A Katrina Love Story
Nearly a Decade Since Katrina: looking through the lens of a teenage girl to a young adult
This story is dedicated to my amazing, loving mother. Thank you so much for putting up with my misery and me during that year in New York. Thank you for forcing me to live there. You opened my world and I would not have as great of a life as I do today if it weren't for you.
I couldn’t tell you what I was doing this past September. However, I could tell you every detail about September 2005. It was the month that followed Hurricane Katrina, which occurred on August 29th, 2005. I was born and raised in New Orleans. The Green Day song “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” was the soundtrack to my life during that month. Now, this isn’t a tale to make you feel sorry for me. This also isn’t a tale to get you to hate me. But rather, this is a story about a different look and interpretation of Hurricane Katrina. This is a story about appreciation and awareness. This is a story about making the best out of a terrible situation. Hurricane Katrina’s impact on my life gives me a unique perspective because it ended up being the best event that ever happened to me. Maybe not in the beginning, but that storm opened my eyes and changed my world in ways that have impacted me to this day and will for the rest of my life. So, how you ask? Well, let’s get started.
School starts earlier in the south than it does in different parts of the country. Every year, I began school around August 18th. Eighth grade was my big year. I worked so hard in seventh grade to make the volleyball A team, as opposed to the B team (it’s funny that these little things are so vivid in my mind from nine years ago). Volleyball tryouts were supposed to be on Monday August 29th (it’s pretty obvious that tryouts didn’t happen).
The Friday before volleyball tryouts, Anna picked me up from school and brought me to my dad’s house. Wait. Pause. Who’s Anna? Only one of the most important people in my life. She was like my family’s nanny and like a second mother to me. She basically raised me from when I was born until I was thirteen years old (Thanks Katrina, I’ll explain more about that later). I was staying at my dad’s house. My parents are divorced and my mom was out of town for the weekend (I lived with my mom). She was in New York City, ironically packing up my great-grandmother’s apartment and helping her move into a home in New Orleans (well, that probably wasn’t the wisest idea). New Orleans weather in August is pretty hot, humid and muggy. Additionally, we all dress pretty casually around the city. I had two shirts and two pairs of jean shorts on me inside a Vera Bradley overnight bag. That was it and I didn’t have a key to my house at the time. Mom was supposed to return to New Orleans on Sunday. I didn’t expect that I would need many clothes for just two days.
Friday night was the night to gather all your friends and go watch your high school football team play. I had my dad drop me off and pick me up from the game and then slept at his house Friday night. On Saturday, my friend CoCo wanted to hang out. I had my dad drop me off at her house. At this point, there was only a hurricane warning. He told me to stay near my cell phone incase we had to evacuate on Sunday.
That night, CoCo and I went to Blockbuster to rent a movie (Josie and the Pussycats, to be specific) and picked up ice cream from Baskin Robbins. She lived right by Lake Pontchartrain, and the shopping center where we rented the movie was completely destroyed by the levee. We went back to her house and watched the movie. Naturally, I forgot to charge my cell phone so my father couldn’t reach me. At five o’clock in the morning on Sunday, CoCo’s dad came into the room with my dad on the house phone.
“I got a phone call form one of my associates at work at three in the morning that it was a category 5 hurricane and that it was a mandatory evacuation for New Orleans and Jefferson Parish. We had to wake up your 83-year-old grandfather. We did not have time to pack. I took some jewelry and some cash that was in the house. And we had to go find out where you were at your friends at the Lakefront because it was difficult finding the house,” my dad remembers.
Dad told me he was coming to pick me up and that we were evacuating. We drove to Tyler, which is a small town in Texas. It’s normally a six-hour drive. However, it took nearly 12 hours as so many people were fleeing the city. I remember lying in the backseat of the car listening to music (a disk player at this time, no iPods).
“It was bumper to bumper traffic. It sometimes took an hour to drive 5 miles because people were all going in one direction and every exit or entrance to the highway had people continuously coming on. So that increased traffic. You could only drive west for a certain amount of time and then officers made everyone on the highways go north. You had no other way to go,” my dad recalls about the drive.
I didn’t think anything of this evacuation. We had done it so many times before. We’ve evacuated to Georgia, to Florida, to Texas. We had even rode out storms before and stayed in the city. This was so routine. It’s like snow in Wisconsin: a little inconvenience but then it’s over and you move on. There was no reason for me to think that this time would be any different.
The storm started as a category 5 as it made its way over the Gulf of Mexico. However, by the time it made landfall, it was only a category 3. No one thought this was so terrible. And, it probably wouldn’t have been if the levees that “protect” the city didn’t break. Eighty percent of New Orleans and neighboring areas were flooded and the city stayed like a swimming pool for weeks. People were stranded in the city’s Superdome. Other people had to be rescued from the roofs of their houses. And lucky people, like myself, evacuated.
