Six years ago today I woke up in a hotel room in northern Mississippi with Xy and three cats. We turned on the television and saw Katrina ripping the roof off the Superdome. We decided to keep on trucking, and we headed up to Indiana to bunk with my in-laws for a few days. When I went to bed that night we all thought New Orleans had come through more or less intact. The Lower Ninth Ward was in trouble, but Katrina had jogged east and the core of the city was only lightly bruised. We thought we’d return later that week.
It wasn’t until the next morning that we learned the awful truth. The storm had passed, but the city was slowly filling up with water. How could this happen?
Contrary to the popular vernacular expression, the levees had not failed. The floodwalls along certain drainage canals had collapsed. These canals take water out of the city to the lake; now they were functioning in reverse, allowing high water in Lake Pontchartrain to come into the city. Street by street, block by block, the water came higher.
That’s how our house and pretty near our whole damn neighborhood was flooded. As later came to light, the design flaw in the canals was known but not addressed. Now gates have been built on those canals that are supposed to prevent water from flowing the wrong way. Whether those gates will actually work is open to question.
And so came many days and years of rage and heartache. The experience has been harrowing, but it’s not unfathomable. Have you ever lost a loved one to senseless violence? I think it’s like that, except multiplied across a whole community.
We got through it. I personally have survived, and even thrived, and you might say that we were made whole in an economic sense. But I don’t exist in a vacuum. Xy’s career was upended, as all public school teachers were fired after Katrina. There’s a class action lawsuit on that issue that still awaits a ruling. And how can we ever be whole if our community is fractured and suffering?
And then there is this headline from today’s paper:
New Orleans levees get a near-failing grade in new corps rating system
I read that and sigh. We’ve got to do better.
As much as we like to style ourselves as different and unique, I think the challenges New Orleans faces are emblematic of the nation as whole — indeed, of the human race at this moment in history. Crumbling infrastructure, dysfunctional government, environmental degradation, social inequities, you name it. It’s all here in extreme form, but we’ve hardly cornered the market. These things are ubiquitous. We’re only reflecting and encapsulating the future we all share.