For My Family Hurricane Katrina Was Last Year And Ida Was Yesterday

Sixteen Years And The Scars Still Bleed

My family talks about it like it was only last year — lost time, lost motivation, lost lives, lost community and self-worth. My grandma thinks the stress of sent my grandpa to an early grave. Sixteen years ago. Sixteen years feels long and short. A person who is sixteen years old is young, but when it is framed as more than a decade and a half it sounds substantial. In the course of geological history, sixteen years is a blip, but if it takes a person sixteen years to write a book one might wonder why they write so slowly. There is a whole generation of Gulf Coast children who were not alive. Yet I am sure they understand and know the pain and damage it caused. If there hasn’t been a hurricane recently and someone mentions “The Hurricane,” it used to be Katrina, up until August 29 this year.

Every year around Christmas I think about my grandpa and Hurricane Katrina. My favorite picture of myself from childhood, from that same year, is displayed in the breakfast nook of my grandparent’s house on a small wooden table. In the photo I am standing on the brick patio wearing my grandfather’s blue raincoat, loafers, and a gray newsboy cap. My arms are outstretched to catch the snow. The coat consumes me, the sleeves past my hands, the hem to my shins. I’m smiling; the snow isn’t visible. Once it stuck and we made a petite snowman on the front lawn, his eyes made of olives with pimentos. This was Christmas 2004, in Metairie Louisiana, a suburb outside of New Orleans.

A picture from the same photo shoot on Christmas Day 2004. Description: a small white girl in a giant dark blue raincoat, grey newsboy cap, and beat up brown loafer looks up to the sky with her eyes closes, smiling. She is standing on a brick patio with plants and various outdoor furniture.

During the week of December 24th, The local news has a segment where the meteorologist discusses the likelihood of snow on Christmas Day. In my almost thirty years of visiting the New Orleans area, it has only snowed on Christmas once and eight months later Hurricane Katrina made landfall. I still love the photo of myself on the patio because I was happy that day, cute, happy, and naive. But my perception of the Christmas snow changed — I think it was an omen. Prior to Hurricane Katrina, Global Climate Change wasn’t a permanent fixture of my anxieties and consciousness. While 9/11 had been tragic, overwhelming, and scary in elementary school, I was too young to understand the way it would affect ideologies and policies in the USA. I was a teenager in 2004. Katrina was the first time I began to realize other people weren’t the only dangerous entity because the planet we all exist on has been so thoroughly altered by our waste. When I think about the annual meteorology report covering the possibility of snow on Christmas Day, I wonder who else thinks about what happened after the last time it snowed on Christmas Day.

This continued fanciful desire for snow on Christmas Day in a place that averages 50 degrees Fahrenheit at its coldest makes me think about how much humans want to alter the planet for aesthetic purposes without considering the ramifications. The Gulf Coast does not have the infrastructure for a white blanket of snow, which many of us saw this past year when folks in Texas were set upon with snow storms and extreme freezing weather. The state couldn’t handle clearing the roads, the sheets of ice, and the electrical grid failed. This storm wouldn’t have been an issue in states with harsh winters, or even moderate winters. Texans died from freezing, carbon monoxide poisoning, and lack of resources. The state acknowledged a little more than one hundred of these deaths, but other investigations show significantly higher numbers, closer to 700. Even though it seems innocent to wish for snow on Christmas Day in New Orleans, when anything more than a sprinkle comes, Louisiana won’t be ready. It didn’t snow on Christmas Day this year, but Ida still caused historic levels of damage. It took seventeen days for my grandma to regain power and water from Ida, around 38,000 are still waiting for power(as of Friday September 17, 2021). Hurricane season is getting more extreme every year due to Climate Change. However, like the annual snow forecast for Christmas that I’ve grown accustomed to in an practically tropical environment, the recurrence of hurricanes of varying severity have desensitized my family to their danger.

My family, who have lived in the New Orleans area for several generations view hurricanes as an inevitability; the season comes and goes, with power outages and flooding. My grandma likes to point out that every place on Earth has risks and natural disasters. When I was growing up in San Francisco she expressed concerns about earthquakes, when I was in college she asked about the leaking Hanford nuclear waste site and a couple weeks ago she texted me to make sure we were okay in New Jersey after Tropical Storm Henri. For those fortunate enough to evacuate, prepare, or even relocate because of a hurricane, the hurricane season is the price of admission for living on the Gulf Coast. My grandma is correct about most places having their owns risks that a resident must make peace with as a possibility. You can even love a place and know it might kill you one day; my friends in the Northwest are resigned to the fact that one day Mt. St. Helens will erupt and kill most residents, dump lava and deadly burning ash in Washington, parts of Oregon, and Idaho. It was a hot topic around my college in eastern Washington, especially with my Geology major friends, but no one ever said they were leaving the Northwest due to this inevitability. However, unlike in the Gulf Coast there isn’t an annual season where Mt. St. Helens has an alphabet of eruptions resulting in property damage and fatalities. Still, my grandma maintains that hurricane season is equivalent to a looming volcanic eruption.

