I LOVE…Hurricane Katrina. Please allow me to clarify such a seemingly awful statement; I’m from New Orleans, lived through it, and I don’t expect anyone except fellow New Orleanians to fully understand. You can judge me if you wish, all I ask is that you read before doing so. For me, Katrina changed everything; the way I think, the things I do, and the way I live.
Katrina formed over the Bahamas on August 23, 2005, and New Orleans watched. During hurricane season, New Orleans is always watching. On Friday, August 26, Katrina began her entry into the Gulf of Mexico. The satellite images on the news that night were surreal, beyond imagination. She appeared awesome in her power and intensity, completely beautiful and elegant, yet completely brutal, mindless, and horrifying. My partner at the time was from California and had never experienced a hurricane, Katrina was his first. Watching the news, he asked if we were evacuating. The decision was obvious and the need to act immediate. We were leaving now.
We each loaded up a backpack. Our three cats, who were totally opposed to evacuating, weren’t given a vote. They were unceremoniously placed in carriers and put on the back seat of the car. It was nearly midnight when I called my brother who lives 90 miles north of New Orleans, I told him we were leaving the city, driving to his place. His reply was, ‘Get the hell out of there’.
The weekend of August 27 and 28 was spent watching Katrina consume the Gulf of Mexico. Feeding on the warm waters she doubled in size, and intensified from category 3 to category 5 in 9 hours. We debated whether 90 miles inland was far enough. Should we move up to north Mississippi? Tennessee? We stayed.
She came ashore at 6am Monday, August 29 directly hitting the town of Buras, Louisiana. We lost power around 8am and Katrina’s winds forced us into the storm shelter shortly afterwards. As it turned out, we were not far enough inland, her eye passed 30 miles to our east. 6 people, 5 dogs, and 5 cats in a roughly 10 by 8 underground shelter, all day, with only the sounds and a narrow, ground level window to give us a hint of what happening outside. We left the shelter around 5pm and it was like entering into a post-apocalyptic movie. No electricity, no water, and surrounded by Katrina’s aftermath. It took a day to cut our way through the fallen trees to reach the highway, and we still had to cut our way into the town before our water ran out.
For 3 weeks we were without electricity, and water became something which one had to think about daily. Showers? No way. Our only news of what was happening in the city came from a small crank-operated radio. The broadcasts were chaotic and impossible to comprehend. We weren’t seeing the images being viewed by the rest of the world. The only thing we knew is that our world, and life as we had known it, had ceased to exist. Army helicopters flew overhead, MREs became currency, and governments, local and national, were fighting over blame. There were radio messages to contact FEMA, but phones were useless, landlines were down and cell phones weren’t receiving signals. After a few weeks I was able to get a call through. The person I spoke with was very helpful, very empathic. He asked about my ‘loses’. I told him I had no idea. He then asked for my address in the city. I told him and he put me on hold. He then came back and said… ‘Lets assume you’ve lost everything.’.
Those words; lets assume you’ve lost everything, changed my life completely. I looked at my backpack with the thought that this was everything I now ‘own’. Everything. I grew strangely ‘ok’ with that.
It was 5 weeks before we were allowed back into the city, and the drive back down was like surrealism on acid. At this point, we still had no real idea of what to expect. We knew we only would have a few hours in the city before we’d have to leave again…Hurricane Rita was heading in and she was bigger and badder than Katrina. We arrived at our 3rd floor apartment to find everything exactly as we left it …exactly as we left it. The emotions, the actual guilt, of that was almost overwhelming considering what we had just driven through. We drove back up to my brother’s to ride out Rita. Afterwards we returned to New Orleans, but nothing was the same. How could it?
There was never a conscious decision on my part to rid myself of my possessions. It happened gradually. People around me had lost everything. The microwave was the first to go, given to people who needed it. The television was next, and I didn’t stop…everything went…dishes, pots, towels, sheets, clothes, furniture, everything. We left the city a few months after. I’ve returned for visits, but I’ve yet to return to New Orleans to stay. But I’m proud of my city in her ability to bounce back, to never quit, and to laugh at herself.
I’ve also yet to replace any of the items I gave away, 6 years later I still live out of that backpack. I’ve traveled, seen parts of the world I never would have, and lived in places I didn’t know existed before Katrina.
So why do I love Katrina? It’s pretty obvious. She changed everything. I now know that all ‘things’ and all ‘conditions’ are temporary and meaningless. The only thing which matters is love and the people you share it with. She showed me the best of humanity and the very worse. She showed me the difference between want and need, and to never take more than I need…and never accept less than I want. She was a wake up call. She made me strong, confident and resourceful. She told me to stop whining and realize that I’m in complete control over every decision I make. She gave me my life and reminded me to appreciate every second of it. She gave me freedom.
A couple of years afterwards, while on the deck of a boat out in the Coral Sea, a world away from New Orleans, a world away from home, a realization came to me. I realized that yes, a lot of people had lost everything they owned in Katrina, but I was lucky…I lost everything which owned me.
Written with love, respect, and compassion for all those along the US Gulf of Mexico coast who lost loved ones on 8-29-05 and during the days and weeks which followed.