Feizal Valli is the manager and head bartender at The Collins Bar downtown. Valli worked as a bartender in New Orleans for over a decade. When he first moved to the city back in the 90s, New Orleans was known as the murder capital of the country. When Hurricane Katrina hit, Valli was living on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter. He talked to WBHM’s Ashley Cleek about his life before and after the storm.
The Storm And Evacuation
“My job was at a strip club on Bourbon Street. So from my window I hear people breaking up. I heard gun fire. I would come home sometimes, and there would be people having sex in my doorway,” Valli remembered.
When news stations started to warn that Katrina would hit New Orleans, Valli, like many other residents, decided to wait it out. So he stocked up on beer and water and went to a nearby Tower Records to rent some movies.
“My local Check Point Charlie’s, doesn’t have a door, it never closes,” Valli remembered. “So the plan was to stay and drink, which was the plan the day before the week before the month before. It was business as usual.”
Valli was in touch with some friends in Birmingham, who were watching the news of Katrina at The Nick. Eventually, they convinced Valli to drive to Birmingham.
He left around three in the morning.
“You know, they turned all the traffic northbound. So I made my whole way up to Birmingham in the southbound lanes, watching on ramps as off ramps and the backs of all the signs,” Valli remembered.
Valli thought he would drive to Birmingham, eat brunch and go back, “like everybody did, every time this happened all summer.”
So, like a lot of people who evacuated New Orleans during Katrina, he didn’t bring any necessities. “I packed my phone no charger, laptop no charger, no clothes.”
The week before, Valli had gone to a wedding, where he had dressed in a rabbit costume. He had taken off the costume during the wedding and thrown it in the back of his car. So for the first few days in Birmingham all he had was the clothes on his back and a fuzzy white rabbit costume.
A Birmingham Welcome
“Those first few months, when my friend Jennifer would introduce me to people, you know, ‘This is Feizal, he just moved up here from New Orleans, cause of Katrina.’ Immediately everybody would be so so nice,” Valli said.
Valli told someone that he only had a rabbit costume to change into when he washed his one set of clothes. “And the next day this person I had never met had gone to the Summit got a Summit credit card and had given it to me, so I could buy clothes. I think that act itself became symbolic of every one I met,” Valli said. “My bartender friend immediately giving me some of her shifts. Frank Stitt immediately giving me a job.”
Months passed before Valli was able to return to New Orleans. When he was allowed to return to the city, he stayed for a day, packed some belongings and left.
He remembered the city was like war zone. Helicopters flew over head. Toxic fridges were duct-taped and piled on the curbside, because they had rotted during the months when there was no electricity. Houses were marked with spray paint where recovery crews had found dead bodies.
Valli left New Orleans and moved to Birmingham permanently.
Circling The Drain
He remembers the New Orleans he knew as a dark place, and wonders if “Katrina didn’t save more lives than it took.”
“It took 1,800 lives,” Valli explained, “I have a one-sided view of it, you I know, I lived in the Quarter. I was a bartender at a strip club on Bourbon Street. I was seeing people circle the drain everyday. I think New Orleans a lot of people just go to sleep there, they just go there to check out. I mean, [if Katrina hadn’t happened] I would probably still be there, doing nothing, like a lot of people.”
Valli remembered friends and people he knew who had committed suicide or drank themselves to death.
“And I think, the things that happened after Katrina, the way the city itself failed, Katrina woke them up,” Valli said. “To me, Katrina, it was a good thing, definitely.”
“This 10 years was easy,” said Valli. “This 10 years [in Birmingham] is the longest I’ve been anywhere, and not even think about leaving.”