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.
Hurricane Katrina - in pictures
Hurricane Katrina - in pictures
1/20 Hurricane Katrina
A woman is carried out of flood waters after being trapped in her home in Orleans parish during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, in New Orleans, Louisiana, 2005
2/20 Hurricane Katrina
A U.S. Coast Guard rescue boat carries US Army 82nd Airborne Division soldiers as it searches a flooded street in New Orleans, Louisiana, 2005
3/20 Hurricane Katrina
A SUV lies against a house and rubble in Biloxi, Mississippi as Hurricane Katrina hit USA, 2005
4/20 Hurricane Katrina
A plea for help appears on the roof of a home flooded in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Louisiana, 2005
5/20 Hurricane Katrina
People are taken ashore in a boat after being rescued from their homes in high water in the Ninth Ward after Hurricane Katrina struck in New Orleans, Louisiana, 2005
6/20 Hurricane Katrina
An aerial view of the flooding near downtown New Orleans during the Hurricane Katrina, 2005
7/20 Hurricane Katrina
Houses are seen submerged under water in New Orleans, Louisiana, 2005
8/20 Hurricane Katrina
Canal Street, in New Orleans, during Hurricane Katrina in 2005
9/20 Hurricane Katrina
Debris from Hurricane Katrina piles up along a bridge in New Orleans, Louisiana, 2005
10/20 Hurricane Katrina
Firefighters inspect damage left by Hurricane Katrina, in Biloxi, Mississippi, 2005
11/20 Hurricane Katrina
The Kids Quest (C) building sits in the middle of the route 90 next to the Grand Casino (L) 30 August 2005 in Gulfport, Mississippi, both damaged from the high wind and waves Hurricane Katrina, 2005
12/20 Hurricane Katrina
The most costly hurricane in history caused damages of $85bn. The category-3 storm formed over the Bahamas crossed Florida and the Gulf of Mexico before striking New Orleans
13/20 Hurricane Katrina
Hurricane Katrina evacuees sit on their bed, on the floor of the Astrodome stadium in Houston, Texas, 2005
14/20 Hurricane Katrina
People search for their belongings among debris washed up on the beach in Biloxi, Mississppi, after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, 2005
15/20 Hurricane Katrina
Parishioner Chloe Guice Wise (R) hugs Mark Washburn at the conclusion of services at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer (shown in background) which was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, in Biloxi, Mississippi, 2005
16/20 Hurricane Katrina
Stranded victims of Hurricane Katrina are taken ashore by Air Force National Guard soldiers in New Orleans, Louisiana, 2005
17/20 Hurricane Katrina
Fishing boats lay in a pile after Hurricane Katrina passed through in Empire, Louisiana, 2005
18/20 Hurricane Katrina
U.S. Navy flight deck personnel take part in an emergency replenishment working party aboard the dock landing ship USS Tortuga (LSD 46), as they load water into an MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopter in support of Hurricane Katrina disaster relief efforts in the Atlantic Ocean
19/20 Hurricane Katrina
A patriotic display can be seen in the ruins of a home in Waveland, Mississippi. Scenes like these dot the landscapes where homes once stood. Rescue and clean up efforts continued in the areas affected by Hurricane Katrina three weeks after the deadly storm hit
20/20 Hurricane Katrina
A makeshift grave is seen for a woman on a downtown street in New Orleans, Louisiana, 2005
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.’Reuse content