I’ve been trying to put into diary the gauntlet of emotions I’ve experienced these past months in dealing with the aftermath of Katrina. Over the past few days, reading about people being evicted from FEMA hotel housing, and reading DKossian comments along the themes of “Katrina Welfare Queens,” I decided I needed to write this all out.
Looking back, I now realize I have most probably gone through what is referred to as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). These past months I’ve experienced the periods of intense irritability, flashbacks, inability to sleep, inability to concentrate, cramps and muscle pains. But the most significant issue is that I’ve experienced a deep disconnect with my life as it was prior to August 29.
In so many ways, my wife and I were blessed. We came through unhurt and our house structurally undamaged although flooded. I still had a job, didn’t even lose pay as my company paid for the 3 weeks it took to locate replacement office space. And we were well insured. So what’s the problem, heh? I should just be able to move on, get over it, fix the house and stop complaining.
The problem is I cannot get past it, and no one I know here can either. Katrina storm day, and the days immediately following then has changed my life more than any other event I have ever experienced.
I diarized here about my experiences on storm day and the week following, within three weeks following the storm. I subsequently revised these diaries and posted them on my personal website. Some reading this diary may remember my diaries on living through Katrina. In brief; the house we stayed in a mile from my house (thinking it was at a safe flood proof elevation) suffered three feet of flood water inside. At the storm’s near-peak flood I put my wife, two other women, and two young boys on an air mattress to float in the main room of the house, while the homeowner and I swam outside for his boat preparing to evacuate. When my wife and I returned to our house after the storm we discovered it had also been flooded three feet deep, right up to the edge of our kitchen counters.
I am glad now that I wrote those diaries. You see, I can no longer remember much about what happened in the month of September.
When I go back and read these diaries, or see a store receipt dated sometime in September, it is with a sudden feeling of shock that yes, there really was a month there. It’s not that I was too busy to remember what I was doing then. It is that I don’t remember living through that month. It’s just gone.
Then there are the flashbacks.
Ever since the storm, I have had near daily flashbacks of looking back and seeing my wife floating on the air mattress as I swam out of the house for the boat. I have a vivid flashback of seeing one of the cats up on top of a book case looking down at the rising floodwaters obviously frightened. I have another vivid flashback of seeing a cat panic and jump from a bookcase into the floodwater trying to swim away. And sometimes I have a flashback of being on the homeowner’s boat out in the middle of the storm.
Another flashback I am having now isn’t even a memory. I’ll be standing somewhere in our nearly rebuilt house, and have a sudden intense visualization of standing with three feet of water in the room. It is such an intense visualization I can almost feel being wet and hear the water slosh around.
The “normal” for me and everyone I know is so completely different than outside the coastal area there is no common reference point. Here, EVERY extended conversation among friends and co-workers inevitability leads to some discussion on Katrina and recovery. Everyone’s life is focused around rebuilding and recovery. Everyone frequently leads discussions back to talking about the day of the storm and the weeks immediately following it. We are all constantly reliving it.
This past Christmas my wife and I visited my Mom in upstate New York. While there, I recognized that many of my Mom’s friends seemed to barely remember the storm. They might be mildly curious about what my wife and I experienced, but then the conversation would move to other topics on family gatherings and social activities.
I know that those people were not uncaring about what we had been through. My Mom and many of my Mom’s friends had contributed money and supplies for Katrina recovery immediately following the storm through their local church or the Red Cross. It’s that there was no frame of reference for them to work with and understand what we had experienced and are continuing to experience here.
Their normal was once the normal for us here, pre-Katrina. Occasionally while rebuilding I stumble across some pictures of my house or a social event taken just prior to the storm. Seeing the picture always creates a shock, like a jolt of electricity running through me, thinking how different my life was just a few short months ago.
Then there is the issue of receiving donated relief supplies. Until Katrina, I had never in my entire life asked for or received a penny’s worth of anything I hadn’t first worked for and earned. But I did accept charity donations after Katrina. In the first weeks following the storm donated relief supplies were often the only supplies available. I also accepted the money and supplies that my family (including my young nieces and nephews) and friends sent us.
Driving back from New York this past Christmas my wife and I stopped for the night outside of Durham, North Carolina. During supper at a local restaurant we started a pleasant conversation with our waitress. At some point she asked us where we were from. When we told her, and she learned we had been through Katrina, she immediately insisted on paying for our meal. I suspect our bill was equivalent to several hours of her work.
When this waitress insisted on paying for our meals, on top of all the donations we had accepted over the previous months, I started to cry in shame. I think that being in a position to need help from anyone, especially total strangers, has been the most humiliating experience I could ever have imagined.
Besides suffering from my own losses, I am also feeling what I have to describe as “Survivor’s Guilt.” As bad as my wife and I were impacted, our experiences are not as bad as many others around us. When I’m talking with someone who had a worse experience than mine (worse storm day experience than mine, lost their home and no flood insurance, lost a close friend or family member to the flood, found a body after the waters receded) I feel guilt at getting off “so easy.”
Yes, being in a house in three feet of flood water, losing about 70% of what I once owned, and spending every possible minute since Aug 30 rebuilding my home, with the completion still a long ways away, is relatively minor compared to the losses of so many other people here on the Mississippi Coast. And I know my experiences are nothing like the horrors of what so many people over in New Orleans have gone through these past months.
Now we are less than six months from the start of hurricane season. I’m not the only person here making jokes about preparing my house for the next flooding. There is a strong line of black humor running through many conversations these days from everyone I know. For me, this black humor is my attempt to cover the continuous undercurrent of fear and helplessness at what may happen this next hurricane season. Or the next hurricane season. Or the hurricane season after that.
My point in writing all this? It’s about reading comments, diaries and news stories about how Katrina victims need to just “get on with it.” “Get past it.” “Move on, rebuild.” And worse, the many implications that people who are continuing to ask for federal and private assistance are somehow taking advantage of this situation.
I know some folks here are attempting to take advantage of Katrina aid for personal gain. A close friend intends to stay in her rent-free FEMA trailer as long as she possibly can. She was living in a rental house that flooded during Katrina and was subsequently evicted by the landlord. She’s a single parent working two minimum-wage jobs raising two kids and no child support. Her older daughter is a junior in high school taking advanced placement courses pulling straight A’s and wants to go to a good engineering college.
Living in the FEMA trailer rent-free is the first chance my friend has had in many years to actually save money for her daughter’s college fund. Yes, she’s gaming the system. Go ahead and criticize her for taking advantage of Katrina aid. Then shut up.
Everyone who has been through this is dealing with the aftereffects differently. Some are more able to cope than others. Some have different ways of trying to move on and build a better future for themselves and their families.
But my bottom line is that NOBODY who has not lived through this experience has the right to criticize the subsequent actions of those who did. If that pisses anybody off, tough. Get past the “Katrina Welfare Queens” syndrome. If you don’t care enough to help, fine. Say so, and then get out of the way of the victims and those who are trying to help.
Editor’s Note: Originally posted on my diary at Daily Kos under the same title on Thursday, February 19, 2006. This is re-posted here as originally written.