Here we are, five years on. What can I tell you about Hurricane Katrina? I can tell you that I’ve lived on the coast all of my life and that this was only the third time I’ve ever had to evacuate. The first time was for Hurricane David, when I was a 10-year-old living on St. Simons Island. David turned out to be nothing other than a great slumber party for me and my sister. The second time I evacuated was in 1998, and I had just moved to New Orleans about six months before. Whatever storm it was veered to the east at the last minute (they always do, my now-husband told me at the time). We tried to evacuate once, in 2004. I believe that was for Hurricane Ivan. I’ll never forget that experience, because I was about five months pregnant at the time. That and it took us about three hours to drive across Lake Pontchartrain, a trip that normally takes about 35 minutes. That’s when we gave up and came home. And I was terrified and cried a lot, which was not at all helped by the fact that I was pregnant. And couldn’t drink. The storm veered away to the east at the last minute, as my husband told me they always do. So Katrina it was.
What can I tell you about Katrina? I remember waking up on August 26th and going to work. I remember my father calling me from St. Simons and, among other things, mentioning that their weekend was supposed to be rainy, due to a little Category 1 storm named Katrina that was supposed to loop around in the Gulf and hit Florida and Georgia. I remember going to lunch with a co-worker. For some reason, we decided to take our time walking back to the office after lunch. We took a meandering route back to work, even though is was about 815 degrees outside, and just took in the sights and sounds of downtown New Orleans on a Friday afternoon. I remember picking up my five-month-old daughter and going home. I remember feeding her, taking her out on the screened porch to watch the birds, and then putting her down for a nap. While she was sleeping, I unpacked boxes and hung pictures. We’d just bought the house—our first house—six weeks earlier and there was still lots to do.
What can I tell you about Katrina? I remember watching the news that Friday night and finding out that Katrina had strengthened incredibly quickly. She was now a Category 3, forecast to become a Category 5, and was headed northwest — toward New Orleans.
What can I tell you about Katrina? I remember waking up on Saturday morning, not knowing what to do. Wanting to leave. Wanting to stay. Arguing with my husband about whether we should leave or stay. Freaking out because we didn’t have any plywood to board our windows. Freaking out because, for the first time since moving to New Orleans seven years earlier, I had let down my guard–a storm had traveled into the Gulf before I’d had the chance to act out my normal routine, which was to run around the house like a crazy woman, shoving our pictures and sentimental stuff into big Rubbermaid boxes, while my husband shook his head and told me to stop worrying, that the storm would turn to the east. It was finally decided that I would get into my car with our daughter, meet up with my mother in Bay St. Louis, 50 miles east, and that the three of us would drive to my sister’s house in Atlanta.
What can I tell you about Katrina? I remember packing a duffel bag — one duffel bag — with a few pairs of shorts and T-shirts for myself, a pair of jeans, some sandals. I remember picking up a handful of clothes for the baby and shoving those in as well. I was in a hurry, such a hurry. I was scared that if I didn’t leave pretty quickly that I’d get stuck in evacuation traffic –with a baby. I remember, crazily, that I wanted to take the time to unload the dishwasher. As a child, we were never allowed to go on vacation until the dishwasher was emptied and the floors were vacuumed. My mother always said that the house had to be clean in case robbers broke in. I really, really wanted to unload that dishwasher, but I didn’t.
What can I tell you about Katrina? I remember driving, with my mother and step-father, up to the bank on Highway 90 in Bay St. Louis. It was where we’d decided to leave my car so my mother and I could drive together to Atlanta, still worried about possibly getting stuck in 12 hours of evacuation traffic. And besides, my car would be fine. My mother and step-father were quite prepared, and they’d researched and found the highest points above sea level in Bay St. Louis. We left my car in the bank parking lot, 27 feet above sea level and about two miles from the beach.
What can I tell you about Katrina? I remember pulling out of my mother’s driveway while my step-father stood on the porch of their elevated house, at least 15 feet above us. I rolled down the window to tell him goodbye, and he jokingly told us not to worry — that if things got bad, he’d tie himself to one of the support pillars holding up the house and just tread water.
