I will always remember August 29, 2005 as one of the worst days of my life. I was 260 miles away from my home in New Orleans, evacuated to my in laws’ house in the rural upstate.
I watched the story unfold on the news. I remember cheering when I heard that the storm had veered at the last moment away from the city, I then remember getting the first, isolated, reports of flooding followed soon by the now-famous images of the rushing water and the city submerged. I watched as people were plucked from their rooftops, as entire neighborhoods submerged and the city I had grown to love was nearly drowned.
What had, prior to that point, been just another evacuation became a desperate quest for information. We searched the Web, worked the phones and, more than anything else, remained fixated to the television hoping to learn something about our home, our friends and our family.
We would find out later that we were among the lucky ones. Our home was away from the worst of the flooding. It suffered only minor wind damage and we moved back into it within three weeks. However, the lives we knew before Katrina were gone. We returned to a different city, an empty town where military humvees patrolled the streets and army helicopters passed with startling regularity. It was a place where MREs were the only reliable food and if you saw another person while walking through the city, you struck up a conversation, and worked to help your fellow man.
There was no time to dwell on the changes. Hurricane Rita passed underneath the city a few days after our return and we were trapped in the city. Nowhere to evacuate too, we stayed put and hoped for the best. Fortunately, though it was another terrifying night, it worked out for the best and we were once again spared the worst.
After that storm passed, we set about helping New Orleans recover. My wife returned to her old job as a legal secretary, working extra hours to help victims of the storm and I, with my old job completely gone, took anything I could find. My first job was cleaning out a damaged Tuesday Morning store. I loaded boxes and helped pack up a tractor-trailer full of salvageable merchandise. It wasn’t about money, it was about doing something, anything to help.
I eventually settled into a slightly more long-term position doing IT work for a Mississippi construction company doing contract work here in Louisiana. It was a simple job, generating reports, keeping communications working, etc., but it involved 84 hour weeks. I worked every day, seven days a week, for 96 days, including Christmas and New Years.
I was determined to see the city come back and I was going to do my small part to make it happen.
However, as I look back over everything that has happened in the past two years, I realize that, in addition to taking so much from me, my friends and my city, it has taught me a great deal too.
If there is a silver lining to Katrina is that we are all stronger and wiser than we were before. However, many of the lessons are ones we can easily share with the world, including these seven that I have no idea how I got along without.
- The Importance of Humor: During New Orleans’ darkest hour, as the city was flooded and help seemed so far away. Residents who stayed behind renamed their beloved town to “Lake George” after our beloved President. C’est La Levee.
- You Can’t Trust the News: I could easily dedicate six posts of this length to the inaccuracies in the media during Katrina. For now, just one, the Superdome was not a cesspool of death and gang violence, neither was the Convention Center. Were there desperate people seeking help? Yes. But the reports of crime at both locations were greatly exaggerated.
- Disasters Bring People Together, Politicians Drive them Apart: Racial tensions in New Orleans have always been high, but immediately following the storm, an atmosphere of cooperation filled the city. That is, until our mayor gave his famous “Chocolate City” speech. Then everything changed for the worse.
- Government is Incompetent: Poorly-built levees, an inept immediate response and poor recovery planning. It doesn’t matter if it is Federal, state or local, you can only count on your government to provide red tape, not support. Also, in a related area, hold your leaders accountable for your infrastructure. You might live behind a levee or dam even now.
- Home is Home: People ask me why I still live in the city. I tell them its home. Anyone who has found a home understands that. However, some people have only found a place to live and can’t grasp our staying. I would much rather have a home that was struck by a hurricane than no home at all. I hope some day everyone can relate to that.
- Why Family Matters: My wife and I were both very lucky to have wonderful family’s that supported us through the disaster. Her family took us in while we were evacuated, mine supplied financial aid until our FEMA money arrived. Without them, I doubt we could have gotten through this.
- Hope is Everything: When I first got back to the city, the Superdome was black from the damage. I am not much of a sports fan, but the Superdome is a landmark in the city, something I drive by twice a day. Seeing it so badly damaged crushed my heart. So, when I drove by one day and they had placed a temporary, but white, cover on the dome, I had to pull over to wipe the tears from my eyes. It was the first time I had truly felt hope in over a month. When I looked up, two other drivers were doing the exact same thing.
However, the greatest lesson I learned, the eighth one perhaps, is that a little bad weather can not crush the spirit of a great city. New Orleans is coming back, progress is being made. There are still problems to be dealt with, but so much has already been done.
To me, the proof of this is in Mardi Gras. The 2006 Mardi Gras was somber, small, barely even there. This years though, was easily the best I had been to of the seven I’ve attended. The locals were ready to celebrate and the tourists were eager to help us.
The spirit has returned. I now take comfort that, with time, the rest will follow.
That is all that matters to me.