Almost five years ago, I was given a chance to land on my feet after Katrina. I didn't know it then, but I had a hunch that what I was getting myself into would be a worthwhile venture—something that would keep me from going back to New Orleans. I would often think about ways to get back home, but the opportunity to build a University basically from the ground-up would be too much to resist.
That and teaching to a great student-body....
This has been a difficult week-and a-half for me. My colleagues have been very kind in asking me how I am doing this week. I am grateful for their thoughts. They continue to be kind to me, just as they were in January 2006. But I explain that I haven't watched any of the news coverage. As one of my friends from New Orleans stated so very well, we're all dying of Katrina fatigue right now. Thankfully, we've laid that bitch to rest this week. I honestly don't think we'll be doing another event like this in 5 more years.
To relive the experience of Katrina takes me to a place where I don't like to be. My mental health wasn't exactly “right” for over a year after the storm. And to see the images again today on various mediums sends me toward that unhappy place. I am not alone in this feeling. Thousands of people are experiencing what I am experiencing right now. Some even live in New Orleans today. For those of us who still live in Exile, we have, I believe, the similar desire to return home. But for one reason or another we have either landed on our feet somewhere else, or we do not have the resources to return home. To be sure, I have met those who have relocated to other places, such as Austin, and are very happy in their new homes. I have met others, though, including friends, who have told me they would never return to New Orleans for a variety of reasons. Still, I can tell that we all miss being back home, and where we find ourselves together usually are at places and events that celebrate the culture of New Orleans, or we find ourselves together in New Orleans proper.
I have studied the recovery, those who were exiled, and those who have returned. Those who have returned realized early that they would be responsible on their own to rebuild the city. They have invested in the rebuilding of their homes, their neighborhoods, their communities, and the culture with their sweat, hard work, determination, resiliency, and anger. Anger is a driving force in the recovery. That and pride. And these characteristics describe the cement that holds the city together today, towards a shared sense of commitment to not only rebuild but to build better. Those who have returned are not ignorant to the limits of what they can do. They can rebuild all they want—but if the levees and the protection system is not built up to adequately defend the city from another major storm, then their work may be rather futile.
Yet the power of culture not only brings them back—it keeps them there.
Susan, Devin and I have gone back to New Orleans almost every three months since the storm. We average about 6 to 8 weeks a year in the city with all our travels back home. One time, a friend of mine stated that he saw me so much in the Quarter after the storm that he honestly thought we had moved back home. I enjoy the fact that we have been able to return often to the city. We have done quite a bit to keep the ties we had to the city alive. I still dj on WWOZ when I can. I travel similar paths as before the storm. I know I have more close friends in New Orleans than I do here in Killeen because I have made efforts to keep my ties to New Orleans alive. But I am thankful for the friends I have in Killeen—they get New Orleans and our relationship to that city.
New Orleans began “turning the corner” about two years ago. You could see it in the city, and you could feel it among the residents. Nagin was term-limited out of office, and there was a real sense that the new Mayor (Mitch Landrieu) would at least have a better vision of how New Orleans could rebuild for the 21st Century. By April of this year, with the Saints Super Bowl victory as the crown jewel, the city was mentally at a place to begin moving in a new direction. And then, the BP disaster took place.
In the months after BP, my new observations include a view of how the spill did not affect New Orleans as much as I thought it would. Time will tell, but this summer tourist season was “normal” and didn't fall off like many of us imagined. The students are back in town, and the Saints are ready to kick off another season. Ironically, during Saints games most of the businesses (outside of bars) weren't busy because everyone was at home (or in bars) watching the games. Perhaps this year people will venture out into the Quarter after the games and spend some more money. Those who I know who have businesses beyond the tourist industry are talking about the non-industrial “brain-powered” businesses that are starting or relocating in the city. The music industry is moving in a “new” direction, attracting more independent rock artists, while the local music scene continues to struggle to recapture the “little” capital they made prior to the Storm. It is a time of great flux right now in New Orleans, with the city perhaps at a crossroads.
Where the city goes from here is anyone's guess. All I know at this time is that I will continue to travel back to the place I call home, and I will continue to study its recovery. I truly feel that Susan and I will find our way back home, but it may not be until Devin graduates from High School.
And I'm ok with this.
We're ok with this.
Devin knows where his roots are—they run deep in New Orleans. And as we continue to travel home he will become more immersed in the culture. As he gets older, he will come with me when I spend a week or more in the city. My friends in New Orleans will see him grow, as they saw David, Cece, Jason and Caitlin grow. And who knows—perhaps he'll choose to go to school at Tulane or UNO. And if he does that, then I am sure Susan and I will permanently move back to New Orleans.
But for right now, we're ok being where we are, doing what we are doing, having our New Orleans parties about once a month, and traveling back home when we can. It's the best we can do right now, but it has pretty much sustained us for the past five years.
It's all good.