08.22.10

The Katrina Divorces

As Hurricane Katrina shuttered homes and left families scattered, the New Orleans divorce rate spiked. Five years later, Nicole LaPorte reports on how the storm led some to reinvent their lives for the better.

A week before Hurricane Katrina hit, Janelle Simmons was living a seemingly ordinary life with her husband and 5-year-old son in New Orleans.

Two weeks after the storm, she had filed for divorce, and was, she says, "gallivanting around the country" with a new male companion, the storm offering a moment to act spontaneously on desires otherwise ignored.

Call it one of the lesser-discussed effects of Katrina: Having already lost homes and the lives they knew, some people found themselves using the storm as an opportunity to wipe the slate clean, ending marriages and walking out on relationships they felt no longer worked.

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"People were doing crazy things, like they do in wartime," Simmons says. "People were having a lot of sex with people they didn't know. It was just such a crazy time."

Five years later, Simmons, who says she had lost her "emotional connection" with her husband, describes the hurricane as a cathartic moment, and she is now dating a man 20 years her junior, who shares her sense of joie de vivre.

Her ex-husband, too, has reinvented his life, marrying someone more compatible, according to Simmons. "They're both Type A—they both like to keep a very tidy house—and I'm just not."

Hard statistics on pre- and post-Katrina divorce patterns are complicated by the migration of large groups of people. On the one hand, in the years after the 2005 storm, divorce numbers rose in the Greater New Orleans area, going up in one area by more than 10 percent between 2005 and 2006, according to numbers from Jefferson Parish's Civil Judicial District Court. In Orleans Parish itself, however, the numbers of divorces actually slipped slightly, perhaps because of the significant population loss.

Interviews with lawyers, counselors, and couples, however, suggest that Katrina was a traumatic situation used by some as an exit strategy.

“People were doing crazy things, like they do in wartime,” Janelle Simmons says. “People were having a lot of sex with people they didn’t know. It was just such a crazy time.”

For one thing, physical separations caused by the storm made divorces less messy, says Simmons, who herself was physically separated from her husband and son after the hurricane: While she was in Colorado, the couple's son went to a relative's house in Maryland and her husband returned to New Orleans to work as a contractor. "It was easier, in a way, because instead of saying, 'I'm moving out, I'm packing,' we were already apart," she says. "There was not the big, traumatic scene where you divide up the furniture."

Randall Kessler, an Atlanta-based celebrity divorce lawyer who represented Tameka Foster-Raymond when she divorced rapper Usher last year, said the storm acted as a catalyst in people's lives. "When the hurricane hit, and people were unhappy… it was like, 'Why not start completely over?'" he says. "The stress made people want to find happiness, and divorce is all about—how do you become happy?"

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Ray Cannata, a senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church of New Orleans who counseled couples after the storm, offers this metaphor: "Katrina was like a truth serum for a lot of folks. I found a lot of couples where the family was finally confronting things that they'd avoided for years. Maybe they already had problems but were able to work around it. But now they couldn't do it anymore."

Cannata tells the story of one couple "really mismatched from the beginning." Very different, he says, with different values, "a weird couple." Because of the storm, she found another man, whom she married. Her ex-husband is still single, Cannata says, but "he's happy now that it's over. I'm sure she's happy, too." The pastor has no doubt that the hurricane was a blessing in disguise. "If Katrina hadn't happened, they would have limped forward for years and years, without [things] coming to a head. The storm sped things up."

It also exacerbated touchy issues such as sex, which, Cannata believes, even in the best of times, is one of the top three things couples argue over (the other two being money and in-laws). "Everyone was exhausted, and when people are exhausted, one wants to get busy, but the other doesn't," he says.

Simmons has a slightly different take on what the storm did for peoples' sex lives.

"I remember there was this atmosphere of carelessness," she says. "People's behavior becoming just kind of wild." Figuring out the why of that isn't very hard, she says. "People who stayed behind—there wasn't anything [else for them] to do."

But not everyone enjoyed a post-traumatic moment of hedonism. For Bob Murphy, the storm blew apart not just his house, but what he thought was a functioning marriage. "She changed quite a bit," he says, describing the woman who is now his ex-wife. Upstairs, above his bed, he still keeps a framed copy of his marriage certificate, although his kids have begged him to take it down. It's not a sentimental token, he insists. "I just want to remember. I don't want to make that mistake again."

Divorce lawyers and marriage counselors suggests that while the storm itself was sudden, post-Katrina divorces mostly happened to those couples whose relationships were already in trouble; in other words, Ozzie and Harriet were spared.

"Any marriages that were on the rocks, were definitely broken by Katrina," says Lauren Farrell, a licensed marriage and family therapist in New Orleans. "Whatever was already wrong [became] worse. One of the spouses would say, 'It's just not going to work. I can't handle anything more. I couldn't handle you before, and I really can't handle you now.'"

Whether it was a loss of a connection—or the discovery of a new one—people whose lives were affected by the storm suddenly seemed to crave more out of life, having brushed up against death.

"Katrina was a really good lens to see the world through; to see what was important," says Darrin Pruitt, 44, who broke off a 12-year relationship with his partner in the wake of the storm. "It gave me the courage to say, 'This isn't going to work.'"

For the last three years, Pruitt has been living with a man who shares his ambitions and outlook in a way his much older ex didn’t; his former partner also has a new boyfriend (“a looker”), and seems happy, he says.

To Pruitt, the storm became a revelation.

"The word 'Katrina' is so close to the word 'catharsis,'" he says.

Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast reporter for The Daily Beast and the author of The Men Who Would Be King: An Almost Epic Tale of Moguls, Movies, and a Company Called DreamWorks.