Monthly Archives: August 2014

9 Years Out: Hurricane Katrina

It was 9 years ago today that Hurricane Katrina made landfall, going on to kill at least 1833 people in Gulf South and cause $108 billion in damage.  She proved to be one of the deadliest natural disasters in American history and changed New Orleans forever.

You cannot be a person invested in New Orleans and not pause on this day, on this stretch of days, and think back to that August 2005.  I am not a New Orleans native; I was outside the city that summer, ensconced in my parents’ house in Maryland, safely watching horror unfold on the television, sitting numbly next to my father, a sailor who knew New Orleans well, unable to look away.  I was lucky, phenomenally lucky.  I didn’t realise that day what the storm would mean to me years later.  I just remember listening to my father argue with Brian Williams, I remember bristling when people suggested that New Orleans should be abandoned, that it was too expensive to rebuild, too expensive to protect, why did we need a city in a flood plain, anyway?  (Newsflash: nearly every major port city in the US is in a flood plain, and 60% of the cargo leaving or entering the US goes through the New Orleans-Baton Rouge ports.  That’s why we need it.  Ignoring history, ignoring people, focusing solely on dollars, that’s why we need New Orleans and her flood plain.)

As a rule, I avoid disaster tourism.  I think it shows the worst of human nature: our vulture-like tendency to stare at others’ personal horrors and feel relief that it is not us, all the while consuming their sorrow and loss and reducing it to a curiosity instead of a call to moral action.  The HBO show Treme caught the tone of it rightly: As a group of Mardi Gras Indians gather in the rubble of the devastated Lower Ninth Ward to mourn one of their own, who perished in the storm.  And in the middle of a spiritual, rousing moment as they sing Mardi Gras Indian songs in celebration and lament, a tour bus full of Wisconsin tourists pulls up, snapping pictures in clueless, viscerally awful fascination.  The objectification and voyeurism cannot be made more clear.

And yet, two things come out of this: one, New Orleans is a city that runs on tourism and knows it, commodifying her food, heritage, history, and oddities in order to bring those tourists in; two, Katrina looms so large on the landscape that people who know nothing else about New Orleans save jazz, Bourbon Street, and Cajun food not only know about it but want to see what it meant.

When I first went down to New Orleans as an adult, it was December 2008, three years AK — after Katrina.  I was working on the research for my first MA, a decision prompted in many ways by the storm.  I knew my health didn’t permit me to do rescue work or rebuilding, and my financial situation didn’t leave me much room for charity.  But I knew I could do a thing that was critical: preserving the history and culture of New Orleans, documenting it, and sharing it through my academic work as a topic worthy of serious study and engagement.  So I set to work on my first love, the cemeteries of New Orleans.  Yet whenever I mentioned my topic, everyone asked, “What about Katrina?”

So I got in touch with a contact, trying to avoid the Disaster Tourism angle, and asked if they knew some places out on Lake Ponchartrain where the levees had broke.  And I tried not to feel like scum as I snapped pictures, trying to communicate something incommunicable to my audience back up on the East Coast: that the X of the search and rescue teams was a symbol, a monument, a marker of trauma so intense as to be nearly ineffable, an inbreaking of the sacred rendered mundane in spray paint.  It was, in its way, the crucifix of the storm, marking sites of loss, death, martyrdom, and destruction so senseless, so needless that it has taken on proportions unimagined.

A search and rescue mark left on an abandoned house on the shores of Lake Ponchartrain.  Taken December 2008 by author.

A search and rescue mark left on an abandoned house on the shores of Lake Ponchartrain. Taken December 2008 by author.

I don’t flatter myself by imagining my experiences in AK New Orleans are important.  But for me, the storm marks a moment where I made the conscious choice to do academic work that had real world value and meaning.  It marks the moment where academics had to be more than just feasible and fundable.  It made me look at what I was doing and ask, how can I do more than just follow my own bliss?  How can I reflect my values into the world and have a moral response to unimaginable tragedy?  It marked the beginning of my nearly decade-long love affair with a city that’s easy to love and difficult to know.  Katrina changed me, at a distance.  Perhaps that’s what disaster and loss and suffering should do.  It should change us, make us consider how to make our actions reflect the world that needs to be, rather than the world around us.

