I’m a native of New Orleans. Hurricane Betsy happened before I was born. When Camille hit, I was two weeks old. For me and my peers, hurricanes meant overcast days, minor street flooding and time off from school. As an adult, I considered them a nuisance, not a danger.
Katrina was different from near-misses like Ivan or Georges; my husband and I knew it. We left our rented Metairie home on Sunday, Aug. 28, 2005, before dawn, heading west in the contraflow lane. I normally drove east to work in that lane each morning, so the sight of red taillights on both sides of the interstate was frighteningly alien, like seeing radically different constellations in the night sky.
After evacuating, we lived in a beachside La Quinta in Galveston, Texas, for over a month, though we’d only packed for a week. Any other time, I would have loved this beautiful “South Coast” town, but watching the big Katrina-fueled waves roll ashore was unbearable. Instead, we stayed inside and watched news until that became unbearable, too. By October, everything had become unbearable. We needed to be home.
There was no guarantee of city services then, not even potable tap water and steady electricity. We’d need tetanus and hepatitis shots for the big clean-up. Only those with pressing business were allowed in, and then only with passes. My father owns a small military contracting firm in eastern New Orleans, so to get back home, we all became employees of Powertronic Systems.
I wanted to kiss the filthy front step of our Metairie house when I saw it still standing. My father’s home in the east wasn’t so lucky. Google Earth showed us the news wasn’t good; only the roof of Dad’s white car was visible, the rest hidden under filthy water. Almost nothing there was salvageable. We had to pry apart the swollen chest of drawers to reclaim my mother’s jewelry; my dad couldn’t bear to part with her belongings after her death, but Katrina swept it all away — his, hers and theirs.
Finding our home standing, though, was only the first hurdle. People who’d weathered Betsy and Camille mentioned things — the heat, the smell — that I understood intellectually. After scrubbing baked-on sewage from my kitchen floor, I understood viscerally. Hideous surprises were everywhere. This colorful pulp was the remnants of my college artwork. That slick clay was the bust my husband’s mother sculpted of him as a boy. My wedding dress trailed in the water. My closet was a wreck. Everything reeked.
That brutal smell wasn’t just in the house. It was everywhere, a constant background noise of stench as we drove around looking for a place to eat.
Finding somewhere to eat in New Orleans was never a problem before. For months after Katrina, though, it was a challenge along with so much else. Grocery shopping, buying cleaning supplies, finding clothing and furniture to replace ruined things meant a trip to somewhere unbroken. Doctors were in short supply and dentists virtually extinct. New Orleans was no longer the all-night city I recalled. It had become an ascetic and poverty-stricken small town where you couldn’t trust the water to brush your teeth in, let alone drink, unless you boiled it first. The few open stores were closed by sundown. Cable television, functional cell phones and reliable electricity were science fiction. It felt more like 1935 than 2005.
But it was home.
“Home” is not merely the roof under which you live. That place on Academy Drive wasn’t home; the neighborhood, the city and the region are my home. The Superdome, where my folks sold hot dogs for the Boy Scout troop and where the Saints play, is home. The bus stop near the old Krauss building where I got my first kiss in high school, that’s home, too. Kerry Curley Park, Angelo Brocato’s bakery, my first apartment on Catina Street that drowned under 12 feet of water — all of them are home.
Five years later and in a new house, I am still mindful of luxuries like bookstores and beignets and shops open late. The first hot meal we had in the New Orleans area was at the Bud’s Broiler on Clearview and their food still brings nostalgia. “Nostalgia” may seem an odd word choice, but it isn’t; the root of it is “homecoming pain,” so in that sense it’s the perfect word to describe how I feel. Katrina was pain, but it was also a reminder of what’s important. Our home needs us here.
We don’t rent now; we bought a house. Far from feeling repelled by Katrina’s destruction, I’ve felt compelled to put down roots and embrace the city the way I now know it has held me all my life. Leaving a troubled New Orleans would feel like leaving the bedside of a sick parent. I used to get angry when people questioned why anyone would return to New Orleans. Now I understand. They wouldn’t ask if they knew what it was to have a home as big and rich as a city. We still have housecleaning to do, but it’s happening. Every shop that reopens, every new business that appears, every family that returns is cause for celebration.
Celebration, like nostalgia, is something we understand better now. I’m grateful to be home.