Ten years ago today, as Katrina was building strength in the Gulf, I was far away from my hometown, visiting family in Colorado. It was the summer before my senior year at college and I was enjoying a week in the mountains before returning to school. I was far removed from the evacuation planning, but I wasn’t concerned. I had been through the same thing many times growing up in New Orleans. We’d pack up the car and camp out in Baton Rouge or Mississippi for a day or two and then return to our normal lives.
On Aug. 29, that Monday, it was clear that this was no ordinary disaster. I was glued to the TV in my aunt and uncle’s home, more than a thousand miles away from where the destruction unfolded. I kept in touch with my parents as they moved first to Baton Rouge and then to my aunt and uncle’s house in the suburbs of Houston. (How I kept in touch I can’t even recall, as cell phones with 504 area codes didn’t work for weeks). My family would not be home in just a couple of days.
I was in shock at the images replaying on TV. A couple of days later, after we had confirmed that our East Lakeshore home was under water, my aunt and grandmother generously took me to the local outlet mall to shop for a few clothing items. While I was checking out at Banana Republic, my aunt mentioned that I had lost everything in the storm. The clerk’s response: “That’s what you get for building a city below sea level.”
I was stunned. Was that really his first response to hearing that my home had been destroyed? Would he have said that to me if I were from San Francisco and the city had been rocked by an earthquake? Would building a major economic and cultural metropolis on a fault line elicit the same scorn? Or, was it that only New Orleans, a city known for its love of overindulgences, deserved such fate?
In that moment I realized that this storm would be experienced in two distinctly different manners: By New Orleanians and by those from elsewhere. Us versus them. Like life pre-K and post-K, some common threads would weave the two together, but the two experiences would never be the same.
Please do not misunderstand this sentiment. Not everyone in the “them” group had negative reactions. Most gave generously, donating time and energy to help gut and rebuild our destroyed homes for months and years after Katrina. Many of these volunteers fell in love with our city and stuck around, adding a creative energy and fresh perspective to a city long thought of as a fun place to visit but too riddled with problems to reside in permanently. A college friend, upon learning I was from New Orleans (pre-K), once told me, “It doesn’t seem like a place where people actually live.” I just smiled and spouted off my usual retort about the unique culture, vibrant community atmosphere, the focus on family and at least a dozen other reasons why New Orleans is such a great place to actually live. I was, and still am, fiercely proud and protective of my hometown.
I understood the us vs. them mentality when I returned to Dartmouth in September 2005. The school graciously took in some Tulane students, but forgot about those of us actually from the city. As one of only three New Orleanians in my class of 1,000, I discovered that it was hard for fellow students to relate to what was going on. I was interviewed for a front-page story in the D, our school newspaper, which included a photo of the moldy remnants that had once been the living room of my home. A few weeks later, it was as though Katrina had never existed. I don’t blame them. This was my reality, not theirs. Life went on.
What I did mind were the misperceptions and negative opinions about my city. New Orleans was not just my hometown, but a part of my identity. To insult her was to bash me. For years after, I would listen to people from elsewhere give their opinions about the rebuilding efforts. Many opined that the city should not be rebuilt, since it was below water. They thought we deserved our fate. Others knew only what they saw on the news, having no idea that the storm was egalitarian in its swath of destruction, affecting residents of all races, genders and incomes. Still others did not realize the extent to which our national government had let us down, doing much too little too late for the people trapped in the city’s ruins in the days after the devastation.
I came back after Katrina to live and work in New Orleans. My friends were mostly fellow New Orleanians, who had come back, like me, because it was important to be part of these efforts in whatever way possible. Now, most of my friends are post-Katrina transplants who know only one New Orleans, the post-K one. My husband is among them. Originally from Seattle, he came here when the city was in desperate need of teachers and has stayed because he met a New Orleans girl who couldn’t imagine settling anywhere else. And now he is just as much as part of our culture as the thousands of others who have fallen in love with this town (even if he resists swapping his Seahawks loyalty for the Saints).
Ten years later, New Orleans no longer shows the scars of the storm, yet the city still has problems. In certain ways, Katrina did allow us to push a “re-start” button that has provided new ideas and new residents. But the city’s crumbling infrastructure and new mixed-review education system still pervade everyday life. Racial inequality remains a core issue, crime is still an ongoing cause of anxiety and the pervasive and maddening construction (without any sign of ending anytime soon) is a constant reminder of urban frustration.
Many of these are universal problems — ones that people elsewhere know and understand. I guess it’s a sign of progress that we and they share similar concerns these days. As us versus them fades into the past, let us not forget those who helped us along the way and be grateful for those who stayed.