There's No Such Thing as the 'New Normal'

I’m trying to find a way to live amid chaos without accepting it as inevitable, natural, or blameless.
There's No Such Thing as the 'New Normal'
Collage by Hunter French | Images via Getty
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An end-of-the-year series about ditching what isn't working anymore, especially generalized approaches to "self-improvement."

In the wake of a disaster, the concept of a “new normal”—a phrase which you've likely heard on the news, in politicians' public statements, and from your friends and family members in reference to COVID-19—becomes a popular talking point about adapting and being patient. Currently, in a literal sense, people are using "the new normal" as shorthand for miseries including but not limited to putting up with not gathering in groups, shocking unemployment and poverty, and avoidable mass death.


Its logic is shaky at best, but the "new normal" loses all meaning when you consider that the old normal wasn't that great to begin with. Yesterday’s "normal" created these disasters. The “new normal” represents a yearning for the flawed past that brought us to this fucked-up moment. It’s an implicit command to get used to accepting chaos that—had powerful people made better decisions—should not have ever have come to pass, let alone be our regular condition.

The first time my life decollated into a "before and after" due to governmental failure and neglect, it wasn’t because of a spiky, mace-shaped virus decimating what was left of our perceived social, health care and government support systems. It was when Hurricane Katrina sliced across New Orleans, scattering survivors nationwide and leaving them to wonder what a new normal would look like. 

When Katrina hit, I was a 25-year-old grad student. The Gulf Coast was deep in what was, at that point, the busiest Atlantic hurricane season on record. I’d lost track of the number of times throughout my life that I’d evacuated from hurricanes that veered east or west at the last minute; that, to me, was normal. But this storm looked really, really bad. 

“Devastating damage expected,” warned the National Weather Service on August 28, 2005. “Power outages will last for weeks. Water shortages will make human suffering incredible by modern standards.”


I packed up my vicious Hahn’s macaw, Little Greg, and rode the storm out 80 miles north to stay in Baton Rouge with family. We lost power, but a battery-operated radio reported that Katrina had weakened and turned east, sparing New Orleans a direct hit: The city, and many of its at-risk, poverty-stricken residents, were safe from destruction.

Then the federal levee system failed in 53 places. Eighty percent of New Orleans stayed underwater for weeks, including the home my grandmother and I shared among 134,000 others, not to mention schools, hospitals, and so many of the other places the city relied on. Over 1,800 people died. My great-aunt and cousins spent three days trapped in their attic, awaiting rescue that came too late. My cousin’s husband had a heart attack and died in the attic’s heat. 

As I retrieved some possessions from my flooded home a few weeks later, I wondered: How long until things will be back to normal in New Orleans? I figured it would take a while, but 10 or 15 years, max. I didn't expect that timeline to end in a pandemic—a deadlier catastrophe, compounded by federal negligence. What happened to New Orleans during Katrina—being made to accept a crisis as inevitable, livable, and surmountable later on—is happening to the whole country during the coronavirus pandemic. 


In Baton Rouge, I volunteered on crisis intervention lines and in shelters. At the River Center shelter downtown, I met mostly low-income people of color—the same vulnerable, marginalized population that would later be disproportionately affected by COVID-19. The people who most needed to get out of the hurricane’s strike zone—the frail, elderly, disabled, sick and poor—were the ones who didn’t, who couldn’t

The evacuees had so many questions: Where could they get tetanus shots? How could they find their children, who had ended up in different shelters? When was federal aid coming? I had no answers. Neither did the many officials who did their best to usher in a “new normal,” or to blame the fates or circumstance, following Katrina. Former Mayor of New Orleans Ray Nagin—who said, “God sent us hurricane after hurricane after hurricane,” instead of acknowledging his failure to take necessary actions like issuing timely emergency evacuation orders—is in federal prison. He's doing time for taking bribes from city contractors before and after Katrina, aka, benefitting from the very chaos he tried to spin as natural. 


