Five years have passed now since The Storm came ashore by New Orleans, and the surreal drama of Hurricane Katrina began to unfold. It is part of our folklore now. Louisiana people had gone through this many times before; that day, people who felt cautious and had the means, packed sandwiches and two changes of clothes, and calmly headed for higher ground. But this time would be different.
Baton Rouge’s River Center became a huge shelter, at one point housing 5,000 people. An emergency shelter quickly becomes a very odd small town of strangers who have noplace else to go, with citizenship conferred by a paper wristband. The residents were provided a grid of cots within the vast echoing space; they created low walls with whatever they had brought from home. Stir crazy kids vaulted over them. Damp photos were spread across blankets. People stared into the distance and waited for news. Stories began to flow.
First, we listen. It is the critical first step to helping people weather a storm. As a counselor, I wandered through the shelter with a clipboard, but what I mostly did, for days into weeks, was listen as people began to reflect on what had just happened. They spoke about the worst of their losses, and the not knowing. Those who had been rescued from the flood water described their mortal fear, and the terrible things they saw. As it became clear that return to normal was not an option, people spoke about their neighborhoods, people who sustained one another, bartering, gossiping, and watching one another’s kids. Stuff can be replaced, they said; but how will I ever replace my lost community? What will happen to the music ? They spoke with gratitude about their rescue, sometimes with the help of strangers who plucked them off bridges and roadways and offered rides heading west, and sometimes a spot on a sofa. They shared their hopes. Finding a loved one. Finding a souvenir of their old life. Getting a FEMA trailer.
Sometimes, the accumulation of stories became overwhelming, and I would retreat for a while to a small empty space upstairs, where somebody had created an art room for little kids. On the walls were a wonderful collection of finger painted turtles made by 5 year olds, each colorful turtle afloat in the big blue sea, safe and peaceful. There I took refuge.
First responders showed up in Louisiana from all over, and those who were there to listen were instant collaborators with those who steered rescue boats or delivered food or gathered in song. Community forms spontaneously at such times. When it does, you imagine that humanity has crossed a great threshold in the midst of tragedy, overlooking our little differences in the face of a shared life changing event, and will continue to collaborate. Good will come of this. Katrina will leave a legacy. Five years later, sadly, we are coping with worldwide economic crisis, and we are surrounded instead with mean spirited political rancor. Still, the spirit of volunteerism survives even now, and that brief hopeful thought remains a good souvenir.
Note: Cameras were not appropriate in the shelter. This turtle is a papier mache toy from Indonesia, a spiritual friend and fellow traveler.