn’t have an appetite. It had been five days since he last heard from his mother. His stomach was hollow.

“I didn’t want to eat,” he says. “I didn’t know where my mom was, and I didn’t even know if we were going to make it off the bridge. It got to that point. I didn’t know what was going to happen.”

After three days perched above the floodwater, the realization set in that there would be no rescue. A nameless man stepped forward. He broke into a nearby storage facility and hot-wired a motorboat. “This is when crime pays,” Burroughs quips. “It was on ourselves to save ourselves.”

The decree was made: women and children first. From sunup to sundown, the man took every last stranded soul from I-10 to the Louisiana Superdome. The ride would end up being the longest 20 minutes of Burroughs’ life. No one was prepared for the scenery. The boat bustled eastward.

The entire Woods family, along with Burroughs, wandered through the lower-to-middle class Mid-City section of New Orleans. It was a foreign land. Bodies drifted past the boat. Shoulder-high in the water, a man clung to a corpse to keep it from floating off into the nothingness. It all unfolded in slow motion. At the corner of Tulane Avenue and N. Broad Street, inmates from the city’s adult penitentiary were stranded on a bridge in bright orange jumpers. There were jumpers. Burroughs saw them.

“It was devastating, all of it,” he says. “I mean, there were children with us. For them to have to witness that ... it was just messed up. Nobody should see that.”

The line outside the Superdome was long and desperate. More than 25,000 people were already inside. After waiting an hour, Burroughs finally made it in. He wished he hadn’t. The air was thick with despair. There was no electricity, no air conditioning. Beams of natural light gleaming through the dome’s tattered roof illuminated anarchy. Random gunfire occasionally echoed. 

“A lot went on in that dome,” Burroughs says. “A little girl was raped and killed. A couple people took M-16s from the military officers and shot them. It was total chaos. I was just ready to get away from all that.”

So he did. Burroughs and the Woods family made their way back outside. They squatted on an elevated walkway wrapping around the dome. There they sat and waited. Burroughs’ mind drifted back to his mom. To this day, he still doesn’t know how long he was at the Superdome. Fear turned off his internal clock.

“You can’t measure it in days, because it didn’t feel like days,” he says. “It wasn’t days anymore. It was just specific times. 

***

Jahmal Burroughs says there are two types of folks in New Orleans.

“Some people stay, some people go,” he says.

The Burroughs were the former. They backed down to no hurricane. They believed in boarding up, bunkering in and riding storms out.

He offers a wry smirk, “It’s part of living down there.”

And so on the afternoon of Saturday, Aug. 27, the Burroughs didn’t flinch when National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield contacted New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin to advise for a mandatory evacuation. Hurricane Katrina had already swept across Florida and emerged on the Gulf Coast as a Category 3 storm with 115 mph wind.

By 7 a.m. the following morning, it was a Category 5 hurricane with 160 mph winds. 

Amid the preparations in New Orleans, Donna Hulbert, Jahmal Burroughs’ mother, did what she always does when hurricanes veer toward New Orleans—she clocked in. Hulbert worked as a counselor at a youth correctional facility in the city, and the gig required her to be onsite when storms loomed. She dropped off young Jahmal to stay with his best friend, Chris Woods, and his mother. The three were huddled around a radio at 11 a.m. Sunday when Mayor Nagin finally called for that mandatory evacuation. By then, it was too late. Burroughs and the Woods family were stuck in the city. Donna Hulbert was stuck at work.

When Katrina made landfall at 6:10 a.m. Monday, the wind whistled and the rain pounded—no different than any other hurricane. It was severe, but given the warning, things went well in Mid-City.

When the sun shined the following day, water running down the street sloshed over the first step of the four steps leading up to the Woods’ porch. A citywide power outage left them in the dark.

Around New Orleans, havoc was slowly manifesting as the levees failed.

The next morning, Burroughs and the Woods awoke to find water streaming through the first-floor living room. They gathered what they could. Jahmal borrowed a pair of Chris’ surf mocs—even though they were a size and half too small. Mrs. Woods decided to head to her daughter’s house on higher ground.

The next morning ... that house was under water.

They inflated the pool. 

***

Interstate 10 unfolded in front of the charter bus as the Superdome shrank in the rearview mirror. It charged forward, passing the Tulane Avenue offramp on its way. More than 10 days after a once-in-a-lifetime storm wiped out his one-of-a-kind city, Jahmal Burroughs turned from refugee to exile. A forbidding, dissolute scene was left behind. Swaths of land had become indistinguishable from sea. Submerged three-story houses looked like one-story buildings poking up from their watery grave. Neighborhoods spared the heavy flooding turned into frenzied battlefields where martial law reigned. 

“There wasn’t anything left for us there,” Burroughs says. “We just knew that that bus was going away from New Orleans, but didn’t know where or when we were stopping.”

All Burroughs knew was that his mother wasn’t on the bus. He wondered what she was doing. Where was she? Was she safe? Was she alive? Less than two months from his 16th birthday, he didn’t know what remained of his former life. The bus exited for Reliant Stadium as it pulled into Houston. Burroughs and the Woods family climbed out. They would stay there for more than a day before a host family, seeing the newborn, scooped them up and brought them to their home.

Finally, after two weeks off the grid, contact with the outside world was at his fingertips.

***

Jahmal Burroughs hesitated. He could only remember one phone number. After a few rings, his godmother, Vanessa Papion, answered in astonishment. 

If this wasn’t fate, then fate doesn’t exist.

Moments before Burroughs called Papion, Donna Hulbert had found access to a phone in Baton Rouge. She ended up in the state capital when the occupants of her juvenile facility were transferred north to a larger, safer site. She never knew what became of Jahmal. She spent two weeks avoiding the thought of the worst-case scenario. Distraught, she called someone she knew her son would call. Hulbert dialed Vanessa Papion’s number. 

UTC senior Jahmal Burroughs. (Photo: Billy Weeks)

Soon after hanging up with Papion, a strange number appeared on the screen of Hulbert’s phone.

“Mom, it’s Jahmal.”

“It was the greatest moment of my life,” she now says.

“Yeah ... It was ... I felt like I got everything back,” Burroughs says.

After the tears flowed and the weight lifted, Hulbert hitched a ride to Texas with a nephew to finally find her son. He was staying with friends of Papion in Houston. Hulbert had 14 dollars and 32 cents in her pocket along with a driver’s license. Everything was left in New Orleans.

None of that mattered when she arrived in Houston. Burroughs smiles widely when he says, “it was something amazing.”

“I didn’t hug him—a grabbed him and didn’t let go,” Hulbert says.

When she finally released Burroughs, Hulbert composed herself just enough. She looked at her son and mustered the words, “You’re going to school tomorrow.”

“I’ll never forget it,” Burroughs says. “All that time not seeing each other and the first thing she’s worried about is me missing school. I was like, ‘No way, I’m not going.’”

The next day, Jamal Burroughs enrolled at Mayde Creek High School in Katy, Texas. He’d go on to spend his sophomore year in high school before returning to New Orleans with his mother.

***

Nearly seven years after Hurricane Katrina first entered the warm waters of the Gulf Coast, Jahmal Burroughs and Donna Hulbert will pen a prologue to their twisting and turning story on Saturday. 

Mother and son will meet at halfcourt of McKenzie Arena as part of Senior Day festivities for the Chattanooga Mocs. Hulbert is traveling from her new home in New Orleans to see her boy start his final collegiate home game. He’s on pace to graduate from UTC with a degree in psychology.

“And I’ll never be prouder,” Hulbert says.

In the end, Jahmal Burroughs found his mom.

And because of that, he found survival. 

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