I wrote this series for my seminary weekly student “newsletter” the spring of 2006. While I did not receive much feedback from my fellow students and MTS staff, I did hear various responses from other “survivors” who had it shared with them and said that it spoke to their experience. I post it here to share with you a bit more of my story, and the story of the human condition.
Living with Katrina: Part 1
I’ve been wondering for weeks how to tell you. How to tell you what it felt like, what it smelled like. How to tell you what it was like to be there. But the words, until now, didn’t come. I had pushed the memories into a nice logical package, trying to move on with life, to not be continuously burdened by the truth. To not grieve. Yet the truth always comes back, sneaking silently through the crack under the door. The days come back in brief, overpowering glimpses.
After the first tentative warnings on Friday, we knew, but had not accepted, the truth. The Big One was coming. Saturday morning we woke to see the Mayor officially telling us to leave. Leave? Sure, my husband and I were already planning to move to Minneapolis the next day, but only with our cats and a few family heirlooms. We looked around at the couch we bought with wedding money, the stacks of books that once graced ancestor’s shelves, and the dining table where friends and family had joined us for wonderful evenings. But memories, thoughts, sentiments were fleeting as we rushed to secure belongings and pack the vehicles with what we could.
In the darkness of Sunday morning as all the churches had closed their doors, we drove North in a mass of cars. We were fortunate to have tanks filled with gas, to even have cars. Our thoughts were racing towards our friends. What were they doing? Where were they? We didn’t have time to track them down. After reaching “safe” land, we were just two of the many who stopped to take a breath at 5:30am. The fast food restaurant could not make coffee fast enough and the bathroom lines snaked around the tables. The masses of children were excited as if on a magical adventure. The adults, like us, were not sure what to do, feel or think. There was this giddy whiff of expectation that changed the color of everything.
We drove on to our hotel, our reservation a priceless commodity. I couldn’t sit or eat. I couldn’t think. What was happening? What was going on with the patients at the hospital where I had just been a chaplain? We watched the news, yet no one knew what was going on. There was streams of cars and trucks leaving, but in the chaos no reality could be deciphered. Where was it going to land?
Monday morning came early, as if waking in excitement for the first day of school. Yet a fog of uneasy dread and unreality dampened my senses as we watched the news. It had hit. Katrina, the Big One, was there.
Living with Katrina: Part 2
We sat there, my husband and I in the dry hotel room, watching a movie that just couldn’t be true. How could the coast just be blowing away?
Somehow we made it back to our cars, continued to drive north, and arrived once again in front of a TV, this time in the “comfort” of my in-laws living room. The following days I found myself walking and eating, moving back into McCormick housing and starting classes, my husband starting his new position in Minneapolis, and life going on around us…
…yet I wasn’t there.
I was with the people standing on the freeway that I had driven on so many times that my car knew the way. I was with the people wading through the parking lot of my local grocery store, just down the street from our townhome. I was standing by the Convention Center where just months before we had been enjoying a Mardi Gras parade.
Every glimmer of familiarity that flashed on the news brought hope, and desperation. Buildings still stood, but I knew that their shells hid their insides rotting from the heat and putrid waters.
The stories of chaos came…of shooting, of looting, of death. Yet, the city would survive, it had to survive.
We could rarely reach friends scattered across the region, slowly finding their way back into a new world. We began to hear stories of what was happening. One co-worker’s mother drowned in a nursing home. Others were now homeless as everything they had was swept away in the floods. Those who still had their walls standing opened their homes to others.
It is impossible to fully tell you how it felt, felt to be in Chicago where life did not skip a beat. People remained certain that the next day their house would still be standing, their car still dry, and their future intact. And there, just a day’s drive away, lives had been lost and futures stolen as a beautiful, historic city was turned into despair. The fog had yet to clear.
Then in an instant my husband and I were headed south again, joined by a stream of relief trucks and passing makeshift evacuee shelters in the southern states. We drove straight through, planning to retrieve whatever we could from our townhome on the last day Jefferson Parish would be open to residents for who knows how long. We had no idea what it would be like, only assurance from our friends that we had a place to sleep.