My mom and I flew down to New Orleans a couple weeks after the Hurricane Katrina to visit the family. We drove around in my grandma’s small white Mercedes, looking at the x’s on the doors, the water lines, and the burned lots. We had considered taking my grandpa’s ugly gold Lincoln, as to not appear ostentatious in the face of tragedy, but some point a few years prior my grandpa had spilled a cooler of fish in the backseat. The whole car smelled like acrid barf to everyone except him. Charred and burned down houses and businesses dotted the New Orleans metro area, because fire insurance pays out more dependably than flooding or natural disaster insurance. Residents knew there wouldn’t be enough resources for arson investigations. The x’s were particularly impactful, spray painted on the fronts of the houses, marking that the location had been checked by FEMA. Some called them “Katrina Crosses,” because they were so ubiquitous. Over 80 percent of structures in New Orleans were marked with these crosses. The formal name for these markings is Search Codes. Each quarter is filled in with specific information. The top was for date of inspection, the right quadrant for information about the house like whether or not the gas was working, if there were other hazards, pets alive or dead and the bottom was for the number of people dead or alive, sometimes demarcated with A and D. The leftmost quadrant was for the name of the FEMA team that completed the inspection. These x’s still exist in New Orleans today, and not just because some people never came back to repair their homes. A handful of residents believe it is important to keep the x’s as a reminder of the struggle and strength of New Orleans and the long road to recovery, although I’ve noticed they are becoming scarcer every year since 2005. The reason some residents never returned had to do with aid amounts. Black residents who made up 67% of the population at the time of the storm got significantly less aid than white counterparts. This lack of support made it cheaper to start over elsewhere than to fix their old homes. Hurricane damage was less extreme in my grandparent’s neighborhood. There was widespread flooding, although not way over people’s heads. The church near their house lost an “o” and regrettably advertised “the assembly f god.” My grandparent’s house lost some roof tiles, and the back fencing broke apart. We thought maybe the giant Magnolia tree had soaked up some of the water. It was a very healthy tree. It hadn’t broken or sent split bows through the roof. It felt like a miracle.

The author’s grandma and one of her uncle’s dogs, waiting for her uncle to finish putting the alarm code on, as they did every day. As the author’s uncle transitioned closer to retirement, he began also selling rocks and minerals. Taken circa Christmas 2013. Description: An elderly white woman with short blond hair and a magenta coat sits on a green chair next to a light brown dog with a pink collar sitting on a second green chair. In the background there are shelves of rocks and crystals.

For decades my uncle owned and operated a jewelry store not far from my grandma’s house. Because of this, he and some other family friends with businesses were allowed back into the city early to check on the damage. Once again, it felt like a miracle. The sign blew off the jewelry store, and some stock was destroyed from sitting in the water, yet the store was intact and the safes undisturbed. But the lack of damage at my grandma’s house and the jewelry store were not miracles: they were reflective of the way that housing and businesses are situated around flood zones based on wealth.

In the Gulf Coast, wealth plays an enormous role in whether or not a person will survive a natural disaster. The location of housing for lower income residents, and the individual responsibilities of evacuation that require transportation and money increase fatalities. Not everyone has access to a vehicle, money to pay for gas to get out of the storm path, money to pay for a hotel outside of the storm path for an unknown length of time, or the ability to find shelter that will accommodate their family needs, whether that be because of pets, disabilities, or old age. If a person does not have the money or accommodations to evacuate, they have to risk staying, which always puts them in more danger. Due to the widespread destruction, and power and water outages from Ida, President Biden is currently pressuring insurance companies to provide financial support to policyholders who have had to evacuate. When insurance companies deny support to their policy holders, it shows how low income residents without policies or the know-how and time to go toe-to-toe with insurance companies are at even more of a disadvantage seeking assistance. The majority of residents in low income areas are black, because of the stark wealth gap between white and black residents, further segregating the New Orleans metro area and the possibility to escape poverty. In June 2017, National Equality Atlas calculated that the wage gap between white and black residents is on average a whopping $9 an hour. Moreover, 60% of black residents live 200% below the federal poverty line in comparison to 26% of the white residents. The reason middle class and wealthy Gulf Coast residents die less, and can recover is because they get to choose to live in higher more protected areas, come and go as they please, and use their funds to do repairs.

