Steamboat Springs From the safety of a Lafayette, La., hotel room five years ago today, Mary Anne Fairlie and her family watched on television the destruction of Hurricane Katrina, just miles from their New Orleans home.
The Fairlies were able to escape a day before the storm hit Monday, Aug. 29, 2005, using back roads to avoid the traffic of New Orleans residents leaving their homes and belongings behind, in some cases never to see them again.
Mary Anne Fairlie, the director of Music Through Strings program at Lowell Whiteman Primary School, said last week that her family was fortunate. Fortunate to escape the storm unscathed. Fortunate that their friends, some of whom stayed behind, survived the storm. Fortunate the damage to their home wasn’t as bad as in other parts of the city.
And fortunate that one of the deadliest and most financially devastating natural disasters in the history of the U.S. eventually led them to Steamboat Springs.
“It was a fortunate crisis, a fortunate predicament to be in because we’ve just landed in heaven here, paradise,” she said.
Calm before the storm
Having lived in New Orleans for 15 years — husband John got there a year earlier — Mary Anne, who taught strings to fourth- to 12th-graders there, said it was common to evacuate two to three times a year for a hurricane.
She said Katrina originally was predicted to hit the Florida Panhandle. Because of that, and residents being used to preparing for storms that sometimes didn’t come, Mary Anne Fairlie said few people took the reports seriously.
John was monitoring the storm online. He said in the days leading up to it, the storm still was headed for Florida. But Katrina shifted and headed directly for New Orleans. The family started to pack.
“As I was walking around the house, I was thinking, ‘Do I care about this item or not?’ because I assumed we were going to lose the house,” John said. “We packed our (two) cars. They were very full. I fully expected not to have anything to come back to.”
Mary Anne said the family decided to evacuate because where they lived on the West Bank was considered one of the weaker areas.
“One of the first things they do after a hurricane is close the Mississippi Bridge,” she said. “Then you don’t have a way out. A lot of people in New Orleans wouldn’t evacuate for every hurricane. … If one of the levees broke, you could be under water. With children, I didn’t want to take that risk.”
Mary Anne said they arrived at the hotel in Lafayette and unloaded their cars, which carried items including a string base, four violins, two bassoons and a couple of saxophones. John was a member of the New Orleans Symphony at the time, and the couple co-founded the Greater New Orleans Youth Orchestra.
From their hotel room, the Fairlies and their children, Martin, then 12, and Sean, then 14, watched the destruction after Katrina hit. After the storm and the subsequent flooding, it became clear they wouldn’t be returning home any time soon, Mary Anne said.
Mary Anne said the hardest part in the aftermath of the storm was not being able to get in touch with friends, which took two weeks. She said all of their friends either were able to get out of the city or were unharmed. John said he became depressed when looters burned the shopping mall by their home.
Deciding to leave
With his brother, John returned to their home about a week after the storm to see the condition of the house. They navigated the same back roads they used to escape the city to get back in. He had to drive through lawns and around downed trees and utility poles.
John said the levee near their home held, but winds ripped off one-fourth to one-third of their roof and a sunroom on the back of the house. He said rain caused some damage to the inside of the house that no longer had a roof.
“I had so many friends that lived in parts of town that were completely flooded,” he said. “We were really lucky. They showed me pictures. They had nine feet of water in their homes. They lost everything.”
Mary Anne said their home wasn’t looted, unlike many in the neighborhood. John said a neighbor who stayed behind protected the neighborhood from looters. “I shoot looters to kill” was painted on the side of the neighbor’s house, and he sat on his front porch with a shotgun, keeping guard.
John stayed and worked on the house. He also got the Youth Orchestra up and running just a week after the storm. Mary Anne and the children stayed in Temple, Texas, with John’s brother. They enrolled their children in school — schools in New Orleans didn’t operate for a year after the storm. Mary Anne didn’t return to the house in New Orleans until Thanksgiving.
Despite the destruction and suffering, Mary Anne and John said there was hope in the city that it would be rebuilt better than it was before. But the couple didn’t think it would be a good place for their children.
“We played Russian roulette for 16 years knowing the big storm was going to hit,” John said. “And we didn’t want to play it anymore.”
They made the decision to leave. They only had to figure out where to go. After they were married in 1986, John said their moves to Odessa, Texas, and New Orleans were dictated by jobs. He said this time they could choose.
Mary Anne and John each wrote where they’d like to live on pieces of paper. John wrote one state: Colorado. So did Mary Anne.
Finding a new home
After fixing their New Orleans home, the Fairlies were able to sell. Still living in Temple, Mary Anne started looking for jobs in Colorado. She found a listing for a strings teacher at Whiteman Primary.
John joked that while school leaders were wining and dining Mary Anne and him in Steamboat, they were thinking about how to make the move work.
Mary Anne took the job, and the family moved in January 2006. She said it wasn’t easy. John was leaving behind two jobs he loved.
Whiteman Primary Head of School Nancy Spillane said she often thinks about how the Fairlies ended up in Steamboat.
“I think her misfortune was our great fortune,” she said.
Spillane said Mary Ann has transformed the Music Through Strings program at Whiteman Primary. And their other musical endeavors — Mary Anne and John are members of the Steamboat Symphony Orchestra and other musical organizations — have benefited the community, not just the school.
Mary Anne said she thinks about Katrina often during anniversaries. She said the BP oil spill also sparked memories because of the people living through devastation for the second time. Her family, she reiterated, is fortunate.
“There were people who would have liked to start a new life somewhere else who didn’t have that option,” she said. “We wouldn’t have been able to settle here without the support of Steamboat. Many individuals and groups helped us relocate here. We really felt like we were coming into open arms when we moved to Steamboat.”