A breeze cooled an otherwise ordinary New Orleans August night. My friends and I had been in the French Quarter late making new friends when we got the news that Katrina was on its way to the Gulf Coast. A couple of us put gas in our cars so they'd be ready when the call came.
The call came, and by half after ten in the morning on Saturday, August 27, 2005, our campus was under a mandatory evacuation. I grabbed my roommate's guitar off the floor by his bed, packed my things, and by early afternoon I was home safe in Mobile. My friends were scattered to the winds - some stayed put - one of my friends saw the birth of his first child, a son, that Saturday. Some I would never see again.
I openly hoped, as I had so frequently experienced, that Katrina would be just like every other hurricane I'd been through: lots of wind, lots of rain, a few limbs down, and short bouts without power. In my neighborhood it was. For my adopted home, and for my hometown in Mississippi, it was not.
It would take nearly five months for me to return to New Orleans. Nine months after leaving for what I expected was to be just a couple days, I moved into my new apartment on campus, where I would stay for another two years. When I finally left New Orleans, my life was different.
My understanding of politics... of violence... of human nature was forever altered.
I knew a different reality than the one I knew when I first unpacked my things August 15, 2004.
Great beauty and horrific destruction are not mutually exclusive. Often they're found in a duality, spiraling around each other, locked in an unending dance.
The scenes we all witnessed on TV were real. My first week back, the national guard rolled in to keep the peace. I can still play the mental video of a convoy of national guard humvees painted in desert camouflage driving down Canal Street one night.
Violence in New Orleans was widespread. I could lay blame: a seemingly corrupt police force. Corrupt and inept politicians. A degenerate people. All of these things deserve credit. Residents protested. Nothing changed. One thousand eight hundred thirty three lives were taken by Hurricane Katrina. An unfathomable spirit of violence and greed sought to claim a thousand more in the months and years afterward.
And still, perseverance.
Voluntourism became a thing. Humanitarians descended upon New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. Hundreds of students found their way to lend a hand. And while some mocked the homogenous and uniformed church groups who came throughout that first summer after the storm, what we witnessed was the deep compassion of The Church. Scattered to the corners of the country, our seminary people came back, this time with reinforcements.
On campus at the University of New Orleans - set up in UNO Lakefront Arena's parking lot- the first FEMA farm I saw was a graveyard for empty trailers. At first it was sporadic, but homes were rebuilt. Some here. Some there. Trailers were relocated to the front yards of many homes while families renovated. Church group after church group came, as often as possible- Fall Breaks, Christmas Breaks, Spring Breaks, Summer Vacations- to tear out the old and help install the new.
A neighborhood here. A neighborhood there. New friends were made- friends we likely would have never met without the storm. Communities came together. Pain and misunderstanding gave way to healing and reconciliation. First with each other, and sometimes with God.
I left in 2008. In the years since I left, I've seen progress both in New Orleans and along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Ten years after the storm, there's much more to be done. Great work started long before my friends and I arrived in New Orleans, and that work will continue long after we've all left.
Nature tore everything down, and for a long while it seemed an inhuman spirit of violence might finish the job. Darkness sought to extinguish the light. Although this all began for me on a dark August night, it didn't end there. The light remains.