Today I got up and rode the streetcar to work, did my job, had a po-boy for lunch, continued to do my job, rode the streetcar home, and am now writing this while drinking out of a Juan’s Flying Burrito go-cup and the Saints kick off in about 15 minutes.
Business as usual. But not so usual today. This is my first year here in New Orleans on August 29, and everywhere I went today (I took the extended route several blocks each way on the po-boy run just to be out longer) I kept juxtaposing 8-year-old images on top of what I was actually seeing. I can see the Superdome from my office window, and really stopped and pictured what it must have looked like then, and remembered what it was like inside, for example. I could feel the mood of the city altered on this day…the tired smile of my streetcar driver this morning; the grimmer-than-usual morning faces of some of my fellow passengers; the reaching out (even more than usual) of people passing by on the street with good-mornings and hellos because everyone needed the connection. Just a general vibe that I’d always wondered about and that was most definitely there.
If you spend enough time, you’ll find that everyone has their Katrina story. Not everyone wants to tell theirs. Some folks are over it and celebrating at least some forward momentum. Some folks still have PTSD from what they individually had to endure. Some folks just plain old don’t wanna talk about it. But if you’re around long enough, and if you’re smart, and if someone does sit there across the alley table from you over a beer sometime and decide they want to tell you their story…YOU LISTEN. And you listen hard and well.
I’ve heard a lot of Katrina stories. For years, to start, I read every blog I could find that shared the tale, and I can’t even begin to list how many books sit on my shelves with well-thumbed pages, from 1 Dead in Attic to City of Refuge to to to…
Later, actually being here, as visitors before and as inhabitants now, I hear them in person. From the long drunken versions, to the in-passing mentions. They all have the common thread, but they are all unique and very much worth taking the time to listen and pay attention to.
I’ve never written about my own reaction to That Bitch Katrina (and the resulting levee failures), out of respect and also, admittedly, out of some anxiety over ridicule. I mean, I wasn’t here. I did not go through this. I wasn’t trapped in the chaotic Dante-esque circle of the Dome. I didn’t hack my way out of a rooftop. I didn’t lose my home. I didn’t camp out in the FQ creating teams of people to deliver goods and pet food and necessities to those in outlying neighborhoods who were trapped without a boat. I didn’t go into exile with no way to come home. I didn’t die.
But I do remember this time. I remember it clearly. So finally, with all the respect and love and admiration you know I have for this city and her people, I’ll go ahead and tell my Away-From-Katrina story, and y’all can take it how you wish.
I was in Denver. The last time I’d set foot on my hallowed New Orleans ground was in April of 1999. I saw the storm hit via the nightly news, and I watched. My first angst and my first sadness was worry for my family members along the Gulf Coast in Mississippi. There was a huge amount of loss there, and THAT was personal to me, make no mistake about it. My aunt’s house in Ocean Springs was my favorite place as a kid, and it was down the street and around the corner from the beach. You can take it from there…that still breaks my heart. I’m glad everyone was together a little smidge more inland.
And then the levees in New Orleans broke. I sat on the couch, in front of my TV, feet flat on the floor, elbows on my knees, face in my hands and tears rolling down my face as I watched my most favorite place in the world (where I happened to have been born)…drown. For days, weeks, MONTHS afterwards, I followed and followed and followed the news. If it wasn’t television, it was the internet. I spent a lot of time during work hours on the Times Pic website (nola.com) reading and viewing and following because I couldn’t stand not knowing what was going on in my most beloved city. I thought I’d lost her forever. I felt mortified. I felt loss of the city as a whole. I was terrified that she was gone. I felt resentment that I had not been back to her because my husband at that time had a fear of going there. And worst of all, I felt helpless and very, very far away. Too, too, TOO far away.
I was depressed over this for months. I cried in public often to people that (save one or two) just simply could not relate. “Yeah it’s tragic and sad what’s going on down there but what is WRONG with her!?” I couldn’t shake it. Not completely.
I never stopped watching and reading. It evolved into the aforementioned blog-and-book study as the years went by. And then time passed and life took some major twists and turns and then…
In 2008, I finally got to come back. J and I were talking that summer, when it came up that a.) my birthday was coming up in September and what did I wanna do and b.) Hey! We’d never been on a trip together. Those two things combined into: “I want to go to New Orleans for my birthday and our first trip,” and I was overjoyed when he said, “Hell yeah! I’ve never been but I’ve always wanted to go there!” And I was delighted and nervous, because more than our first trip, and more than my birthday, the impetus behind wanting to come back was…
More than anything else, three years after the storm, I wanted proof that she was still here. I wanted to walk her streets and smell her air and reach out and touch her so that I would know she was not gone.
We had a wonderful time. As dorky as it sounds, Oceana on Conti in the Quarter is my favorite restaurant. This is not only because they have THE BEST CRAB CAKES EVER but because that happened to be the first place we swung into to eat after we’d landed and gotten settled at the hotel. Nothing seemed real, I couldn’t believe I was back for the first time in 9 years. I had to go to the restroom and weep before I stuck my face in a plate of fried shrimp.
The rest, of course, is history. You know what happened next. We live here now.
Do we have a long way to go, still, in recovery? We do. We most certainly do, and it’s Big, but it ain’t Easy. But I am amazed every day that she’s still here, and I am proud to live among her ranks. My love for this city is very, very profound and impossible to explain to anyone who does not know What it Means. I thought she was gone once, but she ain’t going nowhere by golly, and I feel very, very lucky to live here. Finally getting my bearings, it is time for me to start giving back.
I hope everyone finds their way home someday.
Now. Pizza from that joint over on Magazine Street just arrived, and there’s a Saints game on. Husband’s hooting over a touchdown! I’m gunna go get me some of Dat.