I remember how the city was. It's hard to know the before and after of a thing when you never knew it before. My grandparents know the world as it was during World War II, and today, they know a very different world than it was before. My neighborhood is marked with posts for tying up horses and large cement steps for climbing into carriages, rendered useless by time and technology. I spent some time in Kolkata with Missionaries of Charity after Mother Teresa's death, and although her spirit and her grace are all over the city, I can never know the place as it was in her lifetime.
The people of New Orleans are always talking about the city and their lives before and after the storm. It's hard to have a conversation with someone down there without mention of Katrina. I had never been there until a week ago, nearly eight years after the storm. But the people there, they remember how the city was, where the city was. And after? They're living in the after.
I got to spend a few short days in The Big Easy, traveling for work. I stayed with one of our organization's ministry partners, in one of the more under-resourced neighborhoods of NOLA. As we drove through the St. Roch neighborhood, I was struck by how much had been left, abandoned, yet to be repaired after the storm. My friend and host said in 2010, five years after the storm, only 60% of the people who evacuated the city had returned. I asked her about the big "X" spray painted on many of the houses. She said, they are what's left from the evacuation. They went through each house and when it was all clear, no people left inside, they marked the front of the house with an "X" and the date. Nearly eight years later, those markings are still there.
We visited the lower 9th ward, where the most devastating destruction and loss of life took place. At first, it just looked like a sparsely populated neighborhood. Then I realized that the holes in the neighborhood were what remained after all the homes had been washed away. All that's left are the cement foundations, the occasional front stoop or random set of steps. There are new houses too, thanks to Brad Pitt's efforts with Make it Right 9. They've re-built affordable, sustainable homes - making something right, where before, something went terribly, terribly wrong.
People kept asking me if I liked New Orleans. "You either love it or you hate it," they'd say. It is a city unlike any I've ever been to. I kept thinking I had somehow passed into a different country - the landscape, the architecture, the food, music, and people. Hearing Creole or any other language seemed completely natural because the rest of it seemed so foreign. It's been a while since I've been at or below sea level. The houses are built up. Basements don't exist. Even the dead must be buried above-ground.
We visited St. Roch's Cemetery - the saint recognized for healing from the plague, or in this case, from disease and illness. In the cemetery's small chapel, people had left prosthetic limbs, casts, and braces as offerings to St. Roch - in appeal or in gratitude. An almost eerie menagerie of broken bits and pieces - a bird wing, the remnants of a butterfly, crumpled bits of paper scrawled in prayerful petition.