Scattered by Hurricane Katrina, band remains intact

It’s about nine months since Hurricane Katrina pushed five feet of water through Roger Lewis’ house in New Orleans’ Gentilly neighborhood.

“I don’t remember where we were at the time – somewhere around Memphis, I think,” said Lewis, a founding member of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.

“We watched TV on the bus,” he said. “We all knew a storm was coming, but we didn’t know the devastation that was coming behind it. Man, it was unbelievable.”

Lewis, a 30-year veteran of the New Orleans music scene, and his bandmates will perform Saturday at Wakarusa Fest.

Before Katrina, the band’s eight members lived in or on the outskirts of New Orleans. Now, they’re scattered – Atlanta, Detroit, Baton Rouge, La., Washington, D.C., and Jackson, Miss.

“We’re still together,” Lewis said. “It’s just now we have to fly everybody in to make a gig.”

Until about three months ago, Lewis was living in Vicksburg, Miss. “I’m back in New Orleans now,” he said. “My wife – she’s so smart – she got us flood insurance and homeowner’s insurance, so our place is being renovated right now. They’re going to raise it up another three and a half feet off the ground.”

Lewis said he and his family “lost pretty much everything” to Katrina. “I salvaged a few things, but not much to speak of,” he said. “I can’t show my daughter a picture of what I looked like as a chid because all that family history stuff – photographs and all – is gone.”

Still, Lewis said he’s lucky.

“Revert Andrews, our trombone player – his house was totally destroyed,” Lewis said. “He lived in the Lower Ninth Ward. His house got hit by a 15- maybe 20-foot tidal wave.

“His house is about two blocks down the street from where it was,” he said. Andrews now lives in Jackson, Miss.

Tuba player Julius McGee, too, lost everything. “He lived in an apartment house on the East Side,” Lewis said. “It was completely filled with water.”

McGee moved to Detroit.

Lewis said most New Orleans streets are still strewn with abandoned cars.

“Trash and garbage are everywhere,” he said. “But people are coming back. You can see people trying to get their lives back together.”

The city’s music scene, too, is slowly rising from the muck. “A lot of musicians got scattered, but a lot have come back, too,” Lewis said. “The clubs are back – if you go to Bourbon Street, they got bands playing all up and down the street.”

Despite its members’ setbacks, Dirty Dozen Brass Band isn’t slowing down.

“Oh, no, not at all,” Lewis said, laughing. “We’re coming to your town with high energy. We got something for your mind, your body and your soul.”