Katrina produced many different stories, no two alike. These thousands of experiences, varied as they are, can be grouped into more finite categories. First, there are the experiences that will never be told—too painful to relive, yet in holding them in, perhaps they take on an emotionally cancer-like power. But loss is so subjective and personal; who am I to say how one should process it? I, on the other hand, belong to that camp of Katrina survivors that you couldn't hush up. And I've thought long on this. Why was Katrina so important to me that, 15 years later, I still feel the need to share my experience and even to go beyond myself to speak of its effect upon our city and our community?
To me, Katrina survivors are like veterans of a war. Varying degrees of PTSD were (still are) experienced. While on a lighter note (if such a thing exists), there are tales to share—"war" stories to swap—and, certainly, there is no escaping shared tragedies ("By the time they found Mrs. Lewis in her attic clutching her dog, she was all but crazy—her poor husband dead for days."). Then there's the dark humor ("Remember when I called 911, and they went in with hazmat suits, only to retrieve a bag of rotting crawfish?"). And conversations always began with "How much water did you take?" or "When did you get out?" We listened with respect and empathy, yet we always felt we could one-up each other with our experiences. We were survivors of, for some of us, the biggest drama of our lifetimes. For others, it was an all-too-familiar horror story first experienced during Camille or Betsy.
I had problems with not being able to let it go. Just ask my editor—I wrote over and over about it, referenced it for several years. Yet it never entered my dreams, not a single nightmare about it—perhaps because I did vent and yammer on so much about the flood/levee failure/government f-up/mother nature's fury/the diaspora. Husband (Boyfriend then) and I opened a bookstore three months after the Big K, and for years, visitors to our city wanted the stories. And we were more than willing to share them. Some people, understandably, were sick to death of talking about it—not us. We're those old vets sharing our moment in infamy, and without one needed drop of exaggeration, we could hold court and watch listeners' jaws drop.
I would talk about our foolish decision to ride it out. The angels who watch over stupid people were kind to us. We were so lucky to have lived in the Quarter, part of that Sliver-by-the-River that was 90 percent spared the flooding. So, on the day after, when floodwaters began to rush toward high ground, our two apartments experienced none of the invasive waters filled with every imaginable toxin, biowaste, and human feces. But all you had to do was walk a couple of blocks down Canal Street or into the Treme to experience those waters up to your waist—or to what I referred to as my "good stuff" ("Philipe, don't even think about us having a stroll down Canal if you ever wanna have sex again!"). We did however, without benefit of either of us having had a tetanus shot in decades, wade up to our knees a couple of times, and, I can assure you, bleach/peroxide/disinfectant was applied afterwards. Anyway, as I said, we were damn lucky and really had no idea how blessed, until we got out and could see what the world viewed daily via television. Had we lived in any other part of this region, we might have died and certainly might have been rendered homeless.
We got out six days after Katrina hit. We kinda stole a car and then returned it to its owner in Dallas—long story, and not as grand a tale when explained. We had become part of the diaspora—refugees, lost souls. Again, we were lucky, and much good fortune came our way as we traveled across the country with plans to remain and settle in San Francisco, and we would have, if New Orleans hadn't called us back. She gets in your blood, like lead poisoning, and you just cannot get her out—nor would I want to. Because, truth be told, even on my worst day in this crazy town, I love her. She is like family—perhaps dysfunctional, but ours all the same.
As I mentioned earlier, there were braggin' rights, having gone through what we thought would be the biggest thing we would personally experience in our lifetimes. Wrong.
COVID-19, The Virus, the new boogieman was on the horizon. Still, to those of us unfamiliar with epidemiology, this very real and very probable scenario was simply not on our radar. But it is now. And, therefore, I find myself once again living in "historical" times—the stuff that will fill our history books. There are times that I feel like a fly on the wall, observing things spinning out of control. It certainly resembles a far-fetched apocalyptic movie/novel. Ever feel that you are now a character in Stephen King's The Stand?
These physically and economically perilous moments that we are all experiencing right now should be a sobering reminder that our world comes with no guarantees. Yet perhaps we can at least find some solace in remembering Katrina and knowing that recovery did eventually find us. It found us changed forever. However, lessons were learned, strengths tested, loyalty to our region deepened. Many thought that coming home to New Orleans after The Flood was foolish, that our town and the entire area were devastated beyond redemption. To that I say, "They be wrong." Hopefully, we can prove, once again, that the fight against destruction, against The Virus, will be worth the efforts. This is my new Katrina, and I hope to be here years from now to write about how we survived. Here's to our future!