Wednesday, August 29, 2007

An anniversary

August 29, 2007. At 9:38 a.m. I walked around the church grounds and stopped, facing the direction of the 17th Street Canal levee breach, roughly a couple of miles northeast of where I stood. It was a late summer morning, sunny, a little cooler than it has been the past few weeks, thanks to the showers we've been having the last few days. So I stood there, wondering what people in passing cars thought I was doing, or if they even cared that I was standing in front of the church, looking at who knows what.

It's been a banner summer for cicadas, and they chirred soothingly in the oak trees planted along the curb and on the median (we call medians "neutral grounds" hereabouts for ancient obscure reasons). My kindergarten class here at the church preschool "helped" to plant those very oak trees fifty years ago. The church gardens are still in bloom in late August, with pink and white pentas, lavender periwinkle and a sunny yellow hibiscus showing off for visitors.

In short, it was a normal morning. I didn't hear any church bells ringing at 9:38 a.m., although I know churches were asked to ring their bells. (As far as I know, this church doesn't have a bell. At least, I've never heard one.) I stood in the peaceful church garden and thought of Lake Pontchartrain exploding through the 17th Street Canal levee at 9:38 a.m., that terrible morning two years ago. It hardly seems possible now, in this peaceful place. But it happened.

Earlier in the month I took a week of vacation. I went to my favorite vacation place, Pensacola Beach, Florida, and stayed at a friend's condo not far from the federally protected area that is the Gulf Islands National Seashore. In Pensacola they are still recovering from Ivan, which struck the year before Katrina and darn near wiped them off the map. Ivan was headed straight for New Orleans, but at the last minute it turned and slammed into Gulf Shores, Alabama, just west of Pensacola. My friend's condo had the side ripped off and the beach sand was feet deep all over the complex. The condo has been completely redone, and while we were there, the landscapers were installing new sod.

In the mornings and at sunset I would walk the beach and ponder the transitory nature of life. I have been visiting Pensacola for thirty years, and roughly every five years or so they get slammed by a hurricane, and Santa Rosa Island, the barrier island where Pensacola Beach is located, undergoes major urban renewal. Hotels have come and gone over the years. Most of the cinderblock roach motels are gone now. The midpriced chains (Howard Johnson's, Holiday Inn) are gone. Every time the beach is rebuilt after a storm, fancier accommodations go up. And so do the prices.

Why do people rebuild, knowing that sooner or later they are going to get wiped out again? Because this place is beautiful. Because when there are no hurricanes out there, it's a wonderful place to be, a delight to the eyes and a comfort to the spirit. And oh, yes, it's a fun place, too, with lots of restaurants and nightlife. Me, I like to walk the beach at sunrise. But your mileage may vary.

On the way home I made a side trip to Waveland, Mississippi, where my family once had a summer home on the beach. Ah, Waveland. Yes, there are parts of New Orleans
where things haven't come back. But Waveland, wow. Waveland was a tiny town no one outside of this local area had ever heard of B.K. (Before Katrina). A.K., After Katrina, it made the national news. Just east of Ground Zero, where Katrina made landfall on the Pearl River, Waveland had hardly anything left standing after the storm. And frankly, it's still devastated. The shopping center at U.S. Hwy. 90 and Waveland Avenue, where the supermarket and the dollar store and other shopping were located, is boarded up. Driving Waveland Avenue (which connects Hwy. 90 with the beach), you find few houses left and lots of piles of debris...two years later. But as I got near the beach, I saw a couple of large homes going up. Not much else around, but people are rebuilding. I shook my head and marveled at the indomitability of the human spirit. In spite of everything, these folks are rebuilding their homes in devastated Waveland, Mississippi.

Down the beach road at the site of St. Clare's Catholic Church, there are quonset huts where the church once was. The church grounds have become a tent city for volunteer work groups coming down to help rebuild the area. A sign in front reads, "Katrina was big, but God is bigger." Amen.

Here in hurricane land, we live in the tension between two realities: the transitory nature of all life epitomized by the destruction of the hurricanes, and the indomitabiity of the human spirit, the refusal to give up in the face of that destruction. Some people think we all are insane to continue to live here. I say we are brave. We know the cost, yet we persevere. There are no guarantees in life. Perhaps we who live here in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast are just a little bit more aware of this than those who live inland, under the illusion of security.

This is our home. We are staying.