Looking east from Mid-City toward downtown New Orleans. Photo by Tom Wright/The Lens

About five years after my exile — first to Plano, then to Carrollton, Texas — I was finally able to come back to my home in New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina caused so many disruptions in our lives as well as the lives of most people in this city. In hindsight, some think that the change was for the better. But I could NEVER forgive or forget the devastation, loss of lives, and total agony and pain that we went through. If Hurricane Katrina was a human being, she would put my soul in jeopardy of hell’s fire because I would not be able to forgive her. There would be no place for the model prayer which asks God to forgive us as we forgive others. I just can’t forgive how Hurricane Katrina split up our family, took away my grandkids and first-born great-grandson, and stole the first few years of my time with my other grandkids. 

The storm also caused the brief loss of our beloved dog, an Akita named Candy. We had to leave her behind but, after three long months of agony and worrying whether she was alive or not, we were able to get her back thanks to some volunteers from an animal rescue group. Still, I can’t forgive that storm.  So, I’m glad that it is not a person that I have to forgive. 

When we finally returned to the city, it was called the New New Orleans. We had to deal with a New Normal. There were new people, new businesses, a new mayor, and new ways of doing some of the old things. The city had more restaurants with sidewalk cafes and more outside eateries than the streets of Paris or the waterways of Venice. We had more restaurants with ‘different’ cuisines, such as Greek foods, a cheese sandwich restaurant, vegan bar. Whoever heard of a vegan gumbo? Well, it’s now a part of the New New Orleans, along with other New Creole foods that are really not Creole. (I won’t even try to explain what happened to Cajun and Soul foods). We have bike lanes on two-way streets. Anyone ever tried driving down Magazine or Tchoupitoulas streets when there are cars parked on both sides and bikes are trying to maneuver in their lanes? Good luck and God bless! Welcome to the New New Orleans. 

Who could ever imagine that, in “The City That Care Forgot,” and that Hurricane Katrina tried to destroy, we have yet another New Normal, which has become my New Abnormal? When the history books tell the story of what the coronavirus did to an entire nation, we will need to incorporate a new set of words and phrases: social distancing, leaning in, flattening the curve, and stay safe, among other words. The death toll from COVID-19 will be compared to the worst wars in our history. The numbers already are staggering, locally and globally. 

In Louisiana, our governor keeps telling us about the New Normal and how things will now look in the future. And for someone who has already had to adjust to the New Normal, post-Katrina, this will be a major shift.  

I come from a hugging, kissing kind of family here in New Orleans. And from the responses that I get, many families are the same way here in the Big Easy. We hug when we meet. We kiss when we greet. We shake hands when we make new acquaintances. That’s just how it’s always been here. Growing up, whenever I went to my grandmother’s house, I was greeted with a hug and kiss and vice versa. Her hugs made me feel safe when I was a child. They comforted me when I was a teenager. And when I had my children, before I went home from the hospital, I brought them to my grandmother so that she could “look upon them,” speak a word of blessings and wisdom over them and give them a gentle hug. If my uncles were there, they also got a hug and kiss, and not just because they were my uncles — they were also my pastors. We hugged our pastors, our lawyers, our teachers, our doctors, and even some of our politicians! That’s the “Old” New Orleans. That was how the “Old” Normal worked. 

Now we will have to learn how NOT TO TOUCH. Greet your friends and family with a fist bump, an elbow bump, or just say hello at a six-feet gap of social distancing. That’s the New New Normal. That’s part of what COVID-19 did to our city. And when we bid farewell we may not say, “See ya later,” or “Tell ya mama ‘em I said hi,” or “I’ll holler back at ya later.” Instead, the New New Normal thing to say more likely will be “stay safe.” 

The New New Normal threatens to be a cold, sterile existence, devoid of those physical gestures of love, respect and affection that older generations took for granted. The natural things that we did, the touching, hugging, kissing, will all be things of the past — at least, to the degree they once were — because of COVID-19. Faces will be hidden. And to paraphrase one of our local rap artists (Lil Wayne), we’ll be “wearin’ masks like glasses.” And I don’t think that I want any part of it.  

Willmarine B. Hurst is a freelance writer in New Orleans. She can be reached at willmarine@gmail.com.

The Opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Engagement Editor Tom Wright at twright@thelensnola.org.