I saw the images; I saw the destruction; I saw people left for dead. I thought I had seen all of Katrina.
The mass exodus from New Orleans during Katrina has touched me personally. I have become very close friends with an extraordinary woman and Katrina survivor. She and her husband fled New Orleans and headed north like so many in search of safety. They had nothing left but a car with a full tank of gas-which my friend sees as an incredible blessing-and $20. After battling unimaginable traffic, they made it to a shelter where they spent a few days. Her husband has family up north and thought it would be good to live on the east coast. He had fond memories of Baltimore. He imagined them sailing and sitting by the harbor. They settled in a small suburb of Baltimore. Reality struck, diminishing the memories. She and her husband are both disabled. My friend has been able to work a few hours a week, but with great difficulty. Her husband can’t work at all. They are both in their sixties. Their living situation is less than ideal. They have a very small apartment and are probably somewhere close to the poverty line. Of course, my friend doesn’t like to complain, but I have been able to put pieces together here and there. Although they may not go to the harbor or sail, she enjoys feeding squirrels with her husband in a nearby park.
My friend has shared with me the memories of “Old New Orleans”. She would talk to people for hours on the street; she would go to Bourbon Street and listen to live musicians with family and friends; she would meet friends for a cup of chickory coffee and French pastries; and of course there was the food. She told me that thin for women in New Orleans was around a size 14/16, not a size 2 like the north. It is a city so rich in culture and uniqueness. There’s nothing like it on the planet. However, it has changed greatly. One example she pointed out to me was people complaining that Bourbon Street was too loud. It is her feeling that the “Old New Orleans” is gone.
I’ve learned that “old” is a recurring word in New Orleans. She has often spoken to me about the “old timers”. These are the men and women of her parents generation and older. She would speak to me of the intelligence and understanding these individuals had about their city. Her father would tell her when they were starting to build high-rises and other properties by the levees that they would never survive a serious storm. He spoke of the building that was happening on marshes and how they would never survive a serious storm either. He said destruction was inevitable. The old timers knew the levees were no good for several decades, but no one listened. They just wanted to build and profit.
We are just a few days away from the 6 year anniversary of Katrina, which will be on August 28th. With it comes great irony. Hurricane Irene is about to hit the east coast. A hurricane stronger than any the east coast has seen in decades. Four to eight inches of rain, 40 to 70 mph winds, massive flooding and power outages, and one of the cities it is headed for is Baltimore. I can see that my friend is suffering some symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. She and her husband are in a state of total panic. They are going back to New Orleans by car. She says she wants to be with family. The last time she was in New Orleans was five years ago when her granddaughter was born. They are taking all their important belongings in their car in case their apartment floods. She doesn’t want to lose those important things she has left since leaving New Orleans.
The images of Katrina remain vivid in my mind, such as people standing on their rooftops or the Superdome. The list of unbearable-to-watch images are numerous. It was a total state of inhumanity. And to think it could have been prevented. I now have a friend who has taught me the reality of Katrina. She didn’t die in the flooding or lose all her family, but she lost her life. This was her city. These were her people. A woman in her mid-fifties at the time left with nothing and then tried to live off the pathetic amount of money distributed by FEMA. There are stories much worse than hers, but this is the closest first-hand look I have gotten that illustrates to me what happened when that hurricane hit ground.
Survivors of Hurricane Katrina will probably feel a deep sense of loss and a deep sense of pain on the upcoming anniversary of this horrific event. I’m sure many who have scaled their way up the east coast are fearing the approaching hurricane. I’m sure many of them will try to prepare for the very worst. I know this hurricane will bring its own destruction, but it will be nothing in comparison to what we saw in New Orleans. The United States abandoned its own people in 2005, and we should never forget it. My friend will always be a reminder to me of all that went wrong. Because of this, I know I will never forget.