Katrina Changing City

Debris lies in the street on an abandoned block in a residential section of New Orleans East, Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015. A decade ago, polluted water up to 20 feet deep flooded 80 percent of the city. Katrina killed more than 1,500 people in Louisiana, many of them drowning inside their homes, and hundreds more simply disappeared, the National Hurricane Center reported a year later. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

I was four years old when Hurricane Katrina laid siege to New Orleans, my hometown.

The infamous storm and its immediate aftermath are a bifurcating moment in both the city’s history and the lives of many who inhabit it. Everyone over the age of 30 seems to have a story about how life in the city changed for them after Katrina—homes destroyed, careers rerouted, families separated and iconic cultural institutions closed or altered forever. 

For my peers and me, the storm is our creation myth, the primordial mist from which the world around us came to be.

The only New Orleans we know is post-Katrina.  

Too young to grasp the gravity of our predicament, these early memories of displacement are actually quite pleasant, spent in Baton Rouge surrounded by family. It never crossed my mind that we were all refugees, fleeing what was then a nearly leveled, waterlogged shantytown. It most certainly never crossed my mind that my own home would be destroyed, split in two by a toppled oak tree.

This little bubble of naïve serenity was popped, however, when my father brought me to visit our old home as repairs were underway. He wanted me to witness catastrophe being confronted and dealt with accordingly.  

This was life, a harrowing introduction to the fragility of human endeavor and the Sisyphean reality that, in the face of inevitable hardship, one has little choice but to persist. 

While I, a toddler, was obviously not grasping the totality of this insight at the time, my family's ethos of moving forward despite disaster would make an indelible mark on me as I watched storm-battered wreckage be restored to a home that I would spend the rest of my childhood in. 

I remember the ruins and I grew up in what became of them.  

Exactly 16 years later, I cannot help but consider all of this as I once again find myself caught up in the chaos of storm dodging.

However, circumstances were a bit different this time around.   

Ida’s projected path seemed impossible to gauge with any remote certainty. In the day leading up to landfall, the areas predicted to bear the brunt of the weather were shifting almost by the hour.

My options for sheltering in place were split between my off-campus apartment in Baton Rouge and my aforementioned childhood home in New Orleans. I spent the early hours of Aug. 28 tracking the news and frantically deliberating with family about which was the better prospect.

With the latest weather updates and parental reassurance on my side, I hastily made out for the Crescent City just in time for sneaky Ida to swerve eastward.  

I had evacuated into the storm. All I could do at this point was board up the windows and pray for the best. 

Within twelve hours, the view from my back window could have been J.M.W. Turner’s “Snow Storm” come to life, a whirling grey blur dotted with a diverse assortment of locally sourced projectiles.  

A professor of mine once used the example of being outside during a hurricane to illustrate Kant’s notion of the sublime, a profound experience of beauty that is as incredibly awe-inspiring as it is deeply disturbing.  

To say the least, the example proved effective.  

I opened the door to a powerful blast of wind, a startling but admittedly refreshing reprieve from the powerless house’s increasing stuffiness.  

Naturally, the typically bustling street had long been abandoned as incoming traffic was promptly replaced by airborne debris. Loose foliage whizzed past my patio. Objects hurdled into my roof with loud thwacks.

The madness held strong for hours. We hunkered down in our cave-like living room, quietly listening as the familiar voices of WWL buzzed faintly from a crank radio on the counter. It spewed increasingly ominous updates as Ida slowly clawed her way across the southeastern edge of the state.    

We took each serving of bad news with mouths agape and frenzied exchanges of looks.

A major transmission tower collapses across the river. LaPlace is inundated with ungodly amounts of water. It could be weeks before power is restored.

If the weather itself was not proof that disaster had struck, reports of these other tragedies certainly were.

A neighbor of ours phoned in on–air with the striking assertion that this was the worst weather she had ever experienced firsthand. I certainly shared the sentiment as I had never come close to seeing anything this bad, but she had stayed for Katrina.

This was all followed by the hosts declaring Ida as comparable, if not worse, than its 16-year-old predecessor, another bifurcating moment after which the city may never be the same. Of course, this all seems a bit extreme as the scope of Ida’s aftermath becomes clearer in retrospect; but I think it sincerely reflects the eerie reminiscence experienced as Ida churned overhead that fateful Sunday night.   

As the evening wore on, the storm showing no sign of letting up, I read Chris Rose’s “1 Dead in Attic” by candlelight. Sitting back with a book chronicling the devastation of Katrina as another storm barreled above me exactly 16 years later. This may seem dark—masochistic, even.

However, Rose’s book, while a grim and often pessimistic depiction of the city at its worst, is more fundamentally a story of how New Orleans regained its balance after Katrina. It's a recounting of how the city met its match and rebuilt.

This set the tone for the next morning. The storm had finally sailed north and we were left to count our losses: the yard was a hellscape, Mimi’s pecan tree was ripped from its roots and took a good chunk of the yard with it, Maw Maw’s water oak was toppled. The roof needed some urgent repairs and, most alarmingly, electricity and running water were nowhere to be found for miles.  

We were comparatively lucky, but there was still so much work to do. 

Discussions of New Orleans and its hurricane-laden history, especially of Katrina as it's portrayed in the mainstream media, always hang heavy on an understanding of catastrophe as something isolated, singular and somewhat haphazard. For many large–scale natural disasters and public tragedies, this may be true.  

For New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, however, this is most certainly not, especially as the tropics are predicted to ramp up their output in the coming years. There is not, or at least there should not be, any sense that the worst is behind us, that we have weathered "the storm" once and for all, giving us the green light to reconstruct for posterity with our minds at ease.     

The city perseveres and rebuilds even though there will inevitably be many more, probably stronger, storms down the road. In all likelihood, many of the things we rebuild and repair in the wake of Hurricane Ida will be knocked down again and again so long as the streets can keep their cobblestones above the rising Gulf waters.   

That said, it seems reasonable to ask, as many have done so obnoxiously on social media, why stay? Why continue to live in a city that is and will be battered by storms ad infinitum? 

The answer to this question deserves an article of its own, perhaps even an entire book. I think the topic is much more complicated than most people realize.    

If the reality we face is truly Sisyphean, and we are destined to an eternity of pushing stones uphill just to have them tumble back down, our prospects might not actually be as bad as they seem. We must simply roll these stones up together as the tight-knit community we are, led by a brass band and police escort, of course. 

Evan Leonhard is a 20 year-old English and philosophy junior from New Orleans.

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