Nine years out, it’s easy to think this way, especially sitting comfortably in a climate-controlled student union in DC, far and away from the realities of recovery.  It’s easy to trot out data and numbers (78% of the population returned, poverty level of nearly 25%, childhood poverty rate of 41%, increased disparity between rich and poor, lack of affordable housing in the city, etc).  It’s easy to think of this as a continuum of disaster, disease, and death that has plagued New Orleans from her founding to today.  It’s easy to ignore Katrina and her legacy up here.  It’s easy to let it go.  But I can’t.  And as a society, as a country, we cannot. August 29th demands that we stop and think and remember all the human failure that created such unimaginable human loss, and remember how easy it is to let it happen again.  All it takes is apathy.

Remember that all of this happened nine years ago, in the United States of America, the wealthiest country in the history of the world.  Remember that we, as a country, watched this happen to our own people.  Remember that this happened, that these 1800+ lives were lost.  And remember that this, too, is New Orleans.

New Academic Year, A Fresh (Re)Start

I’ve been ignoring this blog, shamefully.  A lot has happened in my life, and the idea of trying to condense it into something to share with the world felt overwhelming.  There’s too much to explain, to paraphrase the Princess Bride, so let me sum up: in the past 18 months, I got engaged, wrote and presented my second MA thesis on bodily piety in medieval fasting mystics and ballet dancers (which goes together better than one might think), watched my fiancé graduate with his MA in medieval studies, returned to ballet classes and had to leave them thanks to a dislocated hip, moved up one state, and as of tomorrow, I’m returning to my PhD Institution in Washington, DC to finish my dissertation on funerary culture in New Orleans.  Whew!  Does it sound like a lot?  Because it felt like a lot, let me tell you!

Coming back to PhD work after doing the distance/research-style degree for my MA is a major shift.  Not only is the level of work higher — and I’m going to need to acquire 2 additional research languages over this academic year — but I have to adjust to being in a different town, making the commute from Maryland into DC twice a week, and keeping up on an academic schedule that doesn’t have a lot of flexibility in it.  Did I also mention that we have a wedding planned for Nov 1?  (We picked the date before we knew I was going back to classwork!)  So I’m struggling in a way unfamiliar to me.  I’m trying to get in the rhythm of classes again, and reading on tight, weekly deadlines.  I’m trying to help support my fiancé as he transitions for the first time in his life from “student” to “working adult,” which is no easy thing with disability added to the equation.  I’m handling ageing parents as an only child, which is a new and scary thing.  And I’m trying to figure out what’s going on with my own health.  One advantage of returning to PhD land is that I’ll have health insurance again for the first time in two years, which means I’ll be able to figure out why my joints dislocate so often.  (You’ve never had an experience like learning exactly which ways to move and twist to pop your shoulder or hip or wrist or ankle or big toe back into joint, nor the crack of pain-relief-horror that comes with it.) 

PhD classes, especially at my institution, seem to run on the assumption that you have an able-bodied spouse at home to make you meals, tend to the household chores, and bring in enough income to support the hidden costs of doctoral training — books, professional association memberships and journals, travel to conferences, travel to archives, professional attire, etc.  And perhaps 40 years ago, when the school was almost all Catholic and the graduate cohorts were almost all men, this might’ve been true.  It’s less true now, and it makes doctoral training all the harder on people like myself who are balancing housework and a disabled partner with the work and extra hours.  I can’t imagine what it’s like for people with children — doubly so for women with children, considering how much of the second shift of housework and childcare seem to always fall to women, no matter how well-intentioned their partners. 

I think, deep down, this is the stuff that makes the academy the ivory tower — the ticket inside the doors as a professional is steep, the likelihood of getting a tenure-track job low, and the intangible costs of putting off starting your career for perhaps as long as a decade, losing out on all that pay and networking and chance to save for retirement, living on shoestrings, compromising on family life, etc.  It’s hard enough for me, but the glass ceiling inside the ivory tower is still present, and it’s even thicker for women who are not white, not straight, not Christian, not part of the dominant class.  It worries me, frequently.  But at the same time, I keep making the choice to do this, over and over again.  That might be the definition of insanity.  I like to think it speaks to my tenacity and my belief in my work. 

So expect more here this semester as I wade through required theology classes, learning Spanish and German to supplement my Latin and French, trying to get my health sorted out, prepare for comprehensive exams, and make ends meet.  And get married!  It’s going to be one heck of a semester.

What’re your big hurdles this semester?  What are you anticipating?  What are you dreading?