Living with My Post-Katrina Survivor's Guilt
While others lost everything, I stayed in FEMA-funded hotel rooms and lapped up pity from those who saw my Louisiana license plate. Instead of character, all I got out of Katrina was a party-friendly anecdote.
We didn't think it would be that big of a deal. We didn't even board up the windows. Living in New Orleans, we were used to hurricane warnings. We considered them empty threats, as they invariably turned out to be 99 percent sound, 1 percent fury. The last time a storm had done any significant damage to the Gulf Coast, it was Hurricane Camille in 1969. It was, at the time, 2005. Staunch elder Louisianans bragged about how they lived through Camille, refusing to leave their deluged homes and becoming sturdier for it. Neither of us had read the 2002 Times Picayune article that described, in detail, the structural weakness of the levees that surrounded us. It appears, in retrospect, that no one had.
We didn't grow up with disaster films outlining the devastation that would unfold if the levees broke. The Mississippi River wasn't the San Andreas Fault. A product of California, I was raised to fear my state's own particular "Big One." Native Louisianans, for whatever reason, were not.
We woke up early and turned on the television. There, we saw the harried visage of then-Mayor Ray Nagin informing us we were to mandatorily evacuate the city. If we had a choice, we wouldn't have chosen to do so. In retrospect, it was odd we were up so early. We usually slept in.
We were always hot and cold. On again, off again. We had broken up and got back together shortly before we were, by fate, mandatorily removed from our home for a month. Circumstances could have been different. I'd been planning on renting my own place, owned by my co-worker's husband; she and I worked together at the federal Food and Drug Administration office I had somehow conned my way into becoming employed by.
My job entailed relabeling files—an enormous, endless mass of them, which I used a motorized apparatus to retrieve from the bowels of the building. I was not a particularly hard worker. I'd take three-hour lunches at Popeyes and spend afternoons doing push-ups in the staircase. When Katrina hit, the entire building was completely submerged in water, ruining the minimal amount of work I had done and turning the place into a total loss. All the FDA employees who were considered worthwhile to the organization were subsequently relocated to Nashville. I was not.
But I digress. I didn't end up renting the apartment. Rather, after a couple tense days I spent occupying our guest bedroom, my boyfriend and I reconciled. We got muffalettas at the Central Grocery and, instead of apologizing, silently agreed to remain complacently coupled. A couple days later we attended a taping of Wheel of Fortune at the soon-to-be-decimated Convention Center. The next day, we evacuated.
Traffic on the Pontchartrain Expressway on the way out of town was a stand still, which made sense. Over 1.5 million people from Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi were evacuating. People got out of their cars to stretch their legs. No one seemed particularly upset; we were being forced to leave town, sure, but we collectively assumed we would return when the storm pissed out a few inches of rain.
The sky above us was bright, cloudless. Slowly we crept. To Baton Rouge. Past Baton Rouge. Beyond. As we drove, we listened to the news on the radio—the more we traveled, the bleaker it became. It was a Category 3 hurricane. Then a Category 4. Then a Category 5. I became nervous. He was characteristically, sociopathically, unflappable.
We drove down the interstate. There was, no matter where we stopped, no room at the proverbial inn. After driving all night, we found one in Atlanta—the last, the clerk behind the counter told me, in the state. As he told me this, I watched on television as the Target in Metairie, my Target, drowned in a rapidly increasing pool of water. It was then I realized the whole affair was a big deal.
Those who hadn't left, naturally, had a rough go of things. I saw them stand in line on the news, waiting for hours for Red Cross relief funds.
We, instead, waltzed into a Red Cross office in Minneapolis, where we were temporarily gaining refuge at his sister's condo. The same condo where we'd watch Kanye West tell the country, the world, that George Bush doesn't care about black people, knowing it to be the case because we were in an air-conditioned condo in Minneapolis while black people in New Orleans were stranded on roofs, desperate, starving. (That's not to say black people were the only ones who stayed behind—they did, however, comprise the vast majority of strandees.)
We immediately took the Red Cross debit cards we received and drove to the Mall of America. My boyfriend bought a Slayer shirt. I bought size 00 pants. I was very proud, at the time, of being less than zero.
We couldn't go home but it didn't matter. We spent the month we were adrift circling the country, alternating between fighting and fucking. The television would tell us how bleak things were back home. I'd occasionally cry, wondering if my cat had survived the storm—I had, both stupidly and selfishly, left him behind, thinking I'd be back soon and not wanting to deal with the inconvenience of a caged, howling feline in the interim. Meanwhile, the human death count mounted. My cat, for the record, survived.
Instead of character, all I got out of Katrina was a party-friendly anecdote.
We were homeless, sure, but not entirely. We knew that, when we returned, we'd have a home. And even if the goddamned thing had been pulled asunder from the sandy earth beneath it, it was insured, so fuck it, who cared? We slept fitfully, but comparatively blissfully, in motel rooms paid for by FEMA relief funds while we waited to reenter the city. While the agency's overall incompetence fucked over thousands and led to the deaths of God knows how many people, FEMA, frankly, never gave us even the slightest modicum of guff, ponying up four grand to cover travel expenses with little teeth-pulling.
I didn't know what FEMA did, exactly, for the people who hadn't evacuated; the nightly news made it seem like little to nothing. I didn't know what was happening in New Orleans in general—the news was riddled with rumor and conjecture, making it impossible to get the straight story. Was our house destroyed? Were people really raping and robbing each other in the Superdome? When, if ever, would the National Guard rescue all those goddamned people off those goddamned roofs?
After a month of getting free nachos from waitresses who saw our license plate and pitied us because of it, we were amongst the first group of people who returned to New Orleans when given the all clear. The all clear, of course, wasn't entirely clear, but this was, given the circumstances, to be expected. We were told not to drink the water. Hummers filled with men in uniform, holding enormous semi-automatics, slowly drove down our street at all hours of the day and night. Helicopters circled incessantly. We ate the MREs they gave us, more out of perverse fascination than necessity. We were in a police state, yes, but cognizant of the fact that said state was policing on our behalf. They were there to protect us, two temporarily inconvenienced white homeowners. They were protecting us against all those who had actually suffered and were sore about it.
Nothing had happened to our home. We were close enough to the French Quarter, to privilege, that we were protected. In spite of the fact that we hadn't boarded our windows, none were shattered. Everything we had DVRed was still on the DVR.
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The low-income housing complex immediately next door to us, however, had collapsed into a pile of rubbish, one was one of over 200,000 residences destroyed by the hurricane. Looking at it, and then at our white devil's paradise, I felt a tidal wave of nihilism. There was no such thing, I realized, as karma. If karma existed, we'd be out of house and home. We were the antithesis of church-going people. We did not volunteer. We did not give back to our community. The idea of "paying it forward" was the subject of derision. Half of our two-person household didn't even vote. There was no justice, I learned, in the world. Which is why, instead of character, all I got out of Katrina was a party-friendly anecdote.
The weeks after we returned were apocalyptic, but tolerable. I remember the smell of mold enveloping me whenever I disaster-tourismed my way into abandoned houses that would never be rebuilt. I remember seeing overturned boats that had drifted into intersections and laid there, waiting to be removed. I remember driving through the Ninth Ward, and it feeling as though I were driving through a mass grave. I remember a lot. But memories are all I have. I moved shortly thereafter, not to Houston, where up to 100,000 former New Orleanians relocated, but to Los Angeles, and into a world where Obama, from what I'm told, cares about all people. Compared to the last administration's, his benevolence could be considered saintly.
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