Hurricane Katrina made story-tellers out of everyone. There is a subtle demarcation line in the genre of the stories; those that lived through the flooding and those that arrived after the water receded. In many ways, both stories are compelling; each has a sense of resiliency from a lived experience. In the early years, the common opening for conversations was, "where were you during the storm?"
I was in Florida when I first heard about Katrina. It was August 23 and the news reported a tropical storm whose path was headed west toward the sunshine state. Not unusual for the time of the year or the Florida coast. Katrina turned into a hurricane right about the time she was ready to head ashore. After landfall, she bounced back into the gulf, again as a tropical storm, and by August 26 her fury garnered Category 5 status. She now had everyone’s attention.
Soon the news was filled with the images of Hurricane Katrina; my TV screen looked like a huge kaleidoscope. On the evening of August 28, I set my alarm to witness this monster storm and prayed for the people of New Orleans. It seemed like a momentary answer to prayer that she landed as a Category 3 and not the predicted strength of a Category 5 storm. I had no idea, when turning the TV off that night that nine months later I would pick up my belongings and move to New Orleans.
On August 29, I awoke, and like many in the nation, stared at the horror on TV with the realization that the levee system categorically failed. While it was heart-wrenching to watch the disaster unfold in the news, I had not lost my loved ones or my home; I had not lost all that anchored me. Within two days, Katrina was nothing more than a rain maker moving north—but almost 85% of New Orleans was underwater.
In New Orleans, and along the Gulf Coast, that “story” takes a distinct twist depending on whether one was able to evacuate or not. For those that did not or could not evacuate, their stories are harsh, life-altering, have all the elements of danger, disbelief, abandonment, and momentary loss of hope. Many folks were stranded, away from family and friends. There was no way to call for help, no clear way to know what would come next. What I know about the breach of the levees I learned from survivors of the flood waters. Many people lost everything except their love of New Orleans.
Rachel Freed in her article, The Importance of Telling our Stories writes, “Telling our stories is not an end in itself, but an attempt to release ourselves from them, to evolve and grow beyond them. We tell our stories to transform ourselves; to learn about our history and tell our experiences to transcend them; to use our stories to make a difference in our world; to broaden our perspective to see further than normal; to act beyond a story that may have imprisoned or enslaved us; to live more of our spiritual and earthly potential.”
Our story has adapted and developed. We have been transformed. Hurricane Katrina left in her wake many significant lessons. Chief among them is the importance of service for the greater good. It became clear very quickly that New Orleans became a significant “learning laboratory” for our students. We did not need to send students out of the country to gain the awareness of third world issues. It only took a six block walk from campus to witness the loss and devastation. Our students have lifetime memories of being in service to others, and the recognition of learning that true leadership includes a healthy dose of compassion.
Ten years post-Katrina, university students and visitors come from across the country to continue in the revitalization of New Orleans. While the city and universities are healthy and robust, the standard of community service remains an integral part of the fabric of New Orleans. Folks who live in New Orleans don’t mention Hurricane Katrina too much anymore, although this anniversary is a marker of healing. Author Joan Borysenko said, "We cannot wish old feelings away nor do spiritual exercises for overcoming them until we have woven a healing story that transforms our previous life's experience and gives meaning to whatever pain we have endured." And somehow Louis Armstrong’s old favorite brings welcome balm…
Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans
And miss it each night and day
I know I’m not wrong this feeling's gettin' stronger
The longer, I stay away
Miss them moss covered vines the tall sugar pines
Where mockin' birds used to sing
And I'd like to see that lazy Mississippi hurryin' into spring
The moonlight on the bayou a creole tune that fills the air
I dream about magnolias in bloom and I'm wishin' I was there
In my tenth year of making this city and university my home, I now know what it means to miss New Orleans.