Usually I agonize over my blog posts to make them perfect, lyrical masterpieces. In these days leading up to the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, all the pretty words have abandoned me.
Should I talk about it at all? Being quiet might be easier…but it feels wrong. I need to say something.
Those scary hours are jumbled in my head, fuzzy memories that still feel like yesterday. I was home in New Jersey, working nights and following the storm on every TV in the Intensive Care Unit. Most of my family was in New Orleans for Tulane move-in and a convention at the Superdome. I fell asleep the next morning relieved that they had all evacuated—caught one of the last planes out or took their rental car and drove east.
I woke to catastrophic images that are still seared in my mind. Precious life, love and history, stolen by the flood.
In the heartbreaking days afterward, I learned a lot about people I thought I knew. Very few “friends” here shared my grief. Some of the stupid comments I heard….
“Why do you care about a city thousands of miles away? Isn’t everything that flooded a slum anyway? Can’t you just vacation somewhere else? Who builds a city below sea-level?”
And then, the most idiotic comment of them all…
“I think New Orleans needs to go bye-bye.”
In my entire life, I’ve never been so close to punching someone in the face.
Plenty of people shook my faith in human nature, but others lifted and restored it. Our friend Carol, drove a food truck around the parishes for weeks, feeding workers, recovery volunteers, and local residents just trying to survive. If we never told you, Carol, we are so very proud and thankful for your effort.
So, my husband Scott and I aren’t New Orleans residents. Yet. We may have fallen in love on vacation—so many do. For Scott it was 40+ years ago—getting up early and ordering coffee at Morning Call for his family. For me it was 20 years ago—whatever was in the air for my first breath, never let go. He wanted to rebuild with his hands. I wished I could help evacuate patients from the hospitals. We didn’t lose our home to the storm, but we felt sickeningly powerless and disconnected. How could we ever give back to a city that’s brought us such joy? Give back enough?
We went back the summer after the storm—before the cruise ships came back—while a lot of the restaurants and shops were still closed. We talked to every person, bought whatever caught our eye–enough to share with everyone at home. We ate every breakfast at the Old Coffeepot on St. Peter St., because not much else was open and their omelettes are awesome. We searched for the shop that sold ceramic houses I collect and an artist that was my mother-in-law’s favorite. We rejoiced when we found them both.
If we ever complain that “the Quarter is so crowded”, we stop and remember when it was a ghost town and how desperately empty those streets felt without the music. Now, we embrace the crowds and (most of) the foolishness, because the alternative is unthinkable. Every chance we get, we introduce new people to New Orleans, bring them with us to visit and watch their eyes light up when they start to get “it”. That mission will go on forever.
I wrote Monsters and Angels as a distraction for my mind after Sandy caused so much destruction in New Jersey, but I set it in New Orleans. My characters live there, my heart is there, my visits are more frequent—every few months. When it’s time to leave, Scott needs to pry my fingers off the airplane door so they can close it.
Last week, I heard Trombone Shorty play at a little theater in New Jersey. From the Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s first song until the second line that closed the show, I let myself be spirited away. During one amazingly long note Shorty played…it went on for minutes…many, many minutes…it occurred to me. The first time I stepped onto New Orleans soil, I heard that note. Felt it in my soul. It started like a whisper, swelled into a symphony, flickered and almost died once—but it’s growing stronger again, every day.
One stirring, haunting, magically endless note.