After Katrina: Cecile Tebo

How ex-debutante Cecile Tebo became head of New Orleans’s mental health SWAT team.

By Maryn McKenna
Tebo visits a tent city where many of New Orleans' mentally ill camped out after Katrina. (Photo: Rebecca Greenfield)

Graff buckles the man gently into loose restraints that hold his hands at his sides, and Tebo guides him between the van’s bench seats. She perches across from him, keeping up a soft, one-sided conversation while she marks off items on a form:

"Can you tell us how you’re feeling today? Are you feeling down? Were you thinking of hurting anyone? Were you thinking about hurting yourself?"

The man blinks hard; his eyes focus on Tebo’s face. "I was," he says. "I’m not anymore."

Cecile Tebo’s affection for the city’s distressed comes from a deep place. For a while, she was one of them. It is hard to credit, looking at her life now. She lives with her husband, Balad Wing Tebo, and their three sons, ages 12, 14, and 18, in a cream-colored foursquare just a few miles from the ridge that holds back the Mississippi. Their Broadmoor neighborhood in the Uptown section of the city is low-key but upscale, and their house has a burnished comfort.

But on a wall in the kitchen, there is a hand-size piece of artwork, a shadow box of lacquered wood and ivory. It is all that remains of Balad’s family piano, which stood in their front room until Katrina’s floods crumpled it into splinters and snarls of wire.

In the summer of 2005, they had lived in that house for 17 years and had just renovated it floor to roof. Balad was running a company that installs insulation in navy ships. Cecile was a clinical social worker specializing in adoptions.

It was an unexpected career for someone raised with all the privileges of old New Orleans money. But Cecile had never felt perfectly suited to her family’s circumstances. "Growing up, I was so learning disabled," she says ruefully. "I always had to rewrite my thank-you notes." Her prep school had a community service requirement; Cecile worked with physically disabled children and, she says, "All of a sudden, everything just kind of kicked in. I knew I wanted to be a social worker."

But she never forgot her dream of becoming a cop. It must be genetic, she says: Her grandfather, A. Adair Watters, was a corruption-busting police superintendent in the 1940s. "He died the week after I was born," Tebo says. "But I always had this great admiration for what he did."

In 2000, she turned 40 and decided to join the police reserves. "I picked up my paperwork, crying. It was like, ‘I’m home,’" she recalls.

Tebo started with once-a-week volunteer shifts; by 2005, she had given up her social work practice and worked her way up to a fulltime job as the unit’s second-in-command.

Then Katrina happened.

After Katrina

When the city issued the evacuation order, the Tebos left for the Florida panhandle. The storm faded as it approached; the day it came ashore, Cecile went to bed thinking they could head home the next day. Early the next morning, she called friends who had stayed in the city. "It’s the funniest thing," one told her. "Someone said, ‘Your street is wet.’"

The levees had collapsed. By the time the Tebos got inside the house, 28 days later, the walls were swollen with mold.

"I thought, we’ll redo the house, we’ll take money out of savings, the insurance will kick in," Tebo says, "Then nothing. We hear nothing from the insurance company. Nothing from FEMA. We move four times, we’re living in a rental, we have 15 days left before the owners come back."

Dislocation and loss pervaded the city. Some of her acquaintances never returned after evacuating; others came back, struggled, and left for good. A close friend, James Kent Treadway Sr. — her children’s pediatrician, the son of her own childhood doctor, father of three — lost his practice to the floods and most of his patients to the exodus. He hanged himself in his storm-damaged house.

Tebo broke. She went to bed. She stayed there for seven days.

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