People in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast don’t classify their lives into categories like the rest of us – high school, college, single, married, divorced, careers, kids… No. Portions of their lives fall into one of two categories.
Before Katrina. After Katrina.
I have a unique insight into Katrina as I covered it as a journalist and have since resided in two affected cities post-storm. I lived in Gulfport, Miss., from 2009 to 2011, and have been living in New Orleans for just more than a year. I love meeting new people, and it never fails. In those initial “getting-to-know-you” conversations, I will hear “before the storm” or “after the storm.”
Very rarely do I hear anyone refer to said storm by name – it’s almost as if calling it something as simple as a storm downplays the severity of demolition (to both people and their property) caused by the hurricane. I feel like saying “Katrina” here is the equivalent of yelling profanities at top volume during a Sunday Baptist church service.
As the 10th anniversary draws near, one thing is for certain. People here are tired of hearing about
it. They are tired of seeing it blasted across the national media channels. They are tired of telling their stories of survival. They are tired of reading the articles being shared all over social media. The journalists here are tired of covering it. Everyone is counting down to August 29 so that the media circus will be over.
The people of New Orleans have moved on as best as they can. They rebounded from the biggest natural disaster in the history of the United States and proceeded forward with their lives.
The people here constanly relive the worst day of their life – something no one wants to do. And it’s not because of changes in their personal day-to-day lives, but because it keeps getting thrown in their faces by outsiders who were not remotely close enough to experience it – the media, politicians, even Buzzfeed.
My Katrina Story
I was working at the Press-Herald when Katrina hit. I remember running into then-editor Josh Beavers in Blockbuster that Sunday, and he told me to get ready to cover the evacuations. It seems likes yesterday that I was talking with evacuees at Bistineau State Park, the Methodist Camp, the Minden Recreation Complex, the relief center in the old Wal-Mart. The kids played checkers while the parents bombarded me with questions. What areas are still flooded? When can we go back? What roads have been cleared? How many are dead? How can I find out what shelters my relatives are in? How long are the shelters going to be open?
I clearly remember talking to a Chalmette firefighter on more than one occasion. He had ridden out the storm and escaped, then helped rescue others in St. Bernard Parish. He always had a smile on his face and had a great sense of humor – he had found a toy fireman’s helmet in the relief center and proudly wore it as he “shopped” for supplies – but he never elaborated on the conditions he endured.
I could see past his smile that this man had seen some harrowing sights in the days following the storm – things so disturbing he would never recount them consciously but was (and maybe still is) haunted by them in his dreams every night.
My memories of just covering Katrina from five hours away from Ground Zero are so vivid, I can’t fathom what it would have been like to experience it first-hand.
My Mississippi Life
When I moved to Gulfport-Biloxi, it had been five years since Katrina. Beach Boulevard (U.S. Hwy. 90) remained fairly desolate. Other than a shopping mall, the coliseum, the Beauvoir, Hooter’s, a few condos and a couple of gas stations, there was nothing. Some shells of buildings still stood on the brink of collapse. Driveways with weeds and grass sprouting through the cracks led to chunks of foundations where Antebellum homes used to stand. The steel pillars that once anchored a pirate-themed casino boat jutted from the gulf waves now serving as a ragged fishing area. It looked as though it had been just months rather than years since the storm.
Most of the people I met while living there were military, either Navy or Air Force, and were not there for Katrina. Of those I met who were local, they seemed very slow, if not reluctant, to pick up the pieces and move on with life. It was almost as if they were trying to hold on to their pre-Katrina lives that no longer existed.
I was just there a few weeks ago, and there has been some development in restaurants and souvenir shops along Beach Boulevard though many of those parking lots without businesses still exist. Interstate interchanges several miles north of the coast, however, have exploded in new retail developments and housing.
A New Orleans Transplant
When I tell people I live in New Orleans, they think (1) I live in the French Quarter or (2) I live in Metairie. Most are unaware that most of the city is beyond downtown and the tourist area. I live uptown just a few miles from downtown. Other than one house nearby that still bears an “X” in red spray paint (Katrina rescue markings), a person who had never heard of Katrina would never know that 10 years ago the area was five feet under water.
No one would ever know seeing the lady riding her tricycle up and down the boulevard sidewalk. No one would ever know seeing the guy walking his Great Dane every morning. No one would ever know seeing the people crowded outside the Company Burger at lunch hour. No one would ever know by the group of old men congregated on milk crates in the middle of the Claiborne Avenue neutral ground every evening. No one would ever know by the roar of the crowd permeating from the SuperDome during a Saints game. No one would ever know by the runners along the street car tracks on St. Charles Avenue.
It’s amazing to me how a city plagued by so much destruction and death such a short time ago is now so alive.
Once I learned my way around (and that there is more to New Orleans than the French Quarter), I took myself on a self-guided Katrina tour. I wanted to see the places that I couldn’t see on the news 10 years ago because they were under water. Looking at a map at the areas that flooded is no comparison to seeing them in person. There are so many homes, schools, parks… While some of those still stand (barely), most have made way for remodeling, rebuilding and redevelopment.
The people of New Orleans are resilient and proud. Yes, this city does have its issues like any other, but these people truly love their home. They embrace the culture that is ingrained in every bowl of gumbo served, the trumpet of every street performer, every strand of beads thrown from a parade float…
I don’t know if post-Katrina life is better or worse as I have no basis for comparison. But I do know my own life is better since I moved to New Orleans. In both of my moves to Katrina-ravaged cities, many of my friends and relatives asked “Why? Why would you move to a place that is hurricane-prone?”
I think back to all of the times I waded through flash flood waters, watched people haul trees and limbs downed due to straight-line winds or tornadoes from their yards, rode in a golf cart along the fairways of Southern Trace blanketed by hailstones… All natural disasters. All very destructive. But here they only come along once or twice in a hundred years while my native North Louisiana is plagued by “mini-disasters” multiple times every season.
Those events, though disastrous in their own right, in no way compare to a storm that decimates a city of more than 1 million people. A storm surge that essentially collapsed a city and displaced – and ended – so many lives. Maybe collapsed isn’t the right word. Crippled may be more appropriate as New Orleans rebounded, destined to be more than it was before Katrina released her wrath.
I now truly understand why the people came back.
New Orleans isn’t just some dot on a map. It’s a mindset. It’s a way of life. It’s a vibrant history and a bright future. It’s a place like no other on Earth. Even I have difficulty finding the words to describe the place that I have embraced as home that has embraced back even harder. In all of my vacations here when I was a “tourist,” I never in a million years imagined that I would one day be working from the top floor of the offices at Canal Place as a writer for the Times-Picayune or studying on the front of Lake Ponchartrain as a student at the University of New Orleans. Every day is still so surreal.
This city has more suction that my mom’s old Kirby vacuum. Though I can’t relate to life pre-Katrina, I am completely enamored with the City of New Orleans and its people. I feel as though I have personally been welcomed by every resident with open arms to become part of one of the most unique and diverse cultures in the world. I have never felt more at peace and more at home than I do now. I hope I never have to experience a storm of the magnitude of Katrina, but if I do, I’ll be right there in contraflow traffic with my new friends and neighbors on my way to higher ground, anxiously awaiting the day I can return.
Kristi Martin is an award-winning journalist and former Press-Herald editor. She is currently a full-time student at the University of New Orleans and a sports writer for NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @WrittenNRed.