Friday, August 28, 2015

Katrina Plus Ten

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.

Cheers, everyone.


Anonymous said...

Candy, I thought I might have something profound to say but in reality the only thing that comes to mind is how happy I am that you, your family and your cats survived that horrible, terrifying, deadly storm. And then there's my favorite -What doesn't kill us makes us stronger. And I certainly believe that's true of you. Be well and God bless. Ali

Charles Gramlich said...

I remember most being on the road. and the strangeness of everything.

cs harris said...

Ali, thank you. There was a time I believed it had weakened me, but I think I've finally come through that.

Charles, you mean like ski jets on overpasses and coffins on railroad tracks?!

Susan J. said...

There was a report on the BBC today about Katrina. So sad to see so many people in the poorer areas of New Orleans still suffering. It was very moving to read about your experiences, about how you managed to find a way to see the funny side of some things, it made me think of the Blitz spirit of the Londoners during World War II, it seems that it is only in adversity that we descover the true human spirit.

paz said...

Have you thought of writing non-fiction related to your Katrina experiences? I am always deeply moved when I read your posts. I can understand why it might seem to painful. Yet, I do think your voice could join others to help bring about the long overdue reckoning that our government, and we as a country, still owe Katrina victims AND survivors. A Katrina memorial definitely seems like a place to start.

Lynne said...

I'm with Ali - she said it well. I started to cry all over again just looking at the photos. I've been in Vancouver, BC this week and the 10th anniversary even got air time on CBC news. I think Katrina was the most horrifying hurricane I could remember...or perhaps it got more media coverage. I just know I'm also glad that you, Steve and Danielle are with us to talk about it. Adversity is a truly amazing partner when it hits.

cs harris said...

Susan, I think one of the worst parts of Katrina was a real decision by the Powers that Be to use the storm as a tool to change the city's demographics. And yes, I used to remind myself of the way London and Berlin and Beirut rebuilt, telling myself that we could do it, too.

Paz, I have toyed with collecting the essays from the first year or so of my blog and putting them on my website. I spent most of today going through that first year of posts and cleaning them up, since the reformatting really messed the earliest posts up. It took forever just to get through 2006, and was pretty rough going, emotionally, revisiting it all.

Lynne, I must admit all the anniversary specials have been pretty hard to take. I wonder if there will ever be a time I can get through it without choking up.

Susan J. said...

I remember watching the original news footage at the time Katrina happened and feeling confused, I have to admit that I felt as if I was watching something happening in a Third World country. Could this be America, the richest country in the world? The polititians responsible for the failure to act promptly should have been prosecuted for gross incompetence in my opinion. I think the saddest thing I can remember seeing was a report on the sufferings of some elderly people in a retirement home left to lie in insanitary conditions as there was no access to clean linen etc. I also remember seeing people who were refusing to leave their homes, even though they were surrounded by water. Funny how these images stay with one, even if it is something that happened thousands of miles away in a different country.

cs harris said...

Susan, it was a disgrace, and it still is. That's what happens when you put people who don't believe in government in charge of government: people die. Plus, our national guard and most of their equipment were in Iraq.

Susan J. said...

I expect it all comes down to money in the end, everything does. Greed, greed, greed that's what makes the world go round. Sickening. Even if money is spent, somebody, somewhere is making something out of it somehow.

Liz said...

We were living in DC at the time, and my daughter's Sacred Heart school took in a number of girls from the Sacred Heart School in New Orleans. We had TV back then, and watched in horror the breakdown of civil society. Would the same happen here in Canada, we wonder, if we were to have some sort of dire natural disaster--an earthquake in Vancouver, for instance? Not much point in speculating, I guess. No way to know, and not much point in speculating, or worse, in smugly denying the possibility.

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