The story of any lost home is a story of wreckage. Some homes we wreck ourselves. Through fighting, weary stories and ultimatums. We storm and tussle, tearing up tenderness by the roots, ripping out all the seams that hold us together. Other wrecks are bestowed on us. Evictions and foreclosures. Faulty wiring burns rooms down to cinders. Tornadoes lift homes and land them again, scatter them in pieces like a toddler’s Legos after one swift kick.
Sometimes streets suddenly flood with water and the water finds a way inside.
Seven years ago, an editor friend told me she didn’t want an essay I submitted. She said the prose was strong and there was much to admire, but the essay could go deeper. But, she wrote, maybe she was jaded, she had read so many essays about the flood. I understood. There were too many of these stories of wreckage. There were too many lost in the wreck. There was too much grief and too much reckoning about the same thing.
This is another Katrina essay. I could tell you about five and a half feet of water and the smell of mold seeping through industrial gas masks. I could tell you about the bleed of a lifetime of photographs and journals into one big smear. Of sopping wet furniture and rusted appliances piled as high as the house’s gutter. I could tell you about sweat and snotty tears and peeing in my neighbor’s backyard when we were cleaning out our house. I could tell you about how my eighty-something-year-old neighbor had to be taken out of his house by boat and then airlifted out of the neighborhood; or I could tell you how he died a few months later—of old age or grief or some combination of the two. I could catalogue for you what was saved from my childhood home (the home my parents lived in and had just paid off before the storm) and what had to be thrown away. I could tell you of the following summer, sitting in the attic of the shelled-out house in 100-degree heat sorting through boxes and boxes of childhood drawings and decorations and books and papers, and, at some point, exhaustedly surrendering whatever was left. But you’ve heard that story before. Not from me, maybe. But you’ve heard it.
You’ve seen the overhead shots of a city immersed. You’ve seen the pictures of yellow and green and blue mold moving out in concentric circles. I want to talk about what the storm left in its wake. I want to talk about what it means to try to repair the irreparable, about how sometimes a place is never the same and how pretending it is creates an act of incessant denial, an erasure of what was lost and what could have been.
The day I found out my hometown had flooded, I was working in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, a place well-known for tragedies. In August 2004, I had moved from New Orleans to San Francisco and begun working at a social service nonprofit. A naive 25-year-old, I faced a kind of suffering I had never even imagined and fell into a clinical depression. Boundaries protect us from permeation; mine would not hold.
That same fall, a year before Katrina hit, my coworker, who also had ties to New Orleans, called me into to her office. She pulled up a news website that had created a graphic based on a hypothetical question: What would happen if even a Category 1 storm directly hit the city of New Orleans? She pressed play and we began to watch the animated city flood with light blue, the color filling the space like a soup bowl. Holy shit, I said. I know, she said. And then we both went back to our jobs trying to raise money to support homeless and low-income San Franciscans. Because what else were we supposed to do with that scary image except try to pretend it didn’t exist?
A year later, she and I talked together in that week before the Hurricane Katrina hit. I checked in with friends and family. But when you are raised in New Orleans, you don’t freak out about hurricanes—at least you didn’t before this one. Usually, there was a whole lot of raucous before: people boarding up their houses, buying gallon jugs of water at the grocery, drinking hurricanes at the bar. Those who took advisories seriously and had family or the means to stay elsewhere would leave for a long weekend. The idea of flooding of certain neighborhoods was fathomable but not likely in anyone’s mind. No one imagined the whole city underwater.
My parents bought our house when they were in their mid-30s, broke, and just starting out together. My grandpa didn’t say a word as he walked in but his facial expression couldn’t hide his thoughts: the place needed some work. My folks recruited family and friends as they put in sheetrock and painted and installed light fixtures and plumbing. They built the house up into something that became a home.
The people who lived on my block were like family. I didn’t understand at the time that, at least for someone of my generation, this closeness was rare. We gathered together for birthdays, for anniversaries, holidays. We made up silly games and made each other wear birthday crowns. Everyone brought a casserole dish or platter or pan of something. When a couple living in our neighborhood decided to marry, we threw them a wedding shower, dressing them in homemade bride and groom costumes. A year later, we threw them a shower for their first child. My neighbors were cousins to me, aunts, uncles, grandparents. This kind of community is created by people who desire it, who seek it out, who want home to extend beyond the edge of their front yards. Out of the twelve houses on our block, two of them are still occupied by my neighbors from before the storm.