Needless to say, mom’s Sunday night flight home was cancelled as the storm was going to hit Monday. She wanted me with her in New York. On Monday morning, I flew up to New York from Tyler Texas to LaGuardia Airport. I was genuinely excited for this trip to New York. I would eat some good food, see some Broadway shows, and do some shopping. I would be able to see my beloved camp friends out on the island and in New Jersey. I looked forward to a fun, carefree vacation. Evacuation Vacation, woohoo!!!
“We didn’t know anything. I just thought we were going to have a nice weekend. We’ll go shopping, go to nice restaurants, go eating. I flew you in on Monday when the storm was going on and everything was fine. It was Tuesday where we saw the levees break, people standing on their rooftops,” mama said.
That fun vacation quickly came to a halt. My mother was staying at the glamorous Four Seasons Hotel with her three best friends on New York’s Upper East Side when I joined her. I was so lucky. I was in a five-star hotel surrounded by the bust and culture of a great city. I did not feel any luck, though. I sat on the bed in that hotel room as my mom’s and her friends’ eyes were glued to the television. I was thirteen years old. While there wasn’t much that I could understand, I got the gist of everything going on. I vividly saw my city underwater on the TV screen. I saw tears coming out of my mother’s eyes. I felt my mascara dripping down both of my cheeks. I knew I wasn’t going home any time soon.
Another huge catastrophe of the storm: all New Orleans cell phones weren’t working. I had a 504-phone number. Facetime and iMessage didn’t exist at this point in time. Heck, an iPhone didn’t even exist. Everyone could communicate via text message, but no phone calls would go through. One of the first things my mother and I did was go to AT&T and buy new cell phones. For the next four months, I owned two cell phones: one with a 504 (NOLA area code) number and one with a 646 (NYC area code) number. I eventually cancelled the 504 number, and the 646 is the one that I still use today.
It was the least to say that New Orleans cell phones being out of service was an inconvenience. It was down shit scary. I couldn’t get in touch with my friends. One got on a plane to Costa Rica. Another drove to Houston. Others to California. Everyone was all over the map. We all couldn’t stay in touch with each other. Facebook also wasn’t popular at this time. So, it’s not like I could just write a Facebook status with my whereabouts. Later on towards the end of September, when the New Orleans numbers started working again, I checked my voicemail and had tons of messages from camp friends and friends in other cities asking me if I was okay and my whereabouts. Must’ve been scary for them, too.
Okay, back to the hotel room. With all of the cell-phones not working, my mom picked up the hotel phone and started calling different schools in New York City. She called tons of elite schools, such as Dalton, Horace Mann, and Friends Academy. My mom and I will never forget how rude one of the elite schools was to us.
“Ugh, one of them hung up on me and said if we took your child, we’ll have to take every other Katrina refugee, as they called it. And I got wild. I said I am not a refuge. I am a visitor in another city and it was preposterous that they would say such a thing in the devastated mind that I was in,” mom recalls as a herd of anger could be detected in her voice.
Mom and I decided that I would attend Friends Academy. It was a nice school, a little bit different from my small southern private school. Although something still didn’t feel right. I couldn’t pinpoint it. It may have just been my butterflies, and that I wasn’t home to begin with. I still had one school left to interview at: the Birch Wathen Lenox School.
Did I like that school? No. But, I liked it a lot more than Friends Academy. It was on the Upper East Side, and my mom knew that I would be walking distance from the school. She was uncomfortable with me taking the subway alone at age thirteen, or a bus alone during the harsh, frigid winters.
So it was decided. I would attend the Birch Wathen Lenox School. My clothing freedom that I had at school in New Orleans was now extinct. Collared shirts only, and they must be tucked in to pants or skirts. No jean pants or skirts. Khakis or business-suit-like skirts. This is New York City’s Upper East Side. Thirteen-year-old girls must look like forty-year-olds. I knew I was in for a different (and at some points, rude) awakening. But nothing, not even the perfect school in New York, would have made me happy. I missed my friends and my old life. I missed my dad. He was in Tyler for six weeks before moving back to New Orleans in mid-October.
“You wanted to be in Houston with all of your friends. I told you I didn’t know anything about Houston. I know about New York,” mom recalls.
I started school the Tuesday after Labor Day and I remember sitting in on orientation. I was wearing a pink Lacoste shirt tucked in to some who-knows-what brand ugly pair of khakis and a green sequent purse that I had just gotten the week before. A girl sitting behind me tapped my shoulder and said, “Hey, I like your pocketbook.” For the next nine years, that girl, Ashley, would continue to be my best friend. So would the girl sitting to my right, and to my left.
Though, I didn’t know this at the time. All I could manage to get out was a quiet “thanks.” I was depressed. Misery was written all over my face. The closest I ever came to a smile was when my cell phone would ring and it was one of my high school friends phoning.
