A Decade After Katrina: What We Lost/What Remains

Ambata Kazi-Nance

Ambata Kazi-Nance

I’m not a big Hurricane Katrina remembrance person. Like a lot of people from the places affected by the storm, I usually unplug from social media on the days leading up to August 29th. It’s not that I want to forget or pretend it never happened. That’s impossible considering ten years later I can drive through New Orleans and find many houses still marked with the “X” codes left by search and rescue teams signifying the number of people, dead and living, found inside; some because people refused to paint over it – Katrina war scars – others because they have been abandoned and never reclaimed. It’s because the damages, the wounds, are still so present, so fresh, that when the stories start pouring in it becomes overwhelming.

I’ve never seen Spike Lee’s much lauded documentary, When The Levees Broke, because just the thought of Katrina news footage – houses under water, people on roofs waiting, hoping, praying to be rescued, people wading through waist deep water trying to find food and clean water – makes me involuntarily clench my teeth and have difficulty swallowing. It’s sadness for the many people who died during and after the storm, but, more so, it’s anger for how poorly government officials handled the crisis, and how people, mostly poor and black, literally had to scream for help to the news cameras that dispassionately documented their struggles as my city descended into lawlessness.

When I think about Hurricane Katrina, two words come to mind: loss and erasure. I didn’t lose any family members or friends thankfully, but so many did that the loss feels communal. Once at the doctor’s office where I was being treated for rheumatoid arthritis, a disease that took over my body only months after the storm hit, another patient, an older man, was telling me about how his wife died after the storm and he just wished to die too but he held on because he had to take care of the dog his wife loved. His story is so different from mine, but I understood his loss and felt it like it was my own.

I packed just enough clothes for a few days and left New Orleans on August 27th with my husband, my dad, my stepmother, and two of my brothers and sisters. My mom and older brother, as well as much of my extended family, stayed in New Orleans to wait out the storm. It was my first time evacuating for a hurricane. Growing up, we always stayed home, stocking up on food and water, boarding up windows, enduring power outages and boredom. Once the winds and rain stopped, we’d wander our neighborhood, sometimes wading through brown water that licked our ankles or our knees, just to get out the house. We left this time, for Louisville, Kentucky, less out of a fear of the storm and more so a desire to turn the long weekend into a vacation. None of us imagined it would be so bad. When we left the sun was shining and there was a light breeze; only the silence in the air, the absence of sounds made by the birds and other creatures, gave any indication that something was coming.

Sitting around the television at my uncle’s house in Louisville, we watched as the storm grew in intensity, newscasters slapped in the face with sheets of rain as trees blew sideways. We watched and wondered and waited over the fate of our homes, our neighborhoods. When the rain finally stopped and the sun crawled out from behind the clouds we woke to most of our city completely submerged under water, only the roofs of houses and tops of trees peeking above the surface. In every direction as far as we could see, everything was under water. We caught a brief glimpse of my dad and stepmother’s neighborhood and an icy silence blanketed the room. This was the part of the city where I had grown up, where I went to elementary school, junior high, and college. This was where most of my extended family lived as well. We later learned my aunt, two of my cousins, and my paternal grandmother had spent the night in my aunt’s attic without an axe.

My father and stepmother’s home, the house where I lived in my teenage years, the one with the huge backyard where I got married, was destroyed. All that remains is the concrete slab it was built on. My elementary and junior high schools never reopened. They sit, empty and abandoned. It didn’t hit me till my son started asking about my childhood that many of the landmarks of my existence have been erased.

I also connect Hurricane Katrina with the loss of my parents, my mother in body and my father in mind. I saw my mother only twice after the storm and before she died. A day after the storm made landfall, I got a call from my brother, frantic, talking about swimming over dead bodies and trying to get he and our mother rescued. He said their best option was to go up to the interstate on-ramp and try to get picked up from there. After that call, we lost contact for four days.

We kept seeing CNN news reports about shootings, a mass break-in at the now infamous Walmart where people stole guns and flat screen TV’s, and hot, hungry, exhausted people outside the Superdome and Convention Center waiting for help. One image that haunted my thoughts was of a dead person in a wheelchair that somebody had covered with a blanket. My mother sometimes used a wheelchair when nerve damage from diabetes caused her legs and feet to swell and become painful. In those four days of waiting I wallowed in guilt over leaving my mother and prayed for her and my brother’s and everyone’s safety.

