Like Eddie "Doc" Lewis, making light of things is what I do. Never having faced something so emotionally wrenching as the death of someone close to me (due to having no more than a half dozen relatives in the United States), I have always been able to protect myself from loss, trauma, and pain.
Not this time.
My rational academic mind wouldn't be able to protect me. In fact, it would be overwhelmed with how best to convey what it was like to be jolted from my everyday life as a teaching assistant and graduate student living in Tampa, Florida, to my life as a native New Orleanian desperate for information both during and since Hurricane Katrina destroyed my home of thirty years.
When Hurricane Katrina made landfall at 6:10 a.m. CDT on August 29, 2005, it was a Category 3 hurricane with sustained winds of 125 mph, and I was stuck in Tampa traffic. I was on my way to the St. Petersburg offices of the investigative firm where I worked and where I would sit all day editing surveillance reports in a cubicle. Due to the lack of faculty members and contemporary course offerings in my English department, I had taken this "real" job as a step into the so-called "real" world and away from academia. As it turned out, another side effect of the storm was that I grew to miss the thoughtfulness of academic pursuits and eventually resigned soon before Christmas 2005.
That August my already budding resentment for the job was ignited by the lack of access to outside information about the storm. Despite our corporate slogan, "Facts First," having that job that week put me in the position of "No facts at all." We were bogged down with an editing list of more than two hundred cases, and it kept growing, never giving me a chance to surf the Internet or make personal phone calls on the company's landline. Cell phone use was frowned upon in the office, but it did not really matter because everyone I knew had a New Orleans 504 area code phone number. When I tried dialing, those networks were either overloaded or knocked out.
Actually, it would be worse, with every house on our street being flooded with at least ten feet of water. Our refrigerator would be found in the dining room upside down, and all of our furniture would be so saturated with water that it crumbled at the slightest touch.
But I wouldn't know that for months.
So that fateful Monday when Hurricane Katrina struck, I was at work. While I could only imagine the winds and rain blowing into New Orleans, all I could do was look out the window at the sunny St. Petersburg sky and then turn to the case list on my computer screen. Thankfully, my co-workers were sensitive to my being from New Orleans. Even with the four major hurricanes that hit Florida the year before, we all knew this one was bigger and badder. Marcia, who shared one of three cubicle walls with me, came around and asked if I wanted to listen to her radio. I declined, wanting to focus on the work at hand and not listen to looped coverage or reporters mispronouncing neighborhood names or speculating about the amount of damage. Only by the end of the day, when the news reports claimed that New Orleans had been spared, could I breathe a sigh of relief.
After work, I drove to USF to meet my boyfriend (now fianc√©), Andy, and on the way there, my cell phone rang for the first time all day. The caller ID said "HOME," which is the label I'd given to all of my parents' numbers. When I answered, I heard nothing. The signal had failed, but at least I could assume that their call meant that they were alive and out of harm's way, even though Mississippi took a hard hit.
When I got to campus, I ran into my former professor, Rita Ciresi. Since I had written about New Orleans-related topics for the nonfiction-writing workshop she led, she knew how proud I was to call that place home.
"I'm so sorry," she said with a serious and concerned face.
"Oh, it's OK. It's passed now. Everyone's fine," I replied, not understanding why she was speaking in such a hushed tone. I assumed she had heard the overblown media reports and seen the pictures of areas that were heavily flooded, but those were places that always flooded whenever it rained a couple inches, never mind a hurricane. While I still don't know if she knew then what I found out the next morning, I'll never forget brushing her off like that. It makes me feel like I couldn't have cared less about what people were going through in the Superdome or in even worse places, like stuck in their attics. The guilt still persists, even as I write this.
August 30, 2005. NBC's Today Show
When I heard this Today Show report on Tuesday morning, I paused from getting ready for work and looked at the television screen. I stared at the news anchor standing in a few inches of water and had no idea what the levees breaking even meant. I knew it meant flooding, but which levee? There were at least four surrounding the city that I could name off the top of my head. Not wanting to be late for the job I dreaded or even to consider what a flooded New Orleans looked like, I turned off the television and drove to St. Pete.
Each morning that week, which transformed the situation in New Orleans from a natural disaster to a national, man-made catastrophe, I went to work during the day and to my graduate seminars at night. I could not skip because it was the first week of classes, and professors understood when I did not complete the reading assignments the next week. While I did not expect to be treated any differently from other students, I was frustrated when what was going on in Louisiana and Mississippi was replaced with a discussion of literary critic Stanley Fish. Who could care about terms like "postmodern sophistry" when my city was drowning, looters had taken to the streets, and I still hadn't heard from all of my friends? Those ones I did hear from only reminded me of how chaotic this disaster was, but as you can see from the posts excerpted here and linked to, at least I had my blog to voice my fears and emotions when I couldn't bring myself to speak them aloud.
"Getting by" at the office was easier than at school. I could open up a case to edit and stare at it when I lost focus, and no one would know. And though I certainly was not coddled there, I appreciated my boss popping up from her cubicle every morning to ask, "Any news on your parents yet?" Each day I calmly answered, "No, not yet," and tried to look as if I was not worried.
I finally broke down in the company bathroom that Thursday. I couldn't take the busy signals or the "All circuits busy" message that I kept getting whenever I called someone from home. I sat with my boss in her office and cried. "I just want to go home," I whimpered. "But I can't. And when I finally do, nothing will be the same‚Ä¶it's all gone." Even though I had already scheduled the next Tuesday off, she let me out early that afternoon and I didn't return until the next Wednesday. By then, my parents would have made it to me in Tampa and we would all feel safer than we had the week before. Though we would be in limbo, we would be in limbo together. We would realize that the New Orleans we knew was no longer, but we could continue to hope that our home had been spared.
Without news, we could remain in denial. And I liked that.