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K+5 tonight… 28 August 2010

Remembrance: Katrina Five Years Ago Today

Then: I arrived in New Orleans enroute form London, back home to Wellington in New Zealand, on August 25th.  New Orleans then was where I was from, my roots and a place I always wanted and enjoyed going home to visit.  People for the most part were frozen in time – as I remembered them.

I arrived to the steamy humidity and high tropic temperatures and friends and family, and a twist – fear of a growing threatening huge hurricane.  You have to understand – hurricanes are a way of life… they come, they go, the life here never changes.  I had that mentality.  Yet in the years leading up to 2005, something I was not a part of had transpired.  Whether you buy into global warming or not, climate change is a reality on the coast here.  Storms were getting worse, partly due to the thirty year cycle of storm activity and partly due to climate change.

People seemed more concerned with this one and people who had never left, were leaving.  At first, I saw many friends, and it was the talk of the town… larger, more menacing, etc.   People waited to see if it jigged or jagged.  By Saturday – it jagged and the faithful optimists were leaving and the news agencies forecasting an omen that had become like Peter and his wolf.  On Sunday I went to both Trinity Church and St. Joseph’s Abbey.  It was eerie to see both so desolate.  At Trinity, a mere handful traded contact information, prayed and left in a hurry to beat the last of the traffic waves.  I went to St. Joe’s for Vespers and Compline.  Usually with many additional attenders, even on an August summer evening, the place only hosted the monks, who never failing for well over a century there at St Joseph’s Abbey, filed in, lines of black habits quietly going from the back to the front and filling the canters’ seats.  They didn’t miss or change a beat in the liturgy of the hours, save one small short prayer for the pending storm and people of the area.  I remember them filing out, quiet, nothing changed in scores of years.  I remember my eyes tearing up as the Abbott passed.

When I went outside, who would know a storm approached.  Hot, humid, overly still and crystal blue sky.  Cicadas and crickets doing what they do… noise!  I watched the ducks scatter about the pond and the shadows grow long across the lawns around the cloister.

I left and went to a café actually still open to email last notes to Susanne, and friends all concerned about me as the storm approached.  I warned Susanne that I expected to be out of contact for several days but that I’d contact her as soon as I could and to hug our boys for me.  My family would not leave – no surprise there – and I stayed as long as they would let me.  It was ten at night when I left and the winds were picking up.  I wonder what the gals who worked that night think five years hence that they worked in a café up until the storm winds actually began to stir.

I recall the storm, its fury increases, the winds, the rain, the noise …and it never letting up.  I remember a tree crashing just outside my window.  I remember day light and the storm still raging, the loss of power and the trees twisting and swaying 15-20-30 feet in one direction and then another.  I remember tops twisting off and crashing down, telephone poles giving way and still rain…

At three PM it stopped – the rain subsided and people slowly came out, the sun came out too.  It was calm, really calm and quiet, soooo quiet.  We cleaned out storm drains and tried to look around – trees down for as far as you could see.  There was no driving out, not today, not tomorrow.  That night with no power, it was so dark, so hot, so humid, so wet.  There were no sounds this night though; no crickets, frogs or cicadas.  Silence.

Two days later, I evacuated my mother North.  I left her in Jackson, where we first found a phone that worked.  I could not get a line out of the country, so rang a friend in Portland and asked them to ring Susanne in New Zealand and let her know I was fine and my plans.  The next day – I flew home and watched the unthinkable unfold on BBC like the rest of the world.  I cried so many times in the coming weeks and months, and years.


Our street after the storm…

Then: Fast forward eleven months when we arrive in New Orleans on our way to London.   It is beyond worse than I ever thought.  Gray, dead, empty, deserted and worst of all hearts broken beyond repair it seemed.  It was sad – and it repulsed me.  I couldn’t wait to get to London, Boston, anywhere but here.  The city I loved and that was my anchor through the score plus of years of me being a global gypsy was gone and this corpse was left, the carpet baggers picking over her body…  it was simply gross and sad.  The Neigh Sayers tisked and clucked their tongues and condemned and judged and shouted their “I told you so’s.”  The arrogant wealthy excused why they would not and could not do anything about it.  One million plus in the Diaspora and another million displaced locally.  I hated it and wanted it to go away.  We only came to see family, to see what it was really like and yet we were mesmerized…  We had to hear the people.  Susanne and I went to different places where we’d hear from the people.  Oh, the PTSD was so deep, so thick, so rancid.  Everyone had a story, everyone was still in the shit and there was no way to get better.  I was ready to go.  Susanne’s heart was broken.  Standing on the water front, I gave her the reasons we “had to go” and “go now”.  Her words were simple, “Those places all have people thinking outside the box, creative types thinking about God and the church beyond institution.  This place, has none of that, nothing.  The people are hurting, really hurting and this is where Jesus would go.  I want to stay.  We have to be part of healing this place.  We cannot not stay.”  I rebutted her exhortation with my calculated reasons and yet found myself promising to pray, and simultaneously knowing I wasn’t leaving – that this is where I’d be for a long time, if not forever.  At best, my beloved London would wait a long time.  Ugh.  I didn’t want to stay.  It was so ugly, so sad and life here would be hard for a long time.  The instant world we lived in was not instant here.  It would be a twenty-twenty-five year journey.  I knew that already.  I knew we’d never live on the North Shore in the burbs – I knew we HAD TO live in the city, in the midst of it all.  I told God that I’d stay, that I’d sacrifice it all, lose it all if this happens again and remembered I am a missionary – a sent one.  Once again, I told God to do with me as He pleases and that I’d respond to His prodding.

Above:  Our street a few months after the storm.
Below:  Our house today…


Now: Fast forward 2010, Katrina + 5.   Today, things are not yet normal.  There is so much to do.  Over 100 million of gallons of water still leaks out of the city’s system.  There are thousands of miles of streets to redo…  It will cost $1.4B which we don’t have.  The population is at 91% and growing, and hope is here again.  While there is still PTSD, it is diminishing and people are breathing hope again.  We were voted the #1 happiest city in the nation.  It isn’t a surprise really.  The cynics left, the hopeful came, the lovers of NOLA came home.  More still come of each.  We have our unique sense of place, culture, identity that seems foreign to most of the US now.  We have our music, food, language, customs, and beloved relational DNA of culture.  We still have so far to go, but we’ve come further faster than any expected.  If this had been a West coast city – it would have been curtains.  No fat lady singing here, save in a second line celebration!

Some things are better, way better.  We have a great mayor, city council and governor.  We have great universities, art, transforming business, and our schools are improving.  The federal government is on our side for the first time in a long time and there is the wonderfully woeful delays in traffic with orange cones crying recovery on almost every thorough fare.  We hope again!  AND the city is the safest it’s been in a LONG time… there are huge improvements to the city’s storm protection, and while it isn’t done – it is getting better weekly.

Oh, my NOLA…  We love you.  To be sent here, to my people is, well, beyond words.  I love this place, it’s people, its story, it’s resilience and pride.  I love the unique culture that is so “not American”.  I love it’s DNA of relational lubrication for every aspect of life.  I love the calendar we live by, the spiritual foundation the city stands on and the growing thirst for life beyond here and now.

J’habite et j’taime la Nouvelle Orléans.  C’est chez nous!


One response

  1. Hey Mike, I really appreciate your peice on 5 years after Katrina. I love the passion you have for bringing shalom to the people of Nola. It continues to inspire me to have the same passion for little old welliwood. You, Susanne and the boys are always in my thoughts and prayers.

    3 September 2010 at 01:11

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