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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.

The first morning, we assembled where equipment was cleaned, bleached, and hung to dry overnight. This was when I learned we’d be wearing starched white hazmat suits and respirators to gut homes still soaked in toxic floodwater. At this site every morning, we were to choose tools, but no one knew whether a hammer, hoe, crowbar, or pickaxe was best for dismembering a home.

We were split into groups and assigned to different worksites. There was one car to shuttle us back and forth: a Jeep truck, itself a Katrina survivor, with the floor rusted out from the floodwaters. When I sat in the passenger seat, my feet dangled above the road, the drive covering my ankles in dust.

Over the next seven days, I accumulated images I have never dislodged: tearing out mold-soaked insulation with my gloved hands, pulling blankets off beds that hadn’t been slept in for months, and using buckets to drain bathtubs full of grimy water and mud. One time I found what used to be a baby’s room, with tiny shirts, stiff and caked with dirt, still hanging in a row on pink hangers. I got used to ubiquitous bags of Mardi Gras beads, mosquitos breeding in standing water, mold that grew like ivy on the walls, and an omnipresent rust-colored line most often at or above eye level, demarcating the flood’s reach.

Our host organization used the gutted remains of an African American Baptist church, which had been under construction before Katrina, as its headquarters and dorm for volunteers. The church’s thirty-foot steeple, never completed, lay sideways in the far corner of the parking lot like a lance. The relief organization’s leaders were a rag-tag bunch, some New Orleans natives and some out-of-towners, but mostly white leftists. To my mind, they were rootless types who had nothing to lose, who could drop everything and seamlessly meld with a post-disaster landscape, people who were falling in love with the devastated city as much as I was.

Al, a man with a small round face, deep wrinkles, and a modest smile, who I guessed was in his late forties, but seemed older from a life of working on the water, had been on H.O.P.E.’s waiting list for weeks. When we arrived to the remains of his doublewide trailer, it became clear that the task at hand wasn’t gutting, exactly. There was nothing left of the former structure of his home, no four-wall skeleton to even consider. Instead, we were essentially doing yard work, except that tree branches and leaves were replaced by insulation, books, papers, and pieces of blacktop from the roof. At the back of all of this was one of Al’s cars, jammed completely under a boat trailer, half flattened.

Al heard the hurricane warnings but he’d survived many before, including Hurricane Betsy in 1965. That was the logic of many residents who didn’t (or couldn’t) evacuate: Hurricane Betsy was the worst thing they had ever known. “No one was talking like this Katrina girl was supposed to be any worse,” Al insisted. But in some parts of town, Katrina’s floods were more than twice as high as Betsy’s.

All we could leave standing was the foundation on which his doublewide stood, and then he’d qualify for a FEMA trailer, one smaller than what he lived in before. We set to work, filled with the anxiety that would engulf us as the week went on, that there was no way we’d make even a dent in the amount of work needed in this city.

We were slow and careful at first, looking through debris as we discarded it to see if there was anything worth saving. We’d look lovingly at photo albums, high school prom pictures, even tax returns, seeing them as pieces of people’s lives and stories. Occasionally we’d take something to Al and show him a partly salvageable memento. He’d take it from our hands, nod unsmilingly, and toss it.

So we grew hard hearts, like the residents had to, and saved nothing. We found diplomas and children’s drawings and without blinking, threw them all away. This was tough love, I was beginning to understand, ruthless but caring. Being indiscriminate made us go faster.

To quiet the panic and distance ourselves from the desire to mourn, we worked past the point of exhaustion. One afternoon, Al pulled up in his truck and encouraged us to take a break. While we ate hot sausage sandwiches, Al’s neighbor Wanda, the only other person left on the block, offered us yams, corn, and pancakes. This from a woman with no kitchen, let alone a house.

Wanda had been living across the street from Al all her life when the floodwaters literally washed her home away. For months, she had been living out of a tent on the concrete foundation while waiting for her FEMA trailer. Wanda made the best of it: she got candles and solar-powered lights to illuminate a little path around the property, found some old wooden barrels for a makeshift picnic table, and even had a few decorative plants.

Wanda always kept a radio blaring. “It’s my baby,” she told us—it was the only thing she had to keep her occupied. All afternoon while we worked, Wanda sat on a folding lawn chair under an umbrella drinking Country Time lemonade. “I don’t understand how you Southern California kids are giving up your spring break to come to our neck of the woods,” she told us as she laughed to herself. “Do you like it here?” she asked. Yes, we responded between shovelfuls of trash. I didn’t understand why I loved it so much even while dealing with the remnants of an unnatural disaster whose scale I still couldn’t comprehend.

After Katrina made landfall in St. Bernard Parish around 5 a.m. on August 28, 2005, Wanda thought the worst might be over. She recalled trying to fall back asleep, but then she heard the loudest sound she’d ever heard in her life, she told us, after which the water violently rose up in a matter of minutes to nine feet or more.

Al managed to climb into a paddleboat tied up in front of his trailer and collected Wanda and others from their roofs. He liked this heroic part of the story but skimmed over details about the intervening days and months when he was without proper water, electricity, or sewage. Now the two of them sat on a deserted block and waited for their neighbors, friends, and families to come back home from Biloxi, Mobile, Houston, and Atlanta.

Wanda asked us about living in California: “Aren’t you terrified of earthquakes?” None of us had really considered it even though some of us had lost our homes in the 1994 Northridge quake. Seeing the wreckage and Wanda’s literal blank slate was the cruelest manifestation of feelings I’d had growing up, that home was a fragile idea, a tenuous one, and that a home could be rendered intolerable—or worse, uninhabitable—by any number of forces.

