Is it right to find good in an event that has shattered lives? Is there a respectful way to seize something positive from the very thing that stole so much? Nine years ago every person living within Katrina’s footprint was changed, perhaps forever. Some lost lives, others lost their minds, and survivors lost respect for the powers-that-be who let us all down. Heroes were born on rooftops and in flood waters. Those of us here, during those lost days, discovered the coward that lurks within us all, but generally we found a strength we didn’t know we possessed. Frankly I found more fear than I ever knew I was capable of and still grapple with the selfishness that fear stirred. I was not a hero, but I had my moments when I rose to the tasks before us and did what it took. But, you see, I had it easy.
We rode out the storm and those six days after in a bubble that insulated us from the horrors that surrounded our mostly dry little piece of the city. We only knew what the radio reported. We had no televised images, no newspapers, and no clue as to what our fellow New Orleanians and neighbors in Mississippi were living and dying through.
Nine years later I still feel, despite being there, like the soldier who was spared in combat yet carries the weight of it all. During those days, beginning with the force of the storm itself and throughout the aftermath of being surrounded by flooding, explosions, fires, and daily glimpses of looting — I feared for our lives. I would simply shut down at times. But, had I been able to see the big picture and peek into the future, I would have realized that my little war zone was more like being on leave to enjoy some R&R. We, Boyfriend and I, and many others on that often called “sliver by the river” of dryness were so damn lucky; and still there were those, even on that high and dry ground, that suffered and died due to governmental neglect, lack of medication, food and water and at the hands of police gone terribly bad.
Needless to say, Katrina was one hell of a bumpy ride. For me it became a bit of an obsession, not in the pathological sense, but most definitely I was preoccupied by her. Still to this day I search for those long black water lines when driving through certain areas — and yes they still remain, like scars that only fade a tiny bit. Katrina memories are tenacious due to the betrayal. When Mother Nature whacks the s**t out of you the results are horrific but the anger is less. Nature is not greedy or calculating but governments and leaders can be. And when pure stupidity, monetary profit, and possible racism takes lives and livelihoods, homes and hearts, and our mementos and memories are kicked to the curb then there is rage and a pervasive depression. The resulting anxiety and depression were palpable. Chris Rose, columnist for the Times-Picayune, brilliantly and bravely shared his observations, experiences, and even his ultimate spiraling into depression in those post Katrina days. He was our collective voice.
What I believe saved many of us and set us apart from other places in this country was our sick sense of humor. Thank god. Our first Mardi Gras rolled out with our delightfully irreverent Krewe du Vieux laughing in the face of death and parading parodies and pathos upon floats flaunting blue tarped riders. We all turned out to represent our drowned city. I stood on the sidelines and cried, proud that we could rise up and make fun at our own expense. And this quirkiness is where I segue to what I gained from this terrible event. But, I could not go there without having first acknowledged, with due respect, those who lost all.
I never felt patriotic to this country or particularly enamored of the species I am a part of until Katrina. I was truly blessed by the volunteers — not directly with their rebuilding efforts but with their spirit, empathy, and unselfish giving. I never knew so many people could be so damn amazing. I was humbled by the thousands of young students who gave up vacations and risked their health to gut our homes and the faith-based groups that never preached but reached into their hearts and pocketbooks to save us from the hellishness of this disaster. I am grateful to the media that never allowed the corrupt to remain hidden and held those feet to the fire, giving voice to the victims on a bridge to nowhere or left behind in a burnt out car. I am proud of those who steadfastly sought justice for a city left to drown and to the animal advocates who rescued and reunited families with their pets.
There is something unique about being a part of such an historic event, a catastrophic moment. Katrina will forever be a benchmark for life here. There will always be that water-line that divides our world into before and after. Everyone here, whether they stayed or were evacuated, will always be like the veteran who years later is asked to tell their story and who will find solace and even pride sharing their “battle scars” with fellow survivors. Some might scoff at my references to combat, but the similarities are there. And for years to come we will toast each other, tell tale tales, high-five, and then cry some more. If Katrina and the levee failures were in the cards for our people then I am glad to have been a part of it. It unwittingly became a privilege that came with too a high price tag but there is no denying what I have learned from this and the changes it made in my life.