Would you come back?
This is the question that dogs me every morning as I drive through the streets of New Orleans. Past the rebuilt homes and ramshackle shells, past the fresh trim jobs and spray-painted search crosses, past the cleared concrete slabs and the piles of debris that still litter every block, I travel and interrogate my own strength.
I had never visited this area before Hurricane Katrina devastated it three years ago, so I am spared the firsthand comparisons of before and after that can make life here untenable for longtime residents who try to return. While I love the lessened, wounded city I currently call home, I often doubt that I could live here with the memory of what it used to be. And so every morning on my way to work, I ask myself this question, to remind myself of the strength of the people I meet, and to remind myself of the strength of the students I teach—children who had no choice in their destiny.
My morning ritual took on more urgency about 10 days ago, when it became apparent that another hurricane, Gustav, was taking aim at south Louisiana. Suddenly, everyone worried that we would get hit again. The grocery stores ran out of gallons of water. The gas pump lines were three cars deep.
Nowhere was the stress more apparent than among my students.
“Ms. Walters, where will we have class if the school floods again?” one of them asked me as I was taking roll.
“I don’t want it to flood. If it floods again, we are not coming back,” another wrote in his class journal.
A land destroyed
The kids had especial cause for worry. I teach ninth grade in St. Bernard Parish, which lies due east of New Orleans, between the Mississippi River and an inlet of the Gulf of Mexico; my school is about eight miles from the French Quarter. Although it attracted only a fraction of the news coverage given to the city, the parish—a suburban and rural parcel of land comparable to a county—bears the dubious distinction of being the only parish where Katrina’s waters covered 100 percent of the land. Every single structure was damaged or destroyed.
I know that most of my students did not ride out Katrina at their homes, because if they had, they might be dead. The flood came as a wall of water, inundating structures within seconds. In some areas, it reached depths of more than 15 feet.
“My house didn’t have a water line on it,” one administrator told me when I was hired. “The water went up over the top of the roof.”
The floodwaters lay in some neighborhoods for weeks, shining sickly with the evidence of a secondary disaster, a spill of mixed crude at the Murphy Oil refinery that coated everything it touched. Every school building was rendered uninhabitable, including two that were used as shelters of last resort. After stranded residents were rescued from their attics and rooftops, many of the pets they had been forced to leave were left to languish, dying slowly and alone. In St. Rita’s Nursing Home in the rural, eastern end of the parish, the bodies of 34 patients who drowned in their beds awaited proper burial.
St. Bernard Parish has come a long way in the past three years. My school district’s administrators managed to reopen a school in trailers in November 2005; since then, the district has grown to eight schools. Because the local hospital and doctor’s offices closed after the storm, my school hosts a full medical clinic. It also offers a counseling program for children who were particularly affected by Katrina.
Still, signs of the storm remain everywhere. Population estimates for the parish vary, but most set the current number at a third to half of the pre-storm population. Most of the stores are gone, as are the roller rink and the movie theater. The civic center has boards on the windows. Some families are still living in FEMA campers in the driveways of their ruined houses. At night, it is possible to drive through a subdivision and see blocks with only one or two houses lit up.
Most of my students are glad to be back. St. Bernard Parish is a largely working-class oil and fishing community, the type of place where families can trace their roots back more than a century. In their journals, the kids have written of their love for their home, as well as what they learned from having to relocate—what it’s like to be the new kid in school, what it’s like to play in snow. But they have also recorded the upheaval of their lives after Katrina, and they have no desire to repeat those experiences.
“I lost my dog and everything that I had,” one student wrote the day after Gustav set everyone on alert.
“My parents will be sad because they will have to find new jobs,” another wrote.
“I hope the hurricane doesn’t come this way,” another wrote. “It’s hard to leave your friends, and you might never see them again.”
By the time I was driving to work on the morning of Aug. 29, the business owners of St. Bernard Parish were outside hammering plywood over their windows. In her first period class, the teacher next door to me had 14 absentees. After the announcements and the Pledge of Allegiance, one of my students said, “Ms. Walters, where are you evacuating?”
It was the exact third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
The worry built over the course of the day, as did the number of absentees as parents finished packing their cars picked up their children on the way out of town. In my classroom, my students helped me pull bookcases away from the windows, elevate materials on high tables and unplug computers.
After lunch, we filed into the gym for the Day of Remembrance ceremony, a ceremony to memorialize Hurricane Katrina. Mercifully, the theme of the event looked forward and focused on values such as giving back to the community, rather than the storm’s devastation.
I planned to leave as soon as school was over and drive with my housemate to stay with friends in Memphis. Just past dismissal, I was locking up when one of my students stopped by.
“If the storm hits, will you come back?” he said.
I told him I would come back no matter what. If the school was damaged, I would try to help fix it. If there was no building, I would teach in a trailer. If there were no homes, I would live in a camper.
“Me too,” he said. “I hope I see you soon.”
A constant threat
To live now in St. Bernard Parish, or New Orleans, or any other Gulf Coast community that has been destroyed over the past few years requires the ability to simultaneously acknowledge the past and believe in your heart that history cannot repeat itself so cruelly. If someone truly thinks that another storm will bring destruction on the scale of Katrina, then south Louisiana is just not a place it is possible to live.
The people here elevate their houses, urge the government to strengthen the levees and do everything they can to prepare themselves for the next time a storm comes. But ultimately, this place is at the mercy of wind and water, and its future is left to forces beyond our control—to fate, to luck, to God, to global warming, to probability. Although we dodged a bullet with Gustav, the storm succeeded in shaking that faith.
On Monday morning, the yellow buses will arrive again in front of the school. I will be there to hug each student hello and ask them how they spent our weeklong hiatus. I will be happy to see them. But I also won’t forget the fears they laid bare in their writing.
“I pray to God that this hurricane turns around and doesn’t hit New Orleans,” one of my students wrote the day before the evacuation. “I know everyone is wishing the same thing, because this is terrifying.”
Would you come back?
ELIZABETH WALTERS teaches English at Chalmette High School in Chalmette, La.