Hurricane Katrina destroyed my home - and then the disaster tourists moved in

I was one of the lucky ones, unlike friends who buried people at roadsides or my childhood doctor who killed himself after what he saw. But I'm still a New Orleanian

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The Independent Online

Life is a funny thing sometimes. One minute, you’re 16 years old, in a three bedroom house in Texas with 18 other New Orleanians, watching your childhood home wallow under the floodwaters as every possible screen available broadcasts breaking footage of Hurricane Katrina. Then the next, you’re 26 years old and you live in the UK, and you’re working in the newsroom of a well-known fashion magazine, it’s been ten years since that moment and that storm - that defining point - is both literally and metaphorically thousands of miles away. 

I was one of the lucky ones: I got out before the storm and watched with my family as the hurricane made landfall. For us, Katrina looked like another run-of-the-mill storm (seeing as we’ve been around the Gulf Coast since the early 19th century, hurricanes are an earned afterthought.) But by that afternoon, whispers of flooding streets and leaking canal walls began to fill the air.  Most of us knew that St. Bernard Parish and the Lower 9th Ward would flood — these were historically low areas prone to flooding during heavy storms.  But no one, from those of us crowded around the TV to the radio announcers on WWL, could imagine the hell that was about to be released upon our city.

I wasn’t my co-worker, who buried Vera Smith under a plastic tarp at a junction after the police knocked on her front door and told her to steal whatever she needed to survive from the WalMart down the street. I wasn’t my classmate, who lay on her stomach on the floor of a National Guard flatbed truck while shots rang out from the windows above her as she and her family were rescued from the hospital her father worked at. I wasn’t my friend, who to this day, experiences panic attacks at the first thunderbolt of a rainstorm after riding out Katrina. I wasn’t my childhood pediatrician who killed himself less than a year after witnessing the horrors of Baptist Hospital in those sweltering days after landfall.

Like I said, I was lucky.  My Katrina stayed locked behind a screen, behind phone calls that couldn’t get through jammed systems, behind the reports of my father, who was turned away at the city line by armed soldiers a few days after the storm. 

But I was still a New Orleanian. And to be one of those is a lesson in delicate oxymorons — to hate a place so much for its third world mentality and its corrupt government, but to love it more than anywhere else because you can’t even imagine a world without the low moans of ship horns from the river floating down the street you live on: that one lined with shotgun houses and palm trees.  Besides, where else could you have a beer with your local priest at a Friday night fish fry?

Katrina was a monster that didn’t care about the colour of your skin or what block you lived on. She was a storm of equality — no matter what you went through, how great or little your suffering, she found a way to tear her teeth into your psyche. She left her mark on me in a quiet way, dangerously under the surface.

I went back to my Massachusetts boarding school a few weeks after the beginning of it all. Months later, I went home for the first time at Thanksgiving.

There aren’t even words yet in the English language to describe the feeling of returning home to a ruined landscape. It’s the silence the does you in — the way there aren’t any cars on the roads or birds in the trees. It’s the front doors have been ripped from their frames and yards scattered with their house’s contents. And then it’s seeing the house that you spent so many moments of your life in, stripped bare to a shell. And that smell: damp and sweet all at the same time. Like death.

 

After a while, after going home, the storm started to dig its claws in.  I stopped sleeping at night. I obsessed over finding a way to leave school and go back home. I obsessively planned out ways I could help.  I was an anxious wreck thousands of miles away from home — as New Orleanians, myself included, we were adrift. It was like my world had stopped completely while the rest of the planet just kept on going. I felt like I belonged nowhere because where I was from was gone.

It’s strange, being a teenager in a devastated American city patrolled by military police. Sometimes the corner shop wouldn’t sell us a beer even though it was on a block with no streetlights with no one back in the neighbourhood.

Over here, in England, Katrina is now almost an afterthought. When people hear where I’m from, they’ll ask questions, but most of the time I just don’t have the energy to explain how it feels to clean out the ruined home of a family friend and have a tour bus full of “disaster tourists” stop while you move trash into the front yard. It’s easier to just say it was a long time ago.

It was a long time ago. 10 years.  Funny how some days it feels like yesterday and others, it’s like all those nightmares belonged to someone else’s life.  Now, under a media blitz to remind the world of what happened, Katrina has come back.

I lived it.  I still live it sometimes. I don’t need someone to tell me how resilient I am, or how resilient my city is. I know. We survived. After three levels of government left us to rot in stagnant floodwaters, after we buried almost 2,000 of our own citizens, resilience is an understatement. We don’t bow for no one.

Small things bring it back: a faded X on a front door. The ghost of a smell. That dish you’ve been craving for so long from that place that ain’t there no more. Learning how to live with the reality of that ancient saying, ‘Nothing lasts.’ That day ten years ago, Katrina swept through, whispering in our ears: ‘Sometimes you just don’t know what you got. So my baby, you better not take it for granted.’

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