A different kind of then and now: Dani gutting my office after Katrina, and the same corner, today, at the end of the post.
After ten years, Katrina has slowly become, for me, a kaleidoscope of indelible memories and jumbled emotions: Watching the first feeder bands of the hurricane sweep across the lake as we try to evacuate (my mother kept refusing to leave) and realizing that, yes, we really are about to get walloped. Huddling in the dark in my older daughter's tiny one-bedroom student apartment in Baton Rouge (five people, five unhappy cats, no power) and listening to sketchy news on a scratchy transistor radio. Reading the hysterical text messages (phone calls were impossible for about a year) sent by one of my daughter's friends who did not evacuate and ended up on her roof watching in terror as the water rose, and rose, and rose. (How does a 15-year-old get over something like that?) Hearing some idiot reporter announce that everything between the I10 and the lake in Kenner is under ten feet of water, and throwing up (my house is by the lake in Kenner, and I'd had to leave my Press Cat behind because he wouldn't let me catch him).
But for me, the most powerful memories are actually those from the days after the storm: waiting anxiously at 3 am in a moonlit sugarcane field at the parish line one week later, when authorities finally allow us back in. Getting lost when we drive into the city because everything is such an unrecognizable horror. Seeing soldiers with machine guns standing on once-familiar streets. Driving up to our house, hoping maybe, somehow, it will be all right, and then that moment of raw despair when I realize it isn't. The soaring joy of finding Press Cat scared and unhappy but alive, alive, alive.
I could go on and on, but I won't. Neither New Orleans nor anyone who went through Katrina will ever be the same. Some of us are irreparably damaged, some of us learned valuable life lessons that will never be lost, and an untold number of us are dead. Ironically, there is no official counting of those who died. There isn't even agreement on who to count. The new trend is to count only those who drowned or had something like a tree fall on them (which is why the number has been going down), and not count those who died of heat stroke or a heart attack or some other medical emergency in the chaos and horror of the aftermath. We have no wall engraved with the names of Katrina's dead, although recent efforts at a proper accounting suggest the actual number of direct and indirect deaths is somewhere around 3,500. I guess no one wants to remember the victims of government incompetence.
It seems odd to realize that at some point when I wasn't even looking, those days became, finally, the past. Yes, vast swaths of New Orleans are still a wasteland, but so much is vibrantly normal again. We have now been back in our house nine years and one month. Yet some tasks still haven't been finished, and just this past week I had to replace three doors that had been stressed by Katrina and finally rotted out. The timing struck me as ironic.
Come Saturday, Steve, Danielle, and I will go out to dinner, share a bottle of wine, and laugh about the days when we had to drive up to Baton Rouge for groceries and drinking water and gas; when the entire city reeked of mold; when Danielle had to drive down to Florida just to take her SAT, and start back to school in a building with buckled floors and not much of a roof (her school was actually the first in the city to reopen; if there'd been any health authorities, they wouldn't have allowed it, but Katrina got rid of them, too). We'll remember learning how to gut houses and bleach walls, and how much we laughed through it all. Because if Katrina taught us anything, it was this: that as long as you can keep laughing, you'll be all right.