Monday, August 24, 2015

Ten Years On

This week is the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and I still remember and feel echos of the pain from that time. Much of my family of origin lived in South Louisiana that the time. Most of them have now left New Orleans and the surrounding areas.

All the remembrances in the media have made for a jumpy week for me.

The week before Katrina I was at the last Christian conference I would ever attend. The Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship people were in Houston, another 'Acquire The Fire' event.. I think. It was held at a big Evangelical church near Harris County Barbecue. Laura, my Aunt Jo and I attended the week long conference, staying at a large new all suites hotel a few blocks from the hotel.

I had a good time that week. Jo and I sat with a charismatic Catholic priest for some of the sessions. One of the most touching things I've ever seen occurred at one of the teachings where a Baptist minister washed the feet of a Catholic priest, who washed the feet of a Assemblies of God minister and so on, a time of real unity.

Laura had returned from Romania a few weeks before this trip and got very sick during that week. Later we realized it was from the bus she was riding on in Romania malfunctioning. It filled with smoke and the kids started screaming and hopping out of the bus. Some of the asthmatic of the group ended up in one of the primitive hospitals in Oradea, Romania. Laura seemed fine at the time, but started having problems on the trip, ending up having hideous fatigue and coughing fits. More than a few sessions she ended up laying on the carpeted floor of the sanctuary exhausted and pale.

We'd no sooner flown home, unpacked, gotten Laura to our family doctor for treatment when Hurricane Katrina was forecast. As always since I lived through Hurricane Camille as a child my habit is to nervously watch the hurricane coverage on television and worry about relatives. Phone calls to and from Louisiana told me that some of my family had left and some stayed. My mother had long since relocated to north of Baton Rouge, so I knew I didn't have to worry much. Rarely do hurricanes do much more than rains, winds and flooding, nothing like the jackhammer force they sometimes pummel the New Orleans area with.

I remember early Weather Channel coverage, snickering as some stupid newscaster tried to walk and report on the high winds in the French Quarter only to be knocked down like a bowling pin. He did a header right onto the brick pavement, and then things got worse.

That week was awful, was on the phone many hours as relatives far flung were trying to find places to land. I watched as many parts of my childhood were swept away. One of my aunt's house was a mere block from the 13th Street Canal levee break. An elderly relative disappeared after refusing to leave his home in Uptown New Orleans, popping up in Gramercy on his bicycle a week later.

The worst day was the day the Yacht Club burned down. My father always had a boat, going way back to a boat with an Evenrude outboard engine that sat in our carport, to a big sailboat for awhile and eventually he ended up with a much larger boat christened Boba. For the first time since he'd died I was thankful he was dead. My father loved New Orleans, loved the history, the party atmosphere and would have taken the devastation worse that I did.

Some of the worst tales came out of two of my uncles, working at two different news stations in New Orleans. One told of having to fend off looters and hysterical locals with a shotgun from the roof of the station. But I'm immensely proud of both as they stayed at the stations round the clock in order to get information on the dire state of the city out to the rest of the world.

I was depressed over it for a very long time, feeling it anew each time a horrible story about surviving Katrina emerged in the media. We funneled every single excess money we had to my relatives as they started to try to accomplish the monumental task of reclaiming wrecked homes and careers.

One of the rough things about it was that my husband used to work at the foot of Prytania St. at the Army Corp. of Engineers. Every single year the Corp of Engineers tried to get federal funding to shore up and fix the crumbling levee systems, warning that something like Katrina would happen only to get funding denied. What they did get was a warehouse of a 100,000 body bags for the expected casualties of a Category 4 or 5 direct hit on the Greater New Orleans area.

What really added to my personal angst as I was trying to do the few things I could for my loved ones from far away Virginia was the comments and questions that started being asked of me by people from my old evangelical church. Either someone would ask me if I thought this was divine punishment for the 'sin' of New Orleans or they'd just straight out proclaim this was God washing all the scum and sin away, that the people of New Orleans brought this on themselves.

I might have still been drinking the koolaid of the old church but comments and questions like that made me see red. Especially after grim stories and video emerged of the poorest and most vulnerable Big Easy residents begging to be air lifted from their roofs. How insensitive to claim this was God's justice and judgment.

Jim and I drove down to Louisiana for Christmas that year. His mother was living in retirement community by then and we stayed in her old home, camping with the few pieces of furniture left. It was a strangely subdued Christmas. My mother was in Dallas with two of her sisters so I didn't even get a chance to see her.

We drove into New Orleans proper one day over the holidays. I've never forget how unnaturally quiet the city was. The medians on some of the grander streets were piled as much as fifty feet high with refuse from the storm. Very few traffic lights were operational in the city, four way stops were the rule of the road.

We drove through the Lakefront neighbor my aunt had lived, near the levee failure, jaws dropped, mouths ajar at the destruction. But for all the destruction you could feel a real sense of purpose, of community in the people that remained and started to rebuild. I felt hopeful. Sadly enough it hasn't exactly worked out that way, except for the few houses built in the Ninth Ward by actor Brad Pitt. It seems now ten years on that the rich have remained and rebuilt while so many of the poor are still in transition ten years later.

I figured that might happen when I noticed every single time I flew in Baton Rouge to see my mother and as we were descending for a landing at Ryan Airport you'd see the Fema trailers parked squashed between the oil tanks of Exxon and the airport for at least three years post-Katrina.

Not even going to get into the politics of what happened or while party or politician is responsible. I just wanted to record my memories before they completely fade.

Pictures of the Lower 9th Ward from 2012

From New Orleans December 2005

Post Katrina pictures from Biloxi, Mississippi December 2005

1 comment:

Bruce Gerencser said...

Thanks for sharing these photographs. I've only been to New Orleans once, back in the late 1980's. I'd love to go back and see how things are now. (Same goes for Detroit)