If you didn’t know me ten years ago, you may not know that my parents lost just about everything they owned in Hurricane Katrina. I spent my entire childhood in New Orleans but moved to Texas for college and stayed after graduation. I’d tell my high school friends pretty often that I intended to leave Louisiana and never look back. My parents were both raised in rural East Texas and that’s where the good majority of our family was. Texas was a place I visited during holidays and summers and it held a mystique for me. I’m not sure I necessarily loved Texas but to an angsty teenager, anyplace was better than home.
After I married, my husband and I settled in the suburbs of Dallas. It was on a very hot and sunny August morning that I was surprised by a phone call from my folks. It was Saturday and we were having a garage sale. Mom was chipper. She said that a storm was coming and that if they were gonna have to evacuate anyway, they might as well leave early, miss the traffic and hang out with their grandsons until it passed. They left with a couple changes of clothes, a box of slides and my mom’s good silver. Little did they know that they’d never live in New Orleans again.
The first few days were fun. We hung out with my sister and brother-in-law and my boys entertained their grandparents with their weird and wild antics. Flying nutballs, those two were. But as the storm neared the gulf coast, tensions rose and the house became dark, still and quiet. Mom stayed up most of the night watching the weather, fear freezing her in place on the sofa. As Katrina made landfall in the morning though, they encouraged me to go on to work because it seemed that New Orleans was going to dodge another bullet. The winds weren’t as bad had been expected and really, no storm was going to top Hurricane Betsy. That was the big one. Katrina was only a category 3.
But around 10am that morning, all hell broke loose.
I distinctly remember sitting in my classroom at the elementary school where I was the speech therapist. I’d dismissed a group to go back to class and thought I would take a quick peek at the latest news before my next class started. Ray Nagin, the mayor of New Orleans at the time, was announcing that 80% of the city was under water.
I want to take a moment to apologize to the students I was supposed to be teaching that day, because it didn’t happen. The very first stage of grief for me started at the exact moment I heard Nagin say 80%. The storm stole the homes of just about everyone I knew there. Flooded every school and church we attended. Lay to waste the malls, restaurants, stores, offices. Just about anything I identified with as part of my childhood was ruined.
When I go back now, I always get a little disoriented. Some places I knew are still standing, though I’m sure they look much different on the inside. I recently showed my sons where I went to elementary school but had to add a disclaimer that it was really just the location of the school because the original building was gone. When people say that “you can’t go back”, they aren’t lying. Katrina left holes in the landscape but also holes in our memories.
As the tenth anniversary approaches, I can’t help but reflect on a comment that was made to my sister. A few years after the storm, a person asked when she thought mom and dad would “get over it”. That’s a really shitty question.
On Halloween, 2005, my parents left the family farmhouse in east Texas where they’d been staying, and came to visit with us. It was the first time I’d seen them since they left my house in early September. Hurricane Rita made its way through Texas and had left them without power for a week, defrosting all of the food they’d bought, and by that time, they had seen what was left of their house in Louisiana. My dad carved pumpkins with the boys that October and his hands shook violently the whole time, but he didn’t seem to notice. I took mom aside to talk to her about it and she agreed that he was likely unaware. At the time, post-traumatic stress disorder didn’t enter my mind but I’m sure they were both suffering.
Now, people get flooded all the time. Natural disasters happen. So I’m sure that the person who asked when they would “get over it” had a mindset that they should just pull themselves up by their bootstraps and move on. Jimmy Buffett even wrote a song called Breathe In, Breath Out in which he sings, “If a hurricane doesn’t leave you dead, it will make you strong. Don’t try to explain it just nod your head, breathe in, breath out, move on.” Here’s the problem with that theory. Katrina wasn’t just a flood. Sure my parent’s house was buried under eight feet of water, but it was also buried under eight feet of death, eight feet of rot, eight feet of terror, eight feet of mold, eight feet of landfill, eight feet of despair. Try returning to that. Dig through your clothing left behind. See your upturned piano, broken to shards. Smell your decaying refrigerator. Excavate through the human waste to find your mother’s jewelry. Then, and only then, may you ask when they will “get over it”.
Ten years later, the hurt has lessened. Time has helped heal the wounds of a city that clawed its way back onto the map. Sheer stubbornness brought back Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest and the Saints. Determination and resilience has become the city’s modus operandi. But there remains a pang. A deep longing for something that no longer exists. To be so violently uprooted with no real warning, forever scarred the hearts of thousands up and down the gulf coast. The story of my family is not unique. It’s the story of so many who live with the invisible wounds that Katrina tore open that August of 2005.
Life has moved on and life is good. There have been celebrations and victories. The good times have rolled again and hopefully lessons have been learned. But will we “get over it”? Maybe. But not today.
Photo, “Madonna of the Lower 9th Ward after Katrina” via Flickr/Infrogmation