The next time we heard from my brother, they were at a shelter in Oklahoma, waiting for a bus to take them to Georgia, where our aunts and uncles lived. It felt like I had been holding my breath all those days of waiting for a phone call. My mother never mentioned the storm or all that happened after. She only gushed about how nice everyone in Oklahoma was. If she was afraid or anxious about getting out of the city, I don’t know. She never shared her emotions with me, her “baby.” She didn’t return to New Orleans though, and never said anything about moving back. She liked Georgia and within a few months she secured her own apartment outside of Atlanta. It was in her small, assisted-living apartment that I never got to visit that she died two years later from a diabetic stroke.

My father remains, but not whole. Around the same time I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. At the time we thought it was a good thing, the diagnosis that is. We thought he’d start getting proper treatment. (He had previously been diagnosed with anxiety disorder.) From there though, his illness progressed rapidly. He’s lost most of his ability to walk and talk, and more and more I have to remind him who I am. The after-effects of Katrina: losing his home, trying to rebuild a life, broke him. He cried a lot after the storm. I had never seen him cry before. I can’t help but think it defeated him.

Some people don’t like to be reminded of the storm, and they get pretty vocal about it. As the news coverage swells with stories as our anniversary approaches, social media erupts with complaints. Certainly the media coverage can seem exploitative and invasive, not to mention biased and untrue sometimes. But I say for the people who need to grieve publicly, let them. Unplug or scroll on if you need to, but let people mourn their losses and try to heal the best way they know how. Let them remember.

It’s taken me some time, but I’m beginning to take in more of the stories coming out of the storm. Reading them, listening to them, I feel gutted, but in that space I can breathe deeply and remember what was lost, and what remains.

Read more by Ambata, here.

Ambata Kazi-Nance is a writer and teacher living in her hometown New Orleans, LA with her husband and son. She is a member of the Melanated Writers Collective, a group for writers of color in New Orleans. She writes for Azizah magazine and Grow Mama Grow, an online community for Muslim mothers. Her short story “Rahma” was recently published in Mixed Company, a collection of fiction and visual art by women of color in New Orleans.

39 Comments on “A Decade After Katrina: What We Lost/What Remains”

  1. kbhayes says:

    My dad had PD, and it was so fucking HARD to have a front row, center seat to watching him waste away. I have to admit, I’m glad he passed before Katrina. NOLA was his adopted home and he would have been crushed to see what happened.

    I’m a born and bred NOLA girl, currently living in Chicago and I too had to ‘unplug’ last week. I just COULD NOT deal. I do get home once a year to stuff my face with All. The. Seafood, as I still have family and friends down there.

    Thanks for this, I’m glad I’m not the only one who gets it.

  2. This is very powerful! I have no connection to New Orleans or Kathrina at all so I certainly can’t “relate” but your personal account of human suffering (especially after the storm) did make it so much more real to me. I am sure this was not easy for you so thank you so much for this contribution.

  3. livealittle says:

    I am an Australian who just travelled through New Orleans about 2 weeks ago and the stories were alive. The stories of the injustice and lack of response by the government and remembrance of the basic needs of humans. I feel the memorial and stories (well for me – an outsider), were an eye opener and wouldn’t have appreciated the hardship and legacy Katrina left behind for the residence of New Orleans. What an amazing city. Thanks for your post.

  4. Thank you for sharing….

  5. Beautiful writing. Thank you for sharing.

  6. May all souls RIP !! Thanks for remembrance !!

  7. DIS CRIS says:

    First of all, thank you for sharing your experience with us. It takes guts to relive a memory that has caused so much pain. Hopefully the world can move on for New Orleans.

  8. Madcap Odyssey says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience!!!

  9. mellogic says:

    Even though it seemed so far away across the globe, the way you wrote your experience brought the feelings of this phenomenon closer to heart. Thank you for sharing your experiences to remind those far the detail of what happens after.

  10. anashifi says:

    God bless you to live through the pain and show you new hope and strength..

  11. bloopyaldreyy says:

    this was well written. you feared your fears — I’m so proud of you 🙂

  12. Double A says:

    About this time last year I went on a road trip to New Orleans with a friend in his lime green Ford Fiesta… From NJ. Unaware of the difference in culture due to the high of traveling, we were stared down as some crazy people disrespecting the southern freedom. The farther from home we got the more uncomfortable stares felt until we arrived in New Orleans. It was a leap back in time where the ambiance was warm and collectively genuine. The fear of the unknown felt numb and the glances that we received felt like affection. I was unaware as to why the place felt so emotionally war until I was reminded that the artificial beauty that reconstructed and preserved the streets were just that … Artificial. I was not thinking of hurricane Katrina at all having had hurricane sandy not long ago at my shores. That is until I met this guy. A man in an app who by the days I got to know him spoke with such love of the people and the sidewalks that remained intact, and it was through him that the next day I went into the streets I saw the world through a thankful colored lens. It was so. . . Moving to see people with such carnival-like spirits roam the town smiling and truly living as if they had already had their living as if they only lived once. Although I did not make it to the ruins of Katrina’s most clawed victimized streets I could only see the flower born after. A flower of pain I guess, alone in the mud, careless of getting picked up for it knew it would grow again.