New Orleans Police Department Superintendent Eddie Compass resigned after NOPD shot six unarmed Black civilians on Danziger Bridge in the days following the storm. During that time, they also shot and killed Henry Glover, a Black civilian, and burned his body as a cover-up. In the midst of this lawlessness and police brutality, while medical personnel ventilated critically ill patients by hand, President George W. Bush praised FEMA director Michael Brown for doing a “heck of a job”—even as Brown sent emails that read, “Can I quit now? Can I go home?” 

In recent years, the city’s municipal drainage system, meant to pump out stormwater so the below-sea-level city doesn’t flood with each heavy rain, still fails to do so routinely, damaging homes and businesses. “For you to tell me [floods are] the 'new normal,' I'm supposed to be cool with that?" one New Orleanian said to The Times-Picayune after a 2017 flash flood. "What the hell do you mean it's the new normal? That's stupid." It is stupid. The "new normal" becomes even more unacceptable as it grows more and more dysfunctional, which, it seems like, it always does. It's not hope-inspiring, or even placating. It's a threat.


The "new normal" that those in power want people to accept, in lieu of any functional help or support, is only normal in that it enables racist violence. In its federal negligence, police brutality and health care worker immolation, 2020’s new normal doesn’t look that different. Only the scale has changed. The piecemeal, for-profit health care network still exists, to the detriment and death of Black, brown, and poor people. The same conditions that create climate change and stronger, deadlier hurricanes still exist, and communities decimated by the dual tragedies of climate crises like storms and fires in addition to COVID suffer all the more because of that. The same racist disparities that killed so many Black Americans during Hurricane Katrina also killed a disproportionate number of Black Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic.


The question posed by thinking about life in terms of its relative "normalcy" is: “When will this be over?” A better question might be, “How can I get through this dark moment?” Or, if we are able: “How can I make today better for my neighbor?” Instead of grasping for a comforting platitude, these mindsets ask about survival, regardless of whether we're finding a way to be OK with a given crisis. Things won’t be this way forever, as people love to say. But they sure as hell are this way now. 

This past summer, five hurricanes struck Louisiana as I hunkered down inside with a few loved ones. One of them, Zeta, hit New Orleans directly. After we lost electricity, we made barbecue shrimp by candlelight on the gas stove. When the eye of the storm passed overhead, we stood outside in the eerie pink-orange glow and saw scraps of blue sky. Then, before the eyewall’s winds returned, we went back inside, where we were meant to understand all these hellish conditions as both temporary and, somehow, par for the course, all at once.

I’m trying to find a way to live amid chaos without accepting it as inevitable or natural: This isn't normal. This isn't blameless. This does, however, still have to be survived and lived within, without the patient expectation that things are going to be any calmer or better soon. Waiting it out isn't an option in the way I might want it to be. The wish for a new normal won’t help Americans survive. The U.S. has “entered a phase of high-level transmission” of COVID-19, and we’ll survive this like any other storm: hunkering down in our homes, battening the hatches, and emerging once the chaos has passed—to share food with neighbors and clean up the wreckage.

As Katrina survivors know: Any sense of normalcy comes from the mutual support of other people as a community. I saw it in my great-aunt and cousin’s rescue—it didn’t come from the government. It came from a neighbor with a monster truck. I see it in the way New Orleanians have banded together during the pandemic, creating mutual aid groups, stocking community fridges, staying home and successfully flattening the curve in what was an early coronavirus hotspot. I see it in my own COVID pod—my boyfriend, his nesting partner and her boyfriend, making one another dinner. Keeping company.

Although every day of this pandemic feels ironed onto my memory, I know I’ll forget details: the sight of a shuttered French Quarter, quiet and expectant as a theater set. The sound of bagpipe music (because of course there’s a random guy with a bagpipe in New Orleans) drifting over Humvees at a National Guard COVID-19 testing site. A polling site, powered by generators post Hurricane Zeta, wrapped by a blocks’ long queue of voters. I note these images and no longer peer into the precipice of the future. These are our lives, now.

Follow Missy Wilkinson on Twitter.