I always felt like shit. I looked like shit. I barely had any clothes. All I had were the ugly collard shirts and khaki pants that I was required to wear to my new prep school. Everything was still in my mom’s house in New Orleans. My mom’s real estate agent had a key to our house. He was in New Orleans in September, and by the end of the month, he went into our house and mailed me some of my clothes. Unfortunately, he only mailed the ugly items that I could wear to school.
Not only was I unable to immerse myself in the new preppy dress of code of the Upper East Side, but also I refused to participate in any of the after-school activities. All of the Birch kids would go play basketball or volleyball or hang out at the local deli after school. For the next three weeks, after classes, I would just walk home and sit in my room in our new apartment. I would play on MySpace and go through photos of my high school friends and myself. I ate. I ate all day long. These were the fattest years of my life. I don’t know if I needed the food to replace my misery, if I was just bored or if I was just soaking in all New York had to offer. Na. Not the latter. I was just miserable.
Before I knew it, September and October flew by. Thanksgiving break, yay! I remember traveling back to New Orleans for the first time that November. I was so happy to be reunited with my friends again. I was so happy to be in my house again. We only had an inch or so of flooding and a little bit of roof damage. Nothing too detrimental.
My happiness was soon brought to shame and guilt when I saw trees on the ground and areas of the city that did not make it out of the storm alive. I went to go take a look at Anna’s house. Poor Anna. She lost everything. Photos. Furniture. You name it, she lost it. She moved to Dallas to be with her daughter after the storm, and never moved back to New Orleans. We still talk on the phone all the time, but the storm took her away from me. Sorry, I can’t think of a less dramatic way to put it. I missed her every day.
“It was all damaged. Water up to the windows. The whole street and neighborhood was messed up. When I went back home, it looked like a war zone. You couldn’t recognize anything. My house was completely demolished. Full of mold. I was nervous and upset. I didn’t expect it to look like that when we went back,” Anna explains. I could hear and feel the pain in her voice from the terrible memory. Or rather, nightmare.
Now, I know what your probably thinking up to this point. Where’s the happiness in this story? What’s the moral lesson? Everything just seems upsetting and depressing. Well, it was. But I had an epiphany when I saw all those shattered areas of the city. People were still stranded in New Orleans. People had to relocate and separate from their families and didn’t have the means to find them. People died. And here I was, living in a great apartment in New York City’s Upper East Side. I was sick of being upset. I was determined to make my life better and appreciate and soak in New York’s great culture. And that’s just what I did.
December of 2005 to June 2006 is more of a blur in my mind. Those months blend together. I don’t remember exact details about those few months like I do the month of Hurricane Katrina. But, I remember going to Bat Mitzvahs, birthday parties and dinners with the girls in my 8th grade class. I remember meeting up with my camp friends on weekends and going to see Broadway shows. I remember my New Orleans friends flying up to visit me as we shopped and ate our way around Manhattan. These months are very hazy. Maybe it’s because they were better, happier months. The bonds and friendships with the New York girls developed and became stronger. I was happier. I was having fun in such a great city. The picture above shows me thriving in Times Square (it's so funny that I loved that part of the city then, and I cannot stand it now). Before I knew it, the year was up and it was time to move back to New Orleans for high school.
My New York friends didn’t want me to move back home. Part of myself didn’t want to move either. It felt like Katrina all over again: leaving a good life, leaving good friends, leaving a great city. I ended up really enjoying that year in New York, after I got myself past my misery and actually started making an effort in my new life. Had I not spent a year in New York, I don’t even think I would have ended up at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. No one from my high school ever looks at this school. The only reason I took a look at it was because my friends from New York were all applying here. Ultimately, living in New York for one year exposed me to a whole new lifestyle and culture, of which I want to live in and endorse after I graduate from Wisconsin.
This is a story about appreciation and awareness. Hurricane Katrina and the move gave me strength, courage and the ability to appreciate. I don’t take one minute for granted in Madison, and I think I have Katrina to thank for that. In two months from now, all of my best friends in college will be scattered across the map in their respective cities. Graduation is coming, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. But, there’s a lot that I can do right now to appreciate my time here.
I know how great I have it. I know how great of a school that Wisconsin is. I know how great of friends that I have here. Katrina really has made me aware of my life and has given me the ability, strength and love to appreciate the people in it. It may sound cliché, but it’s true. They say you don’t know what you got till it’s gone. But, I know what I got. And it’s pretty damn good.
Cover photo of New Orleans French Quarter: by Chris Litherland found on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:ChrisLitherlandBourbonSt.jpg
Second photo of the eye of Hurricane Katrina created by NASA: found at Wikimedia Commons: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hurricane_Katrina_hits_New_Orleans.jpeg
Third photo of the Superdome and New Orleans underwater, work from a United States Navy helicopter, found on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Navy_flooded_New_Orleans_20050901_trim.jpg