Today marks the 5th anniversary of the day Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans.
Many other commenters, far more versed in statistics and politics, will have plenty to say about the governmental failures in the disaster and the progress New Orleans has made in rebuilding. These are all very worthwhile, but as someone who lived in the New Orleans area before the storm, it’s not the story I think that’s most worth telling nor is it the one I’m most equipped to tell. While the government and insurance companies both reared their ugly and greedy heads in the aftermath, there’s only so much good one gets out of rehashing old arguments and injuries. I want to remember the good that God has done for me and the city from this storm.
Katrina marked a significant turning point in my life, as for many other New Orleanians. When Katrina hit, I was a miserable freshman at Loyola-New Orleans who was looking to get involved in Republican politics. Because of the storm, I was introduced to LSU, a school I was too arrogant to consider applying to out of college. I fell in love with the people and atmosphere and eventually transferred. Out of LSU came many of my closest friends, my wife, and most importantly a much stronger faith life.
Other than the evacuation, my family suffered very little. My father had been one of the heads of the volunteers at the Red Cross before he died in ’91, and knew a lot about the flooding in the area (In fact, there’s a story about how he dragged the then Mayor of Kenner, Aaron Broussard, to the site of a pumping station Broussard wanted to build to show him the height of the levee and river a block away. The station was never built). My house was pretty well off the ground, and the flooding Metairie (in Jefferson parish which is west of New Orleans) received was too small to do damage to my house, though others in the neighborhood received worse. I still had the joys of cleaning out a fridge with old meat that had not been refrigerated for weeks. But I was thankfully spared from having to gut my house, a reality I can’t imagine.
As a result, my memories are less troubling than many people’s of the immediate aftermath. I saw pictures of the buses parked in my high school with the yellow tops barely visible. I remember going to my father’s grave to see the watermark eight feet (if not more) above the ground. I remember driving through Lakeview and New Orleans East, slowly numbing to the sight of house after house after house with watermarks on their roofs.
I remember thinking at this time that the city was done for. The incompetence & lack of compassion shown by government and business leaders was going to make the New Orleans that returned a shell of itself. Even before the storm, people openly talked of wanting to get far from New Orleans to Atlanta or Houston, and this appeared to be the final nail in the coffin.
But it wasn’t. It’s hard to describe it, but suddenly we recognized the good. The rich culture and community won out over all the obstacles. Those who could come back mostly did. The New Orleans that emerged may not be one economically or politically stronger, but it was one that was culturally stronger. People were suddenly proud of where they lived, their past, and their neighbors. New Orleans stopped trying to be like Atlanta and started to live in a real community bound by its own unique heritage.
That’s not something outsiders can see, though many got a glimpse of it during the Saints’ Superbowl run. The Saints were a symbol of recovery in their own right, not only due to the damage to the Superdome but also b/c the Saints were written off as gone to San Antonio. But they came back, and they came back stronger and many people drew inspiration from that. Even more than that, the resurgence of the Saints and the city-wide gatherings held on game days and the “Black and Gold Fridays” that popped up in area businesses and high schools gave the New Orleans community a way to express its new found communal strength. Black and gold became colors of the city, a city that many had sacrificed and taken a risk to live in.
When the Saints won the Superbowl, for many it was a victory symbolic of the victory of New Orleans-not only over the devastation of the storm, but the loss of self-worth that had infected the city before the storm. Now New Orleans had rediscovered its old treasures. In many ways, New Orleans has a lot to teach the rest of the country about that.
So today, we remember those that died and those that suffered tremendously. But we also remember God’s amazing grace that can take the most devastating disasters and use them to produce previously unimaginable good.