I am sitting at my desk, a thousand miles from New Orleans, watching the city destruct over a live internet feed. Like many Americans, I am cycling through various news websites, blogs and online newspapers, marveling at the damage that is unfolding. Hurricane Katrina is dinnertime conversation, and I am astonished by the dire situation that is unfolding in Louisiana. However, unlike most of the people watching this tragedy unfold, I called New Orleans home until recently, and I feel a terrible sense of helplessness as I watch my hometown descend into chaos. The images are startling, made even more so by the occasional flashes of recognition, such as the rooftop of a friend’s house that I saw on the news this morning.
Over the last several years, I’ve thought of Richmond, Virginia, more and more as my home. I have caught myself referring to it as such when I go to New Orleans for a visit. What was once "When I go back to Richmond…" slowly changed into "When I go back home…" and I was occasionally scornful of New Orleans’ elegant decay. "Back in Richmond…" I would say, highlighting something about Virginia’s River City that was superior to the Crescent City. But in the face of this tragedy, I have realized that despite my geographic distance, New Orleans is my true home. I have watched the reporters from Fox, CNN, MSNBC, ABC and a thousand other acronyms wade through the waves in the French Quarter, and I have scanned the TV screen in search of landmarks, street signs, rooftops—anything familiar.
I have come to accept that the bedroom window that I once climbed out of to meet a boy is probably blown in and the magnolia tree in our front yard (the bane of my mother’s existence because of its constantly falling leaves) is likely resting in my living room. The building where my graduation dance was held has burned to the ground, and the first bar I went to on Bourbon Street has been looted. The glittering Mardi Gras floats that hibernate in warehouses are waterlogged, their paper mache and gold leaf sides disintegrating in the stagnant water. The high school cafeteria where I had my first slow dance at Homecoming is underwater and the cemetery where loved ones are buried is a lake, the tips of crosses poking out of the stagnant water. Homes, landmarks, places of celebration and lives will all be changed, some irreparably, the next time I return to my beloved New Orleans.
Last night, my disbelief gave way to sadness, and I finally cried for the first time. The tears have been hovering, biding their time behind my eyelids but last night they spilled over. It could have been the reports of thousands feared dead, the story of prisoners taking over the prison, of people dying in the streets, of police officers looting along with criminals, of people ransacking houses in my neighborhood. It could just be that I was able to talk to my parents for the first time in two days. Whatever it was, the tears haven’t stopped yet. Last night, I turned into a child again, crying "Mama…Mama…Mama" as she tried to calm me.
Despite facing the loss of some material possessions and a few familiar places, my family is lucky. Our house still stands, unflooded, and we are all alive and accounted for. Members of my extended family and friends have sent emails from Texas, Memphis, North Carolina and Atlanta assuring us that they are shaken but fine. I have not had the terrible task of posting panicked messages on bulletin boards of the missing and no one I know had to hack through their roof to await rescue. I am not among the doctors and nurses who are attempting to guard Children’s Hospital from looters desperate for drugs, and I can’t hear the sounds of gunshots and rushing water that echo throughout the city.
My parents escaped to Baton Rouge, where they have been staying with my college-age brother. They will not be able to return home for months. Last night, they told me of the refugees who have been evacuated at the LSU basketball arena…An 89-year-old man who banged on his attic ceiling for twelve hours as he waited for rescuers; children tearfully gripping rescuers’ hands; a woman who told my father that she was ready to see Heaven, because she had seen Hell in the city that we all call home. I hear stories like this over and over, along with the constant chorus of "50,000 could die…coffins rising…no power…storm surge…snakes…disaster of Biblical proportions…uninhabitable for months…terrible…worst…most…" My heart and my city are broken, and I feel like there is nothing I can do.
As you scan the news tonight, and think about the devastation and destruction in New Orleans and along the entire Gulf Coast, I ask that you remember to care about the City That Care Forgot. For every lost college weekend you spent on Bourbon Street, road trip to Mardi Gras, memorable Creole meal or Aaron Neville song that affected you, please think of the people and the vibrant culture behind it and the terrible obstacles that we all face as we attempt to restore our city to a place that we can again call home. If you are able, please think of donating to the Red Cross or other established charities that will provide relief to the hundreds of thousands of people whose lives have been shattered and carried away with the storm surge.