I don’t live in New Orleans. I never did. Because of that, I never felt like I had the same ownership of the Hurricane Katrina story that my friends who survived the hurricane did. I don’t have the stories of personal belongings or loved ones lost and so nothing I share can ever reach that magnitude or diminish that story.
Still, it touched me personally.
A few things I remember:
1) I was more personally affected by the FIRST US landfall of Katrina than the second. The first hit Miami several days before it strengthened over the Gulf. I was on the very last flight to leave Miami as Katrina was hitting there (as a much weaker storm). I was on an AA 777 upgraded to first on the three-cabin flight and I was struck by the gate agent’s comment that we had almost 700 people on standby trying to get a seat due to mass flight cancellations that evening. We rocked and rolled down the runway as she made landfall and I understand the airport was closed shortly after we took off.
2) I remember sitting at home watching round the clock coverage as she gathered speed to make landfall in Louisiana. It seemed to be media overhype as most of my friends in the Gulf had ridden out many storms. My cousin’s husband was the commanding officer of a Navy ship that went out to sea to ride out the storm. It seemed like business as normal despite the scary predictions.
3) I was in Buenos Aires with travel friends when the levees broke. We couldn’t get good coverage but knew from the international reporting that it was a bad situation. I had just been in New Orleans for a stretch of time in the previous month and couldn’t believe that yet again I had personal proximity to an international situation. I chatted with friends who were evacuated and couldn’t return home to assess the damage to their homes. I felt their helplessness and despair.
4) I hosted a fundraiser later in the month to raise money for the Navy families out of Gulfport who lost everything in the storm. While my heart was with the victims in New Orleans as well, I wanted to do something for all the families on the Delta who suffered due to the storm and the damage was much wider spread than New Orleans. I hosted a wine tasting, silent auction, and charity trunk show in my home that was attended by travel friends from several states. Along with family members also raising funds, we contributed over $15,000 to purchase Wal-Mart gift cards for enlisted members who had immediate losses requiring replacement. I was thrilled that my travel community rallied around the cause.
5) I went back to visit as soon as tourism was up and running (probably six months later). Up and running was a stretch – hotels were minimally staffed because their employees had nowhere to live in the city. Restaurants were starting to open again but were running a minimal schedule – Thursday dinner, all day Friday-Saturday, Sunday brunch – to accommodate tourists. I talked to staff at Emerils who were staying several to an apartment and driving in from Baton Rouge to work the double service. We tipped generously and ate out as we could to support the staff but the restaurants were still only half full.
My local Fort Worth paper had a wonderful article earlier this week about the rebound of the New Orleans restaurant scene that mentions several of my favorite haunts. I have continued to return to New Orleans but will never be able to erase the memories of driving in after Katrina – seeing the blue tarps, hearing stories about beloved bar servers who drowned in their own homes, seeing the devastation.
It was personal to know that a place that I love could be so directly hit by disaster. And to happen only four years after I was recovering from the shellshock of 9/11 was a personal blow.
I walked barefoot in the French Quarter for four blocks on my return trip. A blown out flip flop was to blame but I also did it out of defiance. I took pictures.
I wanted to show my friends elsewhere how clean the streets were.
I wanted to feel the ground beneath my feet.
And I wanted to know that New Orleans was back.