People are obsessed with photographing broken things. I myself am guilty of this. When I was on a long road trip last summer, I took at least fifty photographs of an abandoned store on the side of small Tennessee highway. The store was built of cinder blocks and inside, ferns and grass and trees of all kinds had sprouted up out of the earth. The last remnant of humans was a discarded ceramic sink. I stood at different angles, taking shots through windows and doors. The land had reclaimed this place and I was struck by its haphazard, obstinate beauty.
I don’t feel the same way about the green plot of land where the house I grew up in once stood. There is nothing beautiful about its transformation to me. Nothing noble. I don’t feel the same way about entire neighborhoods in New Orleans that haven’t been able to rebuild. Whether we love a ruined thing or we grieve it is all a matter of context.
The houses in New Orleans talk to each other. Their whispers seep through cracks in floorboards and broken windows. Their voices call from under brand new ten-foot-high cinder block foundations. The people who belong to the houses are living inside or not living inside the houses. The people who belong to the houses are living in New Orleans. The people who belong to the houses live out of state now. The people who belong to the houses are dead.
When I was home last January, my dad and I went to visit some of these houses, a sort of processional. Brooklyn-based artist Lisa Sigal collaborated with local artists to create Home Court Crawl, a public art exhibit. She picked four neighborhoods blighted since the storm and put the houses in conversation with one another. On houses in Mid-City, Gentilly, St. Roch, and Holly Grove, she wheat-pasted dialogue from Suzan Lori-Parks’ 365 Days/365 Plays.
Besides Mid-City and Gentilly, the neighborhoods used in the installation were ones I had only heard of, never visited. I hadn’t visited St. Roch or Holly Grove because these neighborhoods were ones I either heard about in crime reports on the news or heard spoken of in whispers as bad neighborhoods by neighbors, family, and friends. It is true that these neighborhoods had high crime rates. But semantics are complicated. These places deemed “bad” by White friends and family were all-Black neighborhoods in a deeply segregated city.
My dad and I drove from Metairie, the suburb of New Orleans where my parents now live, down into St. Roch. New Orleans has come back, the tourism industry says. The city is better than ever. The city couldn’t be held down.
We arrived into blight.
There was no shortage of abandoned houses in the neighborhood. Doors and windows were covered in plywood. Ivy spilled out of attics and crept through cracks in wood. Some houses still bore the markings of those who searched and rescued during the storms: the crosses of spray-paint, the records of whether bodies were found, dead or alive.
We drove down the streets, riddled with potholes, to seek out the houses on the project brochure. Turning down Marigny, my dad and I looked for our first house, but there was no banner. In the brochure, we looked at what the missing banner would have said:
I can’t help the mood I’m in. But right now I’m thinking that the Narcissism of White America knows no bounds.
That line is the title of one of Lori-Parks’ plays. We proceeded to the next house on the list and then the next. All the banners were down; sometimes the coloration of the house showed us where one had previously been.
Finally, we drove by a white house with yellow trim. On the front hung a red sign with black print that read:
The Other Smiles. Tell you what. See this light? Ima turn out this light and were gonna be in the dark in a minute. And if yr here when I turn the light back on—well then it’s gonna be me and you with the light on. You understand what I’m saying?
Driving down the last street of St. Roch, we found one more sign. A group of neighbors peered skeptically at our car from the front porch. I took a photo of the banner out my window:
White: how bout now? Other: how bout now what?
From the banners on the brochure, I get that White is trying to find out if Other is thinking about him. White is always trying to find out whether Other is thinking about him.
In the 1920s, St. Roch was a racially diverse community, with many Creoles, people of mixed White and Black lineage, and free people of color living there. The community shifted to be mostly working-class Black residents in the late 1960s after an interstate was built right through the neighborhood. As with residents of the Treme, St. Roch had to deal with constant noise, increased air pollution, and their physical community being severed in half.
