I’m foregoing the many memorial and remembrance services going on around the Gulf Coast today. The President of the United States is making an appearance just a few yards from our house, but I don’t care. I’m observing the one-year anniversary of Katrina’s landfall in my own way. I’m breathing deeply and reconstructing my personal Katrina timeline. I want to record what’s gone on in our lives over the last year, compactly in one place, and see what it adds up to, if anything.
- Friday, August 26th: Xy and I went out with our friend David for dinner at Zydeque (delicious) and the movie Grizzly Man (creepy). Little did we know this would be our last normal night in New Orleans.
- Saturday, August 27th: Got the morning paper off the front porch and saw Katrina was headed right for us. This was the first I’d heard of the storm. Within an hour I’d planned our evacuation route, before Xy even got out of bed. We decided to get up early Sunday and check the projected track and make our decision then.
- Sunday, August 28th: Got up at 3:00 AM and decided to bug out. As I wrote that morning, “Worst case scenario: Lake Ponchartrain floods the city, and our neighborhood is under many feet of water for many weeks to come. We wouldn’t want to be here for that.” Hit the road by 5:00 AM. By 10:00 AM we were in Winona, Mississippi. I had the presence of mind to videotape our evacuation, but not to bring any valued possessions up from the basement.
- Monday, August 29th: We woke up to see Katrina tearing the roof off the Superdome on CNN. We figured it might be a few days before we’d be able to go home. So we decided to head on up to Bloomington, Indiana and bunk with Xy’s parents. By the time we got there we’d learned the breaches of the industrial canal were flooding the Lower Ninth Ward. We wondered about our friend Gina, who’d just bought a house there.
- Tuesday, August 30th: I was sleeping in. Xy told me their was news of a levee breach. I thought they were still talking about the industrial canal, but when I got up I learned it was the outfall canals and that most of the city was flooding. I knew then that our neighborhood was flooded, but still clung to the insane hope that our house was dry. Katrina rain fell in Bloomington, and there were a few flash floods in Indiana. It begins to sink in that we are hurricane refugees.
- Wednesday, August 31st: I remember walking around my in-laws’ suburban-style subdivision, overwhelmed with rage, grief and shame. Xy and her mother went shopping for clothes as it became obvious we wouldn’t be going home anytime soon, and we didn’t bring much with us.
- Saturday, September 3rd: Absurdly, I attend my 20th high school reunion. I never intended to be in Indiana at that time.
- Early September: I learn that Michael, who rode out Katrina in our neighborhood, is alive and now in Omaha. We move into a house on the East side of Bloomington, with a free month’s rent graciously donated by Tim and Sue Mayer. Xy gets a job in the local school system.
- September 15th: I learn from an online resource that our neighborhood is completely drained of floodwaters.
- September 16th: I do one day’s work on a renovation for $9 an hour.
- September 23rd-27th: Michael and I make a trip to New Orleans to check on our homes and retrieve some possessions. Hurricane Rita makes landfall in western Louisiana just as we get there; Rita’s surge refloods the Lower Nine. We stay at Howie’s and sneak in to Mid-City twice. Michael helps me remove most of the flooded possessions from our house.
- October 9th-21st: I borrow Dad’s truck for a solo flight back down to New Orleans. I stay on David’s futon. Most days I go to work on my house. It’s exhausting, gut-wrenching, heart-breaking work but it makes me feel better. A bright note: Waiting premieres at the Prytania.
- October 29th: The first day I didn’t cry in two months. I will shed many more tears in the months to come, but for a couple days in late October, my eyes were dry.
- October 30th: I learn I’ve still got a job at the University.
- November 16th-17th: Xy and I move back to New Orleans. We drive in separate cars (one, a rental) because I “rescued” too many items from our house.
- November 17th-December 3rd: Xy and I stay at David’s while working on our house. Our cats live at our house, but we only sleep there on warm nights.
- December 4th: With gas back on, we’ve got heat and hot water, and we officially move off David’s futon and back into our house. We have no electricity and no neighbors. Indeed there are neither people nor lights for many blocks in every direction. But we are not afraid. Somebody has to be first.
- December 5th: Xy gets a job in the new Algiers Charter Schools Association.
- December 21st: Our electricity is turned on, a couple weeks earlier than we expected.
- January 2nd: Mail arrives at our house again.
- January 4th: We have neighbors. Ironically, they’re Mexicans from Indianapolis.
- January 9th: I return to work.
- January 11th: The mayor’s Bring New Orleans Back plan indicates neighborhoods will have four months to prove their viability. As we’ll all learn, however, the BNOB planning process itself proves not to be viable.
- January 17th: School starts at the University. Sophmom has said that the re-opening of New Orleans colleges has been the single most hopeful moment in the recovery so far, and I tend to agree.
- February 28th: Most meaningful Mardi Gras ever.
- March 20th: Work begins on the renovation of our house.
- May 31st: I post a rough skeleton of a recovery plan for Mid-City.
And… hmmm… could that be it? Work on our house continues. Work on the recovery plan continues. Plenty of other things have happened and are still happening, of course. It’s Katrina every day down here. But compiling the above timeline makes me feel better. I see a little progress. The dramatic points of my personal experience are getting farther and farther between — and that’s a good thing.
Don’t get me wrong. New Orleans is still in a precarious state. We are not OK, not by a long shot. They still don’t have potable water in the Lower Ninth Ward. A couple hundred thousand New Orleanians remain displaced from their homes. In my own neighborhood, there are more rentals becoming available, but the majority of houses still stand vacant and empty and uninhabitable.
Strangely enough, we feel forgotten. This feeling persists despite the barrage of media coverage, despite the fact that we know most Americans remain sympathetic to our plight. Why do we feel this way? Perhaps, in part, it’s by way of contrast to the terrorist attacks of September 11th. I hate to make that comparison in light of Nagin’s recent gaffe, but it’s hard to avoid.
As David Rutledge notes,
People do not know how to think about this disaster. There is nothing for people to latch onto. There were no toppling towers. No great symbols of the destruction. The date does not resonate. August 29 — 8/29. Plus, that is not even the date of most of the destruction. The levees broke, the city sank, and the houses sat and soaked for days after that. There were no great leaders, not even leaders who were great for a day.
As Marc Pagani observes,
I remember after 9/11, I saw big warehouses with American flags painted on their sides and the words ‘9/11 – NEVER AGAIN.’ Will we ever see signs like that in relation to New Orleans? What would they say?
This is not to discount the thousands of volunteers who’ve come down here to help us. Some come for a day, some for a week, some have moved here. Thousands of Americans have supported us in other ways. We’re very grateful. Thank you, all.
And yet I know from past experience that anytime I post something like this, there’s a good chance someone will come along and call New Orleans a “cesspool,” not worthy of rebuilding. Such hatred is hard to stomach.
Down here we’re doing the best we can. This one-year mark is not the end of the story. It’s only the first chapter. We’ll be recovering for the rest of our lives. We will do so with passion, creativity, love and imagination. Join us if you dare, or watch from afar. I promise you one thing: It won’t be boring. It will be the story of the century.
And we’ll have a great soundtrack.