Living with Katrina: Part 3
We had 10 hours to get in, pack up, and get out. We loaded up food, boxes, attached the trailer to the suburban, and six of us (our fathers, friends, husband and I) climbed in ready for almost anything. We did not know if a tree had gone through a window, how much the roof had leaked, or what the mold was covering. We knew water had seeped in under the door…but what did that mean?
The cars entering Jefferson Parish via “public access” was miles long, yet we had the magic pass! Our friends’ neighbor had an all-access pass to deliver generators to the levee pumps, allowing us to slip through the security with an easy wave.
The destruction we had seen along the highway as we got closer to the region was nothing. Just miles out from our home, we looked over the swamps to see trees blown over and houses simply gone. Finally passing over the last bridge into Jefferson Parish, the swamps were abruptly replaced with land…
Fences were knocked down, large sections of roof were torn away, a hotel was partially destroyed…we got off the highway and I held my breath. There was the playground of the school I taught at…the equipment ripped from the ground. A few blocks further and the entire front of the drug store had been pushed inside the building. The beautiful trees on the boulevards were uprooted, the houses were torn apart…
We crossed our canal and turned into our complex…no one was there. The baseball diamonds were empty, the metal light poles snapped in half. Just a few hundred feet…and there it was…a tree partially uprooted broke our fence and leaned against the porch railings. We drove around to the front…the parking lot still covered with leaves and branches.
I could finally breathe, the roof was still holding on, the windows not broken, the door intact.
No time to really look around…we had our whole lives to box up in just hours.
As my husband opened the door, I stood back, not ready to see what was inside. He turned with relief, it wasn’t that bad. The high water mark was just six inches off the floor, but the first floor carpets were still floating. The mold, black patches bled four feet up the walls. The roof had leaked, but only into the kitchen, the water already evaporated, but leaving stains and a few items filled with water. The soggy stench was overpowering, yet we had to ignore it and begin to work.
We began to work, carefully, but quickly. Grabbing pictures, dishes, and books, there was no sense to what was tossed together in boxes, bags and other containers. I stayed upstairs, avoiding the mold covered shoes, soggy mattress, and flooded washing machine. They asked me questions, what should go where, what could we leave behind…I couldn’t answer. I just worked, they caught on quickly, leaving me to move in a haze.
The couch which had traveled from Virginia, to Michigan, to Kansas, and now Louisiana, just couldn’t fit, and would be left behind. We wiped down antique furniture with bleach and checked everything for hidden cockroaches and lizards. Boxes of Mardi Gras beads…mystical treasures from the world now gone…were tossed in the trash.
We continued to work, or rather, they continued to work. I barely remember the day, just quick moments of wrapping picture frames in pillowcases. Slowly the reality started to sit within me. I wanted to give up, just close the door and walk away. Somehow, maybe, if we drove around the block and came back our home would be the way it had been. The light poles would be standing again and the kids would be playing baseball, their voices drifting in through the windows. People would be walking their dogs and the neighborhood cops would be driving by on their way to work.
Our memories would not be jumbled and packed tight into a trailer.
Our carpet was still floating! The mold was growing up the walls! Our marriage bed had to be cleaned with bleach! This place that had once been a sanctuary, a home, a place to relax, refuel, recharge…was now defiled by the toxic waters brought in from Lake Pontchartrain. I escaped outside, sat on a large rock that my cats had once explored, and my body finally revolted with my stomach acids mixing with the unimaginable waste drying on the grass.
Then, everything was fine. I began to work again, I found a broom and swept away the debris covering the parking lot, carried out boxes to be loaded by the guys, finished packing my vintage dishes collected over the past ten years.
As the evening approached, our time was up. We began to take our time as the last few things were discarded in the dumpster or shoved into the remaining small spaces in the trailer and suburban.
This time we would be leaving for good. There was no longer any wondering about what the winds or water would do. There was no longer hope that Katrina would somehow disappear, or was just a dream, or some bad TV movie about the end of the world.
We loaded up and drove away.
Living with Katrina: Part 4
Our lives started to move on, yet three months later I was back in New Orleans. This time I was leading a work trip. I needed to go, I needed to do something, I needed to help all those I had deserted, left to fend for themselves as I was safe, dry and moving on as if nothing had really happened.
