Thinking of New Orleans

Seven years ago today, Hurricane Katrina made landfall.

I know I’m not the only person who wept as the images unfolded that week. Civilization suddenly seemed more tenuous than ever—hospitals going dark, overwhelmed police force going mad, Coast Guard pilots (and self-reliant Cajuns with their own boats) going full-tilt to save people stranded on roofs, trapped in attics…and there were so many to save. 

New Orleans wasn’t the only place to sustain shattering, unimaginable losses. That wall of water erased entire ways of life in Southern Louisiana—a story told to stunningly beautiful, mythic effect in Beasts of the Southern Wild, a film that’s more about loss itself than Katrina or the swamplands of the Gulf.

But then, the memory of what happened to Louisiana seven years ago does possess a certain mythic quality, at least to those of us who watched helplessly from afar. We couldn’t fathom the scale of it, so we imposed our own narratives upon the awful scenes: It was God’s wrath, failed governance, global warming, human folly; uglier narratives unfolded as well, many of them based on racism and the assumptions we make about people who have nothing.

And in the end, it was people with nothing who lost the most.

Why is it that we need stories to help us grasp this? Facts—275,000 homes lost to Katrina—don’t penetrate. Drive through the poorest neighborhoods in New Orleans, places that still resemble third-world countries and may never be restored, and you maybe begin to fathom what was lost, and who did most of the losing. But for some reason, it’s easier for people to cry for a fictional 6-year-old named Hush Puppy (of aforementioned film), who lives in a ramshackle trailer on a mythical Louisiana island. When she loses everything, we weep. Entire theaters weep.

Hush Puppy spins her own tale to explain the destruction of her world: melting ice caps have loosed a stampede of ice-age aurochs; she must face them down in order to survive and save what’s left of her way of life. Magical thinking, to be sure—but for a tiny girl from a remote and isolated place utterly dependent on the vagaries of water, it’s not too surprising that prehistoric creatures, made monstrous in her imagination, might play a role.

As disaster narratives go, this one is probably less harmful than most.

Why do we turn to these stories? For shelter. We need an explanation, because “It happened for no reason at all” is somehow too horrifying to face. It means the universe is random, and disaster can fall upon anyone, the undeserving…even us. And so we find ways to blame the stricken, to protect ourselves from the awful possibility that we are utterly fragile, vulnerable, and breakable. That we will die, no matter how well we behave.

I’m thinking of the coast and of my favorite city today, as Hurricane Isaac rages ashore, following the waste laid by Katrina. In 2005, I cried for New Orleans. I would love to believe that I wept for everyone, especially for the people who truly lost everything—who never made it out of attics, who became a spray-painted number in one sector of a chilling X—code of loss. For the people who still search for mothers and sons. For the unwiling New Orleans diaspora, making new lives in Houston and Birmingham.

But I worry that I was mostly crying for myself. I grieved for my own story—my story with Hal, which began in that magical city thirteen years ago this month. It’s so hard to see past our own interests, the stories we construct to comfort ourselves and to explain the world and its inevitable horrors. But it’s important to try.

And so today, I’m thinking of NOLA and the storm-lashed South. If you live and work and raise your children there, I send you my best wishes—this time, only for yourselves, and not for your future part in my story. I do hope our paths cross many more times; but mostly, I hope you abide.*

* Let’s help the Gulf abide: To donate to Red Cross Gulf relief efforts, visit www.redcross.org, call 1-800-RED CROSS (1-800-733-2767), or text REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation.

Related post: NOLA’s Exquisite Corpses

Related post: More Love for NOLA

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77 thoughts on “Thinking of New Orleans

    • the mess in New Orleans, Katrina, did not happen for no reason. (As stated in the article). It happened because idiots built New Orleans below sea level, and then the maintenance people did not keep the dikes up, or the levees, or what ever they are; all of this was not taken care of by human beings. In other words, they screwed it up as usual and that is why you had such catastrophe.

      If maintenance on all the dikes and levees, had been taken care of properly, you would not have had such a disaster. And yes, the “world climate change” is making worse weather, worse and worse everywhere, and that’s the other reason. Already, natives on Tahitian islands, have had to abandon them, because they are no longer livable from the weather.

      the other reason for this catastrophe, is that the federal government knew this bad hurricane was coming, and did not warn anyone. Plus, several days after the catastrophe of Katrina, the federal government completely failed to act in any manner. This means, we cannot any longer depend on the federal government to act in any United States emergency or catastrophe.

