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Shared June 2015 - January 2016

In the last couple of years, I’ve noticed that when I’ve listened to Katrina news stories or watched Katrina related documentaries, something happens over and over again.  It happened not long ago when I was driving on the interstate listening to the morning news. The woman’s voice says, “Now we’re going to go to New Orleans...Katrina... ten years later...to check in on the ones who never moved back.”  And my ears perk up, and I go from a passive listener to feeling like I’ve been strapped to a catapult. In her calm voice, she says, “Terrence Veal left New Orleans with his wife, six kids and all the belongings they could squeeze in their car.”  And this pressure starts to build inside of my face and throat, and I feel my eyes start to water, and by the time Terrence and his babies finally leave this tiny apartment he shared with twenty other people, they’ve cued the violin music, and I’m in tears trying to remind myself what lane I’m supposed to be in.  I wondered how many people around me on the interstate were listening to the same story on the same radio station. Were they all driving around feeling like this? What were they thinking?

 

Luckily a friend recently told me that she had this same reaction to the outside world’s calm, detached voices telling stories about a time when nothing could really be understood.  There’s a bursting feeling. “I can’t touch it. I don’t know what to do with it,” she told me. It felt good to know that the feeling was shared.

 

To mark ten years since Hurricane Katrina, my dad and I have built a the frame of a boat.  It’s 16 feet long, made of cedar and reclaimed cypress. The hull is going to be made out of paper, formed by bonded layers of people’s written stories from during and after the storm.  With enough layers of paper, the boat will be fully functional and seaworthy.  

 

With the anniversary’s overload of media and images of the storm, I think that now is an important time to carefully revisit our own stories from that time - what happened - where we went -  how we’ve changed - what we wish we would’ve done different - why - how glad we are to be back in this place - how glad we are to be alive - and how anguished we still are from the loss.  

 

 In a lot of ways, I’ve spent ten years trying to understand the flooding - much of it through writing.  But despite my own reflections, some of my most intense experiences learning about Katrina have come from other people’s stories.  

 

When I came back to New Orleans after Katrina, my friend Santi told me about carrying sick patients on sheets and mattresses up and down the dark stairwells of the VA Hospital, over and over, until he got taken out of the flooding on a military truck.  At that time in our lives a decade ago, we were sixteen and all we wanted was to drive around and find gas stations that would sell us beer. We either weren’t worried about the devastation or weren’t interested in talking about it.

 

It wasn’t until last year that another friend from high school told me his own story of Katrina, when he was separated from his mother and roamed the evacuated streets of New Orleans by himself, trying to find a way out (as a fifteen years old).  I couldn’t believe that we’d been friends for thirteen years, but only then, in the Friendly Bar, was I learning about this backbone experience that altered him, somehow, over the last ten years into the person sitting in front of me.  

 

As I’ve asked people about Katrina for this boat project, it’s the same thing over and over.  I get the feeling that I thought I knew this person, but then, there they are in front of me, suddenly carrying something I never knew they had.  I’m amazed at what they say, the details in the moments of someone’s life in an emergency, an emergency we all happened to have at the exact same moment in our lives.   

 

Over one million people lived through that storm.  Even more felt its effects, and everyone is dragging  around their own emotional debris from the storm. Beneath layers of material rebuilding and a decade of time, this stuff is still here.

 

What do we do with it?  

 

The late artist David Wojnarowicz said, “Each public disclosure of a private reality becomes something of a magnet that can attract others with a similar frame of reference.”  I’m hoping that this boat can act as that magnet. I know that if boats were a salvation from the storm ten years ago, they can faithfully hold our experiences 10 years later, because Hurricane Katrina and its debris are still a valuable frame of reference for people in New Orleans and others dispersed across the country.  Through Katrina, we came to know each other a tiny bit better. You could feel that unity in New Orleans after the storm, despite all of the ugliness that the storm revealed about the city and despite the depression. Most of us wanted to come home because we love it, this island, even with the water, the danger, the dysfunction, the problems.  There was a shared realization that we live in this place together as a community -- or maybe a shared joy in the realization that we’re here, period.

 

I know that a lot of people don’t want to reopen the wounds of Katrina.  It’s a time of loss that is hellish to revisit and almost impossible to describe.  I don’t ask for participation lightly. I ask with a mutual respect as someone who is slowly coming to realize the depth of my community’s suffering (and hope) after the storm.

 

The amazing thing about a boat is that it can carry an incredible amount of weight and still slide gracefully across the water.


 

- Chris Staudinger

 

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