Hurricane Katrina unleashed hell on New Orleans ten years ago this week. Levees burst, storm waters surged, and families fled – their homes ruined, their hopes scattered. From the horrors witnessed in the Superdome to decency inside the wreckage, stories detailing the endurance of survivors cover the news.
Katrina changed my life, though in a less accosting way than most. A visit to post-Katrina New Orleans propelled me on an inward journey. Part selfish search for meaning – part reconciliation – without New Orleans this quest never happens. And I’m likely not doing anything – writing, storytelling, volunteering – that I’m doing today.
Many Katrina stories exist. This is mine.
I sat on the fractured wood floor of a single-room Baptist church buried in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans and rested my back against a white wall rotted by water and spotted with dark circles. It was early August 2007 and the second to last day of a volunteer trip I made to paint schools ravaged by Hurricane Katrina almost two years earlier. Sweat dripped from behind my bent knees, slipped down my calves, and settled on the ridge of the dirt-stained tube socks stuck to my legs. On the floor near my right leg rested a black Bible. I flipped through its smudged, cracked pages with my yellow and green paint-stained fingers. Moses melted into Jesus who melted into Paul and the disciples. They all vanished into Revelations.
In front of me, a decaying white hat clung to the edge of a large pulpit streaked by ash the way pale scars decorate a ravaged body. Members of my volunteer group stepped over broken statues and around pictures of Jesus, cautiously making their way through this tiny house of God long ago left to rot. Others sat on the dust and mold covered pews in the church’s center. They pointed at the water lines that reached a foot below the sole wooden cross hanging just below the ceiling. The building had flooded when the levees burst, swallowed like the rest of New Orleans. My life was about to change, though I didn’t realize it steaming in the church.
I graduated from Princeton in June 2005. By the time Katrina unleashed its watery hell on the Crescent City that August, I had armed myself as another young warrior waging Wall Street’s battles. I fought with tailored pants, Brooks Brothers shirts, loafers, and an aptitude for manipulating data on spreadsheets. On the Monday morning Katrina struck, I sat in a separate classroom away from the action of the trading floor studying for my financial licensing exams. Still, I can imagine the whistle of such floors around Manhattan – the phones buzzing, fingers pounding keyboards, profits rising then falling, and all the while money the sound that kept the musical chairs going round.
As the crisis worsened, I picture conversations halting and stunned faces glued to the news playing from television sets hanging above the sea of desks and monitors. The price of a barrel of crude spiked to then record levels. Somewhere, an oil speculator reaped handsome profits. I diverted my focus from studying long enough to catch glimpses of panic on the news. Amid the suffering, I felt relieved there was nothing I could do for the victims at that particular moment. I could always sign a check later, I thought, and returned to my work.
Selfishness sprouted in me during the next two years. I basked in the status I thought I deserved as a junior player in Wall Street’s Manhattan. I might have lived at the bottom of the totem pole with a salary that paled in comparison to other colleagues, but I knew it trumped those earned in nearly any other profession – especially at my age. In New York City’s sprint upwards, I fell in line and banged elbows with other runners jockeying for a spot in the middle of the pack. Personal fulfillment escaped me, but my gainful dissatisfaction satiated me. I was hot shit and lived this way for two years before embarking on my trip to New Orleans.
I had two goals for my efforts in Louisiana. First, I hoped to appease the nagging conscience inherited from my family. “You can always give back more,” they said. And “volunteer because every little bit helps,” they urged. Second, I went to New Orleans to feed my ego. I crave distinction, and living in New York I needed to find something to separate me from friends and co-workers, none of whom had volunteered inside large, eroding saunas masquerading as schools in the depths of Louisiana. I wanted this to be my drum major moment, my chance to lead the race and hold a warped sense of moral bragging rights. My friends and I would discuss me over future $100 per person dinners in Manhattan. Praise of my kindness would linger long after the act itself.
Only New Orleans had different plans for me.
Vivid pictures from the trip paint my memory. A permanent layer of perspiration trapped the inexhaustible August heat on my skin while my pores begged for mercy and the sins inhabiting my body gushed onto old shirts and soiled sweat rags. For four days preceding my visit to the Lower 9th Ward, I stayed at St. Vincent’s Guest House, a Victorian-era hostel on Magazine Street less than two miles from the French Quarter. Three-stories of red brick enclosed St. Vincent’s courtyard of wilted gardens and a swimming pool of slimy, blue-green water. Massive black iron gates separated the hallways. Statues of Mary declared the Guest House’s history as a Catholic Orphanage.
Our group consisted of elementary and high school teachers from Michigan, members of a church group from somewhere in Montana, the employees of the non-profit, and me – the watch-me-do-good-financier. The fifteen of us crammed into a single room, bunked on metal beds with thin, decrepit mattresses above cockroaches that scurried across our floor. Long lines formed to use the only shower head available to wash the mixture of dried paint and grime that covered our bodies each day.
During the mornings and afternoons, we painted the defaced classrooms and hallways of three separate New Orleans schools, each one suffering from a lethal combination of Katrina and years of neglect. We painted around exposed wiring in hallways and above unhinged classroom doors. Standing in one school’s hallway, I observed a courtyard of dead grass through the round bars protecting a dirt-stained window. A winding, spiral fire escape broke the monotony of cracked sidewalks over-run with weeds and empty concrete walls below me. Even the graffiti artists had abandoned this place.
As a group, we spent our lunch breaks discussing how a city’s schools could exist in such disrepair. I wondered how I never cared before this trip and struggled knowing that one week of my uneven paint strokes would make little long-term difference.
I painted for eight hours every day. By evening, with my efforts complete, I inhaled New Orleans. I sipped coffee and dropped flakes of fried dough from beignets into my mouth at Café Du Monde. I sat hipbone to hipbone with other tourists on a wooden bench in Preservation Hall while listening to a brass band quartet. In the French Quarter, I gulped drinks of liquor called grenades from giant green plastic containers and ate barbecue ribs and brisket in a restaurant named for a voodoo deity. A seventy-something man and I drank Miller High Life’s at a no-name bar on Frenchmen Street into the early hours of one morning. When he joined a two-man band to sing on a flat stage, he let me wear his straw hat as long as I sent him more High Life’s during his set. I vomited from my hangover in the middle stall of a second floor high school men’s restroom while volunteering the next day. Twice.
Eventually, the other volunteers and I found ourselves sifting through the depressed rubble of a neglected church while touring the Lower 9th Ward. After spending a few minutes considering the repentance offered by the haggard bible in my hands, I stood and exited the church through an absent side door. While outside, I observed the wreckage with my fellow volunteers. They discussed New Orleans, Katrina, and the incomprehensibility of a proud American city enduring such devastation. Sweat beads spotted the stubbles of my shaved head as I stood on the fringe of the group contemplating my normal day-to-day routine.
In that moment, I determined that my life needed more passion, despite not knowing what passion actually meant. This trip changed my perspective about my neat and tidy Wall Street life. I had all the trappings of success, but I felt selfish, uncaring, and unfulfilled. I didn’t know what I was searching for in my life. I only knew that I had not found it and that gainful dissatisfaction would no longer cut it.
I stood awestruck and admired the splintered red church that limped through Katrina’s fury. Standing in that spot, surrounded by a group of dedicated volunteers, I decided that my life deserved more satisfaction. And this decision crushed me.
In a place with so little, I wanted to know how I could want more.