As soon as we entered the aquarium, I heard a familiar yet unidentified sound. As we got closer, the little hairs on my forearms stood on end. I could see what it was before we crossed the threshold. An indoor waterfall. That’s really cool. It was aesthetically pleasing. Many people find the sound of water soothing.
So why was I beginning to quiver? Why was I sweating? Why did I feel compelled to run?
In order to keep my toddler from falling headlong into the exhibit, I approached the waterfall. For some reason, I looked up. The nanosecond I spied the juxtaposition of the waterfall and the timber ceiling, my knees buckled a little and the room began to spin.
I felt certain that I’d vomit if I did not get out of that room and away from the sound. I corralled the kiddo and, in a fake sing-song voice, calmly encouraged her into the next room. But the sound was reverberating in there, too. And the next one. Finally, I spotted the river otter exhibit ahead and bribed her along with the promise of furry cuteness.
It worked, but I couldn’t stop shaking. I tried to breathe. I took an overly generous dose of a homeopathic remedy I carry in my bag for the babe. I knew I was having a PTSD moment and I knew exactly why: Hurricane freakin’ Katrina.
I was supposed to be done with this. Katrina was four and half years ago. I was cured of my helicopter and breaking glass-related PTSD symptoms years ago by cranial sacral therapy. Fuck.
I rode out Hurricane Katrina in a turn-of-the-20th-century warehouse near downtown New Orleans with my then fiancé, my mother, my fiancé’s friend, two dogs, and four cats. It wasn’t just a random warehouse mind you. It had been renovated into an arts center in the 1980’s, and my fiancé worked there.
Since we were in an interior gallery space with no windows, the majority of my memories of the storm itself are aural rather than visual. That is except the waterfall, which is traumatically both.
I can’t say how long Katrina raged. It felt like days, weeks, months, but was likely only a few hours. During the full fury of the storm, the wind made a crazy whooping noise. It would start slow and relatively quiet. It sounded circular. The level and speed of the sound would eventually reach a crescendo that felt completely intolerable and then there would be a loud crash of windows shattering followed by a moment of eerie silence. Then it would start again, low and slow on its way to crazy loud and the inevitable crash.
At one point I realized that my joints ached from my clenching in panic. I harkened back to a friend’s story of her highly successful natural childbirth experience, where she relaxed more and more in direct opposition to the intensity of the pain.
I tried it, and it worked. I was impressed with my new-found ability to remain clam and self-soothe.
At one point, something above us exploded. I mean really exploded. The huge, century-old brick building shook as if made of paper. I wondered if anyone knew the identities of everyone sheltered in the building. They knew about my fiancé (he worked there), and they knew I was with him, but what about my mother? Would they have to identify her body through comparing her DNA to mine? What about my fiancé’s friend? The dogs and cats, would they be buried properly or scraped into a dumpster?
My relaxation techniques were much less effective after that.
Toward the end of the storm, we heard the craziest sound ever, like rushing water. We gingerly made our way to the door of the gallery where we sheltered and peeked out of our second floor perch into the four-floor foyer of the building and saw… a four-story indoor waterfall. It was one of the most extraordinary things I’d ever seen.
We wouldn’t find out until later that the water had come from the sprinkler system reservoir that was located on the roof, which had exploded during the storm, most likely from pressure or wind. But without this knowledge, we were pretty dumbfounded. It was so much damn water.
I have to admit, I didn’t think about the danger of the situation or the potential damage to the artwork. Instead, all I could think about was the shattered windows and water, water everywhere. They would never get this cleaned up and repaired in ten weeks.
Why was ten weeks so important, you ask? Well, we were supposed to get married in the exact spot where the thousands of gallons of water were landing and pooling.
Was this a bad omen? Why, yes. Yes, it was.
A couple of weeks later, while exiled in North Carolina, I would walk away from this relationship and into a future I could never have imagined.
Four and a half years later, I was in an aquarium on the North Carolina coast with my two-year-old daughter, and yet I wasn’t there. I was back in that warehouse with the four-story waterfall. The space-time continuum was disrupted.
Not for long, of course. The river otters calmed me. Plus, the mommy role trumps PTSD. I was back to doling out her snack, wiping her nose, and discussing fish poop in no time.
But the experience left me wondering, how many other ticking time bombs are out there? Will I one day freak out while sitting my rocking chair at the old-age home because I hear or see something that reminds me of Katrina? I guess I won’t know unless it happens. Until then I’ll just make snacks, wipe noses, and talk about poop. After all, how often do you encounter an indoor waterfall?