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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.