“This is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.” I can still picture sitting in the pews of St. Dominic’s Church in Lakeview at morning mass as the sun rose in the sky and peaked in through the stained glass windows like God was shining his light down directly on us. I remember belting out the words to that glorious hymn.
For the last eight years, we have, as New Orleanians (whether born and bred, or an adopted one), had to try to rejoice in this day. It is not easy. For me, there are moments when the pain and agony of Hurricane Katrina seem like they were the product of a different lifetime. We have experienced so much goodness since August 29, 2005. And then there is today. The eighth anniversary. And yet the wound it left on my heart still feels so open and fresh. It is today where my heart, left broken by its damage, sits helplessly on my sleeve and a lump lays constantly in my throat.
But, let us rejoice. Let us take today to look back through the darkness and the pain. Eight years ago, it seemed unimaginable that you would ever sit in the waterlogged pews of that very church where I spent my childhood learning about God again. Today, however, you can go there, look up to the sky and see that the light peering in is, in fact, that which brought us out of the darkness.
In reflecting on the eighth anniversary of the storm, I found that I have learned so much as a result of it. Here are the eight lessons Hurricane Katrina taught me.
Pack Your Pillow, Your Purses, Oh Yeah, and All That Other Stuff
When we moved to South Carolina, a move that took place one year after the storm, people were intrigued to learn of our story. After asking about how and where we evacuated, the most common question asked was, “what did you take with you?” I’m sure you are all thinking that, being smart and mature people, we would have taken things like birth and marriage certificates, insurance policies, diplomas, maybe even a childhood memento. In fact, the only things we packed were our wedding albums, the jewelry Mark gave me for our wedding, and my entire collection of designer handbags. I remember, just as we were putting my wedding gown (which we would later find, tattered and mildewed, wrapped around the bedposts of a bed in an entirely different room than where it was left) “high” on top of a five foot dresser, that we thought we’d take the purses in case, you know, the big one came and we were out of jobs and had to sell them one by one. It seemed ludicrous at the time, but if life were an English class, it would have been a clear example of foreshadowing. If only the author of our lives had told us to bring our pillows. To this day, I have yet to find one as perfect as the one that lay somewhere under the water lines and in the pile of our memories at 917 Robert E. Lee.
The Stages of Grieving Apply (Even If You’re Mourning for Your Old Life)
It is found that the stages of grieving are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I was stuck on anger for a very long time. I was angry at everyone, but mostly God. In the days of September 2005 I prayed every night begging God to heal our fair city. Yet, it seemed that at every turn something worse, something more damaging, occurred. Why was there no end to the pain and suffering this storm caused? Why did it feel like our country had forgotten us at a time when we needed them the most? Why, God, why? I asked that so often without finding answers that eventually I stopped asking. I stopped praying. And I bargained. What if I had been born in Boise or Dayton or anywhere other than New Orleans? Then this whole thing we called “The Storm” would just be a headline. It wouldn’t hurt so much to wake up each day knowing that a piece of you is missing. Depression … well shoot, who wasn’t depressed? I imagine bars and liquor stores had their best years in 2005 and 2006. And finally, I accepted. I accepted this new life where Katrina became our before and after. I accepted that in all of the great wide elsewhere we would not be understood. That to us, Katrina was like the death of a family member. We mourned for all of those who lost their lives. And, we mourned for our old lives as well. I accepted that there was no way to change where you were born or that you fell in love with this great city to the point where you made your life here. And with acceptance I found that, like with any great love, it was better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.
A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Words
I did not return to our home until November of 2005. I had no expectations for our visit. I had seen enough photos to know that it would be a dismal scene. And it was. My heart sank when I walked in and grasped, for the first time, that there was nothing to take back with us. As we made our way through the house, I held out hope that we’d find a few items that meant something to me. I hoped to return to our new life with the diamond earrings I had had since I was a baby, the love letters and Valentine’s projects I had given to Mark, the cufflinks I gave him on our wedding day, and a picture or two. As we moved further and further through the muck that had become our flooring, I gave up hope on the latter. It was clear that the water had sat for too long. The boxes that were under our bed and held everything from my eighth grade Easter party napkin to pictures from my first Delta Gamma bid day were strewn through the house. Finally I gathered the courage to open one. There they were. The four by six inch memories I had spent a lifetime making. Wiped away. All that was left was a white card. It was if they had never been taken. As we left the house emotionally drained and out of tears, I realized that while I thought I wanted to walk away with my possessions, all I really wanted were the memories. At that time, there was nothing I owned that couldn’t fit in a carry on bag, and yet all I needed was my family and my friends and the memories of my days spent with them. Together, we would find our way out of this mess. And we have and we did.
