By: Dave Astor
A trip to France to celebrate her long marriage placed Sheila Stroup thousands of miles from flooded New Orleans. Now that The Times-Picayune columnist is back in Louisiana, a long wire is allowing her to work from her home near Covington.
“We still are without any kind of phone service or power,” Stroup said in a Wednesday e-mail interview. “I’m using the computer by connecting a 200-foot extension cord to our next-door neighbor. It’s my only connection to the world.” Later in the day, the columnist e-mailed again to say her power had been restored.
Stroup and her husband, Merwin, celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary with a bike trip in Provence. They had departed Louisiana shortly after Hurricane Katrina hit — driving from their fallen-tree-strewn property to Atlanta to catch their flight to France.
“It wasn’t until we got there that we saw the terrible devastation and the equally terrible aftermath. I felt very guilty not being here,” said Stroup, an Illinois native who moved to Louisiana in 1969 and began her Times-Picayune metro column in 1990. The former teacher is also a past National Society of Newspaper Columnists president who hosted the NSNC’s 2004 conference in New Orleans.
Stroup said her first column since returning from France may appear in Thursday’s edition of The Times-Picayune. The piece — delivered via e-mail to the paper’s temporary newsroom in Baton Rouge — discusses “being so far away and not being able to quite believe what was going on here.”
Prior to the hurricane, Stroup wrote her column partly out of her home and partly out of The Times-Picayune’s Covington office — which she heard had reopened Tuesday.
The condition of her home? “We had lots of wind damage in our area,” said Stroup, who lives in a rural locale north of Lake Pontchartrain. “Huge trees down everywhere and a massive cleanup to do. But [Merwin] and I feel very lucky because no trees fell on our house or our donkeys.” The Stroups have three donkeys, two dogs, one cat, and many chickens — “including six that were two days old when the hurricane hit. They have a wonderful mom. She was totally wet after the hurricane but she kept her babies dry.” All these animals survived, but fish in the Stroups’ pond died.
What about the fate of friends and people she has covered? “This is my biggest worry right now,” replied Stroup. “I have reached some friends who live on this side of the lake, but there are many people I haven’t heard from. I imagine most are OK. Without having phone service — me or the folks I’m worried about — it’s very hard to track them down.”
She added: “I’m worried about a friend in poor health who always goes to a motel in eastern New Orleans when a hurricane is coming. And about elderly people who were evacuated from nursing homes. I got an e-mail from one couple I wrote about years ago and kept in touch with — he’s severely disabled — that they were evacuating to the Superdome the day before the hurricane. … I hope they weren’t there when everything was so terrible. … Another man I wrote about, and helped get his house repaired, is a quadriplegic and I don’t know if he and his mother were able to evacuate. I think their house probably flooded.”
The columnist continued: “It’s hard to explain how isolated you feel without any kind of phone service. … Our kids were pretty frantic when they didn’t hear from us. It wasn’t until we got to Georgia that I could call them on my cellphone.”
And Stroup concluded: “My heart broke for the people trapped in the Superdome. Most of them are good people — moms and grandmoms with little kids, sick people, old people — left without resources. When we watched CNN, they kept showing the same looter over and over. I think people outside our area got the wrong idea about many of New Orleans’ citizens. They are some of the warmest, loveliest people on earth.”