Sunday, September 6, 2009

At a loss for words

One year after the storm, most neighborhoods were still lifeless. Only the grass came back. Houses were tossed about like toys, landing on different streets than the ones they belonged to.

Early last week, I promised to post Katrina coverage in chronology until I had the whole story outlined. I had intended for my stream-of-consciousness series to coincide with the four-year anniversary of the devastating storm.

It was about time I finally told this story right.

I’ve made many trips to New Orleans since the deadly flood in 2005 decimated the city. I couldn’t stay away. In fact, three out of the previous four years, I’ve been in the Big Easy at this time of year. Though "Easy" it wasn’t.

On all of the other anniversaries except the second, I was there to document the rescue and recovery mission.

But despite the volume of material I’ve gathered over the years—notes, photographs and stories from people willing to tell me how they survived it—so far, I haven’t told the story well. I’ve not been able to bring myself to sit down and write this epic from end-to-end.

Instead, I’ve been etching it out in bits and pieces.

Every time I went to write it, I’d sit there in front of my blinking computer cursor and freeze up. The tunnel of pain I had to crawl through in order to get to where I needed to go as a storyteller stopped me dead in my writer’s tracks. Even looking at photographs of the moldy houses we entered was enough to start me dry heaving as I remembered what we saw and smelled.

This year, I'd hoped it would be a healing exercise for me. I’d planned to start from the moment I stepped on a plane to rescue, and write through the mission following the progress as it continues now, so people would know what New Orleans is like today.

I put out the call to people who were there with me, and to those who are living there now. People I love and respect. We started to talk about it together. To share memories, stories, and photographs.

With four years passed, I had believed the pain wouldn’t be so fresh.

Was I wrong.

If you’ve been reading, you’ll know that I started to tell it.

Hope is born in a barn, Wednesday, September 2
Look into the light, Thursday, September 1
The silver lining after the storm, Monday, August 31

I had predicted I would be able to write six to 10 stories depending on my ability to achieve mental balance, and shut the story off when the writing was done.

Three stories in, and it’s already become too much. For me, and—I’d imagine—for some of you.

When I started writing it, I was right back there again. Reliving it in full color—the sights, the sounds, the smells. The nightmares.

Often it’s the same nightmare that plays repetitively, and I know others who have had it too. The animals are crying, and we are in the streets looking for them, crawling under rubble and searching. But we can’t find them. And when we do, we can’t catch them. They simply cry and die as we stand by helplessly.

Two years ago, this repetitive nightmare had me crawling off the opposite edge of the bed in the middle of the night. Just like when I had inched my belly along the ground under houses and mobile homes looking for animals who were lurking in the coolest hiding places they could find in the baking Louisiana heat.

I didn’t wake up until I crash-landed on the hardwood floor, breaking or cracking a couple of ribs. I’m not sure how many or how severe the damage, because I didn’t see a doctor. But I couldn’t walk for a week, and I was sore for a long while after.

Thousands of animal rescuers returned from New Orleans, but we didn’t really leave. I can’t even grasp how the locals feel. They tell me their stories and share their pain in gut-wrenching detail, but how can it be truly real to me when it wasn’t my life that was swept away?

This wasn’t our home, yet it became the place our hearts lived for a time.

And some hearts never returned. Umpteen marriages and relationships were destroyed when people who had been in the hot zone returned home changed, with altered definitions of what life meant to them.

Many refused to return home at all, preferring to erect new lives from the rubble. An animal sanctuary founder, a newly-minted animal control officer, a horse rescuer. They would all make New Orleans their new home.

Addictions took hold. Locally, and within our rescue community. The suicide rate in New Orleans tripled. Even some animal rescuers who witnessed the destruction succumbed, taking their own lives. People who had rescued beside us, who now couldn’t bear the pain of untreated post-traumatic stress disorder compounded by the tragedy that was already their troubled existence before Katrina annihilated what was left of their faith in humanity.

I noticed there was a common thread that strung all of us together. The ones who came on the scene to help, and those who called the city their home. People who stayed in New Orleans and abandoned their old lives. And the ones who deserted New Orleans to go on to new lives.

It was the guilt. That’s what claimed us all.

The feeling that we didn’t do enough to save the city, and its people, and the animals.

When in the end, we barely saved ourselves.

Trash piles were almost a relief because they signaled life was returning to the dead city.

1 comment:

Shelly Patton said...

Carreen, your description of how you felt writing about Katrina describes beautifully how I felt reading what you wrote. As I took in your words, I felt the familiar anger I have used to push back the pain and the guilt begin to rise. I stopped reading just short of rage on a few occasions and cried on even more. The pictures tore me up.

Katrina bruised us. She took our lives and rearranged them. It didn’t matter if you were local or here to help, the devastation she initiated kicked our ass and lay us bare for the whole world to judge. And judge they did. Many with compassion, others with a self-righteousness I would have love to rip from their arrogant hearts.

Many of us still haven’t regained our footing. Reading your Katrina stories is helping me regain mine. No one will ever understand the depths of what I lost because of the storm or the storms that rage on in my life now because of the decisions I made after it struck. It didn’t matter if my decisions were right or not. They weren’t good enough, effective enough, soon enough, decisive enough, too little, too late, too much, too soon.

I am only just now beginning to understand the effects Katrina had on me, and your stories are helping me to understand them.

You are helping me grieve, Carreen. I’ve needed to grieve for a very long time.

Please understand my gratitude when I say, thank you for braving the pain and helping others face theirs; helping me face mine.

Perhaps we can pick it up again this time next year. When you are ready to write, I will be ready to read.