First, if you haven’t already, please click here to go to the short, two-question poll I ran on Sunday. Your answers are anonymous, and they will really help me as I plan promotion for my upcoming releases in October and November. And to those who’ve already filled it out, THANK YOU!
I considered not marking the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina this year–the 11th anniversary isn’t one of those “magical” numbers, after all, but after all the flooding in Louisiana earlier this month, from which so many people are still trying to recover, it’s made those memories close to the surface.
If you’re reading this blog as it goes live on Tuesday morning, August 30, here was my world exactly 11 years ago. I was in a small Days Inn hotel room in Bossier City, Louisiana (next to Shreveport, just east of Dallas, Texas). I sat on one of the beds with my friend Lora. My mom was trying to fend off the 90-pound, aptly named Tanker as he and Shane bounced around on the other bed. We were watching the TV in horror. In tears. In shock. Praying we’d wake up.
The hotel was crammed full of people. There were at least 10 stuffed in the room next door to us. At least half of the hotel was taken up with Louisiana State Police canine search and rescue teams, waiting for the storm to move through so they could head for the coast and look for survivors–and bodies.
About 1,600 people died in the city of New Orleans eleven years ago, not directly from Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall first in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, and then in Slidell, Louisiana, east of the city. They didn’t die from the 150-mph winds that blew through downtown New Orleans (and blew a 60-foot cedar tree onto my house). They died because the levees around the city had been poorly built and maintained due to shortcuts and greed, and then collapsed under the pressure of the storm surge in Lake Pontchartrain. They died because they were too poor to leave. They died because they thought it couldn’t really happen to us, that 85 percent of our city couldn’t be sent under water up to twelve feet deep in only a few hours. And because it took too damn long for help to arrive. Politicians were too busy finger-pointing and bickering to take charge. The Red Cross thought it was too dangerous.
The scabs were ripped off every wound in our broken city. Wounds of poverty and racism and crime and corruption.
Did we learn anything from it? I don’t know. There’s a big honking flood gate at the head of the 17th Street Canal, two blocks from my former home and the main source of flooding in the city itself. For a while after those of us who were able went back to rebuild, everyone was extremely kind. Positive. Anxious to see the rebuilding of New Orleans as a chance to get it right.
Then the crime returned. We measured our days in horror stories, in seeing who didn’t come back, in seeing who died, who lost jobs, who moved away. We waited too long for the normalities we took for granted–trash pickup, potable water, mail delivery, the destroyed streetcars–to resume. We grew short-tempered. We forgot to be grateful we’d survived. Half-gutted houses and trash heaps became the new normal. Promised assistance for rebuilding didn’t arrive. Insurance companies gave us the runaround and wriggled out of everything they could.
And yet, here I am eleven years later, contemplating a future that never would have happened without the events of those days. I would never have left New Orleans or been so homesick and traumatized that I’d decide to write a little book called ROYAL STREET.
How do I feel about Katrina now? I’ll let DJ Jaco say it for me. These lines appear at the end of ROYAL STREET, but they were the first lines I wrote:
I wished Katrina had never happened, that the city I love so much hadn’t been so broken, its spirit so damaged, its naïve joy replaced by sorrow and cynicism and anger. Yet I know a lot of things I’ve come to love since the storm would never have been in my life without the pain.
Katrina took, and she gave.