Staff Photo by Dan Henry/Chattanooga Times Free Press Jahmal Burroughs, a UTC basketball player, survived Katrina by living on and under a bridge.
Jahmal Burroughs saw two options — steal or die.
Many others in his situation from the Upper 9th Ward in New Orleans would have made the same choice.
But he was just a sophomore in high school, wading through knee-high water to get essential food and drinking water for himself, his best friend, that friend’s sister and her newborn baby.
They all resided for four days atop the highest point in their neighborhood — a four-lane bridge.
“We survived because we had to loot to survive,” said Burroughs, a junior basketball player for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. “We had to find bread, canned goods, anything that was still good in the supermarket. We used that to survive.”
Burroughs lived. Others did not.
He ate because he could. Others in New Orleans did not because they couldn’t. He found shelter. Others were not as fortunate.
He struck a bit of luck by hitching a boat ride to the decrepit and decaying Superdome, and even more luck when he hopped a bus to Houston, where he eventually met up with distant family members.
His experience is no more dramatic yet no less traumatizing than thousands of other New Orleans residents who survived Hurricane Katrina.
“Going through my mind while I’m living through this whole situation is that, ‘I wonder how my family is doing,’” Burroughs said. “Are we going to make it through this?
“The whole experience was terrifying for me. I never want to live nothing like that again.”
More than five years have passed since the historic storm and its destruction of property, family and lives. He doesn’t like to think back to the terrifying times. But sometimes, every now and then, something will remind him of his days in New Orleans, and that train of thought eventually stops at Katrina.
These days, his mind is on basketball, academics and living as a student-athlete in Chattanooga. This is where he now calls home, and the upcoming Southern Conference tournament could be the end of his first season at UTC after transferring from Neosho County Community College in Kansas. It’s seemed like a short season.
“It feels like it started last week because it went by so quick,” Burroughs said. “Now it’s tournament time.
“Rarely do I think about Katrina, because this is a better situation for me.”
The hurricane turned the lives of millions into nightmares. Burroughs made the best of it. He couldn’t do anything else. He just wanted to live. He wanted his friend, Chris Woods, and everybody’s family to just live another day, another week, another month and then figure out the rest of life.
Burroughs was staying at Woods’ residence when the hurricane hit. He said they decided to stay because they didn’t think it would be that serious. They’d been through hurricanes before.
They made it through Katrina’s initial blast, too.
“When we woke up the next morning, everything looked fine,” Burroughs recalled. “But when the levees broke, everything was terrible. Places were drowned. People lost family members.
“The first person that came to mind was my mother.”
Burroughs and his mom, Donna Hulbert, spoke on the phone before the hurricane hit. Everything was fine. She was OK.
“When the phone lines went out, then we lost communication and I didn’t speak to her in a week and a half,” Burroughs said of his mom, who was a juvenile corrections officer at the time. “I thought my mama had drowned. I didn’t know what happened to her.”
It’s tough to make a phone call from a bridge.
Water from the levees began rising into the house where Burroughs and Woods were staying. They made the decision to grab a few provisions and head to higher ground — things to tide them over for a day or so, including a couple cans of food, potato chips and a few drinks.
“I had to borrow his shoes and he’s a 10 1/2 and I’m a 12,” Burroughs said. “I didn’t take nothing. I had one pair of basketball shorts, his shoes and T-shirt.”
The trek to higher ground began the longest days of Burroughs’ young life.
For four days he lived on the bridge with a close few friends and a couple hundred strangers, all of whom were in a desperate situation unknown to most Americans.
“It wasn’t a big bridge,” Burroughs said. “It was an overpass on Carrolton and Tulane, but it had a lot of people — 200, 300? It was the highest place around. Everything else was in water or had water damage and stuff like that.”
Dread and despair spread like an epidemic as the sun shifted from east to the south to the west then behind the horizon.
It infected Burroughs, who had dreams of a college basketball scholarship but wasn’t on the recruiting radar because he’d played only one year of high school basketball.
“I didn’t want to accept the fact that it was happening,” he said. “I kept thinking, ‘I’m going to be able to go back to school.’ I tried thinking positive, but as the days went on, I got weary and worried about a whole lot of things.
“I tried to keep my head, but the whole experience wore me out.”
Once the goods they brought with them ran out, Burroughs waded through the murky waters to a local grocery store. He plucked canned goods and whatever bread and vegetables still looked fresh and carried them back to the bridge.
Good out of it
There, in one of America’s worst tragedies of the last decade, he witnessed the good in New Orleans natives.
“They had a lot of sharing going on, and that was a first for me,” Burroughs said. “I saw that in the middle of a tragedy that my people could work to help one another out and work as a team so we could make it through this together.
“When people saw New Orleans, they would see crime. When the hurricane happened, all of that didn’t matter. Everybody came together as a team and worked it out as a team.”
A bit of teamwork and a stroke of luck took Burroughs and his friends to the Superdome via boat. From there, he boarded a bus to Houston.
“Once the mayor announced the city was shut down, she was obligated to stay with the kids,” Burroughs said of his mother. “She had to stay with the inmates.”
After he arrived safe in Texas and spoke with his mom, he had more than a sense of relief. He had survived. He was alive.
He lived to tell a tragic story. It’s similar to others who lived through Katrina.
But Burroughs’ version has a happy ending.
He spent the sophomore year of his high school career at Mayde Creek in Katy, Texas. He returned to New Orleans and became an all-district and all-metro selection at McDonogh 35 High School, which helped earn him a scholarship to the University of New Orleans.
Then UNO dropped to Division III status and he transferred to Neosho County and then to UTC, where he’s helped the Mocs earn a share of the Southern Conference North Division championship.
“Not having any contact with your mom for about two weeks and living on a bridge is real-life stuff,” UTC coach John Shulman said. “That’s a little more difficult than having to jump to the ball and box out on a free throw. Running sprints after practice, losing a close game isn’t going to break him. He’s mature. He’s a man.
“He has already been through a living nightmare.”
Playing basketball is just part of his dream.
David Uchiyama is a sports writer at the Chattanooga Times Free Press who began his tenure here in May 2001. His primary beats are UTC athletics — specifically men’s basketball and athletic department administration — and golf, which includes coverage from the PGA Tour to youth events. He also covers other high school sports, outdoor adventures, and contributes to other sections of the newspaper when necessary. David grew up in Salinas, Calif., and began working ...