The "big bad wolf" wreaked havoc on the lives of local TV journalists Leonel and Meredith Mendez.
The "wolf" is how the Annandale couple refer to Hurricane Katrina whenever they talk to their 3-year-old son, Nicholas, about why they had to flee New Orleans in September to begin a new life here.
"It was hard for him to understand that his house was gone, his school was gone and all of his friends were scattered across the country," Meredith said. "But we knew he would understand the concept of a big bad wolf."
It's been about three months since the devastating storm displaced the Mendezes from the city they loved, where they held jobs at competing TV stations. They met in 2000 when they were working weekends at the same station; they were married in 2002.
While memories of the Big Easy are never far from their mind, the Mendezes say they are thankful to have landed in the Washington area.
And, once again, they find themselves at competing TV stations: Meredith is a freelance reporter with Fox station WTTG, Channel 5, and Leonel is a cameraman with CBS affiliate WUSA, Channel 9.
Despite working in the nomadic world of local TV news, the pair had planned on staying at their respective New Orleans stations, never imagining that a hurricane would uproot them to a new market. But "while it wasn't something we planned, we are certainly happy that we are here now," Meredith said.
"A few years back, would I have come here? Probably not," Leonel said. "But we just have to see how positive it has been and how fortunate we are to have these jobs."
The couple's personal experiences may be an asset for the stations as they continue to cover the aftermath of this year's destructive hurricane season.
At WTTG, Meredith recently reported a story about a Louisiana family getting a fresh start with a new townhouse in Northwest Washington. She also filed a personal report about evacuating her grandmother from Florida during Hurricane Wilma.
"It was a story of one evacuee picking up another," Meredith said.
WUSA News Director Randal Stanley said Leonel's experiences in New Orleans will give him a unique outlook when covering stories of personal loss or tragedy.
"He's going to have a whole new approach to what people are going through, and I think that will be reflected in the way he tells stories," Stanley said. "He's lived a personal tragedy that he's used to looking at only through the camera lens . . . I think it will change how he looks through the camera lens forever."
The past few months have felt like forever to their family, Leonel said. When Katrina hit in late August, both Meredith and Leonel were on duty at their respective stations: Meredith was a reporter with WGNO, the city's ABC affiliate, and Leonel worked at Fox station WVUE.
On the eve of the hurricane, both followed their stations' mandatory evacuation orders to leave the city, but they remained on the job filing stories about the aftermath of the storm and the plight of evacuees.
A week later, when they managed to get some time off together, the couple had a serious conversation about where their lives were going.
"We realized that without a house and without child care, we didn't know how we were going to return to New Orleans," Meredith said. "We made the decision at that point that we needed to find jobs elsewhere for the sake of our son."
Leonel, an El Salvador native who has lived in New Orleans since 1983, said it was an especially difficult decision for him to leave his adopted hometown, but that ultimately there was no choice. "Family comes first," he said.
The two landed jobs here after making inquiries in Colorado and Arizona, but Meredith knew the Washington area made the most sense for her family. Her mother and stepfather have lived in Annandale for more than 20 years, and Meredith grew up there.
"The thing that I loved about New Orleans is that it reminded me of Washington, D.C., with its history and culture," Meredith said.
It hasn't been an easy adjustment for the family. Meredith said it breaks her heart every time she has to explain to Nicholas what the "big bad wolf" did to their family.
"He now knows how to say 'Pensacola' and 'Oklahoma City' and 'Dallas' and 'Houston,' " she said. "He's learned all these new places because his friends are scattered across the country."
The biggest adjustment for the Mendezes has been covering a new market and realizing just how big metropolitan Washington is.
"The most difficult part for me . . . is how to get from Point A to Point B in a timely manner," Meredith said.
"It's a little overwhelming at times," Leonel concurred.
Leonel recently returned to New Orleans to assess the damage to their rental home in the Lakeview area of New Orleans. "It looks like someone picked up the house, filled it with water and shook it around," he said.
But there are no plans to return. "Unless hurricanes completely go away and they never happen again, I don't think we'll be going back," Leonel said.