The Storm – Part 2

I mentioned in the previous post that I had a job with the new marching band at Tulane.  This deserves some clarification: I was work study support staff for the Tulane University Marching Band, and fall of 2005 was its debut season. Band camp began on August 23, 2005.

It really was a bit of a rag tag start. There was the band director, a color guard instructor, a drumline instructor, another student worker, and me. There were few enough band members that I had hand-addressed and mailed all the individual music packets (we weren’t quite ready for digital yet). I emailed all the students from my personal Gmail account because it made organizing responses easier.

But what does this have to do with the hurricane?

Well, on August 26, we became aware of a storm in the Gulf. Not unusual, as I’ve already said, and nothing to panic about. Besides, it was headed east of us. No big deal.

On August 27, the path of the hurricane had… shifted. After what seemed like a forever of waiting — though it was only mid-morning– the university announced it would be closing for the hurricane, and recommended evacuation. I ran down to the band rehearsal with the news. The director gathered everyone together and started organizing which students had cars, who was going where, and how many people they could take. Within a few hours, I was on my way to Baton Rouge.

Did you know that water is bad for servers? Did you know catastrophic flooding can wipe out a university’s entire communication system? It’s not really something you think about– it’s not necessary for survival, certainly– but Tulane’s webmail servers went down. Phone numbers that used New Orleans area codes were unreachable. You couldn’t get in contact with people. Yahoo groups and forums started popping up with lists of people–professors, staff, students– who were known to be safe or who were still being sought. And because of the blind luck of my choosing convenience over professionalism, I had non-university email addresses for over half the band.

Over the next few months, I sent out dozens of mass emails. Where is everyone? Who is coming back? Yes, the university is slashing programs left and right, but somehow, they haven’t cut the band yet. Band members talked with one another. We’re getting together to play at the Tulane/Rice game, can you make it? We’re playing at a basketball game, who can be there? A group of people who had known each other for less than a week, half of whom were freshmen, were talking, planning, comforting, and reaching out. It was like Katrina had told them they couldn’t, and they pushed back with everything they had to prove that not only could they, how dare anyone ever suggest otherwise.

In February of 2006, the band made its debut in Mardi Gras, marching in parades uptown and across the river. Some of my closest friends are people I marched with that season. Many stayed in the city, but even those who moved away after graduation remain fiercely devoted to the city and each other.

Tulane’s motto is Non sibi sed suis: Not for oneself but for one’s own. When I designed the banner for the marching band in early August of 2005, I thought it would be nice to have that motto leading us in parades. I had no idea how well the band members would live out that motto, or how deeply they would come to represent New Orleans and its rebirth to me.

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The Storm – Part 1

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.