Home Is Where Your Heart Is
I think we sometimes believe that a home only has value if it is all shiny and new, but the truth is that a home is, in fact, where your heart is. A house is simply four walls and a roof, but a home is everything inside of it. It is the birthdays celebrated at the table and the dinners prepared in the kitchen and the heights measured on a wall. It is the sound of laughter heard during baby’s bath or the whispers shared during a sleepover. It’s the doorstep that a first date crossed and that which a pair of newlyweds did, too. It is the place where a lifetime of memories are shared. And none has more value than the next. I hope that this lesson is one we impress upon Jane. I find myself sad when I realize that I will never be able to show Jane the house where I grew up … the pecan tree in our backyard into which my friends and I once threw Mardi Gras beads, the slippery wood floors that my sister and I played ice skater on, the fireplace in front of which every important photo was taken. It’s gone now. But the love that was shared in that home is in me. It is that love which I can share with her.
The News Is Told in Half Truths
Before Katrina, I watched the news. Not every night, but when our nation had something to say, I listened. And then I heard our story being told. And it broke my heart. The story that our country was shown was not the whole story. It was one contrived in such a way to present the author’s opinion. It was injected with the personal beliefs of those who told it, or what’s worse, with what was assumed its audience would agree with. It felt like we were being used by those who would never spend more than a moment here advancing their own career by showing America just how terrible we all were. It was a story, but not news. And it was mostly bad news. What about the good guys? What about the unknown heroes? Where were they in all of this? Buried beneath the ratings? I learned that as a city and a people, we had to create our own history and our own story. We had to document our own truth. It is why I began to blog. So that even if just one person heard my story and, through it, our city’s story, it was one step closer to the truth.
What Is Normal Anyway?
Like with any life event, there is the before and after. When it comes to an event that affects everyone around you, that feeling is increased exponentially. It was hard to tell when we would arrive at normal again. We often heard and spoke of the “new” normal. And it was different for everyone. Maybe it was when your street light worked again or you received your first piece of mail. Maybe it was eating in your favorite restaurant when it finally reopened or shopping in that boutique you always loved but whose owner had just returned to the city. For me, I will never forget my first moment of normal. Mark and I were driving along River Road and as we made the turn on to St. Charles Avenue I saw a woman pushing her child in a stroller. And she looked happy. She looked as though she weren’t walking on a street where storefronts and gas stations were still shuttered and all you could hear was silence. Not even a bird. And I sobbed. I cried my first tears in weeks. Maybe it was possible, I thought. Maybe we would be able to find peace and normalcy. She did. In all of the chaos, she and her sweet child found a moment to do something as simple as walk in their neighborhood.
It’s hard to remember those feelings of anxiety and fear that life wouldn’t return to what it had been. I suppose it hasn’t, but we’ve survived. We’ve created a new life here in New Orleans, and it is a good one. If this is the new normal, than I have to say I like it.
People are Inherently Good
When we first moved to South Carolina, we found ourselves traveling home quite a bit. Without fail, on every plane we were on, we were joined by the ranks of good hearted Americans coming to New Orleans to make a difference. And it is because of them, those selfless volunteers, that we are living here today. It is pretty remarkable when you think about it. Complete strangers who saved their hard earned dollars to travel to a place they’ve never been but have only seen on television and who decided to use their vacation time to help us heal. They will forever be a part of the fabric that makes up this city. There is no way for us to thank them. But we can repay them. We can teach our children that none of us are truly strangers. We are all living in this world together, and when one of us is hurting we all are. We can repay them with our kindness to each other and to them if and when it is their hour of need.
Dawn of a New Day: the New New Orleans
We are living in the New New Orleans. It is truly amazing to see the progress our city has made over the past eight years. We have had the opportunity to rebuild our school systems, medical infrastructure and political environment. We once heard our parents say, “that’s just the way it is here.” But, now we hear, “what do we want it to be like here?” The city that we live in now was dreamed up by the very people who waded in 3 feet of water in September of 2005 defiant and determined to come home to a better New Orleans than the one we left.
I may be an optimist and one who sees New Orleans through purple, green and rose gold colored glasses, but I believe we are making a city where our children and their children will find better educational and professional opportunities. It is one that Forbes magazine has recognized as both a brain magnet and one of America’s fastest growing cities since the recession. It is a city that can be proud of its rich cultural history but also of its vibrant and progressive business climate. The New New Orleans is a place where people come to dream about the impact they can make on our students or to dream about the success of their start up. I have always been, but am now even more proud to call it home.
I Know What It Means
Do you remember hearing this song for the first time after Katrina? It became our anthem. Why? Because, we knew. We knew what it felt like to be elsewhere on a Monday without red beans and rice. We knew what it was like to go through an entire day without once being affectionately called “Baby” by a complete and total stranger. We wondered if we’d ever eat another po-boy, walk in another second line, catch another Mardi Gras bead, or dance once again at the Acura Stage. What would life be like in a place where you don’t need a costume closet or a wig shelf?
We wondered what it would be like to raise children who didn’t know that these things only happened in a place as magical as New Orleans. Who wouldn’t have photo albums filled with New Orleans firsts: first trips to the Audubon Zoo, first tastes of beignets and cafe au lait, first Mardi Gras parades, first Jazzfests. As I see Jane experience all of the things we feared our children never would, I see New Orleans again as if I am experiencing her for the very first time. What a rare and amazing gift to be able to raise a child in a place so incredibly special. I know what it means to miss New Orleans. And I know what it means to love her.