      All we citizens are on our own.you cannot blame this catastrophe solely on the weather; all the human beings involved who were responsible, have dropped the ball and screwed up completely. And even worse thing is, they don’t care. And they’ll just do it again.

  1. Kim, you have such a beautiful way with words. I too have been thinking of my favorite city of NO, thank you for reminding us of the others thinking about what happened to them seven years ago.

  2. Thank you for your post. You have forced me to think both of myself and past myself to the actual people who are trying to live actual lives in the face of actual tragedy. My frailty and ultimate mortality are at the heart of how I comprehend the world. That is to say, as long as it happens far off, I’m okay. My world goes on. I don’t have to worry about calamity and misfortune. Yet perhaps we would do better by coming to terms with our weaknesses, limitations, and tragedy. Maybe then we can genuinely reach out to others as ones who have been (maybe not exactly “there”, but) there before.

    • I think we all believe ourselves to be compassionate people. But to actually feel what other people feel, people we’ve never met, it’s easier said. I guess it just takes practice and effort. Thanks so much for your note!

  3. I was on holiday in NO just two months ago from England and was really reminded about hurricane Katrina. I think it’s fair to say that we viewed the disaster from a distance, “that awful thing that happened in America”. Before I went, I have to admit that I was concerned about the affects of the hurricane, but in a completely superficial, self-interested way (ie. will it be worth going).

    Being there was a really sobering experience. I was shocked at how some parts of the city just haven’t been repaired. And I was also struck by the hardened distinction between the rich and the poor. I’m originally from Africa so I’ve seen my fair share of of poverty, but never like this in a first world country. It really made me uncomfortable. I just don’t understand. A beautiful city nonetheless.

  4. I know how you feel. Members of my family lost their home, not to Katrina, but after the levees broke. I would play the song When The Levee Breaks covered by Led Zeppelin over and over again as a way to mourn for a city I love and those lost. We can all be thankful that Isaac was not a Katrina, but still pray for those who may have lost their home or are still in the dark from loss of power.

    • Yes! And I think NOLA has become quite a hopeful place in many ways. So many forward-thinking young people with energy and ideas have moved there, and there are lots of folks thinking up ways to make better cities.

  5. It was great reading your blog and many people can be touch by your words and lets just keep the world in our prayers so the disaster don’t reach everyone and can have a fast recovery from any tragedy.

  6. A story so close to the heart, almost like you can feel the pain of them all just by reading your words. I live all the way in South Africa, and unfortunately, I hadn’t paid so much of attention to the loss people suffered. But your story ignited something in me… I’m yet to describe.
    Thanks for such a touching post.

    • Thanks for sharing! I thought your photos really captured the sense of personal loss so many people felt—felt particularly strongly about the photo of the hanging clothes. So intimate.

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  10. I really enjoyed your perspective on Katrina and New Orleans. Many years ago I lived in New Orleans and the city is vivid part of my story. As a photographer I also appreciated the beautiful visuals which accompanied your words.

  11. Seven years ago today, Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans and the people who lived there are still awaiting for their promised assistance, that never was intended to be offered to them, what a shame !

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  14. Beautifully written. Maybe we search for stories as it is easier to comprhend the suffering of one family or a couple of groups than it is to deal with vast numbers like 275,000 which are so big they lose all comprehension for the numbers we are used to interacting with and can take in?

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  16. This is thought provoking and wonderfully written. I live in London, England so we have not experienced this kiind of thing (as yet, hopefully not) But you are so right about these things . We do tend to hook on to these things to weep for ourselves x

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  18. Thank you so much for opening this new world of search and rescue communications for me. It was fascinating and made the true extent of disasters so much more real.

  19. Many Thanks for this Great blog, I live in Scotland, and I remember vividly, the images of the damage that ‘Katrina’ inflicted on these poor people, and of the delay of not getting the help they desperately needed at the time, I often think of them,
    Thanks again,
    John Bogie. (Glasgow, Scotland)

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