By Barclay McConnell
“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”― Brené Brown
On Friday, August 26th, 2005 I was sick in bed in my apartment on Sycamore Street, just a block from the end of the streetcar line at Carrollton and Claiborne. I was listening to weather updates and initial evacuation reports on my clock radio while my sweet, unconcerned cat spooned up beside me.
There had been so many storms that season. For many, I hadn’t bothered to evacuate. But, my gut told me New Orleans was going to take a hit this time. I’d been through countless hurricanes in my thirty-five years on the planet—the full range from minor to major. Luckily only one of them was at the latter end of the spectrum, Hurricane Frederic, back when I was in fourth grade in Mobile, Alabama.
Mobile is like a sister city to New Orleans, only an hour and a half away and similar in its history and culture. Frederic hit Mobile hard but we did not evacuate. I remember my grandfather going outside at the raging height of the storm in full military weather gear. He held on to a brick column supporting the porch and watched a 200-year-old pecan tree with its massive root system being lifted and held suspended in the air, motionless for several full minutes, before being dropped unceremoniously nearby. That night I experienced the eerie calm and quiet of being in the eye of the storm.
After Frederic, we were without power and water for months. The city had been stripped naked of most of its beautiful canopy of live oak trees, and the tornados that ringed the eye of the storm left a path of flattened and twisted devastation. I recall endless days climbing through the debris with my little sister, the high-pitched whine of chainsaws a constant soundtrack, dawn to dusk.
But Frederic was not the norm. Hurricane warnings are just a part of life on the Gulf coast and I considered staying put for Katrina. But the thought of being stranded alone without power or water motivated me, no matter how bad I felt, to evacuate—and quickly, before the exit routes turned into parking lots.
I was too sick to do any serious preparation so I ignored my needling instincts that this was a big one, convincing myself that I would be back home and back to work in a few days’ time. I packed some toiletries, a basket of dirty laundry, my cat, her food and litter box and that’s pretty much it. I took old Highway 90 traveling through the low areas of New Orleans East, which would soon be dramatically and permanently altered. The trip took about two hours longer than usual, but I made it to Mobile and hunkered down with my parents to wait out the storm.
We all know what happened next. In just a few short days the name Katrina superseded all the legendary Gulf coast storms, like Camille and Betsy. In my little corner of New Orleans on Sycamore Street, the floodwaters rose. Houses were flooded. Neighbors who stoically stayed were evacuated by boat. The day after the storm someone got shot at the end of my block and the body floated in the shallow water by the stop sign for days. Two of my friends made their way out of the city by car in the days after, fearing for their lives and facing armed and aggressive bands of looters while searching for a way out. New Orleans was a half-demolished war zone. Other friends waded long distances, through toxic floodwaters, to reach buses that would take them out of the city. Their pets were not allowed to go.
Through all of this I remained in my parents’ house glued to the television for updates, scouring message boards for news of friends with whom I’d lost touch and were now scattered over the U.S. I heard tales of horror from friends all along the Gulf coast who had experiences that would scar them for life.
Unprepared, I spent the next few months wearing donated clothing, waiting to learn whether I still had a job and wondering if I would accept it, if offered. It was December before I was offered my job. But after hearing stories of the high rates of suicide in New Orleans, the toxic residue left after the floodwaters receded and doctors reporting crazy respiratory illnesses and skin conditions, I decided to go somewhere else where I was more likely to thrive. I had been diagnosed with a serious autoimmune disease a few years before and my health was already precarious.
I spent my entire 401K supporting myself as I searched for a job, the majority of it going to COBRA health insurance. I eventually took a great leap of faith and borrowed money from a friend to move to the Triangle area of North Carolina. I initially took a low-paying job outside my career area just to have some income until I could get my foot in the door in my field. Eventually I got a good job but it was a long, hard process.
I am writing this eight years and a month after Hurricane Katrina, realizing that in those years I’ve lived in three states and ten different houses. I’ve had six jobs. I have no savings and I’ve just started rebuilding a 401K at age 43. Only two years out of grad school with a ton of medical debt, I was not in a great financial position when the storm hit. But the storm reduced me to living at the poverty level.
The upheaval of Katrina was much more than financial. I am surprised by how emotional I get at a mention or a fleeting image from that time. It is too easy to bring back the insidious anxiety of those months of dread and difficulty. I still feel anger that New Orleans was treated like some sort of red-headed stepchild after the storm and that many felt it was not worth saving. During my apartment hunt in North Carolina, a rental agent went on a red-faced tirade about the waste and absurdity of saving the city, not even considering that I might be someone who left it unwillingly and loved it like an old friend.
There’s still an ache in my heart for New Orleans. I miss my funky Carrollton neighborhood and my quirky neighbors: Mrs. Sterling the busybody with lots of green eye shadow on her wrinkled eyelids who rooted through people’s garbage; Ingrid the grumpy former East German Olympian who owned the beauty parlor at the end of the block; Doc and Helen the elderly hippies next door who smoked lots of pot and sometimes answered the door naked; Fred the semi-famous rock drummer upstairs with the dog named Tater Tot… I have no idea what happened to any of them.
There is still pain. There is nostalgia. But I believe in embracing change and I am sure I am stronger having come through the many challenges of this storm. I lost a life, not my life, but a life. Now it’s time for me to honor this and to heal.