Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Five years

This Sunday, August 29, is the five-year anniversary of Katrina. For those who have survived the last five years, any of us can tell you exactly what we did during those days before, during, and after. The memory is burned into our brains forever, and I doubt that even dementia can take it away.

By some strange quirk, perhaps a gift of God, I was out of town when it happened. I was on my way to a conference in North Carolina when the little nothing storm that was supposed to turn and go in around Appalachicola, Florida, decided not to turn, swelled up to blanket most of the Gulf of Mexico, and set out on a collision course for New Orleans.

It was a nightmare for those who scrambled to get out, and a worse nightmare for those who stayed. It was a nightmare of its own kind for me and others like me, who for days didn't know what had happened to our homes and loved ones, with all communication out.

Earlier this month I was back at that conference center in North Carolina, my second visit since "it" happened. I was still more than a little bit uncomfortable to be in the conference room where I had spent that nightmare week, to walk outdoors to see people in the driveway trying to get a signal on their cell phones -- in the same spot where I had frantically done the same thing, five years ago. The memories were like faint ghosts, just real enough to be disturbing.

Five years later, for a whole region, the memories are still with us. For the last five years, wherever I have traveled, people have asked me how New Orleans is doing. It's such a complex question to try to answer in a few sentences. I say now, as I have said for the last few years, "Some areas have come back, and some haven't, and some probably never will."

I was fortunate to live in a neighborhood that didn't flood. It was up and running again in a matter of months: the fallen trees cut up and carted off, the roofs replaced, the interior water damage from the ruined roofs repaired, the stores and restaurants reopened. For the areas that flooded, it's been much harder.

A neighborhood called Broadmoor had six feet of water. It had roughly as much water as Lakeview, but Broadmoor came back more quickly, largely through the efforts of a strong neighborhood association -- and people like my friend Cliff and his wife Nieta, who lived in a trailer on the property of First Presbyterian Church and encouraged the people of the area to return and rebuild.

But there are other neighborhoods where you still see abandoned houses and high weeds, where homeowners have died or moved out of the area and there is no one left to take care of the properties. I hear so many stories of people who say they "want" to return, but after five years, the truth is, they have settled elsewhere and made lives for themselves in different places.

I read about young entrepreneurs who have moved into the city since the storm and are starting new businesses. This is good news. The bad news is that most of the national corporations that had offices in New Orleans have moved out. They can't take the risk of again having their businesses shut down by government order for a month as happened after Katrina, when no one was allowed back into the city for weeks. Young entrepreneurs and startup businesses are good, but they can't replace the jobs lost when big companies moved out.

As for me, after the Saints won the Super Bowl, I did indeed get married -- a wonderful celebration in the spring, attended by friends and family from near and far.

And then we moved away.

This year, we will remember the five-year anniversary of Katrina from a far distance. God has called me to a new ministry in a new place. I am happy to be here. It is a very different land from the one we left. We live in a beautiful valley nestled between lake and mountains.

This August 29 I will remember friends in New Orleans and on the Gulf Coast: friends who have gone home to be with the Lord, and friends who remain. I will never forget what happened on that day five years ago. It is a part of me forever.

This blog, for the last five years, has been a story of life in New Orleans post-Katrina. And now it is time for a new blog. I think I will call it "New Life in the North Country."

See you soon.