I was 25 years old when Katrina hit. I had come to New Orleans as an undergraduate. Like so many others here, I fell in love with the city. There was not much that I knew definitively in my 20s, but I knew that New Orleans was special, and it was where I had to be.
It was my sixth hurricane season in New Orleans. I had evacuated for storms before. It wasn’t cause for panic, or worry; it was just a precaution occasionally taken. I spent the weekend before the hurricane as usual: with girlfriends, rushing from bar to bar to hear our boyfriends’ bands, drinking and laughing on the sidewalks, savoring each moment. I left the French Quarter at 4 A.M., stopped at my house, throwing a backpack of clothes and a Ziploc bag with some dog food for my dog, Mister, in my car, and added myself to the snake inching out of the city at dawn on Sunday morning.
It was weeks before I had any news of my neighborhood or the condition of my apartment. During that time, my mind wandered over the items in my apartment, wondering if everything was lost to the dirty water that soaked the city. I thought of my antique Singer sewing machine, handed down from my grandmother. My shelf of photo albums, priceless keepsakes from back when we still printed photos and put them in albums. Besides the sentimental items, there were the documents that frame and identify who I am — my passport, diploma, and medical records.
I eventually learned that my apartment suffered only slight roof damage, and I had not lost any material items to the storm. I returned to New Orleans two and a half months after Katrina. I survived there, growing, learning, hurting, adapting, and (ultimately) changing.
I moved away in the fall of 2006, exactly one year after the storm. I needed a break.
I moved back to New Orleans this past fall. When I unpacked, I did so with a post-Katrina methodology. Keepsakes all went into plastic bins, stored under my bed and ready to be packed into the car at a moment’s notice. Later, I’d be confronted by other ways that I’d changed since Katrina.
As Isaac moved in, I considered my options. I knew that even the best case scenario was that the storm would knock out power for a few days. At the end of the summer in New Orleans, even the best case scenario is not for the faint of heart.
So the boxes came out from under the bed. The files came out of the cabinet. Diplomas (two now), vet records, lease. I grabbed my year’s supply of contact lenses, the framed photos of my grandfather and his sister taken nearly one hundred years ago. I carefully wrapped up the antique string of pearls from my great-aunt, the ones that she’s wearing in that photo. I walked from room to room, gathered up my Sabbath candlesticks, menorah, seder plate, and matza cover, wrapped them in a pillow case and nestled them into a suitcase.
I knew what items were the most important to me because they were the items I’d wondered about after Katrina.
But then I reconsidered. If I was taking the most important things, then shouldn’t I also take the second most important things? If I couldn’t come back to the city, I would not only want to save my most valuable and sentimental items. I would also need stuff to get me by until I could return.
Should I take my toolbox, my camping gear, my winter coat and boots? My mind wandered to all the possibilities of this incoming storm, the havoc it could wreak, the far-flung places I might escape to if I could not return home. I knew if I let my mind wander, I would have my Honda Element filled to the edges with survival gear, my favorite kitchen appliances, half my wardrobe, boxes of textbooks, cookbooks, books both fiction and non, and enough art supplies to glitter and feather for a year.
I packed the files, the photos, the religious ritual objects, the antique jewelry and enough clothes to get me through the week. I also took from my refrigerator the most delicious items: two pounds of shrimp from the farmer’s market, red fish fillets from a recent fishing trip, and a boudin-stuffed chicken that I’d been saving for a special occasion.
I went to my parents’ home in North Louisiana — my safe haven from the storm, both literally and metaphorically. I lay on their couch watching the Weather Channel for hours, cell phone in hand, sending and receiving messages as friends checked in with locations and statues. It was an all too familiar scenario for me. I dreaded what might come next.
I then realized that I was carrying more than the just the keepsakes in my car.
I was carrying the collective experience of Katrina, the awareness of the possibility that everything could be gone in an instant. Everyone who survived that storm carries it with them. The memories can by tucked neatly away, like documents in file boxes, or wrapped up lovingly and gingerly, like my candlesticks in a pillowcase. They can be honored, like a trophy that’s been earned through persistence and practice. The memories can be carried as stories, told and retold, or never, ever spoken of.
And now, one full week after I left New Orleans, I am back. I will unpack my car, put my keepsake bins back under my bed, return my documents to the filing cabinet, and set the Sabbath candlesticks back on the living room mantel.
Perhaps tonight, I’ll have friends over to sit around the table, raise glasses, and eat that boudin-stuffed chicken.