Jul 19, 2012

My Experience of Hurricane Katrina & How It Changed My Life...pt. 4

My aunt, her husband and I decided it was time to return home, or as close as we could get to it, while my cousin decided to relocate to North Carolina as he was offered a job and a place to live by one of his college mates.  By the time we got to my great aunts' house we'd been displaced a total of 5 weeks.  Some other family members (another aunt, her boyfriend and an uncle) decided to stay with my great aunt as well so there was a total of 8 of us including my great aunt and her husband in a 2 bedroom home of which there were no available bedrooms for the guests.  That's a total of 6 adults on air mattresses spread out between the living room and dining room.  In slang terms...shit just got real.  I neglected to mention earlier that my aunt had "snuck" back to New Orleans while we were still in Baton Rouge when the city was still flooded and reported lots of floating dead bodies and disaster everywhere.  By this time civilians were allowed but not encouraged to return to the city so both anxiously and apprehensively my aunt Gloria and I decided we could wait no longer. We had to see what kind of damage our homes had.  As we drove across the Crescent City Connection-Mississippi River Bridge and approached the city a stench emanated and seemed to seep into our very pores.  It was the stench of death and it lingered over the city like a pea soup fog.  As we passed the Superdome with it's barely there patchwork quilt of a roof I prayed a silent prayer for the people who had been stranded there and in front of the Convention Center for days on end in the days that followed the flooding from the levee breach.  An ordeal I wouldn't come to terms with until years later when I watched Spike Lee's When The Levees Broke.  I'd heard first hand stories of the crimes that took place there from people directly involved in intervening in many of them but nothing brought it home for me like watching that documentary.  Again you must remember, I shut off mentally so I wasn't absorbing anything as it was happening.  It was only after and still that images pop back and I find myself having to deal or not deal with them rationally.

We took her car since I'd decided to leave mine in Baton Rouge when we left for Dallas so naturally we went to her house first.  My biggest fear about returning to the desolate city, 2 women alone, was to find either a dead body or swamp creatures/snakes in my house.  We got to her house in the Faubourg St. John neighborhood to find minimal damage.  A few felled trees, damage to her wrought iron fence where someone removed a panel to gain access to her yard but didn't enter her house and her boyfriends car flooded out.  There was no flood damage to her home and I guess since she didn't live very far from me, it gave me a glint of hope.  Although I'd seen the damage via google earth, I prayed the water subsided shortly after and that maybe, just maybe there'd be something to salvage.  We were greeted at my house by huge red numbers, letters and words spray painted on the front of my house to the left of my front door.  A view that would become all too familiar and eventually synonymous with Hurricane Katrina.   There were 2 large aluminum pans on my porch one filled with dog food, the other empty.  I assumed it'd been filled with water by an animal rescue crew in the days following Katrina for any stray animals that may have been stranded.  I opened the door which had been broken down I'm sure to check for survivors or worse, casualties, thus the red spray painted numbers on the house.  To my horror it was just much worse than I'd expected.  No dead bodies and no swamp animals thank goodness but sludge, mud, mold and stench from floor to ceiling.  I quickly toured my once beautiful home astonished at some of the places things ended up.  Some things that were in one room were on a completely different side of the house, granted entry by walls that were no longer there.  Some things like the coffee table and it's contents still placed as if nothing even happened.  Including the remote controls still in place on the table.  This tidbit amused me, it was unbelievable, things that were inside were now outside and vice versa and here, sitting on the coffee table as if I'd just left it there that morning was the remote control.  It was a sign.  Their was an atmosphere of chaos all around the house but much like myself, this remote control was standing strong, holding it's position in it's ever changing surroundings.  I decided at that moment, no matter the damage, I was going to rebuild my home, my city and my life and all 3 would be stronger because of the turmoil we'd all survived. 

2 weeks after arriving in Marrero, my family decided it was time to buy a generator and move back to the family home.  The second floor received no damage, so we'd at least have the two things we'd craved since evacuating.  Peace and Space.  There were very few people living in the city at this time and no one else back in our neighborhood but there were quite a few "relief" centers set up that issued supplies like non perishable foods, survival kits, tons of bottled water, cleaning supplies and the like.  We decided to stock up on survival supplies such as rubber boots, masks, gloves etc to try to begin the process of cleaning up.  I'd learned that although the 2nd floor of the family home was untouched the basement, which housed the few remaining keepsakes I'd stored of my mothers was completely flooded and that I now had...nothing.  No pictures, no books, no valuables, nothing to remind me of her.  Nothing to pass down to my generations.  Nothing to back up the stories I'm sure to tell of a phenomenal woman who left a legacy to be unmatched in generations to come.  It was all simply gone.  In all this loss, while surviving in zombie mode unable to feel or react or respond to what had happened there was a group of people who's faces reflected those of us survivors.  They were the faces of the National Guard.  The servicemen, most baby faced, barely 25 years old weighted down by artillery, ammunition and disbelief.  They were kind, they were caring and they were shell shocked.  All of them taking the time while patrolling the area to stop and talk and share.  They were half amazed at the resilience we expressed in deciding to come back home in the midst of chaos and half afraid at the safety of our deciding to do so.  But they all shared a look of...disbelief.  I asked each one I encountered why they had that look on their faces as it was a look that spoke louder than any kind words or smiles they mustered for us and each and everyone told me the following.  I've been over seas in action and I've seen the destruction of war.  This is so much worse and I never thought I would see a city in my country reduced to this.  These were their words, many of them from that very area, most of them not.  I wanted to cry for them, just as they may have wanted to cry for me.  In this there were no "enemies" (aside from the government who neglected us in every way possible).  There was a sense of community.  Everyone helped the next person the best way they could whether they new them, trusted them, liked them or not.  We were one.  The city, the state, the country, the world.  Being on the ground in the midst of it all we didn't have access to outlets that broadcasted the worlds outpouring of compassion.  The Oprah's, CNN's, Tyler Perry's, Fundraising Marathons didn't reach us.  These were all rumors, hear-say, things we'd heard about after the fact and still can neither confirm or deny.  Our realities were no lights, cold food, boiled water, planes flying over spraying unknown chemicals that stung the eyes, gnats and flies, stray animals, trying not to break your neck on a late night visit to the bathroom, death, odor, and a country who didn't give a good gott damn about it.  Neither President Bush, Brownie, Blanco, Nagin, my neighborhood or even my family gave a second thought to the fact that there was a black woman, who'd lost her best friend, her mother, her home, everything she ever owned, the very accomplishment that she was a woman who'd just began to come into her own.  Just began to make a life for herself, just settled in to begin the process of mourning, just settled into the prospect of forging ahead preparing for a better life, only to have it all snatched away overnight.  Because we were all suffering, dealing with our losses, being forced to survive in a society with a culture so unlike our own.  There was no room for how I felt.  How I would recover.  If I would survive.  I knew that I was the only one who could decide what my future would be and how I would process the whole experience.  But as many of us survivors will tell you on this very day, we are not healed.  We have not processed, we did not mourn, we are still suffering emotionally, economically, definitely mentally (we can't remember shit), PTSD I'm sure, we're still operating in survival mode and we still aren't sure if we'll ever be able to completely recover.  While I can't relate everyone's experience dealing with Hurricane Katrina, I can't even tell you the full extent of mine in these 4 pages, there's always so much more to the story for all of us.  I can tell that we're here, crazy as we might be...lol, and we're here to stay.  Whether we're in New Orleans, Texas, Georgia, Utah, Canada or France, we'll always be right here.  In The Big Easy.


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