Storm fatalities still occur in middle class and wealthy households but many have grown wary and reticent to evacuate because they believe the government is too quick to order evacuations. My uncle didn’t evacuate from his home near Biloxi, Mississippi until after Katrina began, because he refused to believe the storm would be as serious as had been predicted. However, when the wind started to pick up and he knew it would only get worse, he packed up his truck and high-tailed it north. It isn’t that simple for everyone.

My grandfather was an insurance salesman back when it could financially support a family of four. He and my grandmother were privileged enough to shop around for the land, plan, and then build their own house on that land. The land they chose is slightly uphill and nowhere near a levee. The squat brick one story my grandparents built in the 60s or 70s is the same house my grandmother lives in today. It has avoided countless floods over the decades, including Katrina and Ida. Land division based on wealth exacerbates the wealth gap because already impoverished individuals must repeatedly deal with the natural disaster related destruction of their homes and property at their own expense.

In the time before the regular residents returned to New Orleans to assess their homes, and after the national guard rolled in, my family and friends described Katrina affected areas as lawless. Upon entry, my uncle says he was asked by police if he had firearms to protect himself. The irony of this interaction with law enforcement is that this same publicized panic about crime resulted in a gun run in the affected areas, which then intimidated local police forces to buy more guns and ammunition as well. Of course these stories about “gangs” taking over the mayor’s office in Baton Rouge, bank robberies, etc., were rumors. The $18k the Westwego police department spent on new guns and tasers was not. Folks like my uncle said they needed their guns because trucks of other people with guns were cruising the streets and threatening confrontation. Still, it wasn’t as though anyone talked to each other! For all he knew, the people driving around being “intimidating” had also heard the erroneous tidings of anarchy and were making sure that other folks weren’t engaging in violence. I doubt anyone needed to sit on their porch with their gun. Occasionally a friend or family member will fondly recall sitting on their porch with a loaded gun “protecting” their land and assets. One family friend, sitting on his porch with a gun, says they were drunk the entire time. I doubt a person who feared for their life and assets would choose to be impaired when they believed they needed to operate a firearm. It makes me wonder if many residents returning for their businesses knew this behavior was “cowboy” performative. The same family friend talks about this time as though it was fun, because for him, some of my family, and other privileged individuals, Hurricane Katrina only registered as an expensive inconvenience with a little adventure attached.

This perspective of a national disaster as entertaining still infuriates me sixteen years later, especially because it displays a level of privilege that cannot relate to the less fortunate. This kind of privilege says to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” unaware that the saying itself is an impossible task. My family’s almost completely white friends and acquaintances were able to evacuate. In my entire network of friends and family, only one person died as a result of Katrina (he was in the hospital at the time and not evacuated, it was a horrific situation that I can’t even talk about). Besides this one person, the social circle around my family stayed safe, had enough food, water, money, and gas. They owned their own businesses and didn’t have to worry about being laid off. They could afford and had insurance. They had friends and family to take them in all over the US.

Hurricane Katrina was the first time I had heard anyone from outside of Louisiana talk about the 9th Ward, a low-income neighborhood with government assisted housing in New Orleans. The 9th Ward experienced some of the worst damage from flooding due to its geographic location. Not only was it already in an area that flooded, but it was next to two neglected levees. During Katrina both levees along the 9th ward broke, filling up homes with water past the roof, drowning families and marooning residents. Levees all around greater New Orleans broke, however black residents were hit the hardest. Hurricane Katrina showed me our government’s continued habit of neglecting its people, when I had foolishly believed our largest issues were ending the War on Terror and George W. Bush’s presidency. It was my realization about how the American government viewed race and poverty as a reason to exclude people from help; sentencing them to death by neglect. Kanye’s most lucid political commentary, “George Bush does not care about black people,” made me think critically about why Bush hadn’t sent in the National Guard for several days. Bush wasn’t uninformed about the dangers and severity of flooding because he grew up in two areas of Texas that experience hurricane season and flooding: Houston (where I also have family), and Midland. But the people who America saw on tv, swinging shirts on their roofs to get rescuers attention and walking through waist-deep water were mostly black and impoverished. The news fixated on “looting,”and the police and other authority figures were spreading damaging false information about the safety of the affected areas. This racially-biased reporting couldn’t have gone unnoticed by the president, meaning his lack of quick action was an intentional choice based on his personal opinions as a wealthy white man with no concept of the way poverty and race affected the resources people have to avoid and recover from natural disasters. At first, I also didn’t understand why residents wouldn’t evacuate, but it also didn’t affect my opinion on whether or not to help people. And then my middle school brain realized evacuating wasn’t an option for everyone.