When I was home in May, I heard about the revival of the St. Roch market, a longtime fixture in the neighborhood. When the market threatened to close in 1935 due to financial hardship, neighborhood residents rallied to keep the space open. For a long time, the market was known for its fresh fish and catfish poboys. The St. Roch market reopened in April 2015. The design of the website is sleek and shows glossy images of high ceilings held up by white columns, lined by long white countertops and high wooden chairs. Some New Orleans friends and acquaintances I talked to about the reopening effused about its greatness. Others said the market was completely different, that four-dollar chai lattes were not representative of what residents before the storm would want.
In Holly Grove, there are shootings all the time, my dad tells me. But it is not yet dark, he says. We should be okay. Driving down the first street, a gnawing feeling turns my gut—we shouldn’t be here. I am not concerned about our safety. Here for an art exhibit, our presence feels too akin to being on one of the disaster tours companies started running in the Lower Ninth Ward soon after the storm. Come see the devastation of an entire community!
In Holly Grove, almost all the banners are still up. Here the houses speak to each other.
A light blue house has a plywood door and char marks near the roof:
“I told you it was.”
“I had to see it for myself”
“So what do you think”
“Well, its very—”
Not far away, a front lawn is covered in piles of shrubbery. Windowpanes are missing and both the wood on the house and the aluminum siding awnings are stripped down, the plywood covering a row of windows is frayed like fringe.
It’s really very empty.
The second floor of a white house on Hamilton, over windows covered by plywood and behind the iron railing:
Anything can happen here because—
Because nothing’s happening here right now?
Yr sort of getting the hang of it. How do you feel?
Less empty. Or empty but ok.
Right before my dad and I headed home, I caught a glimpse of another banner in the side mirror. The house was huge, two stories high and long. Ivy covered the brick walls. Sixteen square panes crisscrossed to form two large windows. One window was whole. The other had several busted panes. Despite being made of brick, the house looked like it might be toppled by a strong wind. The sign read: “Spacious, right?”
In 2003, when I was 24 and living back home in New Orleans after college, I worked at a small community center called Hope House. Hope House serves the community in the lower Garden District where the St. Thomas Housing Project used to be. In the early 2000s, plans were made to tear down the project and rebuild the community to create mixed-income housing. The community, mostly made of low-income African-Americans, fought back. They knew what this would mean for their community: people would scatter, the resources that had been pooled together would scatter too, and life would be harder. The city did it anyway.
Don and Lilianne run Hope House. The former brother and Irish nun ended up in a Baton Rouge shelter after evacuating from the storm. Every few months, I would check in with them by phone. They told me of rising rents, of the hundreds of calls they were getting every day for assistance with rent and bills. Life was hard for everyone. Life continues to be hard.
In 2007, I attended a New Orleans City Council meeting held to decide the fate of the “big four” public housing properties in New Orleans. Built in the 1940s, many of the solid brick buildings were virtually untouched from the storm. Those arguing against demolition noted the minimal damage from the storm, argued that most damage was from years of neglect by housing authorities. At that meeting, some of us were let in but soon the police closed and locked the gate with public housing residents who wanted to testify outside. All city council meetings are, by law, open to the public, but inside, the room was barely half-full. Later, I would see the news footage taken from outside the meeting; when the people waiting to be let in began to chant, asserting their right to go inside, the police began indiscriminately Tasing people. Meanwhile, the city council voted to tear down public housing.
Journalist Katy Reckdahl wrote in a August 2015 New Orleans Advocate article that New Orleans had “99,650 fewer black residents than it did a decade before, compared with 11,494 fewer white residents” according to the 2010 Census. By Housing Authority of New Orleans reports, she wrote, “only about half of the 3,077 families who had lived in the Big Four were back in New Orleans by 2011…. Only seven percent of those original families were living in the new developments that replaced the Big Four. The rest had been scattered.”
Obstacles existed for those who qualified for Section 8 housing as well. Many variables at play that led people to make choices post-storm, she wrote. Among these, better schools and job prospects elsewhere and whether or not people had community support and resources to rebuild.
What I want you to know is that the water took more than property. The water took people, the water pulled them underwater or rushed them far away from home. The water took webs of community spun over decades, over generations and swept them completely away. The water was merciless. The water took it all. I want you to know that what was lost cannot be accounted for on insurance forms, what was lost cannot be measured out in FEMA funding. I want you to know that this is the kind of loss one never fully recovers from. I want you to know that we are not okay we are okay we are not okay. Some of us are more okay than others. Some of us are no longer here.
