How Hurricane Katrina sent a Texan novelist to Hampstead

PUBLISHED: 09:49 23 August 2015

Naomi surveying the damage to her home from Hurricane Katrina

Naomi surveying the damage to her home from Hurricane Katrina

Archant

On the 10th anniversary of the disaster, Anna Behrmann talks to surivor Naomi Kryske, who after losing her house started writing novels set in Hampstead.

Naomi Kryske is not your average Texan grandmother. Not only is she a Hurricane Katrina survivor, but she also writes detective novels set in Hampstead after making several trips there, determined to get her head around the British culture and legal system.

In 2005, the Kryskes were living in Pascagoula, a small town in southern Mississippi, on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico. Husband Larry was a navy officer, and this was his final posting. Naomi was in North Carolina for her mother’s 90th birthday when she first heard that a devastating hurricane was approaching Pascagoula.

“Even when you’re out of town during hurricane season, you check the weather,” she says. “And on Friday night my husband said, ‘It’s coming right at us, we have to go.’”

They drove back to their home in Pascagoula on Saturday at the crack of dawn with 24 hours to try to prepare their house before the mandatory evacuation from Mississippi on Monday.

“You know it’s coming, you know it’s big,” Naomi says. “There’s no place to hide, the winds and the waves are going to be there. You’re not safe on the first floor, you’re not safe on the second floor – you’re helpless in the face of the storm.”

Hurricane Katrina, with its total of 1,833 fatalities, displaced more than a million people in the Gulf region. The Kryskes evacuated to central Mississippi – where they arranged to stay with the great-aunt of her husband’s family’s neighbours. They returned to Pascagoula three weeks later, but they soon realised that their house was unlivable.

“You think you’re prepared for what you’re going to see,” Naomi says. “You’re driving down to the house, you’re craning your neck to see what’s left. “We could see that the house was tilted. And when we went up closer, we could see that the windows had been broken. We had to break into our house. And then when you’re inside, it looks like a bomb has gone off. Everything was on the floor, there were just piles of debris. The house had been underwater long enough that mould had grown everywhere.”

Naomi struggled to process what had happened. “The first feeling was absolute disbelief,” she says. “You understand in your mind that something’s happened, but it’s really difficult to take it in. There is just an overwhelming feeling of despair. What do you do? You have to find a place to live, a place to work. It’s dealing with the everyday things that you previously took for granted.”

For the first two weeks, the Kryskes lived out of suitcases and rented a small house. “We had no dishes; you’re in a state of shock,” Naomi says. Luckily for the family, husband Larry is a professional speaker and seminar leader, and could travel with his job. They moved to Texas, near where their son lives, and slowly began to rebuild their lives.

For Naomi, this meant starting to write a British detective book, or more specifically, a “self-help novel” where the central character learns to heal herself. In The Witness, a Texan tourist in London escapes from a serial killer, but is left traumatised.

Currently researching the third book in the trilogy, Kryske believes that her experiences as a Hurricane Katrina survivor has helped her to understand the mindset of a victim. “When Katrina came, that changed everything. I knew that the victim of the crime was where the story needed to centre.”

Four months after Hurricane Katrina, the Kryskes were on a plane. Naomi had decided to set her novel in Hampstead after chancing upon photographs of the Heath in a travel magazine. “As Texans we are used to wide, open spaces – and so the Heath spoke to me, and I thought this is exactly where this needs to occur,” she explains.

“We just adored Hampstead. We walked down the neighbourhood streets, went down the high street and up Heath Street – it was as charming as I thought it would be. Here in Texas everything seems new, but there there’s this sort of majesty.”

Naomi is already planning her next visit to Hampstead, having visited five times. She loves the Georgian houses, the bakeries, and the fries in Café Rouge.

“I had a determination that I was absolutely not going to let Hurricane Katrina win and that I was going to let something good come out of that experience,” she says.

For more info about The Witness series, visit naomikryske.com

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