Today marks the fourteenth anniversary of something most New Orleans residents (and former residents) would rather not remember but can never forget.
In the early hours of Monday morning, August 29, 2005 Hurricane Katrina roared into southeast Louisiana and gulf-coast Mississippi inflicting the most damage on a major American city since the Great Earthquake of 1901 leveled San Francisco.
Hundreds of thousands were forced from their homes for weeks and in many cases months. Quite a few came back to absolutely nothing.
In St. Bernard Parish, due to the high wind and water a number of residents came back to discover that their house had “relocated” to the middle of the street or hundreds of yards away. I’ll never forget the sight of a brick-on-concrete slab house lifted from the lot and deposited onto the street.
Katrina claimed lives in many ways, from drowning and exposure to breaking the hearts of those who as stout young men had borne the hardships forty years before with Betsy but could not emotionally handle a replay at a more advanced and fragile age.
My paternal grandfather was one of those indirect casualties of Katrina.
Though not enjoying good health as the storm approached (we literally carried Pop out of his house kicking and screaming on August 27th), images of the destruction caused by the four feet of water that tossed around furniture and major appliances brought home the harsh reality and his condition precipitously spiraled from there.
Katrina had denied him the final request of a stubborn old man of dying in the house he built.
Mickey Bayham was not alone in that mindset as I spent part of that same evening trying to cajole a friend’s grandfather to clear out before the storm made landfall. I suppose it was a generational thing that’s difficult for younger more mobile folks to comprehend.
But out of incomprehensible loss and redundantly-circulated media and political pessimism, the nation’s most important cultural center and strategically located metropolis in terms of commerce and natural resources came back.
And to his largely unrecognized credit, President George W. Bush lived up to every word of his Jackson Square pledge to rebuild and make resilient the New Orleans area.
In addition to over a hundred billion dollars in federal aid, tens of thousands of faith-based, government, civic, and humanist organizations and volunteers flooded into the region to provide every imaginable form of assistance, from warm meals to an invaluable service colloquially called “mucking,” that being going into flooded homes to rip out moldy sheetrock, remove debris, and clear out oozing swamp mud.
Members of the Arkansas National Guard hauled out the big stuff (taking extra care to not release what they called “the genie”, that being the rotten vomit-inducing odor trapped within the vacuum of the refrigerator), ate at what was called “The Hippie Tent” run by a New York group called Emergency Communities), and observed kids from the Oklahoma Church of Christ spend their spring break gutting Pop’s house.
Though I did not partake, a squad of Scientologist missionaries had come down to offer free massages to the stressed-out.
2020 will be the next big Katrina commemoration as it will be the 15th anniversary. While it won’t have the same media coverage as the ten year anniversary there will be a great deal of media reflection on what happened.
The bad is easy to recall and hard to stomach, associating it with vivid imagery of the storm’s destructive force that the entire world saw.
But the good can be discerned only personally through reviewing how we progressed from that lowest point to where we are now and who helped us get there.
Like many of my fellow St. Bernard residents I lost much that can never be replaced.
However in the aftermath we saw the best in our fellow countrymen and the tenacity of individuals, business owners, and local leaders determined to rebuild out of the muck.
Katrina may have killed our loved ones but we did not allow the hurricane to kill our community.
And that’s something worth remembering every August 29th.