Ten years ago, over an espresso in a mall in Kampala, Uganda, I watched video of Hurricane Katrina hitting the shore. On vacation, I would catch glimpses of news between adventures–the pictures of the flooded 9th Ward, the tragedies of people drowning as the waters reached their attics, the horror stories about the Superdome. When I returned to my work in Kenya, I watched the ongoing disaster, both natural and human-caused elements, often through the familiar reporting of Jeff Koinange and fielded questions from my African colleagues about The United States’s credibility as a donor country–and a “developed” superpower when its citizens were displaced, dying, or deserted. How could the US dictate policy to their countries, some would ask, when it looks to have so little credibility now?
It was a hard question to confront. I had never visited New Orleans or the Gulf Coast before Katrina, had no real connection to the city or region, but while living abroad with an occasional taste of homesickness, it felt like a part of my home that I should claim.
Soon after returning to North America, I visited New Orleans for a meeting, and then later for a conference. I toured the Ninth Ward for the first time, sitting next to a woman from Lebanon who couldn’t help but compare the destruction to that she had witnessed following civil conflict in the Middle East. I took in the sites, sounds, and tastes of the French Quarter, joined a second line, and even celebrated my birthday with friends.
I returned to New Orleans and the Gulf a number of times after that–as a volunteer helping to rebuild, as a tourist, as part of my work helping to direct a disaster and development fund. I collected stories, hammered nails, carried construction supplies, asked questions, made mistakes, and met the sort of characters that you might expect to only meet in a southern tragicomic novel.
I also ate more than my share of crawfish étouffée and beignets.
I have a number of colleagues–more than I can name–who spent way more time there than I did and did way more impactful work, not only after Katrina but also Hurricane Rita and Hurricane Ike. It was from their experience that I learned the ins and outs of Disaster Recovery. Many of them are still in the trenches of similar work, moving from disaster to disaster. Others have moved on, taking the blessing and curse of their time in the Gulf with them, as they find new ways to help communities and individuals heal and hope anew. My connection to the storm will never have the same visceral feel as it does for them, but they traveled with me (sometimes literally) as I, a latecomer who often felt like an interloper, learned the context and contributed–in some small way–to the region’s ongoing–an often surprisingly incomplete–recovery.
On my last trip to the Gulf related to recovery a few years ago, I drove by the haunting, abandoned Six Flags Amusement Park, still bearing its “CLOSED FOR STORM” signage. My windows down, the distinct scent of the Gulf in the air, the heat of a deep friend southern midsummer pouring in, I took in the apocalyptic joylessness of the park’s creaky remains. The park, still in flux, made me ask that question that is, almost by its very nature, theological, “How long?”
This week, ten years later, I imagine–as citizens stroll neighborhoods across the spectrum of recovery, as tourists stumble through the French Quarter, as volunteers count their memories and scars, as a diaspora turns its eyes home, as a nation grapples with its mis-steps–that I am not the only one asking that question. Perhaps it is in the spirit of a Second Line that we cry out, asking “How long?” together, making our way to the end, both dancing and dirging, the music guiding us on.
There are a lot of great reflections about post-Katrina reality making the rounds on social media this week. My buddy Matt Hackworth has this to say. You should also check out this incredible New York Times Feature and mini-documentary. For a great case study assessing the work of a Faith-Based Organization working in the Gulf and its learnings, struggles, and successes, check out this volume.