Hurricane Katrina: Eight Years Later, a New Orleanian Reflects

Jackson Square, New Orleans

Jackson Square, New Orleans

This post is going to be a bit different than usual, but I feel that I should write it. As a native of New Orleans, I feel I should share my Katrina story.

Eight years ago today (Monday, August 29, 2005) I had moved into my dorm room at the University of Alabama a week or two before.

  • I was glad my sister had the forethought to email me that my family was evacuating, because I couldn’t get through to anyone by phone. The lines were SO CLOGGED I would have had no idea they’d left. I couldn’t even leave a voicemail.
  • Like a lot of people, I had a really, really bad feeling about this storm. And that was TERRIFYING, because as a New Orleanian, you know hurricanes. You get used to hurricanes. You evacuate on average once or twice a year just so you won’t have to deal with some minor flooding or power loss. No hurricane had ever frightened me like this.
  • My roommate took me out to a movie on Sunday to help calm my nerves and take my mind off things…. Can’t remember what we saw. Maybe the Johnny Depp Willy Wonka movie. It was a good idea, and I’m still grateful to her for it.

The storm came and passed. New Orleans is built to withstand hurricanes, and it looked as though everything would be okay after all.

And if would have been, if the levees hadn’t failed Monday night.

My roommate and I pulled up Google maps to see my neighborhood…. Nothing but water. Rooftops and water.

At Bama, they turned the Rec Center into a refugee center…. mostly refugees from Mississippi ended up there. God bless them, they were there for weeks.

The Mississippi Gulf Coast was obliterated, and the national news said almost nothing about that.

LOSS

Lest I come across as complaining here, let me be clear off the bat: I have never considered myself anything but one of Katrina’s most lucky victims. Truly: I suffered no personal harm and lost no one I loved.

I didn’t come out unscathed, though.

On Tuesday August 30, I was in the student union at Bama. Eating lunch, I overheard a couple of guys discussing the storm. One was pissed: you see, his parents had been out on a cruise that left from New Orleans, and had left a car there.

The cruise ship had to return to dock elsewhere, and they had lost the car.

HPIM0034

In addition to my family losing our house, I had lost memories. Items priceless to me. I had lost photos. My signed yearbooks. Poetry I’d written. Most of my favorite books….

My family grabbed what they could from my room before they left, of course. They took the most important stuff with them for me, so I really can’t complain (and I don’t mean to).

Still, I wasn’t there to direct them what else was important beyond the real obvious stuff. They couldn’t call me to ask because of the phone situation.

Losing some memories is nothing compared to losing loved ones, of course. Like I said, I consider myself one of the lucky ones where Katrina is concerned, because I lost no loved ones.

Still, losing memories is a hell of a lot worse than losing a car. I was so angry at that fellow student complaining about that car when other people had lost far, far more than even I had.

I also lost my entire winter wardrobe, which I had to replace before winter (as much of a winter as you have in Alabama) set in. The shock was so bad it took a week or so for that to sink in.

GOING HOME

My area of the city got over 10 feet of water. My dad was able to return a month after the storm to go through the house–in a canoe. There was still that much standing water.

I didn’t get to see the damage until November, over Thanksgiving Break.

My parents were staying with a friend in a part of the city that had been hit relatively easily…. We drove out to Lakeview, my old neighborhood, one afternoon I was in town.

HPIM0042

It was utterly surreal. One of the most surreal moments in my life…. No joke, “Golden Slumbers” by the Beatles was playing on the radio when we drove up to the house.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the song, here are the lyrics:

Once there was a way to get back homeward.

One there was a way to get back home.

Sleep, pretty darling, do not cry

And I will sing a lullaby.

You can’t make that stuff up.

I remember how insane it was to see that orange, spray painted X with all the symbols around it: the X that meant firefighters had searched the house and found no bodies there. The X I had seen on TV so many times.

On my house.

I also remember going up to my room and weeping as I stared at the mold and recoiled at the smell, horrified at the thought of touching anything.

The thing about us people from New Orleans, though: we are survivors. We are fighters. We love life, we love our crawfish and our football, and we LOVE our city.

If there was a flickering doubt that the city would recover, that doubt soon vanished, at least in our minds. We KNEW our city was coming back, because we would bring it back.

WHAT I LEARNED

I knew the storm had hit others far, far worse than it had me, and I tried to remember them and to be grateful. I learned the value (or lack thereof) of what we call “stuff.”

I learned that writing would always and forever, from that point, be my go-to coping mechanism (or at least a large part of my coping process). I wrote a poem about New Orleans for my creative writing class that semester that really helped me heal.

I learned that my writing only mattered at all insofar as it helped me tackle life and to enjoy life. To make sense of life.

The Saint Louis Cathedral

The Saint Louis Cathedral

I saw the best and the worst in people, and I learned the importance of respecting people’s humanity. I watched national news discussions about whether or not “it made sense” to rebuild the city, and I just wanted to scream.

