The City of New Orleans began as a small settlement one hundred years before the first shots were fired against the British, when New York was New Amsterdam, and in the same century Shakespeare wrote Hamlet and Macbeth. The city has thrived despite plagues, fires, riots, flooding, secession, siege, occupation, segregation, integration, and a strong reputation for corruption and sin.
People have always asked me why I would live in such a backwards place—why I would brave the worst heat, highest crime, and poorest population in the United States. I can’t explain it to outsiders. But when Hurricane Katrina tore apart my life on August 29, I lost more than my belongings and a promising semester of law school—I lost a way of life.
Don’t get me wrong, we’ve always known that a disaster of this magnitude was looming, but when Mayor Nagin ordered a mandatory evacuation for the first time in three centuries, everyone I know was shocked. We spent our lives dancing on a powder keg. The idea that everything I knew would actually end, that everyone I knew would be homeless and helpless, was never more than a remote mathematical possibility.
Every Intention of Staying
The Saturday before the hurricane, we were expecting a category four somewhere east of the City. Like many New Orleanians who’ve been through this before, I expected flooding in low-lying parts of the city, and a power outage for a day or two. I had every intention of staying to protect my apartment in the affluent and higher-elevated Uptown section of the city. It was not looters, but broken panes of glass and leaking water, that prompted me to stay. I spent the day pushing furniture back from windows, stocking up on water and canned goods, and watching a movie in the French Quarter.
That particular part of the city always has a party atmosphere, but the mood that Saturday afternoon was unusually electric. The sun in the Quarter was radiant and warm, and the air carried an exhilarating hint of danger—the kind you feel as a kid right before a thunder storm.
I promptly bought two bottles of champagne (which are now rotting in my refrigerator along with piles of meat and vegetables), and invited a friend over to my place for the weekend to weather the hurricane in style.
Sometime before the sun rose Sunday morning, my friend awoke me with the news that Katrina was now a category five, it was headed straight for New Orleans, and we had to leave fast.
Somehow I managed to get dressed, throw some clothes into a bag, and pack a few valuables. I knew that this was going to be serious, and that it might be several days before we could return to the city. In retrospect, I guess it’s funny that I forgot to get all my toiletries, but remembered to bring the rosary my Mom had given me for my Confirmation.
At six-thirty in the morning, both lanes of traffic on Interstate 10, the main artery for New Orleans, had been opened for northbound traffic. It took four and a half hours to drive the sixty miles to Baton Rouge. My friend and I initially made fun of reporters for trying to scare people into leaving by using the words “catastrophic” and “tragic.” But as that beautiful Sunday wore on, and the news became increasingly grim, our moods began to change.
We caught the end of mass in the student chapel at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. I can’t say it gave either of us much comfort, since our minds were preoccupied with worry. But even an empty mass is better than hot traffic or gas lines.
After grabbing lunch, we began driving northwest, away from Katrina. We drove for fifteen hours that Sunday before finding a rundown motel room in a backwards Texas town. I would later learn that there were no vacant hotel rooms and little gas available in three states. As we passed from the swamps around the New Orleans, to the cane fields of Baton Rouge and Lafayette, to the cotton fields near Shreveport and Natchitoches, the realization began to sink in that this was going to be awful.
By now, everyone knows what we knew the day before the hurricane—that thousands would die. Everyone has witnessed the bumbling governmental response, the acts of heroism and desperation, and the catastrophic loss of a uniquely American city.
While I comprehend the national scale of this catastrophe, for me, the loss is personal. It is difficult to be a refugee in your own country. It is humbling to sleep on a sofa for weeks. It is crippling to find yourself in a strange city far from friends and family. I cannot help feel that, like the attacks of September 11, this is a pointed and malicious attack on me and mine.
How could God let this happen? What will New Orleans be like now? Is it worth it to go back?
The Pulse of the City
The French Quarter won’t be the same without the crazy guy on the corner of Decatur and Canal who wears an umbrella hat and shouts gospel. It will seem gutted without whole neighborhoods of iconic row housing. The whole pulse of the city will be distorted and unfamiliar.
On August 29, I had a plan. I knew where I was going. But like so many others displaced in this Gulf Coast diaspora, my future is now alarmingly bleak. Many people I know will not be returning. Many I know have nothing to which they can return.
I’m in Chicago for a while. I’m back in school, and trying to find an apartment and a life. Adjusting is an awkward and bumbling kind of process. The shock is still there, and every morning I still wake up with a wince when I remember where I am and why.
Challenge to Faith
Even though the immediate future is uncertain, I have no doubt that I’ll move back to New Orleans as soon as they let me. Family and friends have all discouraged me from uprooting again, from braving the dangers of crime and disease. There may be no home or job to which I can return. The arguments they make are all compelling.
But those sorts of considerations seem trivial when you are going back to something you love.
The biggest challenge my city will face is not the loss of infrastructure, but the challenge to faith. All the evidence may point against it, but I have steadfast faith that the city will rise again. New Orleans will never be like it was, but I genuinely believe it will re-emerge. This will be a challenge on a staggering national scale.
A bunch of French noblemen founded New Orleans on an unlikely spot in a remote and savage province. It is a city that never should have been—a city that was willed into being. And for me and so many others in this and other centuries, the challenge is worth it.