Born by the River: A daughter of the Mississippi reflects on Hurricane Katrina 10 years later
Until the levees failed.
I was sitting in my grandmother’s house in my hometown of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, over an hour away from New Orleans, as the storm hit. I was eating cereal, watching cartoons and waiting for the inevitable power failure. I was a hurricane pro at this point in my life, and at 10 years old, they weren’t that big of a deal to me. It would always get really hot in the house because there was no AC, but school would be cancelled and I could read books all day so the downsides were minimal for a young nerd like myself.
My grandmother, uncles and I rode out the storm with minimal damage to the house save for a fallen tree. We slept in the living room with candles at night and ventured out into the city for food and water during the day, looking for any sign that our beloved air conditioning might be returning soon.
It wasn’t until our power came back and phone lines were restored that we found out that the entire city of New Orleans was underwater. It was unfortunate and I knew that, but my childish empathy only took me so far. I had been to the city numerous times by that point but didn’t have any close family or other strong ties there, except for the Six Flags there that would never reopen. I always regarded New Orleans as the uncouth sibling to my hometown, the family shame you always find yourself being asked about by curious outsiders.
Even years after the storm, meeting people from outside of Louisiana was always awkward because they’d ask me how I managed during the flood. I hated being roped in with New Orleans, I wasn’t from there and didn’t want much to do with it except going to party when I got old enough. Truthfully, their problems just weren’t mine and I hated being treated like they were. That annoyance eventually turned into empathy, and around my junior year of high school I had the overwhelming desire to “save” the city, operating under the belief that I could single-handedly save it.
Some distant family members came to stay with us for a few months and my 5th grade class both swelled and diminished in size as displaced students came and went. I felt bad for them, the people who died and those who lost their homes and possessions, but I knew life went on and things would eventually return to normal. I thought that soon Katrina would be a distant memory, in my mind and everyone else’s.
That didn’t happen. Months came and went, then years and now a decade. People slowly trickled back and the process of rebuilding started. But the memories of Katrina, the government’s lethargic response, and the trauma it imprinted onto New Orleans and its residents never left. Looking back now I don’t understand why I thought it ever would.
Volunteers come to New Orleans every day to help with rebuilding efforts supported mainly by nonprofits run by business graduates from the northeast. That’s not to say that people who lost their homes aren’t grateful for the assistance, but it irks me to no end when people regard this city as a pity case. I’m pretty sure a lot of the liberal, urban centers all these transplants are coming from need quite a bit of assistance as well, which would be best supported through working with the city’s native residents, not a CEO deciding what is best for a community they have no prior association with. Even as a black woman from Louisiana, finding my place in this whirlwind of help and service has been hard because I’m also not in a place to just go into communities I want to help since none of them are mine.
With the 10th anniversary of the storm having taken over local and national media for the last few weeks, politicians and businesspeople have begun posturing about how much New Orleans has “improved” since Katrina. Many people are excited about the direction in which the city is moving, but closer attention to who feels like the city is moving in a good direction is indicative of who is benefitting from the mass exodus of poor people, the majority of them black, after the storm. I highly doubt the residents who came back or never left all feel as positively.
Gentrification has accelerated rapidly, unemployment is high, wages are low, murder rates are astronomical and New Orleans has the unfortunate designation as the incarceration capital of the world. If so much progress is being made, why are people in the exact same positions they were before the storm, if not worse off? Especially in the #BlackLivesMatter era, those of us who consider ourselves conscious should give attention to the structural inequity that existed before the physical storm hit, how policies were pushing people out of their homes and hurting education before a drop of water ever topped the levees. Those policies were exacerbated by the sudden loss of citizens that made the ability to displace those that remained easier.
My life, like the city of New Orleans, has changed and reshaped itself many times over in the past 10 years. My grandmother, the woman who helped raise me and held me through some of the most turbulent times of my early years, passed away four years ago. I’m now in my third year of college in New Orleans, a resident of the same city I held at arm’s length for the majority of my life. I belong here now, having grown as a person, an activist and a friend.
The post-Katrina air that lingers over New Orleans has created a metaphorical concrete wall of neoliberal destruction under the guise of “helping,” through which I and many others have emerged on the other side stronger for being nurtured through this city’s traumatized history. Consider it my own personal rebirth, existing as a part of the “new” New Orleans. I can only wonder just who I would have become had the storm not happened. I wonder if I would’ve even been pulled to go to school here at all without the misguided desire to “save” the city I held on to in my later high school years.
As much as I feel like this place is a huge part of me now, I deign to call myself a “New Orleanian,” a term that has been so bastardized by gentrifiers and transplants that I choose to leave it alone completely. As much as I love this place, it is not my home. What happened here 10 years ago isn’t my burden to bear even though it impacts my everyday life.
Even writing this has been hard because the trauma associated with Katrina and its damage is not mine and I feel weird for taking up space amongst the narratives of folks who were here when it happened. But I felt compelled to write, even pushed to by one of my closest friends, a native of the city who was displaced to Alabama after the storm. I was encouraged to reflect on New Orleans for what it is now because there are people who can’t, whose stories won’t be listened to. She’s not that much older than me, but speaks about the city with a nostalgic tone usually reserved for people I consider elders. But the New Orleans that existed before the storm might as well have been destroyed 50 years ago for all that is left of it now.
It is for them, the residents of this city that carried its history before, during, and after the storm that I will tread lightly over these next few days. Even mentioning the name or the activities going on this weekend has elicited strong responses from people — and rightfully so. I engage where I feel it is my place to, not venturing far beyond that for fear of inserting myself into an already-delicate psyche that has been trampled on enough by outsiders. With visits from presidents, benefit concerts, healing circles and vigils, even yoga put on by a group of misguided transplants, this city will be receiving a lot of attention in the next few days from those genuinely concerned and those interested in exploiting a disaster and its trauma for capitalistic gains. I don’t want to be a part of that.
The people of this city are resilient because they have to be, not because of some “noble savage”-esque strength that media narratives attached to them after the storm. Life is a struggle for many people here every single day but they keep it moving because they have to. This city is still vibrant, the culture is still alive despite intruders pushing in on it, and after all the news cameras leave, New Orleans will still be here. Its people will keep it moving — living, loving and surviving like they always have. But many folks keep it moving without moving on, because for so many people, August 29th represents loss, hurt and trauma. I do my best to honor that pain by writing about New Orleans as I see it and as I’ll never know it. Until the end of time, New Orleans will be what it has always been for better or worse — a gumbo pot of people and cultures, all somehow doing their best to make it work no matter what is thrown their way.
Alexandria is currently a Junior at Tulane University studying Africana Studies and Sociology with a minor in Gender Studies. When she’s not writing for Blavity, she’s doing her best to navigate becoming an adult by avoiding all her responsibilities.
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