How can I characterize my love for a place I only came to know after its devastation?
I first traveled to New Orleans in 2006 with a group of student volunteers half a year after the failure of the levees. The city never knew I existed until it was undone by Katrina’s storm, when it was ravaged and its insides exposed on national television. My love for this place is the other side of heartbreak, and sometimes the line between the two isn’t so clear. It is a strange kind of attachment, one that comes from seeing destruction, persistent injustice, and, sometimes, resilience.
Through a local grassroots relief organization, my group was sent to work in Violet, Louisiana, a small city in St. Bernard Parish, located east of New Orleans proper. Katrina pushed a twenty-five foot storm surge into St. Bernard, leaving oil-tarnished water with nowhere to drain for weeks. All of the Parish’s homes were declared “unlivable.” I knew little of what to expect, though I understood residents had to clear out the site of their former home to qualify for a FEMA trailer. Our job was to tear everything down, leaving only the bare wooden frame.
I thought I knew the scope of Katrina’s wrath from photos and videos, but looking out the window while driving into St. Bernard Parish for the first time brought the reality into razor-sharp focus. It was seven months after Katrina and all the traffic lights were still broken along the four-lane road into town. There were virtually no other cars and certainly no people walking down the street. No businesses were open. We passed a gas station where the typical T-shaped roof had completely toppled over, its legs folded and buckled. I saw rusting cars in the grassy median and a motorboat in a ditch by the curb. A small wooden house with light blue siding lay off its foundation in the middle of the street. Even the most iconic American corporation didn’t survive, the golden double arches of McDonalds bent into an unrecognizable shape. As we drove deeper into St. Bernard, the accumulated mountains of trash and debris grew larger, more sinister: couches, tree stumps, broken furniture, refrigerators, mattresses, and entire chunks of wall and insulation.