To the Sea
For those of us who returned after Hurricane Katrina to the Gulf coast, and to New Orleans, we frequently get questioned: Why did you return? How could you have returned? We evacuated to Little Rock on Sunday. Monday, my husband flew to Philadelphia for his job; he returned two weeks later. I spent much of those two weeks in a stupor, worried about my future, the future of New Orleans and the entire Gulf coast area.
Monday, September 12, 2005, Little Rock, Arkansas.
As I drove to the airport to pick up CS, I was barely able to keep the tears back. I should have been ecstatic to be seeing him after a two week break, but, I realized, a lot of my emotions had been at bay with CS not around. Now that the one person to whom my emotions could not be concealed was returning, my emotional dam was breaking. I think he assumed my stand-offish welcome indicated that I wasn’t as happy as him to be together again. In truth, my heart was breaking anew and if I spoke of it in detail, the tears would come.
We returned to the hotel in relative silence. I retreated into a hot bath; CS joined me. I lay my back on CS’s chest; he snaked his arms and legs around me and buffered me from the outside world. And in that steamy, watery cocoon, with the overhead heater whirring us into further isolation, the angst released from me. I wept and grieved. I wailed and convulsed. I dissolved into the bath water and became the whirring of the heater.
* * * *
One hundred and fifty years ago, ancestors on both sides of my family traveled from Europe to America with little more than the clothes on their backs and hope in their hearts. They traveled rough seas in steerage compartments of overflowing vessels. They landed in New Orleans and put down roots.
I never knew WHY my ancestors chose New Orleans over, say, New York or Galveston. But I do know they never looked back. This became their new home. They got jobs, bought real estate, paid taxes, married, lived, and died.
Five years ago, I returned to New Orleans alone. My husband was working long hours in Little Rock and I felt I could be of better use back home. There was no discussion of NOT returning: our home did not flood; our jobs remained in place; our mortgage was still due.
That Thanksgiving, we traveled to Taos, NM. We were still bruised from Katrina but brave enough to venture out. A clerk in a store inquired where we were from. “New Orleans?” he snarled with a sneer, “I don’t know why they are bothering to rebuild. It’s not worth my tax dollars.”
I was stunned. Or rather, stung. I quietly placed the necklace I was about to purchase down and walked out of the store. Other customers apologized for the clerk and hugged us.
Now, when I get that question, “Why did you return?” I find it in poor taste. It’s akin to “Why do you (not) believe in God?” Sure, it may be a question you are curious about, but it’s certainly a tad rude. The question itself condemns–suggesting that the thing done is unreasonable, miscalculated, and, downright wrong. I no longer struggle to defend my decision; my city. I no longer rally to win over people to love New Orleans, see her even, as I do.
How many years can a mountain exist before it’s washed to the sea? ~ Bob Dylan (1963)
Wherever one lives, there are issues of weather. Tornadoes, earthquakes, floods, volcanoes. And hurricanes. I’ve lived my entire life with hurricanes. I even admit to liking them. There’s something spectacular about Nature making the crazy world we live in STOP and take heed. The water; the whirring of the wind.
We humans like to pretend Earth is something we possess. I mean, we buy and own real estate as though that entitles us to possess that very earth forever. But it is just pretend. The Earth, New Orleans, doesn’t have the same footprint it had one hundred and fifty years ago. In Louisiana law schools, they teach about alluvion land — how levees naturally enlarge and reduce; how borders and edges get claimed by the wetlands or are expanded by deposit of lands brought in from the rivers.
We Louisianians have always appreciated the ephemeral quality of the land and the water. Maybe it’s the high humidity we have. Maybe our lungs, upon close inspection, are more similar to gills. We are hardwired differently. And you don’t have to be born and raised here to have this hard-wiring. Countless people I know came to New Orleans as though she called to them in their sleep.
Why come back? Why risk a life lived in a city doomed to be reclaimed by the sea?
In November of 2005, CS and I discussed leaving New Orleans. Although where else in this country we’d live, we had no idea. We’ve traveled to many U.S. cities. None are home. But we resolidified ourselves to this city. We choose to walk in her steamy wet summer days, risk seasons of hurricanes, endure mosquitoes biting on ankles, and houses built on shifting sands.
Why? Because we can. Because we know that one day every city will be washed to the sea. And that our city’s time of offering us her gems is limited. There would be no peace in wasting that limited time away from her and her gifts.
In those early dark, dank days, Tide recognized what I realized that night in the tub: Cleaning cleanses. Tide Detergent pulled into New Orleans when others feared to come near. They drove their Loads of Hope van housing 32 energy-efficient washers and dryers capable of completing 300 loads of laundry a day, and began the task that says Monday in New Orleans as loud as Red Beans and Rice: washing laundry. For free. For those who had no electricity or facilities to clean for themselves. And in that act of community, healing began.
Since Katrina, Tide has not been short on disasters, natural or man-made, to keep its Loads of Hope crews busy. Hurricanes; wildfires; floods. The disaster may be what’s marked in the books as historical, but it’s the survival of the people, the dusting one’s self off–cleaning and cleansing–and moving forward that is truly remarkable. Hope remains in the Gulf coast. As does Faith. Faith Hill. In recognition of the Fifth Anniversary of Katrina, Faith Hill has partnered with Tide Loads of Hope to give a free concert for the city tomorrow, August 24, at the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band is the opening act. Because even years later, we still need cleansing and healing.