By Travis Kiger
I was in Allentown, PA when I heard a storm was headed for the Gulf Coast. Well, more specifically, I’d heard that a storm “may” or “may not” be heading for South Louisiana, which is just the way those things go. Growing up in South Louisiana, hurricane warnings meant a day or two off of school, perfect for windy wet games of tackle football, video games, and anything else not school related. In college, hurricane days were excuses to grab some hurricane daiquiri mix, open the doors to the apartment, and get silly with 30 of your closest compadres. My point is, the “may” or “may not” parts of hurricane warnings usually seemed to err on the side of “may not.” So when word that Katrina, or ‘Dat Bitch Katrina, as my mom would say, was going to crawl on up out of the Gulf, I wasn’t too worried. I was playing golf, drinking Yuengling, and celebrating a buddy’s wedding – in Allentown, PA.
My mom called a couple of times and I didn’t answer. She left a voicemail that she was evacuating to Mississippi with her camper just in case. She lived in Mandeville, LA, a suburb north of New Orleans, separated by the 24-mile long Causeway Bridge and Lake Pontchartrain. She wasn’t particularly worried either. After all, she was getting a few days off of work, and spending that time camping was business as usual.
The storm came and went on a Sunday. I was in New York City with Kenny - also from Louisiana and also in town for the wedding. The day was hot and relaxing. Kenny bought one of those wool fedoras with the feathers in them - the kind you wouldn't expect a college kid to wear. We were in a bar, full of the buzz of being tourists in New York. The bar was loud and even though the news was on, no one gave a damn about the storm down south. The sound was off, but the ticker along the bottom of the screen reported the damage wasn’t that bad. Katrina was a category 5, but considering the wind and the potential for destruction, the city of New Orleans and the surrounding areas were not in that bad of shape. I drunk-stumbled to bed that night without bothering to check for an update.
By Monday, the water was rising. I tried to call my mom, but I couldn’t get through. It was when I checked my email that ‘Dat Bitch Katrina began to manifest into something real and consuming. I read emails from my mom, some of them sent hourly, updating me on where she was headed. As the weather worsened, she’d left Mississippi and she was working her way to Florida with a group of evacuees that she’d met at the campground. I imagined the exodus of RVs not so dissimilar to the one in Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day, the one led by Randy Quaid before he sacrificed himself to save the human race.
I felt guilty about being in PA, and about partying in NYC the day before. Mostly, I was worried for my family. The campgrounds were crowded, and my mom was running low on cash. Servers were down, so it was getting hard to pay for things. She was worried about having enough money for gas. She was worried about finding gas at all. Eventually, she and her husband pitched in as cooks on a campground they’d found in Florida. They also pitched with some cleanup duties to earn their stay. It seemed like there was a lot of that going on – people pitching in. Suddenly, everyone on the Gulf Coast was a friend.
The cell towers in New Orleans were down, and the ones that worked were overloaded. We flipped our phones open and got busy signal after busy signal. “This call could not be completed” after “This call could not be completed.” My family – my mom and her 5 brothers and sisters, and their kids, and my sister – started copying everyone to email updates, which led to creating a message board. Of course, this type of forum is pretty archaic now, but in ’05, this was cutting edge tech. And it turned out to be a pretty great idea (it wasn’t mine), as no one had consistent cell service. The messages looked like this (Kathy is my mom):
o Kathy and her family are safe in Alabama. No news on the house, yet.
o Travis is in PA. Safe.
o Scott and fam are west and safe. Both rentals are flooded. No word on house.
o Sherry and family back home and have electricity. If need a shower- all welcome.
o Granny is now with Sherry.
o Cindy’s kids are safe. Cindy back in house.
o Kathy in Florida cooking / cleaning to earn stay! Can someone check her house?
o Roads still closed by Kathy’s house.
o Kathy’s fence is down and a tree fell into her bedroom. There is some water.
I was able to change the destination of my flight back home from Louis Armstrong International to Baton Rouge Metropolitan. Kenny flew separately back to Alexandria, LA – where his family was staying. My mom was still in Florida, and I still had not spoken to her directly. An aunt and uncle were staying at my apartment, as I still had electricity. I stayed with my girlfriend, whose entire family had evacuated from New Orleans and was staying in overbooked hotel rooms in Baton Rouge. It all kind of felt like camp at times, with people sleeping on floors and telling stories about their experiences so far. About their survival. Hurricane Katrina Survival Camp.
Even though Baton Rouge is the capital of Louisiana, it had always seemed peaceful. If there wasn’t a football game on Saturday, it was quiet. But the storm shook things up well before anyone was ready. It felt impossible to go anywhere, because it took hours to get across the city. A trip to the grocery store would take half a day. Everything took half a day. On the LSU campus, the Pete Maravich Assembly Center was converted into a field triage base. The basketball hardwood was unrecognizable as a venue for sport, but looked something from an Eastern European war movie. Fights were breaking out in town. Downtown was quarantined. People started buying - and carrying - guns.