A family friend was featured on the news in Iowa because he was a Katrina evacuee attending school there until his parent’s house was fixed, and his school was back up and running. As you may have already assumed, he is white looking (mixed-race but white passing). Houston residents indicated that they were supportive of the evacuees but quickly changed their tune when black and/or impoverished and working class evacuees arrived, some placed in largely white neighborhoods. Residents complained that they were afraid to go to the grocery store and blamed the evacuees for the increased crime rate. However, many of the issues Houston was facing were merely exaggerated by the influx of an estimated 200,000 new people. Houston residents portrayed evacuees as lazy and welfare dependent but prior to Katrina, over 68% of these evacuees were not receiving any federal assistance, and more than half were looking for employment once they settled. Prior to Katrina, crime was already an issue in Houston and the Section 8 wait list was 5 years long. Houston’s real issue was lack of infrastructure and support for their own residents, which only got worse when so many new people arrived.

In addition to the racially-biased reporting on “looting” another racially-motivated term declaring black survivors as outliers came into favor: refugees. The definition of a refugee is one who seeks asylum in another nation. The usage of the world refugee was indicative of how the United States government had responded to Hurricane Katrina. The government emergency response efforts didn’t come for several days, as though it was another nation entirely and the USA didn’t have direct responsibility. The most hard-hit population in the path of Hurricane Katrina were black Americans. Getting labeled as “looters” and “refugees” was a reflection of race relations in the United States, one that said that black Americans were criminals that did not belong. While I am not particularly a fan of Al Sharpton, his quote on the usage of the term refugees summed up the situation perfectly:

“They are not refugees wandering somewhere looking for charity…They are victims of neglect and a situation they never should have been put in in the first place.”

People who haven’t lived in a flood zone, or have family in a flood zone, do not understand how deadly flooding can be. They tend to overlook that after the water floods into an area, it has to recede and/or be relocated. Water doesn’t disappear leaving everything to dry out and go back to how it was before. After Katrina, many pumping stations failed causing the water to sit, creating more fatalities. Survivors had limited or no access to clean water, food, and shelter. The uninformed may assume that flood water isn’t much different from rain water, or the water in the local river, etc. While the Katrina floodwater contained rain and water from Lake Pontchartrain and The Gulf of Mexico, it also had sewage and other toxic materials like building insulation and human remains. Flood water is not safe or clean and should be avoided at all costs.

At the time of Hurricane Katrina, my uncle had two houses, one near my grandmother’s and one near Biloxi, Mississippi. The house near my grandmother’s had minimal flooding, mostly damage to the backyard. Water had come into the kitchen, but the floor was laminate so my aunt and uncle pushed the water out the back door and bleached the heck out of everything. During our visit my uncle offered me several MREs(Meal Ready-to-Eat, army field ration). He and my aunt were given more than they needed and still had many leftover several weeks later. My uncle said the cheese and crackers weren’t half bad but I don’t trust folks who choose mild cheddar. Upon his re-entry, my uncle had been given an excess of food, when others were starving and scavenging at grocery stores. My uncle never suffered from lack of resources like food, water, and gasoline. The hurricane ripped through his Mississippi home and took an enormous chunk out of the back of the house, much like a giant had taken a bite. When my mom and I visited the Mississippi house, he pointed up and down the canal. There used to be a house there, it just picked up and blew away, his car was carried from over there to over here, almost everyone’s boat washed away into the Gulf and we will probably never find them. Cars, boats, people were washed away to never be seen again and for the privileged, like my uncle with his monetary safety net and second home, it was upsetting but also amusing. His primary home was unlivable, but he had the other house to live in while the damaged house was rebuilt. He was even given a FEMA trailer. This excess of food and housing support reflects what is provided by the government to the white population. My uncle had a house he could live in after cleaning, and could stay at my grandmother’s house or with family elsewhere. He could drive to open businesses to get food and other necessities. Thousands of other people had nowhere to go. This problem is repeating itself right now after Hurricane Ida; shelters are overflowing, evacuees have no support and are marooned wherever they are, folks whose homes are destroyed are living under tarps on whatever structure is remaining, some while facing eviction because the structure isn’t legally habitable.

When my grandparents returned from evacuating at a family member’s farm in northern Louisiana, my grandfather began to rapidly lose weight. My grandmother thinks he was exposed to Agent Orange in the army, but he may also have had colon cancer. We don’t talk about our health on my mother’s side of the family, unless it has to do with appearance. Any number of grandpa’s health conditions could have led to his death. Still, it didn’t help that when my grandpa returned home after Katrina his surroundings were so different and devastated. His heart couldn’t handle it. People and places were gone forever, and the exact number of people is still unknown. The death toll is estimated at over 1,000 and there are still almost 150 missing persons. There is no monument with the names of the individuals who passed, just water stains and difficult memories.