    Thank you for reminding me about this.

  13. leadinglight says:

    What a poignant and touching story. I don’t have any connection to Katrina or New Orleans but I have a feeling people most likely don’t want reminders of the storm because of the emotional toll it would inflict. Escapism is another grieving mechanism.

  14. Beautiful writing and poignant words. Thank you for sharing your story.

  15. With a heavy heart I say, I am so sorry for your loss, for everyone’s loss.

  16. This was beautifully written and compelling. Katrina is about so much more than just a storm. People lost more than just material things. Thank you for opening my eyes. I will keep your family in my prayers.

  17. Mariah says:

    Thanks for sharing and this was well write….I know how you feel about Hurricane Katrina…I live in Gulfport, Mississippi

  18. katiegoring says:

    I’m so sorry about your losses, I admire you for sharing your story.

  19. Ambata says:

    Thank you to all who have taken the time to read and comment on my blog post! I greatly appreciate all of your comments.

  20. chloemoles98 says:

    Thank you for sharing

  21. Cory says:

    I was only 19 living in Mississippi when Katrina hit. We didn’t think it would be so bad either. Great story!

  22. Captivating story. I’d love to visit New Orleans one day. It’s on the bucket list. Perhaps a blog about the city would be cool for newbies like me.

  23. robsow11 says:

    Thanks for sharing your story .
    What dosent kills you , makes you stronger 🙂

  24. Gigi says:

    So very sad for everyone. I live in NJ and all around me in devastation and lose form Sandy. I will not say I know how you feel, because I don’t. I was fortunate enough to come away from Sandy, unscathed. A power outage, that had relatives here for more than a week and a fence that needed to be replaced anyway, was all I had to endure. When I ride over towards the beach I see the houses and still in shambles, foundations, as you said, where houses used to be. It is devastating, and horribly sad, and I agree, I wouldn’t want to remember the devastation by watching it on tv. I do however, feel the broadcasts help to keep it fresh in our (the rest of the country) minds so we don’t forget that their are people who still have not had closure or gotten back on their feet. Or those that lost everything and started over and are doing well. Thank you for writing this

  25. […] Source: A Decade After Katrina: What We Lost/What Remains […]

  26. God bless you and yours.

  27. […] Origen: A Decade After Katrina: What We Lost/What Remains […]

  28. Roba says:

    This was soo powerful thank u for sharing this with us

  29. This essay is so touching – thank you for sharing your story with us as I can imagine it wasn’t too easy to write.

    I’m from the northeast of England and my sister just earned herself a scholarship to LSU Alexandria. My parents, my sister and I travelled to the States to get her settled in there. Once she was settled, we travelled down to New Orleans which was a most wonderful experience.

    I can honestly say, hand on my heart, that there I encountered 0 people that I dislike. No rude people and no arrogant people. Quite frankly, everyone was lovely. So friendly and accommodating. I absolutely loved it. Visiting the city and seeing how booming and electric is is was inspiring to see – you wouldn’t know there had been a hurricane looking at the human spirit.

    I understand there still lingers a sad note in the air, which pulls on my heartstrings. Walking around, seeing all of the beautiful French and Spanish-style houses and buildings with sweet balconies painted in blue, green and yellow was amazing! Seeing people storm through Bourbon Street dressed head to toe in red for the Red Dress Run… I thoroughly enjoyed my experience.

    I met a lady in Alexandria who had recently moved from New Orleans – her hometown. She, like you, told us about how everything was destroyed. Her house with all of her belongings. Her childhood.

    I am so sorry for you and your family for what you suffered. I do hope you’re living a fulfilling life with your child.

    And to the rest of you wonderful NOLA citizens: I admire you all dearly.

    Danielle x

  30. Anthony says:

    Thank you for sharing your story, your feelings, and your beautiful, painful and wonderful words.

  31. shunpwrites says:

    What a powerful narrative!

  32. You are an amazing writer. This brought tears to my eyes. I watched the Spike Lee movie when it came out and was horrified,and cried like it was happening to my family, but deep down was not all that surprised by the lack of help when it comes to US. I can only sympathize not having experiences anything close to Katrina. I wish we had come away with a better learning experience from all the pain. I imagine it has to be overwhelming to lose not just physical things but as you mentioned your history is gone, taken erased without your consent. I hope we who were not there remember this so it is never repeated!