Katrina is a weird thing to talk about.
I have lived in New Orleans twice as long as I’ve ever lived anywhere in my life. I have a home and a job and a family and friends here. For the past 7 years, I’ve hosted a party for the Thoth parade. My husband and I sweated out the week with no air conditioning after Isaac came through. I know where I got dem shoes.
But in August of 2005, I didn’t have that. I was a senior in college with no specific plans of what to do after. I had a work study job with the newly revived marching band, and had just moved back on campus after subletting for the summer. I loved New Orleans, but I didn’t have roots here. I didn’t even know if I was staying past the following May.
Hurricanes were nothing new, either. My freshman year, we had Isidore and Lilli. I stayed in the dorm for the first and went home for the second (when really I should have done the opposite). Sophomore year was quiet. My junior year, my two roommates ad I fled Isaac by taking a week-long road trip to visit relatives of mine in Lake Jackson, Texas. Ivan, we’d been told, was The Big One. It was headed straight for the city. At the last minute, it turned and hit Pensacola instead. So when the university said to evacuate, I packed my laptop, a backpack’s worth of shorts and t-shirts, and went to Baton Rouge to stay with relatives of people I knew from church.
The storm hit. It passed. When we went to bed things were okay, and when we woke up, they weren’t. Finding out was surreal. The power had gone out, so there was no television coverage or internet. People in other states probably knew more and sooner than we did only 90 minutes away. I remember sitting in the car running the radio and tuning through the stations to hear static.
When the whirlwind of the next few days settled down, I was enrolled at Duke for the semester where my brother had just started college. My parents were stationed overseas. I had classes to take. Tulane was one of the first universities on Facebook, so I was able to connect with my friends. People were mostly warm and concerned and caring, but to a large extent, when they asked questions, I felt like an imposter.
No, I didn’t have family there.
No, I didn’t lose everything.
My dorm room was on the second floor, well above any campus flooding.
No, I didn’t know anyone in the Superdome.
No, I didn’t know anyone in the Convention Center.
No, I didn’t know anyone who died.
Those answers made me feel guilty and out of place. The storm’s direct impact on me was an life-altering, but not life-shattering. I didn’t belong to New Orleans. I wasn’t from there. But then the other questions started.
Why should we rebuild anyway?
Why should we help people who stayed?
Why should we care?
Why does anyone live there anyway if it’s so dangerous?
Doesn’t this seem like a sign from God?
Don’t you think those people deserve this?
The first questions made me guilty, but these made me furious. Half of California is regularly damaged by earthquakes. People in the midwest should know better than to build their house right in the path of tornadoes. No one questions their decisions to try and rebuild their lives and their homes and their cities. You should help people who stayed because they are human beings and it is the right thing to do. You should care because supposedly you are a human being with the emotional ability to understand tragedy and loss and crisis and pain and hope. People live there and have lived there for nearly 300 years; this wasn’t the first flood, it won’t be the last, but at least we live in an age with technology and innovation that should help us make sure when the next flood comes, it isn’t devastating. If it was a sign from God, Bourbon Street and the French Quarter would not remain relatively unscathed. And no. No one “deserved” this, and you are the worst kind of person for suggesting they do.
As furious as those questions made me, they also jolted me into a very determined line of thought. I was going back, and New Orleans was going to be my home.