But mostly, people were interested in helping each other.
“How’d ya’ll make out in da’ storm?”
“Yeah, we alright, but we got family had 6’ a water.”
“This is gonna be a bitch.”
And it was. And it still kind of is. I am thankful and fully realize how lucky I am that my family made out ok. The ones that lost houses had insurance and ended up in bigger newer houses. We lost a lot of family photos and belongings, but we didn’t experience real struggle. Our biggest struggle was finding good contractors for repairs, because demand was so high, and many under-qualified entrepreneurs were looking to make a quick boatload of money. But my family made out just fine. The ones that lived in the city moved back to the city, and no one really moved away, or if they did, it wasn’t because of the storm.
I moved away. I graduated from LSU in 2006 and moved to Ft. Lauderdale, FL. Katrina was still recent enough that that was what people wanted to hear about when I met them. Was I there? Did my family suffer? Was there much damage to my home? How is it there now? Like I was some sole surviving prophet with news of that mystic land New Orleans. Some of the questions were loaded with the micro- inequities that typically accompany inquiry into a misunderstood traumatic event. Is your town still there? Was there looting where you were? I’d tell them about being in Pennsylvania and they’d look disappointed. Sometimes I’d embellish the loss of property and drama to satiate their hunger for excitement. So they could tell their friends about this guy from New Orleans that they’d met. How his family was put out of their home for a year. But mostly, I’d shrug and say everything’s fine. We were lucky. I’m thankful for that.
Not everyone in my life was lucky. A friend lived through some particularly hard months during and after the storm. His neighborhood was destroyed, and he lost a friend during a violent dispute in the wake of the storm. Specifically, he watched his homeboy take a cinderblock to the head enough times to erase him. He is still trying to navigate through those feelings of loss.
I had a cousin on my dad’s side of the family who was in prison at the time of the storm. His prison lost power and running water, and the place went bananas. He’s a good storyteller, and paints a pretty vivid image when he recounts those days. It makes my stomach roll over when I hear it. He used the confusion in the state of emergency to get released a little early, and then he skipped town and ran around the country for a while before returning to turn himself in. When I first heard about that, I associated his leaving the state with being a criminal and wanting to be free. He says it was easy for him to leave because it didn’t seem like there was going to be a home to come back to anyway.
Eight years later and living in Florida, the storm and the story of it and what it means to me changes by the season. What is constant is that I value my home in Louisiana in a different way than I could have had I not experienced ‘Dat Bitch Katrina. I understand culture and home as fragile ideas worth protecting. New Orleans became something more to me than the whore I used to visit to get drunk. I find myself watching television about teenage vampires, because it lets me see New Orleans more often. Also, I probably have 87 fleur-de-lis in the house, trying to create some parallel realm where New Orleans and Florida can exist in the same plane. I listen to WWL through an app on my phone, so I can hear Bobby Hebert, the Cajun Cannon, talk about the Saints in his thick accent. My mom sends me care packages of beads and Zapp’s potato chips, and frilly green, purple, and gold boas during Carnival season. This is for protection. This is for preservation.
A poet friend of mine, Chancelier ‘xero’ Skidmore, recently wrote a poem in the persona of New Orleans. He begins, “Mark Twain once said that the rumors of his death had been greatly exaggerated. I can relate.” This is an often-paraphrased quotation of Twain’s that speaks to my feeling about the city and is the perception of those living there. After the storm, there was a lot of public national speculation as to whether or not it would be worth it to rebuild New Orleans. Nevertheless, Xero continues in his poem, “Feel free to dance in my streets, but remember, this resilience is routine. This recovery is the new regular. There are hammers swinging in the 9th ward.” And he’s right. The resilience is routine.
In 1965, Hurricane Betsy helped flood New Orleans, and my mom’s father hopped in his boat and sped to the rescue of stranded Orleans parishioners who were anxiously waving their arms atop their roofs. And there was talk then about whether or not building in New Orleans was worth it. How long would the city last? Well she’s lasted. She lasted through the fire of 1788. And of 1794. She lasted through the floods of 1816. 1828. 1849. 1874. 1882. 1927 – and Randy Newman wrote that great song. 1965. 1973. And she lasted through ‘Dat Bitch Katrina and the flood of 2005. And she’s lasted in my mom’s New Orleans Yat I hear over the phone. And in the fleur-de-lis hanging high in my living room, and in so many living rooms of so many New Orleanians across the country. This resilience is routine. And I love her all the more for it.