This is frightening to admit, but the experience of Hurricane Katrina left me not knowing what to believe. I’m a former New Orleanian, a member of the New Orleans diaspora as we now say, living in Austin, Texas. I stayed in New Orleans for the storm and watched from the relative safety of the French Quarter as my beautiful city filled with fetid waters. To let you in on how this made me feel, I can only say that it was like watching someone bathe your lovely mother in oil and sewerage. I watched as my fellow New Orleanians, stranded by the deluge, struggled to survive. I escaped the city and came to Austin and continued to watch the sorrow caused by this disaster: old people unable to spend their final years in the neighborhoods they love because their wealth was not great enough to allow for rebuilding; business people unable to reopen the bakeries and restaurants I loved because they now stood in deserted neighborhoods; friends on anti-depressants to deal with their losses; New Orleanians whose chronic illnesses have been made worse by stress; and, of course, the suicides. I’ve mourned for the neighbors I lived next to for 30 years – The Haney-Shields family – whose whereabouts are now unknown to me, as well as for the mementoes of my deceased parents and grandparents which I lost when my own house flooded. It’s been a rough year for anyone who loves the city and its people. But, now with the distance of a year, I think I’m ready to recount the lessons this disaster has taught me.
I now believe that tragedy can strike at any time, even when we are not expecting it. You never know when a flood will wash away your city or a plane will fall out of the sky and into a building. You never know when disease or even warfare might strike. From my experience as a disaster victim, I know that we cannot depend on the help of the government or charitable organizations. That help may come or it may not and we need to be ready for either situation. I believe that we need to make a pact as human beings to keep our minds and our bodies strong and help the members of our communities to do likewise by funding good schools and healthy environments. I believe that we should respond with both empathy and productive solutions when we see others suffering or experiencing difficulties, much like the kindly people in Southwestern Louisiana and Texas responding to me and my family over the course of the last year.
And, finally, I believe in living each day in a spirit of appreciation for the people and places that are a part of your everyday life because, as I can testify, those precious people and places truly can disappear overnight.
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