The ten-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina is here. How the hell do I write about that? Perhaps it’s appropriate to offer a disclaimer: I don’t live in New Orleans, and I never have. I can’t speak from the perspective of an insider, and I dare not offer anything that even remotely resembles an understanding of a denizen’s pain. But the city is weaved into the fabric of my soul, which is so indescribably inexplicable that it’s…New Orleans.
The logical starting point is where I was in 2005 when the storm hit. I was a freshman in college, wallowing in the “stress” of my life. During my first month at school, I ventured down to the laundry room, and sitting there was a student who was supposed to go to college in New Orleans, but Katrina happened. In a time when barely anyone got anything right, the University of Delaware did, opening its doors to students who had been accepted for admission but previously declined, only to find themselves displaced by the storm. This student’s predicament was my first introduction to the realness of the hurricane. Prior to that, all I had was what the media reported, which sure seemed like endless conjecture about Kanye West.
Unfortunately, Katrina isn’t something I recall frequently. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I thought about her. That is exactly how the ten-year anniversary personifies the human condition. Or maybe just the American condition. The plight of New Orleans takes center stage for a brief yet significant moment, which inevitably will end, and what ensues will be something akin to hibernation. We’ll move from mindfulness to forgetfulness, from empathy to apathy. Absent an anniversary number that folks outside Louisiana can wrap a bow on, August 28 is likely to just come and go. Such is the hopelessness that consumed me while participating in a service learning project to assist in rebuilding efforts in New Orleans.
The storm caused a politically polarized discussion regarding liability and responsibility for evacuation and reconstruction, but touring and actually working in the city changed my entire perception of that narrative. During a trip to a landfill, I knocked over a chest filled with hundreds of family pictures. The images I saw on national television were one matter; sitting in a landfill with someone else’s personal belongings and family pictures personalized the severity of the disaster—both the hurricane and the failed policies that made such damage possible. Did the family in the photos perish? If not, where did they go? Would they come back if they knew part of their pre-Katrina life had survived? I had no answers to those questions and I never will.
All I know is that the church that the owners of these possessions once belonged to had collected and safeguarded as many belongings from their former parishioners as possible, in hopes of presenting them upon those parishioners’ return. After too much time had passed without contact, and with storage at a premium, the painful decision was made to begin disposal.
I also had no answers to the questions that emerged when I walked into an abandoned home and saw the Nintendo games I played as a child, what I once would have called my worldly possessions, staring at me amidst an empty and dilapidated house. Someone once lived there, once played those games. It was a hopelessness and loss for words that was soon surpassed by a feeling the words for which don’t exist. I’m talking about the physical reaction one undergoes upon seeing symbols on the doors of boarded up homes that signified whether dead animals, dead people, or none of the above were once inside. “Lump in the throat” is a common side effect to that image. Similar wordlessness happens when you stare at an entire neighborhood that has been reduced to rows upon rows of concrete stoops, a cemetery, only without the decedents. “Lump in the throat” happens when you see that too.
The media had no clue how to report about that, and will struggle with how to memorialize it. Like most anniversaries, this one will see a concerted effort to promote the feel good stories. We’ll hear how New Orleans, after an influx of billions of dollars, has been revitalized (gentrified). While the focus was once on the water level, the Superdome, and governmental blame, it will now be on resiliency. Lost in this narrative will be the stories of the citizens who never made it back, of what truly became of them. Lost will be the history and heritage that washed away with the receding waters.
By no means should the positive stories be ignored, we must celebrate them. But such celebration should not occur at the expense of the storm’s lingering effects, nor should celebration usurp the majority of our attention. A decade ago the debate on Katrina lost sight of the fact that our fellow Americans were just that, fellow Americans. And in the coming weeks mainstream stories will not fully embrace that concept either, as the poor and meek will be overlooked in much the same way that they were in 2005. Those are the voiceless and faceless New Orleanians who I’m thinking about. The ones who are seldom celebrated or given the attention they desperately need. The same people who once played those video games and owned the possessions that I was told I needed to dump.
Ten years later and our social consciousness hasn’t changed in the slightest. Instead of extending the life of a reinvigorated discussion on how the road to recovery is still being traveled, most people will ride the high and then return to their routines. Despite the fact that a natural disaster with manmade, exacerbating circumstances is always a possibility, we won’t hold ourselves accountable and maintain the appropriate level of awareness that Hurricane Katrina still deserves. We’ll lament the somber history, enjoy the progress made, look brightly to the future and pack it up until the 20th anniversary. There are no words for that.
When I left New Orleans, I couldn’t help but reflect on the insanity of the rebuilding project I helped complete. My group and I spent our time adding to a newly reconstructed home in an area decimated by the floods. We were at sea level; you could look down the street and not but actually see ships on the horizon. There was no doubt then, as now, that a bad rain storm could come in and flood our work, or worse. But it was someone’s home. And the gentleman who owned it came to the work site every day to take in its rebirth. It didn’t matter that he lived in an area that would be among the first to fall if another hurricane hit. Home was New Orleans, and that’s all that mattered.
As I mentioned before, I dare not attempt to offer anything that even remotely resembles an understanding of a denizen’s pain. My experience is that of an outsider. And it is as an outsider that I hope the time taken to reflect this anniversary doesn’t recede like the waters of Katrina did. Water wasn’t the only remnant of the storm that left; the majority of attention we paid to New Orleans in the immediate aftermath of it in many ways left as well. May our collective social consciousness about New Orleans, which is a cultural institution very much worth saving, not suffer the same fate again.