An Ill Wind — Things I Learned From Katrina

david hitt with hiking stick

Be patient; I’ll explain this picture at the end.

I feel a bit guilty for enjoying that night.

I remember being outside, that night 10 years ago. I remember the wind and the rain. I remember how glorious it was — the storm was the embodiment of the raw experience of being in nature, with all its power and majesty. I remember the feeling of the driving wind and the pouring rain, and it seeming beautiful. I remember basking in the overwhelming sensation of it.

Elsewhere, people had lost their homes. Elsewhere, people had died.

I didn’t know. I hadn’t heard yet.

Monday, August 29, 2005. The day that Hurricane Katrina made landfall. Ten years ago today.

That night, to me, Katrina was the most remote thing in the world. Certainly, newswise, it was a Big Deal, but, honestly, it seemed, not one that affected me. It was a tragedy, but that tragedy affected others. When I realized where the wind and rain had come from, I felt somewhat guilty that I had enjoyed something — the remnants of Katrina that blew over Huntsville — that had caused such devastation elsewhere, but that was it. It just wasn’t part of my life. Not that I wasn’t sympathetic, not that I didn’t feel bad for them, just that I wasn’t … touched? … affected? by it. It was bad, but it wasn’t personal.

I first felt the wings of the butterfly that weekend, in the smallest of ways, and, looking back on my attitude, the pettiest. I had made plans for friends in Jackson, Miss,. to come visit that weekend. Given the situation in Jackson, which was still without power and would be for a while, where gasoline was a precious commodity when it could be found at all, and where people were, even that far inland, dealing with substantial damage, my friend decided — and rightfully so — not to come to Huntsville, and to try to help out there instead. And I, I’m ashamed to admit, was annoyed by the inconvenience. In my limited defense, I still didn’t get it; still didn’t understand the scope and magnitude of what had happened.

I’m also a bit embarrassed to admit that the next time Hurricane Katrina blew into my life, it was in a positive way. My then-wife got a job a few months later on a state contract working with Katrina evacuees in north Alabama. These were people who had been transported out of New Orleans; basically, they all boarded a bus, and were driven up Interstate 65. Along the way, they were dropped off basically randomly based on how many people could be housed in a given location. With that luck of the draw, they might end up somewhere like the cities of Birmingham or Huntsville, or they might end up in a smaller Alabama town like Cullman. Her job was to help those people adjust to life after Katrina, either by helping them get settled in Alabama or by helping them move back home. It was a good job for her, and a contract that paid rather well. It is, they say, an ill wind that blows no one good, and I had become a beneficiary of the hurricane. But it also meant that I had the opportunity to meet a couple of her clients, to put faces and stories and lives to the headlines I had seen months before. Real people, with real struggles. The distant became a little closer.

The next significant time Katrina and I crossed paths was in October 2006, when I visited Stennis Space Center, the first time I’d been to the coast since landfall. It was very odd seeing the changes in Biloxi and Gulfport, where I’d visited several times during my Mississippi newspaper days. In some ways, it was hard to believe it had already been a year, in others, it was hard to believe it had only been a year. Some buildings still looked like they must have immediately after the hurricane, while others (like, of course, casinos) had impressive new structures designed and built post-Katrina. It was interesting talking to people at Stennis about how their lives had been, and continued to be, different after Katrina.

Two years later, I would become engaged to, and subsequently dis-engaged from, a woman from Louisiana whom the storm had blown, indirectly, to Huntsville and thus into and out of my life. A more remote connection to the storm, but a more personal impact on me.

Today, supporting the SLS program, I have cause occasionally to visit the Mississippi Gulf Coast and New Orleans to visit Stennis and the Michoud Assembly Facility, where the rocket’s engines are being tested and its core stage is being built, respectively. More time has passed, but my connection increases again. Just two weeks ago, I was driving through Waveland, which was utterly destroyed by the storm. The tenth anniversary was a very real and present thing on that trip, but, there, as everywhere, life goes on.

Back in May 2006, I was in Jackson, Mississippi, on what was the first week-long vacation I’d ever taken, made possible by that state contract job. In a local coffee shop there, a saw a hiking stick for sale, handcrafted from wood felled during Hurricane Katrina. Since the storm was the author of that vacation, it seemed appropriate to take the stick home as a memento, even though I had never really been hiking at the time.

When I began hiking three years later — in the wake of the departure of the aforementioned Louisianan ex-fiancée — I used that stick, and have used it many many times since.

The stick is a reminder — of Katrina, specifically, and all the ways it touched my life, but also, in general, a reminder that no man is an island, that something that seems completely remote and unconnected can end up changing one’s life in ways you could never anticipate.

And, just as importantly, a reminder to appreciate that behind every headline are real people with real struggles.

To remember that every story is somebody’s story,

3 Responses

  1. Yeah, I remember my reaction to Katrina here in Atlanta: “Let New Orleans drown…why in the hell would anyone build a city below sea level?!? Dumbest thing EVER. Best to let nature reclaim what should never have been and move on from there.” The devolution of human decency in the days that followed further strengthened my opinions, heard-hearted though they may have been.

    While I still ponder the validity of having a city in such a place, having since met people who were directly impacted from Katrina, I have most decidedly felt great shame and embarrassment over my cavalier attitude in regards to the personal tragedies which were inflicted by the storm. I still have a difficult time understanding the lack of preventative/defensive measures taken by local governmental officials, but it’s easy to cast aspersions when one is 500 miles away from destruction and devastation.

    Thanks for the write-up. Also: YOU WERE PREVIOUSLY MARRIED?!?! Does Rebecca know? 😉

  2. I definitely think there’s some hubris in the back story and response to Katrina, but I also think that’s more a Western civilization story than it is about New Orleans in particular. We built cities below sea level, on fault lines, in tornado corridors, because we like to believe that we have somehow become nature’s masters. We see news stories of tsunamis in the Pacific and the devastation they wreak, but we act like we’re somehow above that because … I don’t know? Technology? Democracy? Katrina was just the Western world’s greatest demonstration of how true that isn’t. We’re OK with limited tragedy, we’d never dealt with cities being destroyed.

    And, yes, I was, and yes, she does. I’m grateful today to have a present that I’m generally very content to live in, but this particular story was going to be hard to tell without that bit of the past.

  3. Oh, my ‘Does Rebecca know?’ comment was meant to mask my own shock. From my reference, it’s always been ‘David and Rebecca’ (save for that “indecisive” time at MAF/Stennis last year)…and wrong though it may be, that perception of you two as a single entity extends (in my mind) to before I met you guys. 🙂

    As for the hubris angle on NOLA (and other cities), that absolutely plays a role. That said, I think stupidity is also a key player. On a micro level, man *can* defeat nature in most circumstances, depending on how much time, money, and effort is willing to be spent. Unfortunately, when larger numbers of people are involved, the question “Is it good *enough*?” is frequently the guiding factor.

    Take ‘Tornado Alley’, for instance. We could build all houses underground, along with all utilities. Why don’t we? Because, statistically speaking, tragedy won’t occur often enough, to enough people, to justify the expense. That’s not hubris…that’s gambling.

    Similar things could be said about flood zones…and fire-prone areas…etc. I’m not saying that it’s necessarily wrong to think about things in that manner; rather, people will often accept an amount of risk if the numbers are in their favor.

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