I was 18 and freshly arrived at college when Katrina hit New Orleans, stranding thousands in the stinking Superdome or frying in the late summer sun outside of the Convention Center. I stayed awake all night after my first day of classes, incessantly clicking the “refresh” button on Nola.com, waiting for the headline “Political Leader Announces Everything Will Be All Right; Reveals Recovery Plan.” But it never came.
Most officials seemed never to have considered that Katrina was a real possibility, even though it was predicted over and over. I saw that the people we elect to lead us were just as human as I was, the possibility of something like Katrina just as unfathomable.
In the aftermath of last month’s floods, I watched in awe as the people of Louisiana rose to the occasion of disaster. I’m struck by the courage and humanity of so many of my fellow citizens, showing up to help however they can, like soldiers in an unnamed army. It gives me hope.
Growing up in Louisiana doesn’t exactly instill strong faith in the fairness or integrity of government or official agencies. The lopsided Katrina “recovery” solidified my cynicism. It’s not that I think these institutions are inherently evil, it’s just when you live in a place as vulnerable as Louisiana, basic survival is a community-wide job. You can’t leave it up to just a few, if you truly care about all.
Most articles I read about the environmental situation of South Louisiana make me feel like we are doomed. I find myself wondering why I still live here, knowing full well that something as catastrophic as Katrina is a possibility each hurricane season. Sometimes I feel really cynical and isolated, like I’m one of a few who gets it on the dance floor of the Titanic. Has this city turned me into a fool? I mean honestly, won’t that be the story in the end — why didn’t Louisiana do more to save itself?
The question haunts me. It’s hard to make sense of a future given the level of devastation predicted now, with sea level rise and subsidence. I couldn’t fathom it before, and I still can’t fathom it now.
I’m not proud to admit that, much of the time, I just try to ignore our impending doom and enjoy myself. New Orleans taught me how to do that. Besides, I haven’t figured out how to imagine my life without New Orleans in it. How do you plan for a future like that, a future without the place you love the most? When a parent is dying, do you go on with your life before they have passed? No, of course not. But then again, cities aren’t people. When moving on with your life means getting out, you’re putting the nail in the coffin.
Natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina set off a period of stunningly rapid change, and if you’re caught in the turbulence, you change too. I ended up connected to New Orleans the way a scar connects you to a moment in time. New Orleans raised me, taught me how to entertain, how to dress myself, and instilled in me the values of creativity, celebration, and loyalty.
There is so much raw sadness here, so much raw joy. So many of my fellow citizens are treated without dignity or respect and they still manage to maintain open hearts and a clear-eyed love for the city. There is an art to pleasure here, life for life’s sake. Why can’t all the beauty here be enough to assure New Orleans’ survival?
The August floods spared the city while places 45 minutes away were ravaged. Countless thousands of Louisianans are now mourning a life that will be forever marked by the dumbfounding destruction floodwaters bring. My heart aches for them. And I feel stunned, the way you would if an 18-wheeler jackknifed and flipped on the Interstate 100 yards ahead of you.
Sometimes it feels like all I read or hear about in New Orleans are these fights and debates we get into — about noise ordinances or short-term rentals or the fate of St. Roch Market. They make it easy for me to judge my neighbors and to take sides, live in a community of us vs. them. They make it easy to forget that the waters are coming closer and closer, and that if we’re going to survive here, we’re going to need to be able to rely on one another.
I know to live honestly in New Orleans I have to live like the imminence of disaster is a reality. If you choose to live here now, you’re signing up for a second job, which is helping this city survive. The question is whether enough of us will assume that burden. Can we slow our minds down long enough to listen to that tug in our hearts? Can we be brave enough to really transform this city, even if that means living in ways that are completely foreign to us?
Marigny resident Kezia Kamenetz is a writer and community radio producer for WTUL. You can learn more about her work at KeziaVida.com.