A Decade After Katrina: What We Lost/What RemainsPosted: August 26, 2015
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.