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18 Years After Katrina

Eighteen years? OK. If you say so. I can do basic math, so yeah, it all checks out. And I remember holding my college roommate’s baby the night before Hurricane Katrina, in awe that someone my age had created a brand-new human, and my former roommate just posted a picture of this no-longer-quite-so-brand-new human in a dorm room (much nicer than the one we shared in 1998), so yeah, even the anecdotal math checks out. 

I don’t know what I expected 18 years to feel like. But it feels pretty fast to me. 

Most of pre- and immediate post-Katrina is a blur, overshadowed by the fact that my mom had exploratory surgery in Missouri on Aug. 29, 2005, to rule out ovarian cancer. I spent the anxious hours waiting for her to wake up, and then waiting for the biopsy results, watching my hometown be destroyed from 800 miles away. My mom was OK. My city was not. And then I couldn’t find my dad. 

Some of my post-K memories are the same everyone here has: looking at the flood maps, the satellite images, the message boards. Learning to text. Finally getting through to relatives and friends. The smell. Cutting up carpet and slicing through drywall. The bits and pieces of fact and rumor floating through the internet to form some sort of amorphous reality. 

Some of them are different, luckier, from a distance of 800 miles: watching the news, knowing my own home was OK, donating blood and canned goods and money to the Red Cross, knowing that probably none of it even really mattered. 

Then I came home to stay in January 2008, carting my own brand-new human, 13 months, barely walking. I remember rolling her stroller over sidewalks thick with buckmoth caterpillars, wondering what I’d done.

Then there was Hurricane Gustav, also overshadowed by personal events, this time my then-20-month-old daughter in the hospital for what they suspected could be a brain tumor. 

It wasn’t. My daughter was OK. This time, my city was OK, too.

Then … what? Isaac, maybe? 

That one was fine, but we evacuated because we had yet another brand-new human, Georgia, then 3 months old. 

Barry, I think, came next?

We evacuated for that one, too, because I was freaking out about the river, but it turned out to be nothing but a nice, long vacation. 

Then Laura, but that one wasn’t our storm, not here in New Orleans. That was Cajun Country’s storm. Harvey hit around this time, too, another one that was too close but not fully ours. 

Finally, there was Ida, which again was overshadowed by my mom, this time by her sudden death just a few months before. 

We didn’t evacuate, not right away, but we probably should have. 

Facebook Memories reminds me that I posted, on this date two years ago: “We’re staying. I’m not even really freaking out about it, to be honest. Am I correctly assessing the risk, making a horrible mistake, or just too trauma-weary from the past 18 months to really care very much? Who knows? Wish us luck.”

When we finally did evacuate, days later, I had my mom’s ashes shoved under the front seat of our Corolla, and I recall feeling like my life had well and truly gone off the rails. 

I wrote a piece for a national outlet about it, not because I had anything special to say but because I needed the money for evacuation costs, and I remember two things:

  1. The headline, which I didn’t write, said something about, “Leaving New Orleans this time,” and the comments were all about how I got exactly what I deserved for living here.
  2. The editor cut my favorite line because she said it was “tonally weird in a way that might alienate readers,” and I might actually get that tattooed on my body somewhere.

Because why do I stay here? Why do I keep pushing through the heat and the stress and the flooding and the anxiety and the cones of uncertainty and the evacuations?

Well, because if I lived anywhere else, I would be too “tonally weird” to survive.

I tried it. I lived in Missouri for a decade. 

My coffee was too strong and my food was too spicy and my alcohol tolerance was too high and my jokes were too dark and my whole being was just “tonally weird” in a way that it isn’t here. 

So here I am, crossing my fingers and biting my nails through another hurricane season. Praying we don’t get hit. Praying no one else gets hit either. 

Drinking my coffee and eating my food and tossing back a cocktail and telling dark jokes with friends I wouldn’t have anywhere else.

Eighteen years. Sixteen years. Eleven years. Five years. Two years.

We’re still here. And maybe it’s just because we are too trauma-weary, but we’re staying. 

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