We began the trip with a little detour, a stop at St. Joseph’s Abbey just north of Lake Pontchartrain. As with everything, I was not sure what to expect….but I wanted to see my friends, my fellow Clinical Pastoral Education chaplains. They were there, finding sanctuary to finish their semester, as their seminary had been flooded and was now housing the National Guard. Chaos still reigned, but this Abbey was embracing their edict of hospitality…people seeking a safe haven during the storm, others finding a place to recover when all had been torn from them, the Red Cross had moved in, and a seminary. An Abbey of just a handful of aging monks…yet their evening vespers were as true and hopeful as they had been before the storm. Even our little group found a peace in which to begin the week.
The southern hospitality continued to be offered to us as we stayed with St. Charles Ave. Presbyterian in the Uptown neighborhood of New Orleans. Situated on the “Island,” a small strip hardly touched by the floods, they opened their doors to us to give us a home in their Victorian home-turned-classrooms-turned-volunteer housing, feed us home cooked meals filled with the local flavors, and orchestrated our work. Yet it wasn’t so simple. Here I was eating breakfast at the same table where I had attended church meetings, lounging on couches where I had joined in discussions with the Presbyterian Women, and wandered the halls where I had conducted Vacation Bible School. I wasn’t supposed to be here on a Mission Trip when two summers before I had left it to go somewhere else on one! The world turned upside down, it was the Twilight Zone. It was some crazy dream where people were out of place, the landscape was identifiable yet twisted, and the plot was simply unbelievable.
In the midst of trying to get my bearings, trying to make sense of this new world…this new place that seemed to be the same as I had known, but was now completely different…beautiful things happened. A woman told us her story, opened her life and heart to us, complete strangers. A man asked us who we were – obviously out of place as we gutted homes – and hearing our response, said “I thought we had been forgotten.” Members of a small, struggling church appreciated our assistance in helping them do ministry with and for their neighbors. Small business owners appreciated our business as they worked to keep open, hoping for a restoration of their city. Even the simplicity of our presence provided energy to those being drained by the struggles to just live “normal” life. We did ministry…
…but that wasn’t what was on my mind.
Yes, I was being selfish. I was trying to figure out how I fit in, knowing I had no claim to the city’s future. How I could do something even when I didn’t know what to do. What could I do to help my friends still fully entwined in the chaos? How could I help all those I had worked with as a chaplain? What could I do as my life moved on in Chicago, only having been mildly interrupted? Survivor’s guilt – what a quaint and empty little phrase.
I still do not know what to think of that week. I don’t understand how I was reacting…wanting to be there, but at times just wanting to be at home with my husband and cats.
Yet God had given me a gift, friends who understood something wasn’t quite right with me. Who knew I needed help, needed support…and gave me strength. They saw who I was, understood as much as they could, and by just their presence gave me the energy I needed. Some gave me energy when we retrieved our life from our townhome, gave me energy during the mission trip, gave me energy during the Mardi Gras fundraiser, and gave me energy throughout the whole ordeal. I will be thanking them for the rest of my life in my prayers as nothing I can ever do will pay them back as much as they are due.
What’s next? I don’t know. That’s been my answer since my husband and I drove away from the city the day before Katrina hit.
I keep moving on, doing what I can here and there. I keep people in my prayers as their lives take on a new normal. I pray that they can accept the strength of God to keep moving forward…and to help those who can’t.
All I ask is that you don’t forget. That you remember that thousands of lives were disrupted, uprooted, future changed forever…that lives have improved, and lives have been ended.
They are our neighbors…and in the name of Christ, we can’t let them be forgotten.
Living with Katrina: Looking back from 2012. – Part 5
I have been back a number of times, as a tourist, friend and on mission trips. My husband goes back a few times a year with work – he still works for the same company. Life has moved on in the over six years that have passed. It has moved on for us, for our friends, and for the Gulf Coast. Yet, Katrina has made an everlasting impact on all of us. While I can only speak about New Orleans from a distance and can never truly claim it as my city (being a Yankee and all), I have seen God working in the lives of many and in the live of the region. Not every life has turned out for the better. Not every life has been freed from the effects even this long after. But the vibrancy and life and creative spirit of New Orleans lives on and has affected all those who visit and volunteer.
God – Thank you for your presence during difficult times, and the Hope and Love you instill in so many that keeps us moving forward. – Amen.