We were shopping a few days ago and ended up at Cane's for lunch--a favorite of our Precious Daughter's. In the next booth a group of adults were talking about everyday things.
"Oh she has a nice place on the North shore," one lady said.
"But her sister is still in Houston?" another said.
"Yeah, still in Houston. They're not coming back."
A man chirped in with, "Well there you go--we know people in New Orleans, Mandeville and Houston, so no matter where the next hurricane hits we have a place to go."
Everyone laughed in agreement.
Another day, at the office, someone is remembering businesses that "Ain't dere no more." She mentions Wembley ties.
One of my colleagues says, "I have several of their ties. I bet you do, too."
"Not any more," I say. "I lost all that in Katrina."
We exchange empathetic smiles.
A story in the local newspaper about an over-zealous anti-graffiti crusader prompts much online discussion. Someone points out that if anyone feels a compelling need to paint buildings, why not paint over the search-and-rescue X marks that still mar the fronts of many houses in Gentilly and Lakeview.
Like those X's, and the high-water line stain that still lingers on far too many buildings, the residue of 2005 sticks to New Orleans, it clings to us like an ugly, unwanted tattoo.
Of course it remains a part of us. Hurricane Katrina is indelibly a part of the collective experience of New Orleans, so much so that we can chat lightly about future storms and resulting evacuations. So much so, that we a lot of what we do on a day-to-day basis comes from or still alludes to that sad event.
Going on four years, of course we have learned to live with it. We cope. We adapt. We move forward.
Just this week, a new hire, an engineer from out of state joins us. I am telling him about 2005. I am telling him about the huge storm, the parts of the system that were overwhelmed, the parts that were tested beyond their design but stood, and the parts that failed miserably and fell over even before experiencing their full design loads. I am telling him how the US Coast Guard proved how "always ready" they are. I am telling him how surreal it was to come back to the city that never sleeps and find it dark and quiet after sunset. I am telling him what it was like when I returned to my Vista Park home, the street still covered in mud and the lawns all brown and dead. I am telling him about finding my driveway coated with a half-inch, cracked clay blanket, and how I found a crab, a small, dead crab right there in my driveway...
And I have to stop. I have to stop because I can feel tears. I can feel tears in my eyes and a crack beginning to develop in my own voice that tells me something I did not know. I did not know I am still sad about this. I am still sad that the life we once knew is gone. Dead and gone and buried in the dirt and silt of a flooded house, and a mud-caked neighborhood.
I change the subject and keep talking so that I think perhaps he won't notice. Perhaps he did not see that near-eruption of pitiful emotion.
Later I wonder, what was that all about? Am I still in mourning for the life I lost? Am I still grieving for the deceased and the shocking inability of engineering to protect our city from the forces of nature?
Or is it the news reports from Fargo and other places in North Dakota, pictures of houses engulfed in brown water, stories of people wrenched from their homes and businesses by cruel and indifferent nature that have reopened this wound? I have heard that sometimes people who have lost a limb say they can still feel pain from extremities that long ago ceased to be. They heal, yes, but the healing is never complete.
I am one of the luckiest people I know. Although much was lost, no one in my immediate family died as a result of Hurricane Katrina. And even after losing so much stuff, my family is secure and comfortable in a new home with new furnishings. We can't legitimately claim to be in need of anything.