I’ve been so busy and just coming back from vacation to have much reflection on New Orleans 10 years after Hurricane Katrina. Sometimes painful memories are too difficult to relive but still deserve recollection and at the very least acknowledgement, which is what I’m doing (as I write this on 9-11) and at the first opportunity I’ve had since the August 29th anniversary, when my world and beloved city broke and it took a while to put back together.
On this note, rather than recount my own experience, I’ll note a really wonderful essay I read by Adam B. Kushner, who happens to be from New Orleans and the editor of PostEverything and the Outlook section of the Washington Post.
His refection in his article, “I didn’t know what it means to miss New Orleans” (the same title of one of songs that always tugs at my heartstrings), read as if he was writing my own (except maybe without having elderly parents and a dying father who at first did not want to leave and friends who were stranded). The difference is that I didn’t think that we shouldn’t rebuild.
He has since changed his mind, with reasonable thought and reflection on New Orleans, its heritage and it’s significance to all of the country.
This exuberant image of a Mardi Gras Indian embodies the New Orleans Spirit.
New Orleans is still struggling but we’re survivors and after 10 years we’re stronger and striving.
Katrina is not something that I want to remember but it is worth noting that August 29 and the surreal weeks that followed mark the 5th anniversary of “The Storm” that flooded New Orleans.
For this year’s anniversary, I thought I’d post fitting artwork by the British Street artist Bansky, who’s mural work just happens to be stenciled on the side of building located on the corner of North Rampart and Kerlerec Streets in New Orleans.
Nola Pink by Bansky, 2008
Interesting timing that I just ran across this article regarding Fred Radtke, aka “the Gray Ghost” because he eradicates graffiti and street art in New Orleans by spray painting over them with gray paint, leaving a ghost of the image. I’m glad Bansky’s art is now protected with a Pexiglass covering and duplicates have been produced for further archiving to travel for exhibits.
Getting back to this anniversary, everyone has their story to tell, like where were you during 9/11? Another unforgettable day, as I was here in the DC area dealing with trying to get my children home from their schools. Here’s a synopsis of my Katrina story. I was not blogging at that time, and good thing because you would have noticed a change in my demeanor. You may have even questioned my sanity. I know I did. It was one of the worst things I’ve been through (even more unknowns than cancer) and I wasn’t even there. I was just trying to make sure that family members and friends got out while I was 1,099 miles away with little or no control to do so.
I watched the waters quickly rise while my friend was in her condo right down the street from the Superdome. Strangely, I was able to reach her on a land line after most everything shut down. She did not plan on leaving. People were jumping from the Superdome platform, there was a fire burning nearby and looters right around the corner. I was watching all of this from the safety of my home television sets and computers — different channels all on at once. She finally left with her husband, sick father and three dogs and a cat (I think) just seconds before the police closed the Interstate Connector (off Camp Street). I was relieved but didn’t know this until days later when they finally made their way to Mississippi.
My parents, when they finally decided to leave, were able to make it to Atlanta after enduring bumper-to-bumper traffic and then they ended up in KY after a week or so. I had to track down my father’s oncologist who was out of the country and then find other doctors who he could see at various facilities along the way. ASCO, The American Society of Clinical Oncology was located right around the corner from my home. I paid them an exasperated visit and coincidentally met with the same lovely person who my parents had met earlier that year at a conference. John Cox, of ASCO, later wrote about this experience in their newsletter quoted below and Fran Fritz included this example of what to do with Cancer Care Amid the Storm in her article for MSNBC. I’ll never forget ASCO and Wendy Stokes’ lifesaving help. I’m glad this story also may have been helpful to others.
A few days after Hurricane Katrina hit, a young woman walked down the street from her home in Alexandria, Virginia, and knocked on the door of ASCO’s headquarters. Her elderly father was a cancer patient who had been evacuated from New Orleans to Louisville, Kentucky, because of the hurricane. He needed care–and she needed help. Wendy Stokes, an ASCO staff member, took the young woman by the hand, made some calls, found a source of care for the woman’s father, and connected the two. And while she was at it, she helped another friend of the young woman, a dislocated cancer patient looking for care in Mississippi. From dramatic rescues and heroic sacrifices that all of us have seen to the small kindnesses that go unnoticed, thousands of Americans have stepped forward to do what they call to ease the suffering of neighbors. ASCO became part of this national response.
Meanwhile, I lost all track of time during this period — weeks melded into days and vice versa.
My brother and his fiancée set up camp in Baton Rouge and he was the first to return. He doesn’t talk about this or what he saw to this day. His house was flooded to the second floor, being a few blocks from the 17th Street Canal (so strange I can say that and everyone knows where that is now). We watched a video of a cat being rescued from a boat from the top floor of his house — how we knew it was flooded. There were many miracles. Thank goodness for Troy Gilbert, the Gulf Sails blogger, giving us daily reports from the location he never left — a block away from my parents’ house and his sister lived on my brother’s street in Lakeview. Thank goodness for Google Earth! Mostly, thank goodness for the support of friends and my immediate and extended family. The apparent loss of one’s hometown is an insanely difficult thing to deal with, even if you have a love / hate relationship with your birthplace.
There were so many strange occurrences during that time that I don’t like to repeat or even remember them all and these included scenes of others’ trials which were much more serious than those of my kin and friends. I have saved all of the emails and kept a scrapbook of newspaper clippings to deal with all of the memories. I relate this process of healing to that of what those with PTSD must encounter. I finally closed the chapter on this life’s book @ January of this year, when I along with so many others in New Orleans finally felt like the city had gotten back on its feet. We survived. We were stronger and we even won the Super Bowl! (Don’t ask me anything about football but I became a fan.) Then the BP Oil Spill….
My sentiments follow those of Chris Rose; although knowing he had a mini nervous breakdown after Katrina, I try to remain more positive. He is one of my favorite New Orleans writers. His book One Dead in the Attic is so truthful in its telling — pure written art. He is correct in that at the 5th Year Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, we (all those who have connection to New Orleans) would have been fine and even elated to say we were — had it not been for this oil disaster — a preventable human error. Yet, New Orleans has risen above the sea level of despair, yet again. It doesn’t stop our partying — our celebration of moving forward — our expression of love for life.
Another author, Dan Baum, who’s book I read called Nine Lives: Mystery, Magic, Death and the Life in New Orleans, portrays real characters that reads like fiction. His descriptions of their lives before and right after Katrina show the spirit of New Orleans. His final paragraph in the article that he recently wrote for the Washington Post puts it succinctly:
Five years after Katrina, living in the Big Easy is not for the weak of spirit. It’s a triumph that the place continues at all; that it’s still the singular city it was borders on the miraculous. As we mark Katrina’s anniversary next weekend, it will surely be a time of mourning and for taking stock of the challenges ahead. But since this is New Orleans, we’re talking about, it’s a time for celebration, too. As a wise old man of the Lower Night Ward once told me, “We’re capable here of holding more than one thought in our heads.”
It’s time now to move onward, only reflecting back on the past to be aware, remembering the positive, good deeds of people helping each other and therein, making the future (and New Orleans) better. For all the TV and media coverage this week, let’s focus on the positive progress and not get stuck in the static past.
Here’s an appropriate song by Vince Vance that helps to define this New Orleans’ spirit while remembering heritage.