Ten years feels like a long time for something I can remember so well. Like most of New Orleans’ residents, that entire year felt like we were caught in limbo, in a forever-unfolding nightmare. When I replay the memories, its feels like looking at someone else’s life. I don’t even remember any other part of 2005. Don’t remember who won the Super Bowl, what the top songs were, celebrity shenanigans, where did I have my birthday party? No, all I can remember is water stains and debris as far as the eye can see.
I’m not here to relate my story, it is probably the same as yours. The boastful laughter at everyone else’s over-reaction, the lack of packing, the “we’ll just be gone for a weekend” mentality, the way I was so very wrong.
I was 14, on the cusp of adolescence, and it would be a huge lie to say that I handled what occurred well. But then, save for innumerable heroes, I don’t know if anyone handled it well. I know some that lost nothing but developed crippling depression. I know many that lost family and will never return to this city again. I know you who lost your home and became a “refugee” in your own country. Trying to explain to strangers and outsiders what those months and years were like afterward, it never comes out right. Trying to explain my story is a language that only you and I really seem to understand. Like Latin, it is a dead language, a language for the 1,833 dead, for the death of New Orleans as it was.
When we returned, all I remember was gray. Gray skies, gray houses, gray dirt, gray water. No birds in the sky or music playing. So quiet, the whole city felt like a cemetery. And in a way it was.
I’m also not hear to wax poetic for you. I’ll leave that to the real writers and musicians of the city, so plentiful are they. But I have noticed the way some of you eschew all the rigmarole surrounding the 10th anniversary. I see how some of you are sick of seeing the coverage and the old footage replayed over and over. I know you feel a hole in the bottom of your stomach when you hear the stories retold, the ones of loss and fear. I know what it feels like to remember one specific day as changing your life, your family, your future. I know it seems too easy to say “Be happy, look you made it, you’re still standing!”
But it’s not that easy, is it?
Because even though it’s been 10 years, I sobbed like a child for its mother when I saw Big Charity. And even though I consider myself a pretty upstanding person, I scoffed at the victims of Hurricane Sandy. And when a tourist mentioned that Katrina must have messed up a lot of people, my friend pointed right at me without hesitation. And while one part of me wanted to tell her to her in explicit terms what I thought of her diagnosis, another part wholly agreed. So for those that hate the memories, that want to stay in your house and off social media, you’re not wrong. This is painful, not a press conference. These reminders hurt every time, and for many, the horrors they saw and the fear they felt, that will never be a cause for celebration. And that isn’t wrong.
I worked in the service industry for a long time and waiting tables in a tourist town, you get asked a lot of questions about the city. Luckily for them, I have a history degree and love all things New Orleans, so I’m always happy and willing to give them long, descriptive answers to their questions. But without fail, every time the classic Katrina questions came to me, the words they barely came and if they did, they weren’t polite.
“How was Katrina for you?
Did you evacuate?
Did you lose your home?”
“Umm, it was about as fun as natural disaster combined with a national cluster can be. Do you need waters refilled?”
I used to be offended. How dare you ask that question! How dare you think that I could explain to you the worst day of mine and my city’s life in between your appetizer and entrée course you complete moron.
But others will never understand. They don’t understand why we stayed or why we came back. They don’t understand why we rebuild or why we celebrated the Saints winning the Super Bowl like we bet our mortgages on the game (some of you probably did). They don’t understand why we put the fleur-de-lis on everything or the way we pray for the WHO DAT nation at the Sunday service. They don’t understand why we would celebrate the 10th anniversary. Why not the 1st, the 5th, why now?
We mustn’t blame them. You mustn’t harbor ill-will toward the ones that don’t want to celebrate this anniversary. I won’t include photos of the damages in this article for all those reading and not ready to see those kind of images yet. Because above all, we need to respect the ones not ready.
I’m not here to tell you what to do. I’m just explaining my city the best way I know how. Which is sitting in my backyard, enjoying a cold beer while a breeze comes off the Mississippi and the sun takes a slow dance to the West.
Why am I commemorating tomorrow?
Celebrate tomorrow because New Orleans is the only city in the world that would celebrate a natural disaster.
Rereading that sentence, the ridiculousness of it still strikes me as the first time I thought it. We’re the only ones that would throw a party and spend time with loved ones like it is a holiday weekend, all for a hurricane. We’ll probably all go about our days, head to work, and maybe watch a movie with the family. Maybe you’ll invite friends over for drinks and food and no one will really say anything but you’ll all be thinking it. That we made it. That this city is separated into Before-Storm and After-Storm and that if you say anything above a category 3 is in the Gulf of Mexico, we will head for the hills and take everything that can fit in the car. We’re a different city now. There are new people in town and we should welcome them. There is a new song in the air and we should sing along with it. There are the small reminders and we shouldn’t forget them.
If there is one thing I wish everyone could do tomorrow, it’s to remember the ones that were lost. The ones that screamed to the helicopters and to the President for help and fresh water. The elderly and the homeless, the targeted and forgotten, the lost and the trapped, remember them, weep for them, light a candle, say a prayer, wish them well in whatever realm they are in, but we have to keep going. We must always keep going. Tomorrow, let us celebrate their lives the way we celebrate every other life lost: with song and dance and brass and community and forgiveness and music that can be heard throughout every neighborhood.
I am going to celebrate tomorrow. I’ll celebrate my city and my family for making it through to the other side. For coming back, for believing in what many others thought was lost. I will celebrate that we managed to save this place for future generations to love as much as we do. For as much as we complain, we remain. For me, my family has been in this town since the inception. I’m not just from here, it flows through my veins. We’re related, you see. And every day I was gone, I wrote a love letter to this city like a soldier to his wife at home, and I swore I would come back, come hell or high water. And I would do it again.
So whatever you decide to do for this anniversary, make it your own. Don’t be afraid to weep or yell or just be alone. New Orleans is all our mothers, and when your mother gets hurt, no one gets to tell you how to mourn. And when you lose someone or yourself in a tragedy like Hurricane Katrina, no one gets to tell you how to grieve.
When it hurts, when it really stabs at you, just remember we came back. We came back for a reason. When the odds were against us and everyone, even our government, left us for dead, we came back. And this city has major problems, problems that seem unmovable, unchanging, and insurmountable. But they can’t be because we already proved that we can do more in 10 years than other cities could do in a century. We rebuild to be reborn. Because you can’t keep a city like New Orleans in the grave. They thought we could be buried with a single storm, we were being resurrected before the water dried.