After Hurricane Katrina destroyed his adopted home, social worker Mike Miller had opportunities to move anywhere in the country. But he believes he’ll stay right where he belongs: in New Orleans.
I believe in attachment to place. I believe that watermarks fade, tears dry, and lives mend.
A year after the flood, the nation is remembering Hurricane Katrina. And some of us, whether labeled “displaced,” “evacuated,” or “back home,” will wonder if we still believe. We will wonder—sitting on our porches, in our bar rooms, and in our gutted homes—if we still should believe.
When I left New Orleans, I found myself, like thousands of displaced Gulf Coast residents, living on the generosity of others. People opened their homes to me. In some ways, life was easier. I’d almost forgotten how tough it is to live in New Orleans. In Chicago I was offered jobs that pay three times more than anything I could make in New Orleans. I thought about moving: Seattle, Anchorage, New York, Key West, Tucson, and everywhere in between. But looking at a map spread on a table I already knew. My home is New Orleans… still.
I moved back into an apartment uptown in the Twelfth Ward—on the third floor this time. I’m a little paranoid about flooding. But now I can really hear the foghorns of the ships on the river.
Life in New Orleans is hard nowadays. I work for the Louisiana Family Recovery Corps, and the mental health scene is not good: Depression is rampant. Suicides and substance abuse have been on the rise since Katrina.
I’m also back bartending and, mixed in with the grief, I can feel the pulse still there. We live the best we can. It’s like this street musician in the Quarter who always says, “Man, we’re just trying to get back to abnormal!”
I believe the soul of this place cannot be easily destroyed by wind and rain. I believe the music here will live and people will continue to dance. I believe in “Darlin”‘ and “Baby.” I believe in “Where ‘yat?” and “Makin’ groceries.” I believe in neighborhoods where Mardi Gras Indians sew beaded costumes, kids practice trumpet in the street, and recipes for okra can provide conversation for an entire afternoon.
My family asked me why I wanted to return to New Orleans. “Why do you want to live somewhere where garbage is piled up, rents have doubled, there are no jobs, and houses are filled with black mold? Is it safe? Is it healthy?” They ask if New Orleans is still worth it. I don’t have an answer to satisfy them; I can’t really even give myself an answer. I keep hearing Louis Armstrong saying, “Man, if ya gotta ask, you’ll never know.”
I’m just 26, my clothes can all fit in a backpack; I’ve got a graduate degree in social work and a 65-pound bulldog. I could move anywhere at all, but I believe in this place. I believe I belong here. As hard as it is to live in New Orleans now, it’s even harder to imagine living anywhere else.
Mike Miller is a social worker in New Orleans, where he`s lived since 1998. He returned to his native Chicago during the hurricane, and moved back to New Orleans on New Year`s Eve. Miller also tends two local bars and plays third base for a kickball team.
Independently produced for NPR by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with John Gregory and Viki Merrick.
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