People don’t live in New Orleans because it is easy. They live here because they are incapable of living anywhere else in the just same way. — Ian McNulty
One of the most extraordinary things I have discovered about New Orleans (and here I include the surrounding region of SE Louisiana) is its firm hold on the people who call it home. In general, there is a profound devotion and love among residents for this city. While I know that love for your city or town is not unusual, there is something here about people’s love and devotion that I find singularly unique in my (admittedly) limited experience. How can I say it? Maybe I can say that people have very deep roots here, and that they really identify with New Orleans’ colorful culture in a way I am not accustomed. One lifelong resident said to me that living in New Orleans is like having an addiction. But, he added, unlike a drug or alcohol addiction, you feel freest and most yourself when you finally succumb to its allure. It’s all been a beautiful thing to experience for us, and my wife and I feel very committed to retiring here. Unless they exile me for my Yankee leanings.
But Katrina really is the word I would use to most forcefully describe the uniqueness of my experience of the Big Easy. There’s hardly a day that’s passed these three years my family and I have lived here when I don’t hear the word “Katrina” spoken by someone. Seriously. To be a New Orleanean, I have discovered, is to be forever marked by Katrina. Like 9/11 for New Yorkers. But to be a New Orleanean is also to be fiercely committed to keeping this city alive, with its rich cultural heritage, tight network of families and very old faith. When we first moved here people in our neighborhood were anxious to convince us that the New Orleans projected by the media to the world after Katrina was not their New Orleans. Their New Orleans was about people helping people, about the will to survive and go on, about hard work and a passion to rebuild. The Papal Nuncio Carlo Maria Viganò said it well in his message to New Orleans sent earlier this month: “While Hurricane Katrina took away your homes, churches, public buildings, and even the lives of your loved ones, she did not take away your determination to rebuild. Such perseverance is an expression of your faith in God.”
In honor of the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s devastating blow on the Gulf Coast, I asked a friend, colleague and native New Orleanean, Mrs. Susie Veters, to share her own experience of living through those days. She, her husband and family represent for my wife and I what we love most about New Orleans: family, faith, joy and friendship. I am grateful she said yes to my request…
I was recently asked to write a reflection on how Katrina changed my world. Before I jump into that, I need to preface my remarks with a few thoughts about the events. Before Katrina, my husband and I were never “evacuators.” We “hunkered down” (a favorite New Orleanian phrase), we bought supplies, we filled our bath tubs with water (in case the City water supplies failed), we bought gas for our generator, and more importantly called around to see who else was silly enough to stay for the hurricane so that we could decide who would have the hurricane party when the weather died down. What was the worst thing that could happen – loss of electricity and a couple of days of no school and work?! Well, luckily we knew better than to stay for Katrina. We watched Katrina from a friend’s deer camp in Alabama. We watched as reports of flooding rolled in, as thousands of our citizens remained trapped on roof tops and interstate overpasses and, literally, as our city burned. It was an out of body experience that one cannot really describe. When we finally heard that our neighborhood was one of the hardest hit, I felt like the breath had been knocked out of me. I was sure my world as I knew it was over. We packed our car with the little clothes we brought and headed to Houston to find a new home and a school for our children. We felt like the Beverly Hillbillies (a reference that only us baby boomers will get!) Without a doubt the thing I mourned most during the days, weeks and months that followed was not my possessions, but the thought that the awesome parish community we lived in, St. Dominic’s, was lost. Luckily that was not the case. We came back. We rebuilt our house. We did what we could to get our parish up and running. I came to realize that the quality of life is not measured by the stuff we possess but by the relationships that give us life. I also learned that a community of faith is the rock upon which everything else is built. Once St. Dominic was up and running I believed that things would be ok. I cannot describe the joy the first time our parish came together to celebrate Mass. It was at that moment that I knew that what we lost was not the issue; instead it was what we still had that mattered most. And so how did Katrina change my world? It made me come to a much deeper appreciation of my faith, my family, and my friends. It was a 3D experience of how much we rely on each other. It made me appreciate the kindness of strangers and enkindled in me a need to give back in a way I had not previously experienced. I don’t regret Katrina for one moment. She gave us much more than she took!