Katrina victim creates beauty in Auburn garden

For Donna McCloskey, the plants and flowers erase visions of mold, mildew
By: Gloria Young, Journal Staff Writer
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When tragedy hit Donna McCloskey, she turned to gardening. The Auburn resident estimates she spends a couple of hours a day tending the plants, trees, grass and flowers on her six acres. When she’s pulling weeds and deadheading blooms, she forgets everything else, she said. A lifelong New Orleans resident, McCloskey lost everything in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina left her home covered in seven feet of water. The memories are vivid. “It was the smell, the stench, the mold and mildew — everything,” she said. “I’ll never forget the smell as long as I live. And the crying of people’s dogs. People left their dogs behind. It was the most plaintive, horrible sound you’ve ever heard.” McCloskey’s house was near the 17th Street Canal, which suffered damage nearly as severe as the Ninth Ward district. “They had told us the levies were safe and the area would never flood,” McCloskey said. During the cleanup, the city used a nearby park for refuse from the destroyed buildings. Piles of trashed appliances, furniture and shredded remnants of people’s lives reached several stories high, McCloskey said. She counts herself among the lucky ones. Her husband, James, had ties to California, so the couple decided it was time to move on and ended up settling in Auburn. “After seeing all the ugliness (left behind by Katrina), I just wanted to grow things,” McCloskey said. Four years later, the McCloskeys have transformed their foothill acreage once filled with weeds and boulders into a park-like oasis. They’ve added a greenhouse and gazebo. The small pond was widened and made deeper. There’s a meandering walkway that McCloskey calls the yellow brick road because “it twists and turns,” she said. It has been a lot of hard work and lots of trial and error. “(When we moved here), I thought the weather was like Florida,” McCloskey said. “I didn’t realize there was no rain (during the summer). I tried to grow things I’d grow back home.” Ferns, she soon realized, much prefer the humidity and frequent thunderstorms of the Deep South. She quickly found out that deer love to eat the roses — so now she protects the blooms with a cayenne pepper mixture. When moles and boles destroyed her first tulips, she planted the next bulbs in containers. She learned that lilies, daffodils, irises and dahlias flourish. She’s discovered the beauty and low-maintenance joy of native plants, gradually incorporating more and more of them into the landscape. They’ve used boulders they dug up along the way to build a front border. Neighbors and passersby often comment on her beautiful yard, she said. The birds like what she has created, too. “I call it birdland,” she said. “You get hummingbirds, magpies, woodpeckers. I have birdfeeders everywhere.” The tranquility of the setting has been very restorative for McCloskey, but visions of the past still haunt. “I still have nightmares about my (New Orleans) house, because it is something you never get over,” she said. She couldn’t go back into the house until after the water receded. By then, the only salvageable items were a few crystal and china pieces. Everything else was gone including personal records, family photographs and school transcripts. “Someone actually broke into the house and pried open drawers looking for jewelry,” she said. “Every (house in the neighborhood) was ransacked.” Then, when she shipped the china and crystal to California, it arrived crushed and broken. The frustration seemed unending. Filing an insurance claim for the broken items was difficult because the original receipts from the purchases were long gone to mold. After the insurance company advised her to furnish comparison sales receipts, she sought help from Margareta Swann, owner of the Golden Swann Jewelry and Collectibles in Downtown Auburn. “I was able to help her on some of the prices she needed,” Swann said. “It was just moral support. I had Kleenex, the coffee and the chocolate.” These days McCloskey still owns the now empty lot in New Orleans. There are no buyers for the land. But the “sky high” property taxes haven’t evaporated, she said. Back in Auburn, the recent hot weather has meant less time working outdoors, but it hasn’t kept her housebound. “When I’m out there gardening, it takes my mind to a nicer place,” she said. “To see things grow and something beautiful is really nice. It’s our little piece of heaven on earth.” The Journal’s Gloria Young can be reached at or comment at