What can I tell you about Katrina? I remember sitting at my sister’s house, feeling as though we were at a wake. We alternated between nervous laughter and sheer terror. And the hours slowly passed.
What can I tell you about Katrina? I remember when my husband called me on Sunday, saying things looked bad. The storm wasn’t turning east. He was leaving for Atlanta. The city had called for a mandatory evacuation. I remember my step-father calling my mother to tell her that things looked bad. He was heading east and would stop somewhere in Florida, wherever he could find a room.
What can I tell you about Katrina? I remember sitting on the floor, watching the Superdome as the roof began to peel away. I remember thinking that it was possible that I would lose my house. I remember finding out that New Orleans had “dodged a bullet.” I remember sinking to the floor as the first television coverage came out of Mississippi, showing the towns along the coast reduced to splinters. I remember looking at my mother as she absorbed this news.
What can I tell you about Katrina? I remember watching the news that Monday night, when it became clear that something was wrong in New Orleans. That we had not, in fact, dodged a bullet. I remember watching a news reporter drive down the highway a few blocks from my house in a boat.
What can I tell you about Katrina? I remember helping my husband load up his car with extra tanks of gas and cases of bottled water as he headed back to the coast. We hadn’t heard from his mother in three days. I remember my husband calling, about 18 hours later, to say that everyone was okay, but that there were now only three walls left on his aunt’s house, where they’d all ridden out the storm.
What can I tell you about Katrina? I remember getting official confirmation from my husband that our house was totaled. And then finding out that my mother and step-father’s house was totaled. And that my husband’s families’ homes were gone. His mother’s. His father’s. His grandmother’s. His sister’s. I remember finding out that my parents had gotten 32 feet of water. I remember my step-father joking about tying himself to the pillars. I remember laughing to my mother that my car, as it turned out, was not so safe after all at 27 feet above sea level.
What can I tell you about Katrina? I remember my sister telling me that a friend of a friend of a friend had heard about our plight and had offered us a house they had for sale. It was a tear-down and it wasn’t furnished, but we could stay in it as long as we needed. We went and bought a mattress. The salesman gave us a 10% discount when he found out we were from New Orleans. I remember the kindness of complete and total strangers.
What can I tell you about Katrina? I don’t remember much about the next three months, other than getting curious looks everywhere I went in Atlanta, driving around in my husband’s car, with the Louisiana license plate and the New Orleans Saints sticker on it. I remember an elderly lady asking me for directions in the grocery store. I told her I didn’t know because I was from New Orleans. She started crying and hugged me and said she was, too. We stood there next to the olives and pickles and talked for about 15 minutes.
What can I tell you about Katrina? I remember my husband going back and forth, every week, between New Orleans and Atlanta, to return to his job and then to visit us. I remember fighting a lot about whether we should move back. I remember not wanting to — not with a baby — but knowing that my husband was desperate to do so. I remember screaming at each other, because neither one of us wanted to be responsible for that decision—to stay or to go—a decision that could end up making one of us miserable.
What can I tell you about Katrina? I remember driving back in on a cold night in December. My mother and daughter were with me — a weird reverse of our trip to Atlanta more than three months ago. I remember driving across Lake Pontchartrain, into New Orleans. And there was complete and total desolation, in an area that used to be lit up 24 hours a day. Dark businesses, dark houses, dark streets. And I cried and cried and cried as we drove further into town, just completely overwhelmed by the losses that this city and its people had to bear.
What can I tell you about Katrina? I remember going to our first staff meeting, after all of us had come back to Tulane after being shut down for the entire fall semester. The dean asked everyone who had lost their homes to raise their hands. And I raised my hand and looked around the room, as about two-thirds of the 150 people in the room raised their hands as well. And as sad as it was, it was also a relief — because every single person in that room knew how I was feeling.
