MINNEAPOLIS - In the fall of 2000, an avid singer and writer named Sandra Feist moved to New Orleans to chase her creative dreams. The Wisconsin native spent five years in The Big Easy, performing in dive bars, working as a paralegal and, eventually, enrolling in law school.
In 2005, a year into her studies at Loyola University, she found herself scrambling as Hurricane Katrina barreled toward the Gulf Coast.
"It was really fast," Feist said. "And unexpected."
On Friday, Aug. 26th, with Katrina quickly approaching, Feist packed up a few belongings and drove to Arkansas with a group of evacuees. They figured they would ride out the storm a few states away and then return as soon as possible, maybe as early as the start of the work week on Monday.
Those plans changed fast.
"When Hurricane Katrina hit on Monday morning, we realized we didn't know if there would be a city to return to," Feist said. "So we headed north."
Feist remembers how warm it was when she left the South; after hours of driving northbound, she stepped outside of her car at a gas station and felt cool northern air for the first time in years. She eventually landed in Minneapolis, where her mother lived, still expecting the move might only be temporary. At least 1,000 other people from Louisiana made their way to Minnesota in the weeks after Katrina.
Feist made appointments with local law schools, hoping to continue her post-graduate work until she could return to Loyola. She interviewed at the institution now known as Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul, where the Dean of Student Affairs shed tears at his desk as Feist described her escape from Katrina. Feist enrolled and stuck with it all the way through graduation — she never did return to Loyola or New Orleans.
That was fourteen years ago. Feist has since earned a law degree, started an immigration law firm in downtown Minneapolis, got married (to the man she met in the cafeteria on her first day of law school) and had two children.
"So I decided to stay forever," Feist said.
Still, New Orleans has never left her completely.
And this week's news coverage of Tropical Storm Barry has left her unsettled, to say the least.
"It's really hard to see," Feist said. "I remember sitting in my house (in 2005) and watching those cones, and all the various trajectories the hurricane can take. And it's hard to see those cones now bearing down on New Orleans."
Feist still has many friends and old co-workers living in New Orleans, and her Facebook feed this week has been filled with frightening images of flooded streets.
To be clear, Barry is not Katrina — and the city is much more protected and prepared than it was back in 2005.
Still, the combination of torrential rain and storm surge could spell serious trouble for a region that's already been through so much.
"I'm hoping for good news," Feist said, "and that it's not the worst-case scenario."
Feist has only been back to New Orleans one time since the aftermath of Katrina, but The Big Easy will always be a big part of her story.
"I'll be thinking of everybody," Feist said, "and that beautiful, weird city that I lived in for five years."