The eye of the storm

(Julia Kittle-Kamp/YH Staff)

In New Orleans, where I lived for six years, there’s a time of year called “hurricane season.” It runs from June to November, when the Atlantic, Caribbean, and Gulf of Mexico waters are hottest. Hot water means easier tropical storm formation. The two things to remember about New Orleans are that it’s below sea level, and topographically speaking, it’s a bowl, and bowls keep water in. Even a little bit of rain causes flooding.

For a long time, hurricanes felt like exciting adventures. When the storms were on the smaller side, or less powerful, or farther away, people stayed home. My family had our storm rituals: we’d buy water, batteries, and candles, put sandbags around the doors of the ground floor to prevent flooding, park our cars up high in parking lots instead of on the street, board up windows—or at least close the storm shutters. Sometimes we wouldn’t close them well enough and they’d start banging against the window and the side of the house. One of my parents would have to go out, into the storm, and close them again.

Inside, my house would be cozy. We always played Scrabble. Because it wasn’t any ordinary day, I would try to contain the frustration I felt when my parents helped my little sister out—which. to my eyes, was totally unfair. When the power went out, it was even more exciting. I would hear the storm outside and imagine all the other people in all the other houses, cut off from each other, in their own little worlds. I always hoped the phone lines would stop working too—then we would really be cut off—and when they occasionally did I would feverishly run to tell my parents. It isn’t that the storm didn’t unnerve me, just that my nerves were quelled by the baseline feeling of safety and comfort: the adrenaline made me energetic, the cocoon of my house with my parents and sisters meant that nothing could go wrong. I was taken care of.

Hurricane Katrina wasn’t our first evacuation. When the storms were bigger, or appeared to be heading for New Orleans, there would be voluntary or mandatory evacuation notices. Not being native New Orleanians or particularly dare-devilish, my parents always heeded these warnings. As a child, evacuations, too, were fun. School would be cancelled for a few days, and we’d pack into a car and drive to a hotel in Houston. It had an indoor/outdoor pool, the first I’d ever seen—I remember feeling astonished and sort of scared that you could just swim under this wall and bam, you’d be outside. It was also close to IKEA (which in those days was, for me, the peak of home décor). A night or two of hotel life, and then we’d pack up and go back home.

I imagine that the storms weren’t quite as fun for my parents. Our house, at 5429 Prytania Street, was in a kind of valley between St. Charles Avenue and the levee, two of the highest points in the city, so it always flooded, like a kind of mini-New Orleans. Once, a large tree limb fell on our roof, and they had to replace the whole thing. After replacing water-damaged carpets several times, my mother opted for terracotta tiles on the ground floor—the nicer option, in any case.

In late August 2005, I had just started my freshman year at Isidore Newman School. School starts early in New Orleans, so we were two or three weeks in when Katrina came. I had just broken up with my eighth-grade boyfriend, decided that my best friend from elementary school—whom I’d begun to drift away from when my more social boyfriend had introduced me to a new scene—might be worth keeping after all, and was about to have my first advanced math quiz in geometry (which I was really nervous about). Saturday was sunny. I sat in my bright yellow kitchen—my mom, who is an artist and very energetic, had painted every room of our house a different bright, saturated color—and called my friend Alston, to see if she wanted to go for a walk along Magazine Street. She laughed at my obliviousness and told me she was evacuating to her second home in Mississippi (which turned out to be not such a great idea, given the storm’s eventual path). I hung up, a bit disappointed, and went to ask my parents if we were going to evacuate too. They hadn’t decided yet.

Either the weather reports got worse or the evacuation warnings came, because at some point on Sunday my parents decided we were, in fact, going to leave. I packed my blue Puma bag with that Houston hotel in mind—a bathing suit, my Big Star jeans (the item of clothing I was proudest of), and that’s pretty much it. After a moment’s hesitation, I even left my geometry book. No school—I call that a vacation.

Around 3 a.m., I felt the weight of my dad’s feet on the ladder of my loft bed (IKEA) and then his hand wrap gently around my ankle as he shook me a little to wake me up. I was barely even asleep; I had slept with my Puma bag close by and my clothes on. I jumped up and the next thing I remember is being in the car. Somehow, seven of us, the six people that make up my immediate family and a friend of my sister Nora’s, whose parents were on call at Charity Hospital, packed into my dad’s Toyota Highlander. As we drove away, I took out my lime green iPod Mini and listened to Ivy: It’s four in the morning and I’ve got that feeling…

I must have slept for most of the ride. I remember highway traffic, and then being in the hotel. In the middle of the night, the light of the TV in my parents’ room next door woke me up. I turned on my own TV and watched meteorologists in ponchos growing concerned about the storm’s path.

What happened in the next few days in New Orleans has been talked about, mythologized, fetishized, analyzed, and referred to so often. Things were happening to the evacuees too, talked about, but maybe less so—choices had to be made fast about where to go and who to stay with, for starters. The phone lines were so busy it was impossible to reach anyone with a 504 area code. My family and I drove up to Washington, D.C., where my grandmother lives in a suburb called Chevy Chase. We spent days in the cramped car. I was especially bitter about having to sit in the “way back”—the Highlander seats seven, but whoever designed the car must have intended for two of those people to be miniature because the third row of seats is truly tiny. When we got to D.C., I started ninth grade for the second time, at a fancier, more prestigious school than the one I had left.

My evacuation story is by all measures a mild one. We had eight feet of mold climbing up our walls; meanwhile, 1,800 people lost their lives. Even so, the hurricane meant that my family had to leave New Orleans—the first place we had lived for more than a year since I was born, the first place my parents bought a house, the place my parents began their adult lives. I moved to D.C., briefly back to New Orleans, back to D.C., and finished high school on the Upper East Side.

Big storms carry weight because they can do things to our lives that we did not ask for. We’re taught at Yale that our future is in our own hands—“if you will it, it is no dream.” I believe this, too. But I didn’t will the new houses, new friends, new value systems (I’d moved from the Big Easy to the Big Apple, after all). The hurricane did. Nor did I get a chance to say goodbye—to mourn a little so that I could welcome what was coming.

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