We told her we’d gotten used to the tremors, and she shook her head in disbelief: “If the ground started shaking, I wouldn’t know what to do. See, if the water’s coming, I know I can just swim. Just ride it out.”

Every family we met had a story about the terrible noise the storm surge made when it crashed through the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet. Some said it sounded like an explosion, a blast, and that maybe someone had dynamited the levees. TV anchors laughed about these fears, using coded racist language to depict the rumors as the delusions of paranoid, ignorant people. Actually, these were not unreasonable suspicions: In 1927, New Orleans’ government dynamited levees three miles south of Violet during massive flooding, hoping to relieve pressure to save white neighborhoods.

The stupefying stories we were told so matter-of-factly were often followed by charming displays of Southern hospitality, a change in tone I had to get used to. In the late afternoons, those who had returned or managed to stay through the storm cooked us the most generous meals we’d ever had. They’d rinse pounds of fresh crab, crawfish, or lobster; sprinkle them with Old Bay seasoning; and cook them in a pot out on the driveway. One family set up folding card tables, covered them with black trash bags, and piled on a few cobs of corn and a dozen cans of Budweiser to complete the feast and to thank us for our help.

These memories kept me coming back to New Orleans, once in December of 2007 and again in December of 2008. I felt like I was visiting locals and familiar places, even though I didn’t remember where any of the people I met during my volunteer trip lived. I pictured myself walking the streets as if I belonged because somewhere out there were Nawlins natives who loved me too. But was this a one-sided romance? I felt that my status as a tourist was complicated by the fact that I once helped rebuild terrain reduced to rubble.

I spent one New Year’s Eve celebrating with an indulgent tradition that only New Orleans could cook up: people from all over town dragged their Christmas trees to mid-city and piled them until the mound was nearly 20 feet tall. They set the stack ablaze, staying up all night to dance and drink around the flaming pyre.

Meanwhile, the city’s racial face was whitening. In December 2007, New Orleans’ City Council authorized the demolition of more than 5,000 units of public housing, most of which had not experienced significant damage. People all over the city were talking about how the projects were “cesspools of violence” anyway.

In a plaza across the street from City Hall, hundreds of homeless camped out in what they called “tent city.” They’d been living there partly out of protest and partly out of desperation. But days before Christmas, I watched as waste removal contractors dumped everything in sight into trash trucks, forcibly evicting people from their encampments. Men in orange reflective vests dragged blankets, folding chairs, and tents filled with sleeping bags across the plaza. The clumps of bedding and other belongings made it look like the tents still had people in them as they scraped across the asphalt. After the cleanup, the only things left were Mardi Gras beads strung up on trees as decoration by the homeless.

On that first visit in 2006, I thought my role was straightforward: I was there to help the most vulnerable populations return home and then share their stories with those back in California. But that brief relationship became something much more complicated when what I saw left me feeling powerless and yet somehow compelled to return. If I examined my motives, I knew I wasn’t alone: a white northerner who came to rebuild a city I never knew. A white northerner charmed by the south and by a city that needed help. I romanticized the details: free live jazz, shrimp po’ boys, and the quiet but persistent movement of the Mississippi River.

In 2008, I walked the abandoned and disheveled grounds of Lawless High School in the Lower Ninth Ward. There were no fences guarding the property, only a green carpet of grass growing over rubble, wires hanging from ceilings, and broken glass from shattered windows. I wandered up the stairs to the second floor where I found that familiar brown water line, almost at eye level. On one bulletin board, all that remained was a stencil reading “Accentuate The Positive.”

I heard voices and got spooked, thinking I was caught. I ran outside and spotted a tour bus driving by and the announcer’s speech distorting as it passed. This was one of the many companies offering “Katrina Tours,” where they’d take tourists to different devastated sites, pointing out where the levees had breached. I frowned at the passengers, hoping they’d pass a sign hammered to a wooden pole a few blocks away. The sign was bright red, like a stop sign, and in white capital letters read: “NOT AS SEEN ON TV.”

But was I really all that different because I had spent seven days in a hazmat suit a year and a half prior? Did this earn me anything, any right to visit the sites of disaster without calling myself a tourist? Did I earn my disaster tourism or was I just romanticizing grief? I suspect that walking around the remains instead of looking at them from the comfort of an air-conditioned tour bus was not as different as I thought.

That volunteer trip to New Orleans in 2006 coincided with my birthday. On the way to the airport to fly back to California, my group bought me a dozen beignets, French style donuts, from a touristy cafe on the banks of the Mississippi River. The deep fried dough was served in a white paper bag that had an inch of powdered sugar on the bottom.

A television screen inside the café had the news on, and the reporter talked about life returning to normal in the French Quarter. They showed clips of people shopping for commemorative t-shirts or buying the requisite alcoholic drink, called a “hurricane,” served in a huge, hot pink to-go cup. The narration said all this tourism was helping the local economy, helping revitalize New Orleans.

Now, years later, I know that while tourists gawked at melancholy evidence of disaster, full off drinks and sweets, residents of those same sites were scattered in cities across the south, their hometown government doing little to ensure their safe return. But back then, just seven months after the storm, my first time in New Orleans, I sat and greedily ate beignets until my lap was covered in white powder. It was an indulgence that left me feeling sick to my stomach and simultaneously filled with love for this place.

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Photo credit: Jef Safi

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TANYA PAPERNY is a writer of nonfiction and poetry and a translator of Russian prose. Her work has appeared in Pacific Standard, VICE, Washington City Paper, The Washington Post, The Literary Review, and in other fine journals and magazines. She is at work on a collection of essays about violence, trauma, and resilience. More at tpaperny.com.

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