Saturday, August 29, 2015

Hurricane Katrina 10 year anniversary

This is horribly self-indulgent, but I'm a nostalgic and sentimental person, so it feel necessary to acknowledge this milestone in some way.

I'm a Katrina imposter. I left New Orleans over Memorial Day weekend 2005. (I'll get back to that part of the story.)

Let's go ahead and preface all of this to say that my story is not better or more important than those who were primarily impacted by Katrina. I lost nothing - not a belonging or a car or a house or a loved one - to the storm. I don't want to diminish or take away from anyone that has a "real" Katrina story to tell.

My story is Katrina-adjacent. It's a very small stitch in the fabric that makes up the story of how Katrina changed a city and hundreds of thousands of lives. My story is about how the storm changed the trajectory of my life forever. It just so happened that I was in New Orleans visiting friends in the days before Katrina made landfall. I'd gone through a lot in the months between leaving the city that had been my home for six years and returning to Milwaukee - a city I swore I'd never move back to when I left it at age 18. My mom sent me back to New Orleans to figure myself out and release me from the stress and depression of life in Milwaukee.

Almost three months to the day before Katrina made landfall, I was living in Metairie in a small one-bedroom apartment off an interstate service road. I had graduated college about 18 months earlier. I was freelance writing and working at Starbucks. I was in limbo. I was in a relationship I shouldn't have stayed in. We were absolutely no good for each other. We were volatile. We'd been together on and off for about three years. We'd broken up when he said something particularly painful to me, making me feel less than human. I held out for months, not going back to him because I knew it wasn't healthy. But I cracked and we got back together and got an apartment. I was young and dumb. I thought I was in love. Mostly I was just scared - of being alone, of the future, of who I was without him. I never gathered the strength to end it.

I got a phone call in late May from my mom. My dad has been diagnosed with leukemia. He had a history of heart problems. He'd had a stroke. The leukemia was advanced and they couldn't hit it with full strength chemotherapy because they didn't think his heart could handle it. The outlook was bleak.

There was no question for me. I was going back to Milwaukee. I had nothing keeping me in New Orleans.

In the immediate aftermath of that phone call, I didn't think about what that would mean about my relationship. I just knew I needed to go. I was packed and ready to leave town in less than two days. Even in the face of all of this and with the sort of push and excuse that I needed to break ties, I still didn't really officially break up with my ex. We sort of left a lot unsaid and acted as though we'd deal with it later.

The night before I was meant to leave, my ex came home from work as I finished packing my trailer. I was on my way to bed so I could get up early for the 16 hour drive back to Wisconsin. He picked a fight - as we did - and it escalated.

I had made bad money decisions in college and had difficulty opening a bank account, so I stupidly trusted him and we shared his. It was in his name. My checks were direct deposited into it. I had a debit card for the account. When he asked me about money that night, I told him I'd withdrawn half the account. He threatened to call the cops and say I was stealing. He physically tried to stop me from leaving the apartment. Looking back, it's amazing to me that the relationship had never become physical before that.

I hopped in my car, called a friend across town (coincidentally the one who I'd later be visiting when Katrina hit). When I got to his house, he'd arranged for parking for my car and trailer so they'd be hidden from street view. He and his friends met me outside with kitchen knives in hand. Turns out my friends hadn't shared how much they didn't like or trust my then-boyfriend. They were afraid he'd follow me and need to be threatened to leave me alone.

Oddly, this is a memory I will ALWAYS cherish. In the middle of a whole lot of chaos, the certainty of love and friendship from these boys was so endearing and reassuring and maybe the thing I needed most in the world in that moment. I don't keep in touch with a lot of people from my college years. Weeks and months can pass without talking, but the boy who's house I went to that night - the one who told me to come over and gathered reinforcements and who protected me from a situation he probably tried to warn me about 100 times, no questions asked - will always be one of my best friends. We aren't really in each other's lives much anymore as live across the country from each other, but he will forever have a little bit of my heart.

So I came home. I transferred Starbucks and I spent my mornings making coffee and the rest of the day in my dad's hospital room at the VA. I watched him waste away to almost unrecognizable from the guy who'd raised me. I watched a lot of women's college softball (there's not a lot on TV in early June) and played a lot of cribbage. And I waited.

And then my dad was cleared to come home. It was late July and he was in remission.

A few days later, his heart gave out and he died. He was 59. I had just turned 24.

The thing was - I went home assuming he was going to die. But he hung on and pulled through and we'd just been given the ray of hope that was remission. I'd just started to allow myself to believe. That was the cruelest part.

But as it does, life went on.

I sort of had no idea what I was going to do with my life. I had never planned to go back to Milwaukee, much less make a life there. But my mom has never had a license and her husband just died and I suddenly felt it was my job to care for her.

In mid-August, my mom told me to go visit New Orleans. I wasn't sure, really, what to make of the trip. Was I making plans to move back or just taking a much needed respite from "real life"?

Here's what I can tell you about the days leading up to Katrina. We'd had a spate of hurricane scares and evacuations between 2000 and 2005. There'd never been a mandatory evacuation, but my university had closed more than once. In 2005, even those of us that didn't have years of false alarms and hurricane experience under our belts were wary of the warnings and chatter. We didn't take it seriously.

BUT - there was a point where the tenor of the news reports and press conferences changed. I can't tell you what exactly it was that made start to take this one seriously, but two days before landfall, I just knew we needed to leave. In my limited experience, they'd never set up bus pick up points for moving people out of the city. They'd never done contraflow on the interstate. There was just a point where I watched the reports and said "this is for real."

