Through my eyes: New Orleans, 10 years post-Katrina…

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It’s hard to believe it was 10 years ago to the day that Hurricane Katrina tore apart New Orleans; 10 years ago I was half way through my university degree, still living at home, in a relatively new relationship with the guy that would become my husband. When we first started dating, we spent a lot of time talking about all the places we wanted to travel to (and it was a bloody long list), the places we wanted to see and, more importantly, experience. New Orleans was a city pretty high up on both our lists, and we were both equally surprised at the others’ desire to visit. New Orleans, pre-Katrina, wasn’t exactly a big ticket city; at least not for 2 Aussie uni students. It wasn’t a Paris or a London or  a New York. But we both wanted to go. He wanted to go for the music, the night life, the care-free atmosphere in a city that seemed to be built on fun. I couldn’t actually put into words why I wanted to go; it was one of those bizarre, inexplicable, “I don’t know why, but I know I belong in that city” things. Something about the music, the art, the voodoo, the cemeteries, the literature, the food – I just knew that any place there was a coalescence of all those things was a place I needed to be.

But we were still kids. We were both full time uni students. We had big dreams, but no money to fund them. When Katrina hit the city, we were both devastated; for some still unknown reason, we felt a strange connection to this mysterious city on the other side of the world. We debated over and over again whether it’d still be a city we’d want to visit post-Katrina. Would it be somehow tainted? Would the recovery effort have taken away all of the magic and the charm we wanted to visit for? Would they, a people so fiercely proud and protective of their city, still accept visitors as openly? We weren’t sure, but we were both determined to visit anyway and find out for ourselves.

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Ten and a half years after we started dating, and nine and a half long years after Katrina hit, we finally made it. We finally visited this city we were both so strangely drawn to. And while the spirit of the people was so strong, the physical effects of Katrina were still so punishingly visible.

This storm caused damage on a scale that can’t be accurately understood through words. We’ve all read the numbers, the statistics, but even they seem completely unreal.
80% of the city under water.
Almost 2000 lives lost.
Close to $110 billion in damage.

There have been hundreds of articles written about it all, and nothing I write will be as meaningful as some of the first-hand accounts written by the residents and survivors (I’d especially recommend watching  HBO’s Treme and reading Nine Lives by Dan Baum). What I can say, as a complete foreigner and outsider, is that New Orleans changed the trajectory of my life. Even post-Katrina, it was still magic. All of the imperfections made it so perfect. My soul was different for having visited. And all of our reservations were completely unfounded; the charm was still there, the recovery effort was incredible, and the people couldn’t have been more kind and welcoming. Instead of writing about the recovery ten years on, because (let’s be honest) I really don’t have the insight into it like the locals will, let me show you New Orleans through my eyes almost 10 years on. And I’m not talking the pretty touristy sights. Let me show you some of the more real, less brochure-worthy, genuine places and things I saw.

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Read this: Nine Lives by Dan Baum

Nine Lives
by Dan Baum

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Being less than a week out from Mardi Gras, I thought now would be a good time to post this review about an amazing book I read about New Orleans, while in New Orleans last month.

Dan Baum’s book starts back in the 1960s with the occurrence of Hurricane Betsy, and ends not long after the more recent events of Hurricane Katrina, as told by nine New Orleanians who lived through one or both events.

Ronald Lewis, John/JoAnn Guidos, Anthony Wells, Joyce Montana, Frank Minyard, Billy Grace, Belinda Carr, Wilbert Rawlins Jr and Tim Bruneau are the voices behind this book, a truly beautiful biography of a people and a city unlike any other in the United States of America. Through countless interviews with Baum, these men and women told their stories, candidly and truthfully, to weave an amazing story that really captured your heart and imagination from the start, more so than any work of fiction could have.

The stories in this book were real and raw, and true to New Orleans, touching subjects and walks of life dear to the hearts of many New Orleanians, such as the musicians, the police, the Mardi Gras Indians, the poor single mothers, the working professionals and the criminals. The stories were told without judgement, and it was hard not to form a bond to the characters in those pages.

I found it really hard to read the last chapters of the book, the stories that came from Katrina. I remember, vividly, seeing those images that everyone else saw on the TV when it happened back in 2005 (was it really that long ago??); the crying woman sitting on a roof, holding a baby, water lapping at her feet. The men wheeling shopping trollies through the water, trying to rescue babies on their way. People crammed into the Superdome. The markings on surviving homes, indicating the number of dead found within. Seeing it all on TV, in papers, online, is horrific. Reading about it, however, in the stories told by the survivors, is infinitely more powerful.

It wasn’t all about the hurricanes, though. It was about every day life. About the same struggles people all over the world face. Finding a job, getting through a divorce, trying to live a good life without getting into trouble with the law, doing something meaningful with your life. It might be the same stories all over the world, but the way New Orleans does things in the face of situations like this is different. It’s not something you can explain or describe, there was no one passage or quote that could sum it up, it’s just a beautiful piece of work that you should be reading. Pick up a copy here and enjoy the journey.