In New Orleans poet Kataalyst Alcindo’s piece “Waterlines,” he writes:
When seeing the CNNing of your drowning city plastered across the globe, it will reanimate the corpse. When the newscasters come to pick at the carcass, it makes limber all of the dead in you. When the new pilgrims come like a Greco-Roman army with God complexes the size of the Louisiana Purchase, it will waken the anger. It will fill the lids of the eyelids first. It will ball the fist from watching your people disjoint their mouths and supplicate repentance for sins their souls never committed. When the hipster transplants come with their Pollyanna complexes and their chins so high they forget that they are standing on the bodies of natives, it will say, ‘Rage. Vent all the hell you’ve been through onto them.’
(Instead) Let it say, ‘Resist.’ Let it say ‘Rebuild.’ Let it say, ‘New Orleans, your souls are the holy a million churches could never achieve.’
In New Orleans, we hold concerts for the dead. Someone is alive and then suddenly is not and there has to be a way to mark that grief, to usher them over to the other side. In Jewish tradition, people sit shiva, holding space in their homes to grieve the dead. Mourners bring food. Mirrors are covered. In Cajun culture, the family stays with the body from the time of the wake to the funeral, often sleeping overnight in the funeral home, to wait as the soul begins to cross over. In New Orleans, there are jazz funerals.
Rooted in the African-American community, jazz funerals are led by a brass band, the first line, and followed by the friends and family of the deceased, the second line. At the onset, the steps are small and follow a one step forward and one step back rhythm. The songs are small too. By that, I mean the songs begin deliberate and mournful, slowly syncopated: “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.” Sometimes the body is present, but sometimes the body is not. Jazz funerals can take place at the same time of the funeral but they don’t have to. By the end of the funeral, the brass instruments are full blast and the crowd has gone from mourning the dead to celebrating life.
I went to my first jazz funeral—the first one I actually processed in instead of one I saw quickly go by—in 2012. Uncle Lionel had just died. A New Orleans musical institution and a fixture on Frenchman Street, Uncle Lionel was a small man, tiny even, whose large captain’s hat for the Treme Brass Band overwhelmed his small frame. But what he lacked in stature, he made up for in presence and dress. He was always put together: hat, tie, three-piece suit, suspenders, wingtips. Often, when I was seeing music on Frenchman Street, Uncle Lionel was sitting in with one band or another at the d.b.a. or the Spotted Cat.
While it may seem crazy to think that, even though I grew up in New Orleans, I didn’t attend a jazz funeral until my early thirties, the city is so divided along racial lines that I had some questions about going. Would I be welcome? Would my presence become appropriation? Was I allowed to partake in this rich celebration or would I perceived as another White person taking what they liked of New Orleans’ Black culture while looking the other way at poverty, classism, and racism? I didn’t want to claim a right to what wasn’t mine. I wanted to bear witness and to stand in solidarity. I wanted to celebrate Uncle Lionel, because I knew him, at least in the way all New Orleanians knew him, and I wanted to help send him off in style.
Jazz funerals are rooted in a mix of traditions, including the Dahomean and Yoruba cultures of West Africa, where resources were pooled by secret societies to ensure the proper burial of tribesmen. This tradition and value continued when slaves were brought over. Later, New Orleans’ social and pleasure clubs were founded for the same reason. Brass music integrated into funeral processions in part because of the popularization of brass brought on by Louisiana’s military history.
It rained the day of Uncle Lionel’s second line. The crowd of hundreds wearing white were soaking wet but that didn’t stop anyone from dancing, from waving handkerchiefs and umbrellas in the air. With soaked- through dress shirts, the brass bands played as condensation poured off their trombones and sousaphones, their trumpets and bass drums. We marched through the Treme and down the streets of the French Quarter, the air thick with moisture and the sound of brass.
When my body hears brass band music, I have some kind of ecstatic experience. Whatever kind of day I’ve had or whatever problems I’m clinging to slip away cannot withstand the sound. When I hear that music, I cannot not feel alive. The thumping of that bass drum over and over again sounds: home, home, home.
