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.
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