On this anniversary, it was a good idea to not keep things bottled up

Two months after hurricane Katrina and the Federal Flood, I drove back to the Broadmoor neighborhood to gut my house. Slaloming around debris, I became overwhelmed with cognitive dissonance. The new imprints on my senses didn’t jibe with my old memories of home.

For instance, all the pleasant greens were now desolate browns. The fragrant air had soured into (an unforgettable) stench. There were piles of wreckage 10 feet high, and the roar of diesel engines echoed off them.

Trying to stay focused, I turned on South Salcedo Street towards the old homestead. But instead of familiar parked cars marked with bumper stickers, I saw lines of fat refrigerators wrapped in duct tape. An elderly neighbor was dragging a big maroon chair to the curb.

I was anxious to finally see how bad my house had been hit. Let me just get inside and remove the mystery, I thought. But this was my first dance with the “new normal,” and it was going to foil all my comforting habits. A fallen tree blocked the driveway, so I couldn’t park behind my house.  Then the front door wouldn’t open, because it had swollen shut. I sighed and looked around the block and wondered how a place that flooded could get so damn dusty. Then I heard some hammers banging not too far away, and it gave me some hope. I popped the trunk and removed my new boots and the borrowed ventilator mask. Once I put those on, I pried the side door open with a crow bar.

Gross. What a dark, soggy, sad scene that was. Most of you know what I’m talking about.

Actually, my task that day was to prep the house for gutting. I was to collect any salvageable items in the house and then drag everything else out to the street. But before I began the grunt work, I noticed something.

A plastic bin full of floodwater sat in the kitchen. For reasons I still can’t explain, I felt the immediate urge to save some. So I grabbed a glass bottle from under the sink, filled it with the orange-tinted foul stuff and twisted the cap on extra tight. Maybe I was surprised at how dry the city had become (I guess I was expecting to see lots of puddles) and thought some “real” floodwater would be valuable some day. Or maybe I just felt guilty that I evacuated, and had to watch New Orleans drown on TV, along with the rest of the country. Perhaps I wanted a tangible link to Hurricane Katrina, to show off my credibility.

Whatever my motivations, I kept that bottle of dubious fluid close to my desk for the next 70 months. Occasionally I’d glance at it, eye the various impurities floating around, and reflect a bit.

But then last week I impulsively grabbed the bottle, took it outside and poured it out on my lawn. I’m not sure why I did this, either. But I gotta tell you, it felt surprisingly liberating.

This is the sixth anniversary of Katrina and the Federal Flood, and we seem to be caught in a weird “tweener” phase. We want to be more optimistic and look forward, but we can’t forget our profound losses, nor ignore the communities still reeling from the disaster. Nor can we ignore the persistent mega-problem of inadequate flood protection, which will surely bite us in the ass at some unknown future date.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu speaks about the city moving from a recovery phase to a “let’s get it done” phase. Local blogger Pistolette has decided to look forward to the city’s tricentennial rather than rehash Katrina. Over the weekend I met a friend who hadn’t visited New Orleans since 2006. She was floored by the obvious progress the city has made.

Clearly we should look forward and should progress. I think it’s a false choice to say that we can’t look ahead without ignoring the people and neighborhoods still struggling to recover.

But there’s another side of the coin. While we’ll never forget what happened six years ago, we will have to work hard to stay mindful about the lessons from the disaster, so that we never repeat our mistakes or blithely overlook our vulnerabilities. Also, we’ll have to look back so that we can persuasively resist all the false narratives that congealed in 2005, throughout the rest of the country, because many of these myths continue to harm us now.

Even in New Orleans, we have no choice but to synthesize the competing imperatives of living forward while carrying a long memory. Our scars are too deep to forget, but life only comes at us from one direction: the forward present, day after day after day.

I’d never tell people how they should or shouldn’t spend Aug. 29. We can all decide that for ourselves. However, I will offer a suggestion to you this year, based on my experience. If you’ve been holding on to a particular bottle of Katrina for the past six years, out of habit, and aren’t entirely sure why, consider taking it outside and emptying it. You might feel better.

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  • Janiebt

    Great piece, Mark.
    IMO, one can reflect on and remember a painful event and still move forward. They are not mutually exclusive. I still pause every year on the day my dad died (I was 13). That doesn’t mean I’m stuck there.
    I agree with you that we can all decide for ourselves.

  • I felt the same way this year. I’ve travelled thru the 9th Ward and St. Bernard and see that there is much to be done. But I also see that much HAS been done in the past six years, so it’s time to drop the “we are not okay” and adopt “we are coming back” motto in my opinion. Time to be positive.