That I haven’t moved back to New Orleans myself feels like a kind of betrayal. That I have found home elsewhere in no way diminishes for me the way New Orleans pulls at my veins and sinews, calls me back home.
I recently heard someone say, “I only lived there for such a short time but….” But. When people live in New Orleans, or even visit, just for a short while, it never leaves them. New Orleans is a place that creeps inside you and rewires your synapses, reorganizes organs, reoxidizes your blood. I don’t know whether New Orleans’ complicated history—slavery, racism, classism, corrupt politics, natural disasters made worse by man’s failures—takes away from this or whether it’s history, made of both celebration and struggle, makes New Orleans what it is. I imagine that it’s both.
When people say anything negative about New Orleans, my hackles rise. I feel deeply protective: like a mama, or maybe, like a daughter. When people kept telling me repeatedly after the storm that they wished they would have gone, you know before, because it would never be the same again or that they were glad they went before since it would never be the same, I wanted to start a fist fight. Because they just didn’t get it. That the spirit of New Orleans is something that just could not die. Because they didn’t get it. What it meant to see your community, your hometown underwater.
The water is not here but the water will never not be here. The wind is not raging but the wind will never not rage. New Orleans is living and some part of New Orleans will never not be dead.
In Spirit World, renowned New Orleans photographer Michael P. Smith documented the rich spiritual traditions of the African-American community in New Orleans. Most of the photos were taken in the 1960s and 1970s, before I was born. There are scenes of dancing from jazz funerals and portraits of people standing in front of homes and liquor stores and churches. There are shots from inside churches at funerals. But the ones I appreciate most are the ones of actual ceremonies, in which people are being baptized or prayed over. Hands push heads into water. Heads emerged. Dripping, newly saved bodies. Of these, the ones I love most are the ones where heads are cast backward, eyes closed, mouth open: in song, in praise, in prayer. It could be anguish or it could be ecstasy, and it is only the context that brings the reality into view. Only the context that reveals that someone is grateful instead of in pain. Many of these photos are simply titled: “in the spirit.”
One photo depicts a jazz funeral and is entitled “cutting the body loose.” This was a practice when the coffin would be removed from the horse drawn hearse and raised up into the air by pallbearers. This would often be done when the procession passed a spot the deceased loved while alive.
An estimated 1,836 people died in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the levees breaking. An estimated 40 to 50 percent died from drowning.
It’s not that I don’t want to move on but that there is still so much to do, not only in the city but as a nation. Finally, so many of us thought, when we saw American citizens being called refugees; when we watched Black bodies stranded on rooftops, on bridges, when we heard stories of prisoners almost drowning in Orleans Parish Prison. Finally, we can have a conversation about race in this country, about how the city that is founded on the culture and beauty of African-American song and art and spirit and music was left to drown. But Black people continue to be killed in this country. And conversations about race and racism are still being dismissed even as activists force them into our collective dialogue.
The housing situation in New Orleans now is such that it’s not only hard for low-income New Orleanians to find affordable housing but for middle-class residents as well. I understand that gentrification in New Orleans—and in so many other communities—is nothing new. But I worry when the people that love a place, that have made a home in a place for generations no longer have the ability to live in that place. What sort of justice is that? To be pushed out of the place where you belong?
In 2007, filmmaker Joe York, on assignment for another documentary, wandered into a third grade room in Phillis Wheatley Elementary. Kim Severson writes about it in her story “The Katrina Class.” York found the room preserved, with a note on the board for August 29, 2005, the day Katrina hit. He also found a roster, which he took and used to contact these students and make a short film, Room 10. Those elementary students, then nine, are now 19 years old.
They recount their experiences of the storm, many of them talking about the trauma of evacuating. Jonathan Cotton talks about how a man had stolen an RTA bus and his mother, an RTA driver, jumped in front of the bus while it was in motion and convinced the man to let her drive her family and whoever else wanted to ride to safety. “My mom is my hero,” he says.
Larin Stewart wants to get a medical degree in large part because of witnessing the nurse who assisted his brother, who got a large gash in his ankle in the process of evacuating. He says, “I want to be one of those people who can spring to action at any moment and try to help someone.”
