Archive for August, 2012

Years ago, I saw the movie “Groundhog Day,” which featured Bill Murray as a broadcaster who had reported on Punxatawney Phil on Groundhog Day, and then found that he kept reliving the same day, over and over again.  As I continue my path home from the Gulf Coast, wracked with worry over my daughter (who I believe will be OK on the campus of Tulane University) and more to the point, over my friends in Plaquemines Parish — which appears to be sustaining worse damage than during Hurricane Katrina — I keep thinking about that movie.

I write seven years to the day after Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast.  I can tell you (in case you had any doubt) that there are many parts of the greater New Orleans area that have not recovered from that storm, and that will never recover.  The city and the area are wonderful, but it is not the same place it once was.  The people that stayed, and those that have come since those days, have a grittiness and sense of perseverance that is sobering to observe.

For those who stuck around – because this is where their home is, and their heart and their culture – the challenge has come round again.  I was in Plaquemines Parish with my friends last Friday.  I saw all that they had done to recover from Katrina, heard about the plans they had, visited their churches, reveled in their spirit and their vision for reclaiming a life and a future on the Gulf Coast.  Today, I haven’t been able to reach them because Hurricane Isaac rages on and will not move:  more than a foot of water has fallen in the area, the power is out, the levees in Plaquemines Parish have been overtopped, and everything that these folks – along with countless volunteers and hundreds of thousands of dollars – struggled for has been thrown into a cocked hat.

So it’s a little like Groundhog Day.  Do we keep working at it till we ‘get it right’ or till the levees are so high that they can not be breached, even by a twelve foot storm surge?  Do we politely suggest that the people who have lived on this land for generations just give it up and go somewhere else?  Do we build an ark (which was one of the solutions suggested in the film, “Beasts of the Southern Wild”)?

I refuse to believe that the people who will now have to rebuild again, following Isaac, should be expected to give up their homes.  Our friend, Rev. Tyronne Edwards, embraces the name of the Zion Travelers for his church.  Their slogan, in the days after Katrina, was “Let us arise and rebuild.”  So it was, and so it will be, again.  As fellow citizens and compassionate friends, we must respond to the struggle to reclaim the land our sisters and brothers love, and have lived on, for generations.  So, as the damage reports come in and the flood waters subside, we will likely be asked, once again, to answer the call for assistance, and to help our friends arise and rebuild.  We have done this before, and we will do it again, in a partnership informed by faith, a deep belief in justice, and the need that people carry, deep inside them, to be able to just go home.

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After months of feeling verklempt beyond words, we packed up our Prius and, nine days ago, began the long drive from Massachusetts to Louisiana.  This was wonderful and scary; sickening and invigorating.  Abby was finally starting at Tulane University, and after all the months of celebrating a series of lasts, we were about to start what will be a series of firsts.

We had a relatively stress-free trip down, stopping in Chambersburg, PA (home of Ben’s maternal grandmother), visiting friends in Rutledge TN on a beautiful lake – complete with an early morning fishing trip, a stop in Birmingham, AL where we took the civil rights walk in the downtown area and visited the 16th Street Baptist Church.  Finally, we rolled into the Big Easy on a Thursday afternoon, and had a delightful dinner with my sister-in-law’s niece, who is completing her graduate studies at Tulane.

The next day was errand day – but it also opened a window into what life in New Orleans is like.  For one thing, it rained like crazy for much of the afternoon.  This is not surprising, given the heat and humidity that build up in the summer in this part of the country…but I was not expecting Ben’s phone call after he went to get the car from its parking spot on St. Charles Avenue:  “The good news is: the car started.  The bad news is:  it’s flooded.”  Sure enough, the moisture that has no place to go, with the water level so high, had caused water to back up to about ten inches in the streets.  As Abby and I bailed the car, we realized that, as Dorothy said, we weren’t in Kansas anymore.

More than the flood, we were watching the weather, as tropical storm Isaac churned its way through the Atlantic.  That night we drove out to Plaquemines Parish to have dinner with our friends, Tyronne and Gail Edwards, and listened to Tyronne reassure folks about the storm.  We hoped he was right — that the levees wouldn’t be overtopped, that the new buildings that had been erected since Katrina would hold strong and secure.  We made sure that Abby had her emergency contact information in place, and hoped she wouldn’t have to use it.

Move in day came and went, and on Sunday, before Ben and I left town on Sunday morning, we took Abby out for brunch, tried to resist giving too much parental advice, and enjoyed our last few hours together.  We made a stop at the Buttermilk Drop Bakery and Cafe in the 7th Ward, which is owned by one of the stars of “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” and enjoyed the guilty pleasure of those absolutely delicious buttermilk doughnuts.  We talked about the influence of art and culture in New Orleans, about how important the Treme district is to the city’s identity…  and then, with tears all around, it was over.  Abby walked off toward her dorm, waving goodbye to us once more, and Ben and I burst into tears and sobbed in the car as we watched her go.

The pain was intense, but we knew it was time, and so, sniffling, we slowly made our way out of the city toward the Gulf Coast of Mississippi.  I enjoyed narrating the tour as we drove through Pass Christian, Gulfport, and Biloxi…I had been there six years ago and was moved both by the rebuilding that had taken place, and the many empty lots that remain part of the landscape.  The beaches along the Gulf Coast are absolutely gorgeous, with white sand and beautiful water.  But we were also seeing people nailing plywood to their windows, and we knew that Tropical Storm Isaac was projected to have an impact on the Gulf Coast.

Abby, at our family’s overnight stop in Tennessee, as our family made our way to New Orleans (August, 2012)

This is different:  worrying about storms, storm surges, flooding, power outages is a part of life for people who live in this part of the country.  Will the levees hold?  Will the power stay on?  Will my house be there tomorrow?  All those questions are on the line.  This is stuff not everyone has to think about, but for us, it’s gotten personal:  our youngest child is now part of this landscape.  And tonight, she is locked down in her dorm, trying to sleep in the inside hallway of her building with thirty other young women next to her, with University Police nearby and emergency provisions in place.

Tomorrow, Ben and I will once again fight the urge in our guts to turn the car around and drive back to New Orleans.  Instead, we’ll continue our journey north, toward our home — just the two of us, this time.

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