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Blog #24 - Coming to terms with Katrina’s Ghosts and Memories

March 5, 2006

I walked down a deserted street in the lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans tonight. The moonlight cast eerie shadows on the shells of wrecked homes and piles of debris. When I stopped at an intersection to listen I could hear water running in one of the homes, and could swear that I heard children’s voices at play in a backyard swing set now overturned and ruined. There wasn’t a light showing anywhere. The whole area was as dead and quiet as a tomb, and I felt the same feeling of sorrow and loss that I do when in a graveyard. The wreckage is a horrible monument of human suffering, and the entire area is hallowed ground.

This section of New Orleans was one of the worst hit by Hurricane Katrina and by flood waters from a breached levee. Hundreds of people died here, drowned in the rising waters that trapped them in their attics and on their roofs. Despite several searches in the 6 months since Katrina, it is estimated that there may 200 bodies still buried in the wreckage. Five cadaver dogs have been working the ruins of the Ninth Ward for the last several days in a last attempt to find bodies and bring closure to the families of those still missing, but it is likely that many missing will never be found. This area will be the graveyard for these missing souls.

Revisiting the destruction

The destruction from Katrina is so wide-spread and so devastating that it is almost beyond the ability of a person to comprehend. Television’s small screen cannot convey a true picture that comes with being there and seeing with your own eyes and smelling with your own nose. When I first arrived for this assignment my photographer Tom took me on an orientation tour of the city, showing me where the Red Cross facilities were located and the areas hit by Katrina that I had last seen in September and October. I wanted to see how the rebuilding was coming.

Tears came to my eyes as we drove through the upper and lower Ninth Ward, St. Bernard, New Orleans East, Chalmette, North Shore, and other hard-hit areas. It was depressing. While there were valiant pockets of pioneers returning and rebuilding here and there, many areas were still destroyed and in the same condition as I had last seen them. The ghosts of Katrina were everywhere.

Hurricane Katrina Disaster Tourism

”I get so angry at the tour buses coming through here,” said John Mark Young, a Ninth Ward security guard from Charleston, South Carolina. “This is not a Hurricane Katrina theme park! These people stop, get out of their buses, and paw through the wreckage of people’s homes, taking home baby shoes and wedding pictures as some sort of macabre souvenir! People lived here. These were their homes! What right do people have to exploit this? It just isn’t right!”

No, it is not right and such insensitive behavior is inexcusable. However it seems to be an unfortunate part of our human nature that we have such a morbid fascination with places of destruction and carnage.

The future of the Ninth Ward and some of the other heavily damaged areas of New Orleans is still uncertain. Some of the wreckage is being razed, and perhaps the entire lower Ninth will also be cleared. Whether residents will be allowed to rebuild there has not been determined, nor if there will be any structural development at all allowed.

I’d like to see a monument erected to Hurricane Katrina’s victims in a corner of the Ninth Ward to memorialize those who died there.

Dealing with Katrina’s memories

The memories of Katrina have burned themselves forever in my mind. From talks with other volunteers I know that these scenes of destruction affect them as well. As my companions and I drive through the areas every day on our various assignments it is a constant reminder of why we are trying to help the people who have suffered so much from Hurricane Katrina recover.

None of the thousands of volunteers who have responded to Hurricane Katrina and gave their time, their labors and their love will ever be the same. This experience has truly been a life-altering experience for all of us, but we are not the heroes. It is not about us. It is all about the survivors of Katrina and their indomitable spirit to face their challenges and long road to recovery still ahead.

We will be able to return home at the end of our assignments to a roof over our heads, families, and our lives intact. However, thousands of victims of Hurricane Katrina have lost all that and face a long and difficult rebuilding as they return to what used to be their home. Their message of hope and determination reaffirm our faith in the resilience of the human spirit.

When we get back home if we can remember these positive things we have learned about the hurricane survivors we have met and the strength of their spirit, we will be able to move on with our lives to be better and more sensitive human beings ourselves. That is our challenge as Katrina volunteers and that is how we can best come to terms with the ghosts and memories of Katrina.