You Wanna Talk Katrina? Here’s The Price I Paid By Staying In New Orleans

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Recently I was giving my mother a hard time for having made a series of uncharacteristically awful decisions that gradually came to pile her under. These decisions had snowballed and put her health and finances in jeopardy. She was feeling as low as one can feel when finally faced with one’s own stupidity. She pointed out that if she had it all to do over again, she certainly would not. She cried. Then she wiped her tears and told me to lighten up.

“I may not have agreed with all your decisions,” she said ominously. “But they were yours to make.”

Of course, she was talking about the flood. Though she had never thought it a particularly safe or swell idea, quite a few days from 2005 through 2008 she had pulled on some work gloves and forced a smile under her N-95 mold mask to help me sweep and later Shop-Vac through rebuilding after Katrina.

Like everyone else, I did not choose the flood in New Orleans, but after it happened I did decide to stay and help gut and rebuild my home and neighborhood in the Mid-City disaster zone. This began a few days after the water receded and lasted over three years. Alongside a befuddled boyfriend and a few scattered neighbors, we did the seemingly undoable and spent years mired in aggravating, sometimes thwarted labor in a very sad place.

So yes, I was first drafted by the failure of the levees and flood-walls, but then I enlisted. For reasons that are hard to imagine if you weren’t feet-on-the-ground when the water receded in the eerie stillness with packs of wandering, feral dogs and bedsheet escape-ropes still hanging out of second-story windows, at the time staying to rebuild seemed both the world’s most difficult and simple decision.

Now, 10 years after the fact, I’m not so sure that I would pick up that particular hammer again. But four grueling years after, I felt differently. I felt beat down yet proud of what we returners had accomplished for our city and neighborhood. Back then there were a few more things I knew for sure.

The author rebuilding her house. Drawing by Brian Madden

My returning neighbors and I slowly but surely stabilized the deserted blocks. Those of us who lived on-site in trailers or in the upstairs of flooded and gutted houses served as watchmen against house strippers and copper thieves. We sat with the elderly who returned to their ruined homes and listened to their stories. We planted gardens. We shared tools and helped each other carry heavy things. We intervened when children returned without adequate adult supervision bounced on moldy curbside mattresses and became the targets of drifter grifters’ stolen goods schemes. We conferred about insurance and Road Home problems and spent years of our lives untangling snafus. We picked through rubble and high weeds and weird and awful garbage and peeked in abandoned windows to help catalog the blight. We met with city officials when neighbors had family members gunned down in front of their houses by patrons of seedy, makeshift bars. Reading it now, the list is as incomplete as it is long and absurd and exhausting.

Despite these efforts, the vantage of 10 years has made it easier to see rebuilding’s true and total cost to me and others. Not only did years of our lives get sacrificed to a bureaucratic and literal quagmire, but also there’s an awful lot that, as the joke goes, can never be unseen. So in my head movie of the rerun of my life, sometimes I cue the reel where I pull a Homer Simpson. His platform when he ran for Sanitation Commissioner becomes mine. “Can’t someone else do it?”

Some of my mixed feelings stem from the mixed results of the rebuild. A good bit of what some neighbors and I had hoped for in the endless series of civic planning meetings never materialized. Simple things like safe neighborhoods and affordable housing and easier paths for former New Orleanians to return to their former homes for many never became a reality. New Orleans and Louisiana is now full of people who, for various reasons, don’t like to talk much about the flood. And now I’m one of them.

Facebook has become a minefield of Louisianans barking at each other to either stop talking about the flood in the way they are talking about it or to just stop talking about the flood, period. Angry diatribes about the production of commemorative Katrina snow globes battle old photos of friends in white hazmat suits cleaning out their flooded houses. Memes circulate of a vintage comic book Batman bat-slapping Robin under the words “Ten years after Katrina? SHUT THE HELL UP.”

Some of this is Katrina fatigue from the are-you-still-chewing-that-old-bone? crowd that did not flood, but it’s also that people who suffered greatly don’t want their wound constantly poked at with a media stick. What don’t they want to be reminded of? You name it. Loss of family or friends that died in the flood. Loss of family and friends from stress or rebuilding accidents or suicide in the flood’s prolonged aftermath that no one ever counted among the official dead. The financial shitstorm the flood opened up in their lives that they are still trying to ride out. All the K-splainers who have moved to town. The cheesy disaster art and music. Their vanished photos and clothes and books and records they know was “just stuff” but used to give them tangible proof of who they were and where they had been anyway. How they don’t trust the government or insurance companies quite the same anymore. Why they can’t afford to rent or live in their old neighborhoods. How places like New Orleans East and Chalmette and the Lower Ninth Ward and elsewhere still look pretty bruised. That some contractors came to town to try to rip them off and succeeded. How that wall looks crooked and that tile seems a little warpy and guess what? It is—because they had to repair it themselves.

