A Stormy Anniversary

It’s been ten years since a hurricane named Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast. Lives were lost, homes destroyed, and nothing will ever be quite the same as it was before the storm.
But as Matthew Albright, writing in today’s Wilmington News-Journal so eloquently puts it, there is healing and there is hope. Here he is, in his own words:

What I learned from watching a beloved city die Matthew Albright, The News Journal

Weeks passed before we could get back to my grandparents’ house after Hurricane Katrina murdered New Orleans.

There was a scar above the windows that showed the high-water mark. The trees looked dead. There was mud on every square inch of everything, forming a scaly crust on the roads and the sidewalks.

Things were even worse on the inside. The house took on six feet of water, so almost everything got muddled into sludge. Socks, tissue boxes, picture frames, everything got shoveled into the insatiable maws of garbage bags I didn’t know they made them that big.

We smashed furniture into small enough pieces to fit through doors or windows. We duct-taped the fridge shut and tossed it out. Wearing masks to ward off mold and other filth, we took sledgehammers to the walls.

It all went into a Big Pile on the side of the road that was taller than me. The Big Piles sat on the streets of New Orleans for months.

My grandparents lived in that house for 50 years, raising four kids. Imagine shoveling a muddy sludge choked with half a century of memories onto the side of the road.

Since I’ve moved to Delaware, a lot of folks have asked me what Katrina was like.

“I was lucky,” I tell people. “I wasn’t really affected. It wasn’t that bad for me.

That’s not really true, but I start to feel guilty if I say much more.

My Katrina story is relatively painless. My grandparents evacuated to Baton Rouge to stay with my family. All things considered, they came out OK.

Back home, newspapers and TVs and kitchen tables are piled with Katrina memories, and many of them focus on far more tragic stories than mine.

I didn’t lose a childhood collection of Goosebumps books, like my cousin did. I didn’t spend my senior or junior year of high school in exile, like some of my friends did. I didn’t wither in the heat in the Superdome while civilization collapsed, or see my whole town simply vanish, like those in coastal Mississippi did.

The ghosts of the drowned dead do not haunt my family tree. So I feel guilty telling someone how bad Katrina hurt.

Let me tell you something else I feel guilty about.

When Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast, a dark, angry part of me was grimly satisfied for a moment.

I remember that then-Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert was quoted saying New Orleans looked like it should be bulldozed, and it didn’t make sense to rebuild. I remember watching the plastic self-righteousness of televangelists who dared proclaim that God killed New Orleans for its sins.

I remember hoping God would smite those men on behalf of my devout grandmother. I wanted to see them shovel their lives into a Big Pile.

But Sandy brought me no satisfaction. I knew as I read and watched that it was not heartless politicians or false prophets who suffered, but mostly folks like my grandparents who worked hard to build lives that got washed away.

Which brings me to the other big lesson I learned from Katrina: things break, but people heal.

I know New Orleans died. I walked its mud-choked arteries, and I listened for its heartbeat of brass and drums and laughter and heard nothing.

But I also know New Orleans was resurrected, because I’ve danced the Mardi Gras with my cousin and uncle and aunt the ones whose house got flooded.

Healing, Katrina taught me, happens best when it is active, not passive.

You’ve got to smile, even though your eyes are red from crying. You’ve got to dance, even if your back aches from shoveling. You’ve got to laugh, laugh, laugh, even when you feel like you’re drowning.

The first reaction to loss and tragedy is to lash out, to make others feel your pain. But don’t let the hollow men on TV or the unthinking goons on social media scab your emotional wounds. Anger will do nothing for you.

Instead, wrap yourself in family, in friends, in other people.

Cry. Mourn. But when the time comes, don’t hesitate to laugh, to dance, to sing.

There’s no better place to do that than New Orleans, if you want to go.

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