We’re sick of hearing about it. Or rather, people I know are. I am. Making plans for the weekend, my friend, who experienced Katrina firsthand, said, “so, are you going to do any...Katrina stuff?” I said no, I don’t really want to. And she said, “thank Christ. I don’t need any help remembering Katrina.” Someone on NPR this morning said something like, “you people come down here to talk about remembering Katrina, but I can’t forget it.” Someone else on NPR said, “10 years sounds like a nice convenient number for journalists, but it’s not like the story is going to end.”
The wounds opened aren’t mine; I arrived about 1.5 years after the storm. I was here to help with the recovery. I did my small parts. I learned a lot. The most painful part, for me, was my third party experience of the pain and exhaustion the residents went through (I have trouble imagining what it must have been like to experience). I worked in a neighborhood full of fairly poor but home-owning elderly people. Most of them couldn’t renovate. Most of them couldn’t rebuild. My friend from college and I helped bring rental properties to ADA-compliance in this neighborhood, which gave the homebuyers tax-breaks and the elderly a safe place to live. We barely made a dent in the problem.
I only experienced Katrina as a South Carolina college student, but I had a neighbor from outside of New Orleans. She didn’t have cable, so she came over and “watched the hurricane” all day everyday. Her cell phone didn’t work for weeks, maybe months. She couldn’t contact and check on her family for 6 days. That’s how long it took them to find access to the internet to email her. She failed a bunch of classes that semester and graduated late, losing her scholarship.
To be here and talk to those who’ve lived it - I forgot what it felt like to think about Katrina all the time. That’s my special privilege, you see. I didn’t go through it; it shaped my life but I don’t have personal devastation to work through. The composition of New Orleans has changed, and it is largely full of transplants. I think we transplants do forget, sometimes.
For one of my friends, talking about Katrina is talking about being alone as a 22-year-old, evacuating her immobile grandmother who was recovering from a stroke, running out of gas in Alabama and her grandmother suffering from heat exhaustion on the side of the highway. Her grandmother died two weeks later in an unfamiliar hospital in Birmingham - separated from most of her family, without her doctor, dog, or home. She could not be buried in her family tomb. She was cremated, against her wishes and against her religion, so that she could one day return to New Orleans.
For several of my friends, Katrina meant moving into an apartment to start a semester of college, and then evacuating - losing rent deposits, tuition, and their plan. One of these friends was told to drive to University of Texas, then Arizona State University, and finally to UPenn. She spent a week and a half driving with half of her things and a friend who had no other way to get around. Two of them graduated late; one lost her financial aid and never made it through college.
For the people I worked for, gutting houses and building ramps and pulling permits - some of those people were in the attic. They weren’t in the 9th ward, though. They were everywhere. The 9th ward is not the only place that experienced the devastation you saw on the news; that was everywhere. They lost pets. They lost gardens. They lost cars. They lost healthcare. Many lost their homes. All of them experienced a great loss of family; their families evacuated to Houston and Dallas and Atlanta and never returned. They lost their grandchildren coming over after school; they lost their sons and daughters driving them to church; they lost everyone they’d known their entire lives.
For a man who was a community leader/counselor and religious leader, he wanted to rebuild his house environmentally sustainable and for the future, and we raised money, designed, and built him an architectural-snazzy home. It is extremely energy efficient, raised high off the ground, and doesn’t leak. None of that erases the fact that his mother drowned in his home in the floodwaters; she’d come over to ride out the hurricane and he couldn’t pull her onto the roof. He watched her get swept away, and baked alive on his roof for three days without water.
So, every single morning this month, when I have been driving to work and listening to people be interviewed on Morning Edition on NPR, I am reduced to tears. I remember hearing these tales for the first time, and I remember how immune I started to become to the stories. Listening to the children trying to deal with PTSD, the families trying to grieve their family members and friends, people talking about their families spread all over the country suddenly - all this coverage is not for New Orleanians and the Gulf Coast. All this coverage is for everyone else who wants to hear a story of triumph and experience catharsis at my city’s pain. There is no happy end to this story.