One Year After Katrina

NOAA Satellite Image of Hurricane Katrina making landfall on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
NOAA Image of Hurricane Katrina

Today is the one year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. On this one-year anniversary, everyone here is nervously watching another potential hurricane move north hoping it hits someplace where FEMA parks don’t exist.

In the past year I’ve learned a lot of new things such as how to gut a house, hang sheetrock, lay floor tile, build kitchen cabinets, and install windows. I’ve had more experiences with contractors and building supply companies than I ever thought possible, actually more than I ever wanted. I’ve learned the nuances of flood insurance claims, FEMA grants, Red Cross non-assistance, and the role of private citizens in disaster relief.

This past year was a year of sharp extremes. I’m still having difficulty remembering some parts, other parts are etched in relief so sharp I can’t forget. The reality of life here and life away from the Katrina coast is so extreme it’s as if it’s life on different planets.

I’ve learned how to live without refrigeration – and I’ll never take crushed ice for granted again. I’ve listened to the most horrendous stories about surviving the flood from the most average-looking people relating their stories in a matter-of-fact way. I’ve experienced wonderful acts of kindness and charity from some people, and witnessed extreme acts of pure meanness from others. Having to accept help from total strangers, after a lifetime of depending only on me, has been a humbling experience.

But the hardest thing to learn was how to let go and accept losses. Not just the material losses of memorabilia and cherished possessions, and there was a lot of that. I still catch myself looking around my house and imagining it with three feet of water. Neighbors and co-workers still talk abut what happened one year ago as if it was just recent. So many people are still struggling to recover. So many people are so much worse off than last year, trying to find money to rebuild when their incomes were already barely enough to get by. So many people even here are still living in trailers trying to get into permanent housing. So many people who didn’t experience personal losses during the storm are still giving up their free time to help where they can.

The entire community feels different now. The losses touch everything and have become part of how we live. Even here on the edge of Katrina wrecked buildings are untouched, weeds grow around the foundations of what used to be homes, wreckage is still piled up waiting for someone to haul it all away. The whole focus of the community is on rebuilding. You see the billboards; “Together We Rebuild.” You read it in the newspapers; “Rebuilding the Coast.” You hear it on TV; “Tips for Rebuilding.” Books are still being published “Before and After.” Construction companies with 60% non-English-speaking out-of-town crews are “The New Normal.”

The coast used to be a place of many small shops and mom-and-pop businesses. Now, so many small businesses are permanently gone, while some others have relocated. Those small businesses once created the fabric of a friendly small-town community where everyone knew everyone. Now it’s mostly the big mega-businesses that have reopened and prospered. Even though people have become closer, the small-town atmosphere is gone. I don’t see it coming back anytime soon.

The biggest personal loss is that the coast no longer feels like the place I could live the rest of my life in. I moved here 13 years ago planning on putting down roots, after 25 years of living as a nomad. Thirteen years later and surviving the biggest natural disaster to ever hit the US, I’ve become accepted into the community. Now I’m looking around for a new place to live. The mild coastal weather and close-knit communities with the friends I’ve made no longer seem like a decent trade-off for “occasional” hurricanes.

Even though I’ve rebuilt my house, I’ve lost a home.

Editors Note: Cross-posted on my Daily Kos diary at One Year After Katrina

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