NOTE: Four years ago this month, Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans and changed my life forever. I spent the next few years writing and publishing countless articles about the devastation and recovery for the Baptist Press and for New Orleans Seminary. However, I have not published many of my own thoughts about the storm. I have told many other people’s Katrina stories, I just haven’t told mine. It’s time to start telling my story.
Kimberly, Jonathan and I moved to New Orleans in 2003. We moved so I could be closer to work, not because we loved the place. We didn’t hate it either. We were intrigued by New Orleans – maybe even a bit perplexed. And we had our guard up. For a while, we had a “levee,” if you will, around our hearts. By August 2005, the city was becoming “home.” We were beginning to let down our guard.
As Hurricane Katrina bore down on New Orleans, Kimberly and I loaded our van with a few clothes and Jonathan and we left. We had packed so much better for Hurricane Ivan a year earlier.
Ivan was supposed to be the “Big One” – the one that would fill the city with water for weeks. The “soup bowl” theory was widely espoused on the local television stations as Ivan loomed. The theory prophesied a Katrina-like event. At the time, I openly questioned the doomsday scenario. As Ivan churned through the Gulf of Mexico, I sent Kimberly and Jonathan to safety. I stayed. I stayed for work or a thrill or for some other crazy reason. I anxiously watched the local TV weather reports as Ivan charted a course directly toward New Orleans. There were plenty of tense moments. At the last possible hour, Ivan veered to the east and devastated parts of Alabama and Florida. That was 2004.
Hurricanes always miss New Orleans – Ivan missed, Lily missed, Camille missed, so many others missed. That was on my mind the day I packed for Katrina. “Hurricanes always miss New Orleans.” I left because Kimberly didn’t want me to stay this time. This one felt different than Ivan, she said. Still we took no photos or important papers – just a few clothes for the weekend. I didn’t even pack my passport. I simply left the city with my family, expecting to return home in three or four days.
The rest is history. The city narrowly escaped the worst of the storm only to flood after the levees failed. Thousands lost their lives. My heart was torn by the images of suffering of those who did not leave. First, I was angry at looters, then at the people who could have left, but didn’t, and finally at the needless suffering due to the slow response. I still get angry about all that happened.
Sure, I was upset that our 1993 Honda Civic was under about nine feet of water. It was a good second car. But most of all, I wondered about the little deaf man who lived across from the seminary I’d met the year before. I wondered about the folks who worked at “The Bakery” – our favorite po’boy shop near campus. Did they make it out? Are they okay?
My heart was exposed – my ‘levee’ had failed. New Orleans had rushed in – the city and its people had gotten to me. I longed to be home – and “home” finally meant New Orleans. I wanted to hear New Orleans accents. I wanted to be called “darling” at the checkout counter. I wanted to “make groceries” at the Gentilly Winn-Dixie. I wanted my beignets. I wanted my shrimp po’boys.
I began to identify with the people of New Orleans in a new way. Together, we were sharing a difficult experience. I was part of the Great New Orleans Diaspora.
For the next eight months Kimberly, Jonathan and I lived in a one-bedroom retirement apartment in Decatur, Ga., an Atlanta-area suburb. People treated us well in Atlanta, but it wasn’t home. During those eight months, as I traveled to the New Orleans often, I found my soul. I began sensing a deep calling to invest my life in the city.
Finally, we made it back to New Orleans in April 2006 and the quest began.