METAIRIE, La. — When my last geometry student left school on Friday, Aug. 26, 2005, he said, “I’ll see you on Monday.” Something told me he might be wrong. Three days later, nobody in New Orleans would ever be the same again. Today, in 2010, summertime is now dubbed hurricane season, and hurricane expert Dr. William Gray is more famous than Dr. Phil. And New Orleans’ levees are no longer just a nice place to ride your bike.
However, as a proud resident of the New Orleans area, I can testify that all of us love our city even more now than in 2005. While people looted New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the city was relatively free of the normal rioting that plagues cities on the night the New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl.
At the same time, my life is quite different now because of Katrina. My students don’t tell me goodbye anymore because I no longer have students. Although I still work at the same high school, I am now the Admissions Director. Helping my school grow in a city with 25 percent fewer people than in 2005 is a calling I cannot ignore. My personal journey since Katrina is far from unique, yet it is profound just the same.
On Saturday night, Aug. 27, 2005, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin ordered the mandatory evacuation of the city. When officials call for a “mandatory” evacuation, it does not imply what it may seem to. The police do not force residents to leave at gunpoint. Rather, it means that if you stay, officials cannot guarantee local services or your safety. Several years earlier, my family and I evacuated for Hurricane Georges. The gridlock and panic on I-10 was so bad, that we turned around and went home. The storm did not hit us and we seemingly made the right decision.
In 2005, I lived in Kenner, which is about 10 miles west of New Orleans. But Kenner was built on low-lying marshlands and, like New Orleans, is below sea level. After much debate, we decided to leave. I went online and booked a hotel room at the Wyndham in Memphis, TN. We left Sunday morning, not knowing when or if we would return.
For reasons that I do not understand, most people go east or west when evacuating New Orleans. Not only does this create a traffic nightmare, but if the storm changes direction, people are near the coast when it hits. This is why I went north to Memphis. Even if the storm goes north, the winds will dissipate over land. As we left, I knew I made the right decision because there was relatively little traffic on I-55.
Misleading Early Indications
After arriving, we were relieved to see that Katrina did not directly hit New Orleans. All media reports indicated that New Orleans was spared. One such story was by Heather Burke of bloomberg.com. We tried calling relatives who stayed behind but all phone service was down. Still, we started to plan our trip home. Then something happened.
On Monday, Aug. 30, the media reported that several levees around New Orleans failed and the city was underwater. So we left our fancy hotel in Memphis and drove across the Mississippi River to a motel in West Memphis, AR. This would be our home for several weeks. The accommodations were good with a microwave in our room and free breakfast every morning. We even found a local mall, grocery store and church. Was this our temporary or permanent home?
After about a week in West Memphis, phone service returned and we talked to a neighbor who stayed behind. Miraculously, our home did not flood. Although a tree fell in our backyard, pulling down the power lines, this was minor compared to what others faced. One of my uncles repaired the damage and in late September, we finally came home. Seeing the damage on television did nothing to prepare us for what it looked like in person. Now that I was home, my next concern was my job.
Although I lived in Kenner, I worked at a high school in New Orleans. The administration set up a web page for students, teachers and administrators to stay in touch. We also learned that all employees were getting paid while we were closed. My school is located close to the Mississippi River and is actually above sea level. So we did not flood and we reopened very quickly.
Five Years Later
As we mark the five year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the rebirth of New Orleans is happening all around us. The Superdome has been repaired and refurbished. The levees are stronger than ever. And the conventions are coming back. However, there are still about 100,000 residents who have not returned. And we still mourn for those who lost their lives.
Today, I see every day as a blessing. And I learned to take nothing for granted. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” That is definitely true of me and everyone else in New Orleans.
Brendan McCarthy, “New Orleans Saints Celebration Comparatively Short on Mayhem,” nola.com
Heather Burke, “Hurricane Katrina Spares New Orleans as Storm Comes Ashore,” bloomberg.com