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Katrina: so long ago … so recent

Six years. Can it really be?

Photo by Renee Peck

In some ways, Hurricane Katrina seems to have happened yesterday. I still drive past gutted houses whenever I venture into the heart of Gentilly. I continue to read about Go Zone money, mental health issues, inadequate housing and levee restructuring.

In other ways, Katrina happened centuries ago. The local landscape no longer is littered with FEMA trailers; most people are here or gone permanently; for the most part, we have access to banks and groceries and drugstores.

We are all so ready to move on.

One thread that links these near and far time zones of Katrina are the volunteers. The people who hit the ground running in those muggy fall days of 2005, and the ones who continue to pile onto buses or planes or vans and head South to do whatever they can to help. They are long ago; they are yesterday.

Because they still come. I’m still feeding the occasional Presbyterian youth group here to help RHINO (Rebuilding Hope in New Orleans), or running into a stray visitor in town at the behest of Jericho Road or Catholic Charities or Habitat for Humanity.

One of the emotional enigmas of Katrina – a topic that has popped up in more than one conversation I’ve had – concerns the psychological ramifications of being on the receiving end of charity. Here in New Orleans, we pride ourselves on our grassroots efficiency, on our self sufficiency. We like to think that we’re all in one boat, rowing together.

But we’ve needed help, too, lots of it. And help has been forthcoming from all corners of the world these past 72 months. We’re grateful, but a little bemused at how to say thanks for the hand, when we’re a little embarrassed by still needing it.

A recent incident brought such thoughts into focus. I had gone to the Poydras Street branch of Regions Bank to deposit a check, when a woman walked into the bank and approached the nearest window.

I overheard her request to cash a personal check, and the teller’s reply that bank policy forbade cashing out-of-town checks. The woman explained that her wallet and credit cards had been stolen right before her trip to New Orleans, and that she had no way to get cash for her group of volunteers. The teller was sympathetic but firm: She wasn’t allowed to cash the check. There was another bank she could try some blocks away.

The women dispiritedly headed toward the door. On impulse I stopped her. How much cash did she want, I asked. Oh, $200 or so, she replied. I offered to withdraw that amount from the ATM outside, and she could write me a personal check for the same amount. I was, after all, already depositing one check and could easily add another. She looked legit, and if she wasn’t, it was the most creative scam I’d heard in a while.

She was overwhelmed. She couldn’t believe that I, a stranger, would take her check.

She was grateful. She had a dozen hungry teens with her who had spent the morning rehabbing a house.

She was moved. New Orleanians had proved so friendly, so chatty, so trusting. This was her third time leading a volunteer group from Chicago, and she couldn’t get enough of New Orleans.

The last I saw of the woman and her teens, who had been waiting on the sidewalk, all dressed in matching t-shirts, they were headed for a pizza place down the street.

But that’s not the end of the tale. Here, as Paul Harvey would say, is the rest of the story.

A week later I got a hand-addressed envelope in the mail. Inside was an eloquent, personal thank-you note – not from the woman, but from the bank teller.

She had been struck, she said, by my trust and generosity. She had hated to have to tell the Chicago volunteer that she couldn’t cash her check. She had been impressed by my offer to do so. She and all the other tellers working that day at Regions wanted me to know that they had noticed and were moved by this simple, single act of kindness.

Wow. Talk about being moved. This whole thing about giving and receiving just underscores how much we are all interconnected; how small acts have bigger repercussions; how those who help today may be the ones needing help tomorrow.

So pass it forward. You never know when it might come right back at you.


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