BOULDER, Colo. — Colorado Buffs gear is the stuff that sells at BoCo Life in Boulder, but Paula Johansen-Riley can't help but stock a little slice of home.
“That little corner of the store over there still has my Saints merchandise," Johansen-Riley said, pointing toward the iconic, fleur-de-lis stickers hanging from the wall.
Johansen-Riley and her husband, Chris Riley, opened up BoCo Life in 2019 along Boulder's Pearl Street Mall.
“We love Boulder," Johansen-Riley said. "Our lives are here, but yes, our hearts are still in New Orleans.”
The couple left New Orleans 16 years ago when Hurricane Katrina arrived at their doorstep.
“There’s no roadmap," Chris Riley said. "There’s no manual, you know. If you lose your home in a hurricane: step one, this. Step two, this.”
The family evacuated their home in east New Orleans before the storm hit. Eight days passed before they were allowed back to see what was left.
“There was nothing," Johansen-Riley said. "Our house was actually under eight feet of water, and my parents’ house, there was a slab of concrete and that was it.”
The couple evacuated with their two daughters to stay with friends in Panama City, Florida. They eventually resettled in Louisville, Colorado.
Their hearts have remained in New Orleans, and for the past several days, their minds have been there, too.
“I don’t have anxiety and I do now," Johansen-Riley said.
The couple spent days trying to reach family and friends in New Orleans impacted by Hurricane Ida.
“I’m like trying to ring up my customers, and I’m like, ‘I’m sorry, I gotta answer this text," Johansen-Riley said. "I need to see who it is.”
Many of their friends chose to evacuate, but some family decided to stay. Monday afternoon, Johansen-Riley was waiting to hear from her cousin. The text finally came, and so did the rush of emotion.
"Oh my God!," Johansen-Riley said, putting her hand to her chest. "She's okay."
She took a moment to read her cousin's text message.
"No electricity, no water pressure, but she’s good," she said.
Paula and Chris have been here before.
“Having gone through it before, you rehash and relive some of those emotions," Chris Riley said.
This time around, they're taking in friends who evacuated.
The same couple that sheltered them in Panama City after Katrina is staying with Paula and Chris in Louisville after their home in New Orleans was threatened by Hurricane Ida. They hope to bring in more evacuated friends later this week.
“Bring your dogs, bring your cats, bring your friends, bring whoever," Johansen-Riley said.
They've long since left New Orleans, but Paula and Chris will never lose the heart to help.
“People are going to need lots of help," Johansen-Riley said. "Lots of help.”
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