What follows is the "moment of reflection" that I shared with my school today to begin our first Community Meeting of the year.
In late August, 2005, my wife Jen (who was my fiance at the time) and I were living with our two cats, Sam and Willow, in a condo that comprised the right-side half of a yellow house in the Uptown neighborhood of New Orleans. At the close of the workday on Friday, the 26th, we were just beginning to feel the buzz of speculation and mild anxiety that builds in coastal communities whenever a tropical cyclone has entered the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. It being a Friday evening in New Orleans, however, our attention was focussed mainly on good food and good company so we did not notice the National Hurricane Center’s updated forecast track that placed the Crescent City directly in the path of a storm named Katrina. The reality fully dawned on us the next morning , however, and we spent all of Saturday in the grips of the agonizing process of deciding whether to stay or to evacuate. We gathered some essentials, just in case -- including an ivory wedding dress, wrapped in a sheet -- and secured what we could of everything else but we kept changing our minds about whether or not to place those essentials into our tiny, two-door Honda Civic and abandon the first home we had ever owned to the more capriciousness elements of nature and humanity. When at last, at 10pm that evening, a friend and New Orleans native whose family had never once evacuated informed us that they had decided to go, we finally made up our minds to join a caravan of friends departing at dawn on Sunday. It was just seven weeks before our wedding.
One of the least well-known facts in the painful history of Hurricane Katrina is that the evacuation for those who had the means went extremely smoothly. For those who had the means. We were lucky. By the time the Mayor issued a mandatory evacuation order for New Orleans residents, our little crew of five humans, three dogs and three cats had flown over the Twin Span bridge and made use of highways that had been reversed on one side so that all traffic was directed away from the coast, unimpeded by the countless others from more Southerly communities who had been evacuated in orderly stages prior to our departure. I don’t recommend you attempt to discover this for yourself but the reflectors on highways actually shine red when you drive in the wrong direction. By sundown, we were in a Super 8 motel in Canton, TX, holding our breath with the rest of the country, watching the incessant news coverage and fielding calls from nervous family and friends.
“Yes, we’re safe. We’re in Texas. We’re hoping it passes to the east. Yes, the east side is the bad side.”
We breathed a sigh of relief on August 29th when the storm made landfall and initially missed the city proper but then gaped in horror as first one levee and then another failed and flood waters filled the streets. When it became clear that we could not return home, we followed our caravan to Birmingham, AL and hunkered down in the childhood home of one of our companions to wait. And wait. We oscillated between devouring every scrap of information we could from the 24-hour news networks and the internet -- trying desperately to learn how high the waters had reached in our neighborhood -- and retreating from all contact with the outside world, too overwhelmed to handle anything more complicated than clutching one of the dogs.
As I said before, though, we were lucky. When the waters finally receded, our home was damaged but still standing. We were able to keep our wedding date, albeit with a change of venue, thanks to an outpouring of support from the people in Jen’s hometown of Goleta, CA. Countless others, though, including some of my co-workers, lacked the resources or the support networks to leave. One was rescued by helicopter from the roof of a neighbor’s house after her own was swept off its foundations by the rushing waters. Another endured unspeakable misery in the Superdome where food and water soon ran out and sanitary conditions rapidly deteriorated. My next-door neighbor, Mr. Elton was rescued by boat off our front porch and taken to the Convention Center with his wife, only to get separated from her later when he waded back through the floodwaters on foot to rescue his dog. It was weeks before he heard from her as she was evacuated by bus to Arkansas and he to Houston. Thousands were not even as lucky as this, the flood taking all that they had in the world for some and, for others, taking their lives.
Today, as another hurricane batters the region on the seventh anniversary of Katrina, I’d like you to join me in a moment of reflection for those who were lost, for those who survived and for those who still live in the most vibrant and unique city in which I have ever had the fortune to live. Despite constant threat at the hands of nature and repeated disappointment at the hands of imperfect human beings, those who remain strive even to this day to keep the spirit of New Orleans alive. In the silence that follows, I ask you to hold your applause and reflect on not only the frailty of this thing we call life but also its resilience.