Is it possible to be homesick for a place you’ve never lived? I don’t believe in reincarnation but if I did I would swear I once lived in New Orleans. I was strangely captivated by the city on my very first visit and each time I return it feels like going home. And that is why I’m in a rather pensive mood today…the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
In last year’s anniversary post I wrote a bit about our experiences in that great city during the week before the storm. Spending one’s birthday at a hurricane party on Bourbon Street tends to be a rather memorable experience, at least for those of us who don’t overindulge in alcohol. In so many ways it was a fabulous, life-changing week for David and myself. Unfortunately it turned out to be life-changing for everyone who lived there, too, and not in a “fabulous” way. No one who experienced Hurricane Katrina will ever be quite the same again.
Since the storm, David and I have returned to our beloved city four times and will be going again in October. With each successive visit we have seen improvements. More restaurants and other businesses open, recovering vegetation, building and house repairs, larger crowds. We draw hope and encouragement from each tiny step of progress we note. But it has been and continues to be a painfully slow process. The typical tourist staying in the French Quarter can have a great visit and almost forget that Katrina did her best to wipe out the city a mere two years ago. However, a short drive beyond the Quarter confines shows a much different picture. Some areas are still almost completely devastated with virtually no evidence of rebuilding.
This past March my brother and his wife joined us in New Orleans for a few days. They wanted to see some of the damage so we drove around with them for a couple of hours. They were stunned by what they saw. What one sees on television or in magazine photos can’t begin to do justice to the scene. It was utterly heartbreaking. But every so often, in the midst of a neighborhood that had been completely destroyed, you would come upon a house that had been rebuilt. Most of the time they were now several feet in the air, often with a garage or covered patio below. And there were flowers. Smack dab in the middle of what looks like a war zone, a freshly painted house floats several feet above a yard with mowed grass and flower beds filled with bright blooms. Courage is expressed in many different ways and in my opinion, being the first on your block to rebuild is a very visible expression of both courage and hope.
Two years have passed. Two years of people trying to put their lives back together. Two years of frustration, fear, heartache, pain and loss. And two years of volunteers who come to help, visitors electing to spend their tourist dollars in this beleagured city, beloved restaurants reopening, people returning, houses rebuilt and flowers planted. In some ways two years isn’t a long time but for the residents of New Orleans this has no doubt been the longest two years of their lives. It would be nice to say things are back to *normal* (or what passes for normal in N.O.) but that would be the furthest thing from the truth. People are still living in FEMA trailers, waiting for insurance checks, trying to find affordable housing, dealing with both mental and physical health issues, mourning their losses and trying to carve out a new life in a radically altered city. The future of New Orleans is not clear. There are an astounding number of people around the country who believe that the city shouldn’t be rebuilt and simply cannot understand why anyone would want to live in a crime-ridden city surrounded by inadequate levees. And I suppose that from a purely logical standpoint their attitude is understandable…unless you have truly experienced this place. It is simply unlike anywhere else in the world and for those who call it “home” no place else in the world will ever measure up.
In 1877, Lafcadio Hearn wrote this to a friend back in Cinncinati regarding the state of New Orleans:
“Times are not good here. The city is crumbling into ashes. It has been buried under a lava flood of taxes and frauds and maladministrations so that it has become only a study for archeologists. Its condition is so bad that when I write about it, as I intend to do soon, nobody will believe I am telling the truth. But it is better to live here in sackcloth and ashes than to own the whole state of Ohio.”
And that, my friends, is why New Orleans will continue to rebuild and its residents will return. Because despite the crime, litter, potholes, and corruption it is still a city of music, food, fascinating people and a culture unlike anywhere else.