What I don’t particularly care to talk about or remember is both little and big. Escape holes cut in roofs. Mattresses and clothes scattered on the sides of elevated highways. Mold and fetid refrigerators and creepy clouds of plaster dust that billowed up the street. All the women sitting on their front steps with their heads in their hands. My basset hounds swallowing roof slate and wire from having to live with me in the disaster zone. And I don’t want to be reminded that my friend was murdered in the aftermath and no one ever got caught or punished for it and she and her memory evaporated, like much of what happened, into time and smoke.

But sometimes being willing to talk moves the conversation forward. And what I do want to talk about is this: everything my Mom was worried would take its toll and was unable to communicate to me when I was caught up in the fight-or-flight of the moment. We don’t choose our disasters, but when disasters happen, should we lean in and ride them out to their wild conclusions—or just get the hell out of the way?

Image by Dan Soto

I would like to offer these self-discovery questions to both the people moving to our area and residents of other flood-earthquake-or-tornado-prone areas. Like a vocational assessment or glossy rag’s “Perfect Mate” test, these simple queries might help one assess whether she is a good match for experiencing, enduring, and not being destroyed by her continued participation in a heartbreaking disaster before one hits. Or whether you are just fooling yourself.

Are you averse to risk? Have you had your tetanus shot? If yes and no, then move along. There’s nothing here for you. Rebuilding after any disaster can be a hazardous prospect. Many New Orleanians who live on the former Aisle of Denial in the Sliver by the River still routinely lecture me on all the reasons it is impossible for them to flood like other poor sops. Everyone need simply to take two to three hours to sit down and read some basic facts about geology, levee engineering, climate change, subsidence, politics, and overtopping to discard this fig leaf.

Do you mind getting hot and dirty? Cold and dirty? No? Good. Multiply your ideas of those things times one thousand.

Do you like to learn new skills? Excellent. Just a few of the new roles (without training) that will suddenly be available to you: Waste management specialist, emergency medical technician, demolition man, drywaller, security guard, grief counselor, protestor, exterminator, community organizer, and vigilante.

Are you flexible? And not just about where to have lunch today but about outcomes of your effort. Because after a disaster, final outcomes aren’t as predictable as say when you get an advanced software degree. You can be somewhat assured that if you spend a few years getting a degree in information technology or accounting that you will have some position, quite possibly a good one, when you finish.

Not so with a disaster. Once you finish working several years on a disaster, you can count families returning home, replanted parks brimming with re-bloom, and brand new bike paths among your successes. But despite your best efforts, great income disparity, continued violence, rampant foodie-ism, and a loss of the culture you had been hoping to preserve might also be part of your outcome. Are you realistic and/or laid-back enough to take your wins where you find them and not wail and gnash your teeth at fantastically mixed results?

Do you need to be understood? If not, post-disaster life might be for you. If you don’t mind that people in other cities don’t get why you live where you live, you probably won’t mind that friends who live on the other side of your own town who did not flood do not understand your circumstances or choices either.

Are you okay with finding out that things are not as they seem? Following the flood, a lot of people discovered they had less of a support system than they thought. Are you suffering under the illusion that your family or friends would, without resentment, let you crash with them if you got in a serious bind that lasted more than two days? Do you think you have an adequate emergency fund? How will disaster interact with quarter or mid-life crises, career struggles, illness in the family or death that were in the cards anyway? When very real and bizarre stresses pile up, are you confident your partner or parents or children will not dive straight for the bottle or bong? Think again.

Where do you see yourself in three years? If you do not mind expending huge amounts of effort to make what will sometimes be progress at a snail’s pace and if you have a somewhat Zen view of time, post disaster struggles might be the undertaking for you. Physical, mental and bureaucratic challenges can really expand your view of the cosmos. Think Sisyphus pushing his rock up the hill.

When I gave some readings out-of-state five years ago, tearful people came up to me to tell me they’d never been back home to New Orleans after the flood and had been forced to abandon their old lives and stuff. Some women thanked me for writing a book about the rebuilding because they had always cast a sad eye homeward and wondered what life would have been like for them had they stayed. After reading my book, they said they were relieved and knew they’d made the right decision. And I thought the book I wrote said the opposite—find the ray of sunlight in the rubble or something, people.

Helping people Monday-morning-quarterback their decisions was never my intent in writing a book, but I was glad it became one of its unintended consequences. We’re not all cut out for all things. And I met many people who did not need to be in the disaster zone for any prolonged period if at all.

The time after the storm was a place—a surreal, sparsely populated dreamscape of bold kindnesses and shameful acts where odd occurrences were commonplace. A man on the next block who lived alone in the upstairs of his flooded home with a lantern had roofers fall two stories off his house, bounce on his flood-wrecked grass and survive. For a while after that, groups of disaster workers stopped by to press their palms to the side of his ruined miracle home. Both nightmare and mirage, the time after the storm was a place that was as hopeful as it was squalid. It is gone now. I don’t let it be colonized in my memory by the grifters and ghosts I encountered there.

And I don’t really want to talk about it.

Lead photo: Judy Kiel on Flickr

Cheryl Wagner is a writer. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s Magazine, and many other publications. She is the author of a memoir, Plenty Enough Suck to Go Around, and a contributor to the public-radio program “This American Life.”

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