The unthankful heart… discovers no mercies; but let the thankful heart sweep through the day and, as the magnet finds the iron, so it will find, in every hour, some heavenly blessings!
~ Henry Ward Beecher
I count my blessing. Tomorrow, I take a moment of silence to reflect on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Below is an essay I wrote in early 2008. Before you read it, I offer some background information.
(Photo by NOAA: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, United States Department of Commerce. There are more of Katrina at this link.)
When Hurricane Katrina struck, I lived in Kansas. In life, to have one, sometimes you have to go where work is available, and that took us to the Midwest. My family and I were returning from a two-week trip to Yellowstone National Park. I was still recovering from a bad bout with pneumonia for which I had been hospitalized months earlier. While away, we paid little attention to news. We arrived home on Sunday night, August 28th to the impending horrors of the storm.
After the storm hit, I volunteered with the Red Cross. I did several rounds of disaster training, but my doctor would not clear me to travel to New Orleans or anywhere on the Gulf Coast. I had to do something, watching the news and waiting for word from family and friends just about unhinged me. In Kansas City, I helped the local Red Cross agency create a database of folks volunteering. Names were prioritized by skill set—first responders were needed immediately—like doctors, firefighters, EMS workers and nurses. Construction workers and companies with heavy equipment came next. I answered phones, took down information, asked for contributions, anything that needed to be done that I could do was neither too small a task or too large. And I cried every day.
I traveled to the Gulf Coast about a year after the storm, but did not go into New Orleans, though I read and watched and listed for all the news I could get. Things were bad, conditions remained rough, crime skyrocketed beyond the universe. It pained me greatly. It still brings tears to my eyes.
Here, I want to ask you—do you know what your Red Cross does in the case of an emergency? You might be surprised to find out what you can expect…
New Orleans continues to recover from Hurricane Katrina. Remember those crosses the National Guard painted on houses to indicate body count? Houses with those marking still remain today. (I took this photo in February 2013.) The population of New Orleans has been reduced by about a third. Imagine a packed movie theater and a third of the people up and leave, or a packed football stadium where a third of the folks file out and never return.
I hope you come to understand just how much New Orleans means to me. It is truly the one place on this earth where I feel totally welcomed when I’m there. I have lived in many places, but I carry the Big Easy in my heart wherever I go.
Where were you on Monday, August 29th, 2005?
How did Hurricane Katrina touch your life? Please share your story.
Please enjoy my essay: My Childhood Lives
Glued to the television, I continued to hit the remote in a state of numb disbelief. Television station after station documented Hurricane Katrina’s destruction the moment the sun rose on August 29th. Helpless, I watched and prayed and waited to hear that my family in ‘the City that Care Forgot’ survived. What about our island home? The titanic storm’s wreckage brought Coleridge’s poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, “…water, water, everywhere. Nor any drop to drink” into sharp focus.
My fears escalated along with my tears while I listened to sensationalized and inaccurate news. I shouted at the CNN news anchor displaying aerial photos, along with his “so-called” New Orleans expert, who incorrectly identified landmarks soaking in brown brackish water. (This photo is from Wiki)
“Xavier College!” I cried while they scratched their heads and continued to puzzle over a shot. If they didn’t know obvious, identifying features of the city, how could I trust anything they had to say?
I called my sister in a panic. “They’ve forgotten about the Convention Center. I know people are there.” Anyone who truly knew the city would deduce the same thing. Given all the warnings to evacuate, it provided the nearest refuge for those living in low-income neighborhoods only blocks away. A single mother with a toddler and a baby on her hip, toting the barest necessities–like diapers and formula, couldn’t make it to the Superdome without transportation. And what about the elderly or other indisposed folks?
The media took days to discover the tragedies, and city officials acted as if they had no care for anyone who sought shelter there.
Overwhelmed, I continued to watch the reports. Not only were entire neighborhoods missing, but people were lost, separated from loved ones, some dead. I wept for the living—hungry, thirsty, and scared. When the media labeled them refugees, my anger hit a higher notch. They weren’t foreign oppressed or persecuted people seeking safety in our country! Those homeless, shelter-seeking folks were friends, family, and kin-at-heart trying to survive in a hurricane-wasted place.
After several days, I breathed a small sigh of relief. Everyone in my family lived. Houses and property sustained damage, some of it severe, but there were no broken bones, and no funerals to plan. Not all of our friends were so fortunate. A few didn’t survive to mourn the damages to their homes. In our grief, we offered prayers.
Two years passed since that fateful August day and I had to make a trip home. My father cautioned me, asked me to reconsider. “The city and the island needed more time to heal.” He urged me to wait because I was the tender, sentimental one.