Sometimes, a decision is not about economics or the bottom line. Sometimes, it’s about PEOPLE. It’s about HUMANITY and nothing more. The fact that people even thought this was a point to debate made me sick.

I mean, how would you feel about people discussing whether your home had a right to exist?

 You don’t question the value of home. You make home valuable if it isn’t. You give it worth and meaning if it doesn’t have those things.

Anyway…. that’s my Katrina story. I had it easy compared to so many others when that storm came through.

This post is for them: the real victims of the storm and of the violence that followed.

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23 responses to “Hurricane Katrina: Eight Years Later, a New Orleanian Reflects

  1. Very touching. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thank you for sharing this!
    It was a surreal experience to watch form over seas that such a catastrophe could happen in an industrialized country, and not just in some strange third world country no one seem to care about, but still it is very difficult to imagine what really happened there.

    • I know. I wasn’t trapped in the city, thank God, when all that happened, but…. It was truly surreal in every sense. A real learning experience for humanity because of all the human mistakes involved.

  3. Thanks for sharing your story, Victoria. Can’t imagine my hometown going through such a catastrophe. Glad that you made it through, and that your family was safe.

  4. Thanks for sharing Victoria. It was so amazing (in a horrible way) to see how much damage had been inflicted upon New Orleans, and the hundreds upon hundreds of people left without homes, proper food and clothes, and even loved ones. I’m glad that you and your family were safe. Even though in Australia we have had our own horrific floods and more frequently bush fires, I am so grateful that I have never had to be in such a horrific situation. I think it’s important to sometimes talk about these situations, even months or years after the event, because once the news crews roll away, we don’t hear anymore and forget that not only have people had to survive such an event, but the aftermath as well. So thank you.

    • You’re welcome!!! Some horrible things, as well as wonderful things, happened in the wake of Katrina. There have been other storms since, of course, worldwide and here in the US, but I think, like you said, the looting and the mishandling of the situation after the fact really struck a chord with people back in 05. People forget it now.

  5. I had no idea you were from the New Orleans area! I was raised in Covington until I was 12, when my family moved out to Cali. We missed Katrina by a few years, and were grateful for it. All the same, it was terrifying to watch. Our old house was decimated (it was right on a little river).

    All the same, it was amazing to see the huge show of support from people in the Bay Area. The Starbucks where I worked at the time immediately (and against corporate rules) donated an entire week of the store’s tips to relief organizations. When customers saw us filling this giant Frappuccino cup (2.5′ tall), they started chipping in too.

    It was a really crazy time, that’s for sure. I’m glad you didn’t lose anyone.

    • Thanks, Alex! I didn’t realize you were from Covington!!!! I love Covington! It’s really expanded since you left! I’m glad you missed the storm.

      And it touches my heart to hear about your story of support you saw in Cali. Thanks!!!

  6. Thanks for sharing your story. Glad you didn’t lose anybody.

  7. This was, by far, the best post you’ve ever written. I have the chills right now.

    • I’m glad you liked it, Katie!!! And I’m glad it resonated with you. I think we all have a lot to learn looking back on Katrina and all that mistakes that were made in the aftermath.

  8. Wow. What a great post, Victoria. And what a horrible experience. I always loved visiting New Orleans. I can only imagine the horror of having lived through that experience. The city is so changed now.

    • It really is changed…. In some ways it’s stronger, and in other ways, there are great things about it that can never come back. I’m glad you enjoyed the reflection. And glad to hear you love the city. It really is unique!

  9. Thanks for sharing your story. I’m glad you have your writing as an outlet. Best wishes!

  10. Victoria,

    Aww, this is so sad. I am glad you did not loose any loved ones. I have been in New Orleans in Dec12 with my husband around year end. I loved the trip. It is good to see the city and the people recovering slowly. French is my first language so I had to visit it :). Anyways this was just a parenthesis.

    I definitely agree that loosing precious belongings (tangible and non-tangible ones) is heartbreaking. A car can be replaced, clothes can be replaced. Memories and constant reminding of love that certain belongings provide to us can just not be replaced.

    In my maternal dialect, they call HUMANITY, MRÔYA. One who does not have the ablity to practice common courtesy to “thy neighbour” has lost the point of living on this Earth. A price tag cannot be put on human life. Debating it, is just wrong.

    After reading this, I can’t not be mad a loosing some of my previous works because it does not even compare to what you went through or what the direct victims experienced. God is in control, one day at a time 🙂 .

    Take care!

    Papatia

    • Thank you for your thoughtful response, Papatia! I’m glad you enjoyed your visit to New Orleans. And I’ve studied some French myself! Spanish is my second language so I’m not native in French or anything but I can definitely read it 🙂

  11. Great post, Victoria – duly sent to Twitter…

  12. Pingback: 5 Tips to Blog Your Best (and Making Blogging About You): No Matter Your Topic | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

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