A couple of my coworkers went up in a helicopter the other day, and one of them got sick.
No, not airsick. Not queasy and lightheaded as some folks get on a rollercoaster ride. But emotionally and physically ill at the sheer magnitude and totality of the devastation.
They flew over the mud-stained houses of Lakeview, the drowned, desolate neighborhoods of New Orleans East, the flood ravaged remains of the Ninth Ward, and the dirty remnants of St. Bernard Parish. He saw it all, and it was too much.
Now this fellow I'm writing about, he was already pretty beat up by the events of the last three months. His house took several feet of water from Katrina, and then his house was burglarized, "looted" as we commonly say. His trust in government's ability to protect the city from nature completely washed away. And then his faith in his fellow citizens was stolen by thieves who took advantage of the disaster.
His family evacuated to another state, and he is now making plans to join them. Permanently. We've talked about this a few times, and as he puts it, the bubble is burst and the dreamer awakened. We have all heard about the widespread destruction, the tens of thousands of now uninhabitable homes. But seeing it in person, spread out in front of him from the vantage point of a helicopter...
"It made me ill," he said afterwards, and he looked drained and damaged for the rest of the day.
The other colleague of mine who went on this same helicopter ride came back with a different view. She, too, suffered significant losses in this catastrophe. Her house in St. Bernard was almost completely covered by the foul flood waters, where it soaked for two weeks. The homes of many close friends and relatives were also lost in the merciless flood. Weeks later, she literally had to shovel mud from her mother's house just to find a few salvageable items.
But she is ready to go back, and is eager to rebuild. Her fondest wish right now is for FEMA to install a travel trailer in her brown and lifeless front yard. She saw the same terrible scenes through the windscreen of the helicopter, but her reaction was totally different.
In the words of the poet, her head is bloody, but unbowed. Sad, yes, but determined. Sober, but resolved to triumph.
This is the story of New Orleans right now. We're all on a wild ride, thanks to Katrina. So many good people who have just reached their limits and are eager to get off. And so many who will not give in, holding on until we finally land safely.