Two particular experiences really struck me.
We took a Grayline bus tour of Hurricane Katrina’s path and destruction which, 12 years after Aug. 29, 2005, remain visible. Our tour guide, John, is from New Orleans; he rode out the storm, and now teaches about it -- while ticking off statistics enough to make one’s head spin -- during the three-hour outing.
Eighty percent of greater New Orleans fell victim to the flood waters, the Lower 9th Ward having suffered much of Katrina’s worst brunt. The raging water from the Mississippi breached earthen levies and those constructed from concrete. Cars, homes, coffins, dead bodies all floated away and landed miles from their original perch by the time the storm’s winds died down and the water slowly receded. Thousands of people died. Thousands more were displaced; Texas became a temporary and unprepared home to many of those fleeing. The worst venue for Katrina’s survivors was New Orleans’ erstwhile Superdome.
While John guided our driver past Katrina memorials and taught us all about the hurricane, its wrath, and its lessons, flashes from news reports I’d watched or read from the comfort of late-summer in Portland in 2005 beamed through my mind. Physically being in those locations so many years later was profound. I felt like an interloper in a newsreel of a very significant historic and destructive event, around which much of NOLA today defines itself. People around town -- including our Uber drivers, restaurant staff members, hotel employees -- bifurcate their personal stories and those of the city itself with the phrases, “Before Katrina…” and “After Katrina…”
One hurricane memorial is quite powerful. It’s laid out in an elliptical pattern, mimicking that of the hurricane’s shape and path as it raged through New Orleans. It includes a number of larger-than-life granite monuments, each of them blank, representing the thousands of nameless victims the storm swept away, never to be recovered or identified.
We kept wondering why -- a dozen years after Katrina -- folks insisted on rebuilding their town and remaining in it. New Orleans and its environs were born from swamplands to begin with, so why would people believe they could thumb their noses at nature after its ultimate destructive power wreaked unfathomable horror … and could again (and again)? Pride of place is one thing, but human hubris is another.
Perhaps the ultimate in hubris was laid bare on the Whitney Plantation, in Wallace, La., about 45 minutes northeast of New Orleans.