The big exhale of 10 years has arrived as New Orleanians near and far reflect on the 2005 storm season that changed us all. Personally, my experiences before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina pale in comparison to many others. My journey to now may best be summed up from the wisdom of my stepfather who told me simply to “ride the horse in the direction it’s going.” Not an easy thing to do when the unknown awaited, especially in the immediate aftermath of the devastatingly unexpected.
Peculiar moments as I navigated what life had thrown in my general direction: wearing someone else’s clothes donated to me and my family, driving a spare car my stepfather happened to have, working my old job in the city I lived in years beforehand. Effectively I was recast in someone else’s life, one that unsurprisingly didn’t quite fit. Those weeks after Katrina, once my wife and I elected to return to our sunken city we anticipated the challenging path that awaited, but who could have predicted the New Orleans we know now? I submit to you: no one. Below are 10 observations, mindful of this journey:
10) Waterlines remain. You can always replace roofs and refrigerators, but it’s a world of difference when seeking to rekindle a neighborhood or revive one’s livelihood. We are still recovering, and there are still ample reminders of crested water in embedded lines the city over. We should use an active voice when we discuss recovery and 10 years gone. We must possess the present and convey the work is far from over.
9) Fatigue is real. In short, one tires. And that’s okay. Or as my father-in-law is also known to espouse: all you can do is all you can do.
8) Empathy empowers. The world cares about the Crescent City. Our time in Austin, Texas, those weeks afterward it was not unusual to be hugged by a teary-eyed stranger. Processing catastrophe can be confusing, even detaching, but the takeaway can become a shouldering together, however dissimilar we may perceive one another.
7) The little things are a big deal. Who knew receiving daily mail or having routine garbage pickup could make your day? I didn’t. Explaining to the uninitiated even today that you had to wait in line at the post office once a week or so for the hopeful event you had any mail to pick up is, well, baffling. And garbage pickup?! Pffft.
6) Winning isn’t everything. But achieving a Super Bowl victory? That helped. A lot. And in ways we may never even measure.
5) Patience learned, gratitude displayed. From restored gas lines to being able to simply make groceries. Cold showers and MREs make for strange bedfellows, but you get what you get and you don’t have a fit.
4) Comfort is where you find it. From food to music and any social lubricants in between, recentering one’s joy zeroed in on no easy task. Room temperature red beans from a can paired with pre-made rice from a pouch. Lemons meet lemonade. And add a little vodka, doll.
3) What do our six deputy mayors do anyway? No really, that’s a real question. Is it a secret or something the hackers will have to reveal to us?
2) Politicians are not superheroes. In 2005 we had a governor that wanted to pray the storm away, a president bestowing accolades on imbeciles (can I get a ‘You’ve done a heckuva job, Brownie!’ anyone?), and a mayor now incarcerated. In a word: wow. Rebuilding happens at the hands of those that elect to be present, not those that are present because of an election.
1) Your story matters. Tell it. Share it. Whether you’ve returned or not, know this: you can go home again. The blood, sweat, and tears to get from there to here? I’d do it again. New Orleans needs you and me, and still, and likely always will. And in the same way you and I will likely always need New Orleans.
Jean-Paul Villere is the owner of Villere Realty on Freret Street and a married father of four girls. In addition to his Wednesday column at UptownMessenger.com, he also shares his family’s adventures sometimes via pedicab or bicycle on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.