Here in New Orleans, we often joke that the French did not properly think when they put their colony of Nouvelle Orleans at the mouth of the Mississippi. There were so many things that could go wrong with the precarious location from flooding to hurricanes. Disaster after disaster has plagued this troubled spot.
There was the 1927 Mississippi river flood that swamped 27,000 square miles to a depth of 30 feet. On September 9, 1966, hurricane Betsy slammed into the city with 110 mile per hour winds, pushing a storm surge through the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (known locally as Mr. Go) and eventually into the Industrial Canal, where the levees breached. At that time, the levees breached because of cheap construction and poor maintenance; flooding parts of Gentilly, upper ninth ward, lower ninth ward, Arabi, and Chalmette. 164,000 homes were impacted. If poor levee construction sounds familiar, it should as history would repeat itself in 2005. On August 29, 2005 hurricane Katrina made landfall as a weak Category 3 storm. Our levees should have held but once again, a storm surge was channeled into the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet and Lake Ponchartrain. Multiple levee breaches ensued. 80% of the city went under water. Communications failed. Many drowned.
Today is the anniversary of that storm and I find myself remembering. I remember every panicked phone call that came into the radio station, begging for help as attics filled up with water and you knew you were hearing their voices for the last time. I remember the long nights of eerie silence when the Milky Way spread across the sky so beautifully that you could almost forget the end of the world had arrived.
I also remember every act of kindness.The hug of a stranger or the squeeze of a hand when I was breaking down on the street. The sweet friends that visited and brought bottles of whiskey to keep me going through the long, hot days of monotony. I remember a magical hole in the wall bar that busted curfew and let us sit drinking by candle light so we would not have to make the sad march home into the darkness. I also cannot forget the stranger that sat next to me one night. He suddenly said, “one day we won’t talk about this and we won’t even know when the shift happens. It just won’t be as sad.” I glanced over at him and saw that he was crying, so quiet like that it seemed as if whatever good was left in the world would be ruined. He cried like a little boy and all I could do was turn back to my hot beer and try to keep from falling apart. I never reached out to comfort him. I think of him often and wonder if he got out alive in a city where so many were lost to suicide, drug overdoses, and violence. I would like to see him again to say that I am sorry that I did not take his hand in mine all those years ago. Eleven years and it can sometimes seem as though it were yesterday.
The recent flooding in our state brings a lot of those memories to the surface. We gutted a house yesterday in Livingston parish and the woman just stood in the wreckage of her life, fighting back tears and saying, “I don’t know what to do” over and over again. Exactly one week ago, she had a heart attack. I was thinking how best to honor the victims of all these past tragedies and I can think of no better way than to help the victims of the current flooding.
It is August 29, 2016 and on this anniversary, New Orleans stands with those impacted and we will help you rise from the mud, the same way you helped so many of us.
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