On Monday, Aug. 30, four friends and I went to to see the “The Big Uneasy,” a documentary that investigates levee failures in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. There were only six other people in Criterion’s small screening room, plus a theater employee who came to adjust the volume before ducking out. Before it started, one old man helping his wife to a seat in the front row called out, “Is anyone here from New Orleans?” He pronounced New Orleans as a native New Orleanian would, long-vowelled and smooth. “We are too.” One other person raised his hand.
We did not. We are not from Lakeside or Bywater or the Ninth Ward, not even Metairie or Slidell just outside New Orleans proper. We aren’t even the “never-lefts,” the visitors who come to New Orleans and just … never leave. Instead we are temporary members of what an Aug. 21 “Daily Beast” article about New Orleans calls “Post-Katrina Kids,” the educated and idealistic cohort of young people doing social entrepreneurship and nonprofit work all over the Crescent City’s neighborhoods. People like me — like Patrick McHugh ’08 or Kezia Kamenetz ’09 — are working in charter schools, neighborhood development coalitions, city planning offices, museums of New Orleans culture and heritage. They are helping to make rebuilding real.
Though my friends and I spent 10 weeks this summer interning through Bulldogs in the Big Easy, hoarding quarters for the streetcar, avoiding potholes, waking up early enough to get to work on time and going to sleep early enough to be awake at work, we are not from New Orleans. I was 16 when Katrina hit New Orleans, myopic enough to have only vague memories of CNN footage. People standing on roofs. Flooded streets. Rescue boats. And then it was gone: Katrina, that b—-, over at last.
When I packed for the summer, I knew to pack clothes for muggy heat like I had never experienced; I did not know how much Katrina had left her mark on the city, beautiful and burgeoning and alive though it is. On a slow workday, I browsed the Wikipedia entry for Katrina, realizing after a moment that the aerial photograph illustrating the extent of the flooding included the school building in which I was sitting. It was recognizable, a few blocks from the Superdome, dark with floodwater.
It was eerie, seeing the drowned school. Even eerier was the gradual realization that the streets I walked, the people I talked to, the houses they lived in, were still marked — some houses are brand-new, some have signs chalked by searchers on their sides.
Gina, a coworker, told me about Katrina. Her apartment, uptown near the river, was untouched. She had left it cleaned from top to bottom, the refrigerator emptied of food, because she had a creeping feeling she wouldn’t be back soon. But she was able to come back sooner than some, finding the apartment dusty and still and stuffy, but there. Her mother’s house in Gentilly was gone, and her relatives in Gulfport, Mississippi lost everything.
“I was lucky,” she said. But she moved as soon as she could after Katrina. “I couldn’t stay there. The storm got in my head all spooky. It was a nice apartment but …”
At the beginning of the school year, when seniors ponder possibilities after graduation and the freshmen move in and head to their first official blue-booking sessions and 17 extracurricular activities, I always think about who Yale students are.
We are world-changers, the ones who will transform our planet, make history, make a difference. Exceptional since we knew how to be exceptional, we believe — and are told to believe — in our capacity to change the things we don’t like, start NGOs, draft legislation and policy reports, elect progressive candidates, cure cancer and travel into the known and unknown. When I look at my friends, it’s easy to believe.
In New Orleans five years “after the storm,” the Post-Katrina Kids are transforming the world one Make It Right house and charter school at a time. New Orleans is perfect for them — and especially Yale students — because there is a unique capacity to make that difference regardless of age. The barriers are down; the eagerness is there. Bring your laptop and your work ethic and get started.
But remember that we have no scars; it isn’t our home and we will never know what life (whether better or worse) was like “before the storm,” New Orleanian shorthand for everything before Aug. 29, 2005. You can walk down Royal Street in the heart of the French Quarter and hear street musicians playing “I Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans” and know that you will never forget the city or the moment.
But you have never met Katrina. So when you fight for change by hammering a nail into a Habitat house or helping dispossessed people get the money they never got from FEMA, listen to those who lived it.
Katrina, that b—-, gone but not forgotten.