Monday, August 30, 2010

Where were you on August 29th, 2005?

[Disclaimer: Forgive the length and seriousness of this one... I had a hard time editing my thoughts, but wanted to share.]

I was on a plane, headed to Santa Barbara, California.

I always remember my mother telling me stories about where she was when John F. Kennedy was shot (she was in class, and they announced it over the intercom). It was something that everyone in their generation can attest to.

My first memory of "where I was when" is Princess Diana's death (at the beach, walking around Publix). High school was seemingly void of these nationally bonding marks of time. I was a freshman in college on September 11th, and I actually slept through the live footage (but I'll never forget one of the smokers sitting outside of the dorm's "hey did you hear about New York?" as I walked out to class, nor will I forget failing my math quiz and how unapologetic and unsympathetic my teacher was). More recently, I learned of Michael Jackson's death during shift lineup at the restaurant where I worked at this time last year, and Heath Ledger's as I was driving home from class.

It's hard to believe that yesterday marked five years that have passed since one of the most personal defining moments of my life. Though if you did not live near the Gulf or have a connection to New Orleans, chances are you didn't pay much attention as Hurricane Katrina came tearing through South Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. For me, it quite literally hit close to home, as my father hails from St. Bernard Parish in Louisiana, a small but quite distinguishable area  right outside of New Orleans. Home of the Yat (short for "where y'at?") dialect, the Battle of New Orleans site and memorial, and enough drive-through daiquiri joints to ensure that no roads are safe to drive on... St. Bernard was also home to my only aunt (Nanny Robin) and her family, a few great aunts and uncles, and many memories of first Mardi Gras parades and Thanksgivings spent with my grandparents (they had passed away several years before this).

I've always had a special connection to New Orleans. Sounds lame, I know, but it's true. I've never really partied there (there was one ill-fated New Year's Eve, but we won't go there today) and shared that connection that so many do. To me, it's home. Another more fragrant and robust version of my first home in Dothan. Where my last name doesn't stand out as it does in Alabama or Tennessee. Where I understand and feel the deep heritage there. I honestly thought I'd move there after college, and a last-minute decision to accept an internship in Birmingham is all that stops this from being a very different set of memories.

I very well remember climbing on a plane that morning, headed to Santa Barbara for work, and calling my aunt to see if they were evacuating. She was annoyed, tired of all the teases of hurricanes and evacuations from the previous years, saying "Yeahh we're on the way to your parents' house. Probably will be back home by Monday." She packed her husband, their children, and their dog, a few days' worth of clothing, a few pictures, and whatever the kids grabbed that they couldn't' live without for the weekend (which at the time were some gaming systems, iPods, and cell phones). Natalie and I are still a bit upset they left our original Nintendo behind. They certainly weren't prepared to stay 6 months in Dothan, Alabama.

In California, no one was all that concerned about what was going on in the Gulf. Most everyone watched the news and kinda said "meh... that's sad for Mardi Gras," going on with their business. And then there were the folks and their "good riddances," not mourning the loss of such a vile, sinful city. I don't blame the former in retrospect (surely I do the same with the wild fires there and such), but at the time... I was a mess. Here I am, across the country from where my second home was being destroyed. My aunt's home for 45 years. I'm seeing images of this place I love in complete devastation... the news was unrelenting... and everyone around me is just going on about their business like it's just another day. Cause it was just another day, just another week for them. While it was one of the most surreal weeks of my life. I'll never forget talking to my 13-year-old cousin Karly, who was beside herself not knowing where her friends were, or whether they even made it out ok. My aunt was glued to message boards and email, searching for friends and other family members. (Everyone was eventually accounted for, though many did not move back from Houston or other places they were displaced to.) St. Bernard, closest to the levees, was in a total nightmare. It was just awful.

Post-storm flooding in St. Bernard Parish

A St. Bernard Neighborhood similar to my aunt's and my grandparents'
They had about 13 feet of water in their single story house, and my dad was baffled by what a sheer mess it was. There was a random freaking boat wedged in the carport attached to the side of the house. A dresser from a bedroom on the opposite end of the house blocking the side door. Sludge everywhere. They went back and got all they could salvage after a week or so. Wondered about the health hazards from handling such innocent things as picture frames, jewelry, and books. Much to the dismay of Natalie and I (who are easily creeped out), Nanny Robin creates porcelain dolls as a hobby. There were far too many of them in my parents' house for those six months. (But of course I was happy she was able to salvage as many as she did, for her sake.) :)

There were some funny memories, of course. The kids adjusting to living in Alabama as pre-teens. Going to public school (they were in Catholic schools and not the co-ed ones in New Orleans). They enjoyed spending time with their uncle (Parran Freddy). They went to the Peanut Festival. They wondered at how we survived without much entertainment, and 45 minutes away from any interstate. But they also grew to love it. Even pondered settling there, but in the end, wanted to go home.

Now, five years later, damage from the storm is still seen in St. Bernard, and talked about much with my family. Nanny Robin and Uncle Kenny were blessed to have good insurance and the ability to find a home with very little damage that they could fix up and move into quickly. It's a happy ending for them. There are lots of chronological references made to the effect of "before the storm." My grandparents' house is completely gone. There's an empty space where it once stood, witnessing my dad and Nanny grow up, then Natalie and me, and then Karly and Derek. Seeing that empty space for the first time a few years ago is what really got to me more than anything. St. Bernard was essentially wiped out, but many have moved back and are rebuilding. The parish has about half of its population as "before the storm." But Lord knows those daquiri shops are back in full action. I visited a few months ago and I was happy to see that New Orleans is alive and thriving and truly resembling its old self again.

Laissez le bon temps rouler!  Yeah?
"Green" homes built in the Lower 9th Ward by Brad Pitt's Make It Right organization.
Katrina Memorial in Lower 9th Ward
Same ole streets
RRB and Me
French Market Entrance and up Barracks Street
Cooter Brown's in the Garden District

Pretty skies above Jacob and Magazine Street (at Balcony Bar & Cafe)

The Chalmette National Cemetery, adjoining the National Battlefield site
With Nanny Robin at Jackson Square

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