The other week my partner and I sat in our dining room, with our dog at our feet, waiting to how Ida’s remnants would impact our New Jersey town. The weather predicted flash flooding, wind damage, and a possible tornado. Luckily the tornado flew past our town, but it did manage to do catastrophic damage elsewhere — ripping homes apart with people inside, one woman pregnant. While the storm raged on, New Jersey went into a State of Emergency. Looking out our front window the morning after, the street was dry and there was no water in the gutters. However, while our little uphill island of a home only got a basement puddle. The internet was coursing with photo after photo of flooding less than a quarter mile away. The park we took our dog to was a lake, the river at its side rushing with brown water. There was a sinkhole with two cars inside of it near our landlord’s house. Local EMS vehicles blared through our area from late the night of the storm and continued for days. Neighboring towns experienced deadly levels of flash flooding, filling up homes, washing cars down roads. New York City had flood fatalities as well. I reached out to my grandma to tell her that we were safe and she said not to go outside.

The author’s dog Pepper surveying the flooding at the local park the day after Ida in New Jersey. Description: a small white dog with one black ear and a curly tail stands in the grass facing an enormous flooded area of a park. Trees are standing in the hazy brown water and the sky is blue.
A photo of the same area taken 9/30/21 with no flooding. Description: A photo of the park without the flooding, no trees in water and the entire grass field uncovered, showing the contrast.

A few days before Ida came our way I sat on my couch crocheting, staring into space wondering if my grandma, aunt, uncle, and two dogs were getting blown away or drowning. I had hoped that Ida’s timing on Hurricane Katrina’s sixteenth anniversary wasn’t fortuitous and that Ida would be a dud. Unfortunately Ida was only beginning its tour of terror from the South up into the Northeast. I texted my grandma for updates, my partner watched a map of the power grid on his laptop. It went dark in pieces. I was comforted that the photos and videos of damage were coming out of places I knew were not in my grandma’s neighborhood. Then night came. The scariest thing about night storms is not knowing how things will be when the sun rises. The water shut-off followed the power outage. My family reported that they were fine, sitting in the dark, with no air conditioning, without plumbing. All I could think about was Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, all the water, and folks dying of heat exposure trapped in their own attics. Every so often, I checked the latest update on the levees and pumping stations, because although the local government claims they were fixed, I had my doubts. Public infrastructure in the New Orleans metro area is poor at best. The roads are riddled with potholes, cracks, gaps, the sidewalks buckle, and the political corruption is off the charts. Our family assumes any money for road maintenance gets embezzled. I was skeptical of the quality or completeness of the repairs to the levees and pumping stations. The levees held and the pumps functioned.

Up until the pandemic, I visited my grandma once or twice a year in addition to every Christmas. She would make it through living in a Covid hotspot, with a son who refused to get vaccinated, and then Ida would take her before I could visit. But I haven’t been back since my grandmother’s 90th birthday celebration in October 2019. Some might say I was being alarmist but I don’t because with how things have been going in the world recently, it only seemed logical for things to get shittier at any and every opportunity.

In a small town in Louisiana, not too far from Laura Plantation, there’s an old-fashioned soda fountain. Hundreds of ice cream scoops decorate the walls, antique and rusted, enameled and bright, round, oblong, ones with levers, ones with handles. It has pinball machines and gumball machines. The shop hosts soda jerk summer camps and makes its own ice cream with local ingredients. They use whipped topping instead of real whipped cream but hey, it isn’t some bougie farm-to-table spot. By the front door, on the inside of the frame there is a marker with the water level from Hurricane Katrina. It’s not unusual in Louisiana to have Katrina memorialized, even if it isn’t done on purpose. You don’t need a plaque or sharpie scribble because that water stained. The water flooded in, and sat there, rotting, staining, ruining, from ankle deep to ten feet or more overhead. I still struggle to explain how much Katrina’s impact went beyond the immediate lethal repercussions. I wonder how the soda shop fared after Ida, but I’m too afraid to see anything that might further upset me. While it is important to stay informed I also have to maintain some boundaries for my mental health. I will look it up eventually, and hopefully I will be back in Louisiana this Christmas.

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Evelyn Levine

Evelyn Levine

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San Francisco born and raised, currently living in New Jersey. Welcome to my non-fiction practice. Fairly personal. Mood permitting.