The friend I was staying with didn't want to leave. He was from Denver and didn't have anywhere closer to go, so he thought it was silly to drive all the way home. He, like many, thought it was another false alarm.

I'll forever be grateful I was there to convince my friend we should go. My brother lives in Memphis and we headed out to stay with him. My friend packed almost nothing from his house, assuming we'd be back in a few days.

The thing about remembering what happened and how it went down is that it all takes on a very fuzzy, movie-like quality. Like even 10 years later I can't convince myself to reconcile the images I saw with the city I knew and loved.

Remember that the initial outlook after landfall wasn't so bad. Much like the false hope from my father's remission, we had some time where it seemed like Katrina had brought her worst and New Orleans did ok.

And then the levees broke.

None of it really sunk in or hit me right away. We were glued to the tv, barely sleeping, watching as it all happened, but there was a numbness and detachment that came with watching the early footage of the Ninth Ward. I'm a middle class white kid that went to a private Jesuit university in the richest neighborhood in town. I'd never been to the Ninth Ward and I didn't hang out in the Treme.

Pathetically, it was seeing footage of a mall parking lot near where I lived in Metairie that somehow broke through the detachment haze. The water in the two-story Target's parking lot was just about over the top of some school buses parked there.

I had been scheduled to fly from New Orleans back to Milwaukee on the now defunct Midwest Express airlines a few days later. The regional airline had limited hubs and did not fly out of Memphis, but did fly out of Nashville.

I placed a call to their customer service center, hoping to re-book my flight. The first response I got was "to just fly back out of New Orleans." I kept it together at first and explained that I was no longer in New Orleans and had no intention of returning in order to fly home. That a natural disaster had happened and I needed to be accommodated as the entire city had been evacuated. I kindly told the woman that there wouldn't be any flights out of New Orleans.

So she told me to just wait a few days and then fly out of New Orleans.

What very little chill I might possibly have had at that point flew out the window as I not so politely told the woman to turn on a television. I probably sounded pretty hysterical as I pointed out that no one was flying out of New Orleans any time soon and as a flight rep, she should probably figure that out and know she was going to be rescheduling a lot of flights.

In the end, they wouldn't get me a flight out of Memphis, but I rented a car and drove to Nashville, where I had a flight home a few days later.

As the days passed, it became increasingly clear the extent to which New Orleans had been damaged. You'll find when you're in a place so far away, there aren't a lot of people that know or understand or love New Orleans like anyone who's been or lived there has. While I experienced a ton of out-pouring from friends and even customers who knew I'd been in New Orleans, most people existed in a very detached plane away from the struggles that were happening in Louisiana.

It was a story, or a punchline, or, as time passed, a source of political arguments.
It was people telling me that maybe they just shouldn't rebuild the city.
It was racism and classism and north vs south jokes.

Much better writers than I have attempted to explain the pull and allure of New Orleans.

What I can tell you about my New Orleans is that it's the place where I learned how to become me. I found my writing voice, and my outspoken feminism and the beginnings of how to love me, regardless of whether anyone else did. It's where I learned to love my weird and met some of the most amazing, diverse people I've ever met. And though I had no idea at the time, it's where I learned about loving, sharing, cooking and enjoying food.

There's a possible argument that I'd have had that growth wherever I spent my college years and I can accept that to some point. But I'll forever contend that I found my heart - I found me - in New Orleans.

So I came home and tried to figure out where to go and what to do with my life. Clearly going back to New Orleans wasn't an option, but suddenly I was in a city too big for the small amount of writing experience I had and I floundered. I couldn't find a job in my field.

It's 10 years later and I've probably only really started to be on a track I'm happy with for the past year.

In September, a friend suggested I meet up and hang out with a mutual friend of ours from high school. Turned out he, too, had just moved back to the Milwaukee area. Like me, he hadn't kept in touch with many local people and was trying to find his way in a city he didn't plan to be in.

Andy and I went on our first date on September 17. We went to a bar and watched the Wisconsin football team play North Carolina.

We'll have our first wedding anniversary in five days and the tenth anniversary of our relationship two weeks later.

Job interviewers always want you to say where you see yourself in five or 10 years and I really struggled with that in the years after Katrina. I never came up with a good enough lie and the truth was that I never felt comfortable planning that far in advance anymore.

What the past 10 years have taught me was that I'd been very idealistic and very naive about how my life was going to turn out. In hindsight, I'm ok with that. I've ended up in a good spot and maybe this is exactly where I was supposed to be all along.

But that summer of 2005 taught me that I have no idea what's going to happen tomorrow or next week or next year. That thought doesn't stress me out anymore. But it isn't an answer potential employers really like to hear.

A lot changed for me in a very short time in the summer of 2005.

Katrina is both the biggest and smallest factor in the story. I think people in my life can't understand when I get maudlin or nostalgic this time of year. And I'm not sure what writing this all down accomplishes except for helping me to square some of my emotions and shake off what this anniversary is doing to my head.

Remember that ex from many, many paragraphs ago? A few months after my dad died I got an email from him. I'd had little to no contact with him in the intervening time. He was writing to let me know that he "was ready to be there for me now." He'd thought about it all and thought about how much his grandpa's passing had affected him and came to the conclusion that he was in a good place to support me.

Part of me wishes I still had that email but the response I sent back. Once I was over the initial anger - well not totally over, as I remember my hands shaking as I typed a response - I, as politely as I could manage, told him how incredibly condescending and self-centered that was of him and told him never to contact me again. I told him I didn't wish him an ill life, just that it was a life I never wanted to be a part of ever again.

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