What can I tell you about Katrina? I remember walking into my house for the first time in four months, to the day. I remember opening the front door and thinking that my husband had ripped the carpet out without me knowing it, because the floor was cold, and gray, and rock hard, and it had to be the slab, right? It took a few minutes for my mind to process that it really was our carpet. I remember walking through our house in a daze, never having actually experienced before what floodwaters can do. How did the couch get over there? I remember looking at the mold, covering everything that wasn’t already a water-logged, decaying mess. I remember looking in the dishwasher and thinking about how I’d debated about whether or not to unload it, four months earlier. If I had, the dishes my grandmother had given us as a wedding gift would’ve been above the flood line, which was right around the kitchen counters. I remember my husband and I hauling all of our belongings out onto the curb and then watching a guy come by in a pick-up truck and dig through our things, taking any furniture he thought was salvageable, including our daughter’s crib.
What can I tell you about Katrina? I remember the debates that the country began to have. Should we rebuild New Orleans? And just what kind of people lived there, anyway? Who were these people who were living below sea level? Didn’t they know this was going to happen at some point? And why didn’t they get off their asses and help themselves instead of sitting around whining and waiting for a government handout? Fourteen whole blocks in some town in Iowa flooded back in 2002 and there was a really bad snowstorm in Minnesota in 2004 and you didn’t hear those people complaining. They helped themselves and didn’t depend on the taxpayers to do it for them. I remember feeling despair and anger, so much anger.
What can I tell you about Katrina? I remember finding out that the levees were breached, not over-topped. That is to say, the water did not just rise so high that it went over the levees. It went through them, beneath them — they failed spectacularly. I remember reading the newspaper about six months later and finding out that some of the levees were stuffed with newspapers; as you can probably imagine, those weren’t on the list of approved levee-filling materials.
What can I tell you about Katrina? I remember driving around the flooded-out areas of the city, over and over again, taking pictures of what should have been unbelievable but was no longer. Cars on roofs. Refrigerators in trees. Semi-trucks overturned. Spray-paint tags on buildings. One dead. Two dogs dead. One live dog barking. I remember walking up to an abandoned house to take a picture of the inside and being immediately repelled by the scent of death. I remember watching the news the next night as they pulled a body out of that house, six months after the storm.
What can I tell you about Katrina? I can tell you about the punch-in-the-gut feeling that overtakes me every year about this time. I can tell you that for about two weeks in late August each year, my body tenses and refuses to relax, as if it’s prepared for flight. I can tell you what it physically feels like when a part of your heart breaks. I can tell you that, even five years later, I can’t watch the anniversary coverage without crying.
What can I tell you about Katrina? I can tell you that this is a city that has been brought to its knees. I can tell you that our murder rate is shocking. That our schools still have a long way to go. That what appears to be a pretty good portion of our police department is corrupt. I can tell you that as we speak, Hurricane Danielle is in the Atlantic and that Earl and Fiona are waiting in the wings. I can tell you that my evacuation list is made, but that I still need more Rubbermaid boxes.
What can I tell you about Katrina? I can tell you that this oil spill, and the fear of what may be its ongoing effects, is breaking our hearts and dredging up all of these feelings that we had thought — that we had hoped—were gone. What if we have to leave, again?
What can I tell you about Katrina? I can tell you that New Orleans is, at the same moments in time, one of the most maddening and beautiful places I’ve ever lived. I can tell you about the seemingly never-ending hassles of life here. Or I can tell you about the night about four months after the storm, when my husband and I sat in a bar that had no electricity and drank beer from a cooler by candlelight, surrounded by and laughing with other people doing the same. I can tell about the melancholy I experience when my daughter, who is now five years old, asks me about the “broken” houses that we pass by every day. Or I can tell you about the night the Saints won the Super Bowl and how we stood in front of a friend’s house after the game and listened, as all around us, the city exploded in pure, unadulterated joy. I can tell you that I oftentimes question my sanity for living here. Or I can tell you that I now understand why my husband wants a jazz funeral—that it is, quite frankly, the essence of this place—a slow dirge to mourn the departed and to grieve, followed by a raucous celebration to symbolize the life that goes on.