“I’m prepared. After all, I listened to all the reports, looked at the pictures you’ve sent. Talked to family and friends. I know what to expect. I can handle it.”
I had to go.
As the car left Kansas and raced south, I barely saw the passing scenery: transformations of flint hills and farms and broad-leaf oaks to fertile delta plains and cotton fields and planted-pine forests. When majestic magnolias and moss draped loblolly pines surrounded me, roadside stands appeared with rough painted signs that advertised seafood and the enticements of lagniappe.
I was almost home.
Tingling anticipation raced through me and did roller coaster loop-de-loops. I squirmed in my seat and checked the road atlas for exit numbers, mile markers and other significant sites. When the car stopped, I wrestled with my seatbelt, anxious to plant my feet on the ground.
Under a bright fall sun, a careless breeze blew my hair, a seagull cried, and the smell of salt-water wafted to my nose. Standing by the side of the road, looking down the shell-crushed alley, I staggered.
My most cherished place in the entire world was that spit of land between the Big Easy and the sleepy town of Slidell. The Chef Menteur highway, an old toothpick, blacktop road traveled the length of the small, no-name island. Historic Fort Pike protected the north end while the Rigolets and Lake St. Catherine surrounded it. Camps, houses on stilts with docks for front yards and boat sheds instead of garages, had been two hundred strong. At least that’s how looked when I had last visited.
I recognized little.
A monstrous bridge under construction looked like skyline graffiti. Fort Pike, completely submerged by the storm after standing for three-hundred years, remained fenced behind prison-high chain-link. No one allowed in or out without a hardhat and government permission.
My grandfather’s camp—gone—pilings and all. Only one ragged corner of gray concrete block, waist high–what used to be the downstairs apartment, remained. The bayou’s green vegetation encroached and threatened to cover it from sight, as if seeking to erase all hints of the past. The empty hull of the Bobby Boy, tied to a piling where a dock once stood, looked lonely without other shrimp boats and pirogues for company. And voices of family and neighbors? Silent.
Unable to hold back my sobs, they came like the water flooding over the levee, I surveyed the destruction, grasping for the past. My home-anchor was gone. Panicked, I turned my reflections to earlier days, to the memory book buried in my heart.
Growing up, I was a vagabond kid moving wherever the Air Force sent my father. I’d moved ten times before I was eighteen, living coast-to-coast and overseas. Yet, that Louisiana island was home. The only place where everyone knew me, welcomed me back, glad to see me no matter how long I’d been gone. I visited prized remembrances stored in my heart to conquer homesickness when circumstances forced me to live far away.
My childhood island days were sun-filled fantasies of fishing and shrimping and crabbing. I walked barefooted on crushed, oyster-shell paths–we called them alleys–next to weather-grey docks and deep-water canals. Trespassing, my friends and I used an abandoned boathouse as a dive platform to perform our daring acts. We splashed in murky water, and sometimes a gator watched. Thankfully, our laughter kept him away. My grandfather’s old, wooden powerboat, the Bobby Boy, withstood my maneuvering through the wide swath of treacherous tidal currents, the Rigolets.
My best friends were Deidre, Patricia Ann, and Charlene and as teenagers, they were infatuated with boys named Byron, David, and Al. We spun records on a decrepit turntable under a twirling mirrored ball while drinking orange, grape and strawberry soda, feeling quite “cool” on a humid summer’s Saturday night. Transformed, the volunteer firehouse, built decades earlier by my grandfather and other island men, became our hole-in-the-wall-joint with the wails of bluesy guitar and bass drum beats floating out across the water. There I practiced the art of southern flirtation taught to me by my girlfriends.
My step-grandmother, who remained on the island after my grandfather passed, had a big booming voice. When she bellowed, I grinned. She worked at the island’s only bar and grill owned by our family friend. Each night we gathered there for supper and my grandmother, her heart bigger than her wide girth, welcomed everyone when she set food on the community table and told us to dig in. Rich seafood gumbo, crayfish jambalaya, and fried, oyster po’ boys, a southerner’s gourmet spread.
And by each summer’s end, I was distressingly too tan for my mother’s taste, who fussed I should take greater care to protect my skin.
Yes, my childhood memories live.
Katrina’s winds and water claimed lives, tore houses from foundations, and wiped out all of the island homes. However, her ravages could not rip cherished memories from me. I carry them still, protected in my heart.
Standing on that crushed-shell alley with the sound of water lapping against the aged seawall, a peace settled over me. Calm. Complete. I looked beyond the tall reeds and vegetation, across the boat-less canal, out to the Rigolets. As the sun warmed my face, I swear I heard the tinkling laughter of my old friends. Such a sweet sound. I turned, listening harder, and then grinned. I heard my step-grandmother holler, “Dinner’s on!”