11 Years Ago, When The World Changed

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Bellaire Drive (site of Suzanne’s former house)

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.

Suzanne's house...and stuff.

Suzanne’s house…and stuff.

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.

Lakeview near 17th Street Canal breach

Lakeview near 17th Street Canal breach

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.

Louisiana Avenue, near Suzanne's house.

Louisiana Avenue, near Suzanne’s house.

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.


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About Suzanne Johnson

Author of urban fantasy, paranormal romance, and suspense. As Suzanne Johnson, she is the author of the Sentinels of New Orleans urban fantasy series (Royal Street; River Road: Elysian Fields, Pirate's Alley, Belle Chasse, Frenchmen Street (March 2018). Writing as Susannah Sandlin, she is the author of the Penton Legacy series (Redemption; Absolution; Omega; Storm Force; Allegiance; ILLUMINATION); The Collectors series (Lovely, Dark, and Deep; Deadly, Calm, and Cold); and the Wilds of the Bayou series (Wild Man's Curse; Black Diamond).

19 thoughts on “11 Years Ago, When The World Changed

  1. Thanks for sharing your photos and using such a traumatic experience to write some awesome books!

    • Aw…((hugs)). It was interesting that I wrote it last night and when I read back over it this morning, I realized how much anger (at the so-called leaders) I still carried about it. Oh well, that too will fade even more with time.

  2. Thanks for giving us a true picture of what it was like for you and the people in New Orleans. So glad that you were able to gain perspective and even strength from such pain, sorrow and hardship.

    • Thanks, Jess. I’m only now beginning to get more perspective on it and able to look at the whole thing more objectively. It was so preventable; that’s the part that’s stuck with me.

  3. we should never forget but i also help to se some positive event that came from it even if it’s small it’sa light, a hope

  4. I remember sitting in my home in Ohio watching in horror as the same government that gives billions to corporations callously sat back and let people die. I remember the police blocking the bridge to Gretna to keep the black refugees out. I remember the hundreds of airboat owners who came from Florida to help rescue survivors who were stopped by authorities from saving lives. I remember being a thousand miles away and crying for the victims of Katrina and George W Bush.

    I also remember going to the library about two years ago looking for Dangerous Women, an anthology edited by GRR Martin, and seeing DJ looking out from the spine of Royal Street on the shelf above. It was the combination of wizards and Katrina that made me choose to check out that book. I loved it so much that I bought the rest of the series.
    I can tell you from very recent personal experience that God gives when he takes away. This summer, I “met” an author on Twitter who has a high fantasy series. I liked her so much that I bought her books. She has been building her world and characters since she was seven years years old, so it is very rich and involved.
    I know I’ve told you that I have not been inspired to write for several years. My new friend recently released her second book, and she did a blog tour and ran contests on her website to promote the release. One of the contests invited readers to create their own character in her universe. When I read this, a character sprang into my mind full blown and started telling me her story. I got two chapters done, and my friend loved it so much she was excited to know what happens next.
    Last week, my husband and I went to Detroit to celebrate our fortieth wedding anniversary. He had been in poor health for years, but last Wednesday, he said he felt great. He was laughing and happy, and we had a wonderful day together, filled with love and fun. He savored his meals and won more at the casino than seemed possible. He was so lucky, people were asking to touch him to share his good fortune. He was glowing with happiness. We went to our room and shared room service dinner. He was sitting on the edge of the bed and said he felt warm. He asked me to turn up the air conditioning. I offered to get him a cool cloth to wipe his face, but when I tried to hand it to him, he couldn’t take it. I ran to the phone to call for help, frantic. I told him I loved him, and he said, “I love you, too”, and slumped back on the bed. He died in my arms of a heart attack.
    After the worst night of my life, I returned home to learn that I had won the website contest. There were several prize options, but losing my husband has taught me not to waste time or opportunity. So I told my friend that what I really wanted was to collaborate with her on a spin-off series set in her world, starring the characters I created for the contest. To my utter amazement, she enthusiastically agreed.
    I will be 60 next month, and I have wanted to write since I was a child. Now it seems I’ll get my chance. God gives as he takes away.

    • She certainly did. I don’t think either of us, me fleeing eventually to Alabama and you to Tennessee, would ever have expected to be where we are now. Fortunately for us, distance doesn’t dull friendships. And I’ll forever in my mind see that wedding dress hanging from the tree limb in front of my house. I think we might have been in shock, don’t you? LOL.