Tiaona Torregano says, “It’s not a day goes by that we don’t talk Katrina, what we went through. It was a part of our lives, it was very big, and even though I moved on and I’m past it, I still remember—the memories flash in my mind like it was brand new. I can still remember so much that went on.”
Monique Reese, who tripped and fell into the water during evacuation and was pulled out by her uncle, describes the girl she was then contrasted to now. She says, “I was a girl that was determined back then, I was a girl who believed in her dreams, I was a girl who didn’t care what nobody said or felt. I went for it. Now I just accept what’s coming. Now I just don’t accept anything. Now, you’re back to the starting board where you’re out there in that water and you don’t know where to start from. And I want that girl that I used to be back there that determined person. But she’s gone, I feel like.”
Years after the flood, I dreamed I was walking into my childhood home. The kitchen with wallpaper lined with fruits and vegetables. The hardwood floors of the living room. The green couch. Everything restored. The image was so visceral that when I awoke, I had to remind myself that the dream wasn’t real. That everything was gone.
Years after the flood, I see my city, alive with rhythm and sweat, dripping in the moss of oak trees, buoyed by song, driven by spirit, and also fighting to be whole. I think of all the people who didn’t come back who wanted to. I think of all the people who have decided that New Orleans will be their next home and who can afford to buy houses, move there, and attempt to make it into another Brooklyn or San Francisco.
I haven’t lived in New Orleans since the storm so perhaps I experience the city’s revival in a different way. Perhaps if I had witnessed all the small and large changes, I would feel differently. My struggle to make amends with the city after the storm is not a struggle with the city itself.
But I’m still working to let go of grief. Maybe this is one of those traumas that never fully leaves you, because you remember what happened and what could have been if it hadn’t. But New Orleans is not a victim. New Orleanians are survivors. They are the most resilient, vibrant people I know. But one definition of resilience is “able to recoil or spring back into shape after bending, stretching, or being compressed.” What if instead of requiring some New Orleanians to be endlessly resilient, we stopped the bend, the stretch, the compression?
On the tenth anniversary of the storm, I stood in the Lower Ninth Ward where the levee breached. Several hundred of us had come to march in commemoration. We stood at the intersection of Jourdan and North Galvez streets; our line extended up through the grass to the concrete levee that stood between the canal water and our bodies. Mardi Gras Indians chanted. Community leaders and local and national reverends spoke to the crowd over the PA of the dead and the living, of waters rising, and of one woman, Mama D, who tried to save her neighbors by tying them to trees. They spoke to and for the Black community about neglect and subterfuge.
Nearby the speakers, Black feminist artists gathered to perform Movement 1 of Ecohybridity: A Love Song for NOLA, a visual [black] opera in 5 movements. Dressed in white, the women lined up along the levee, holding a string of white flags between them, creating a second barrier to the water. Then they stepped out of began to dance with the flags. The artists spent the day conducting their visual opera at sites most impacted by Katrina and its aftermath, including the swanky mixed-income development that used to be the St. Bernard Housing Projects.
Later that night, I watched as images of birds and families and chain-linked fences and water were projected onto the wall of an Orleans Parish Prison building. Ten years before, subsisting on toothpaste, waiting to be evacuated, prisoners had hung from the bars of their jail cells as the waters rose. The loudspeaker carried the sounds of upright bass and cello and the words of current prisoners speaking of identity, struggle, and hope. As the voices sounded, people moved across the projection, their arms syncopated rhythmically up and down, their bodies casting shadows onto the screen.
As I stood, walked, watched, I felt the separation between me and the people and place outside dissipate. Most of us know that watery feeling, when we lose our sense of containment, no seals to keep anything in or out.
One of the students from Room 10, Torielle Shelton, breaks into tears when she recalls when she was almost separated from her mom during Katrina. Later, she reflects: “You still remember everything you went through. That don’t just go away, you can’t forget about it, you know?”
Photos by Lisa O'Neill.
A native of New Orleans, Lisa O'Neill is an essayist and narrative journalist living in Tucson, Arizona. She has taught writing at the University of Arizona since 2007 and taught creative writing workshops with incarcerated students at juvenile and adult detention. Her work has been published in defunct, drunken boat, Diagram, The Feminist Wire, Essay Daily, and Edible Baja Arizona among others.