After Hurricane Katrina, Years of Post-Traumatic Stress

The storm ravaged houses and killed thousands, but much of its damage was invisible to the eye

flood.jpg

Reuters

In 2003, I relocated to New Orleans from California, and two years later, I was living in a neighborhood called the Bywater on a street named for a saint who was flayed alive, six blocks west of the Industrial Canal that would flood the city's Lower 9th Ward. Two blocks from the Mississippi River, I rented half a shotgun -- an architectural style popular in New Orleans that gets its nickname from the fact that a person standing at the front door can fire a shotgun directly out the backdoor.

On August 26, 2005, Hurricane Katrina barreled into the Gulf of Mexico. By August 28, it had grown from a Category 3 hurricane to a Category 5 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale with maximum sustained winds within its eyewall clocking in at 175 m.p.h. On the morning of August 29, the cyclone -- now a Category 3 with sustained winds of 125 m.p.h. -- made landfall near Buras, Louisiana, a small community located at the bottom of the toe of Louisiana's boot-like shape.

From there, the storm swept across St. Bernard Parish, St. Tammany Parish, and east of New Orleans. Continuing north, it slipped over the Louisiana-Mississippi border, and on August 30, it weakened to a tropical depression over the Tennessee Valley. The resultant storm surge produced massive destruction across multiple states, and New Orleans' levees were breached catastrophically, flooding an estimated 80-percent of the Crescent City. The hurricane left 1,836 dead and hundreds missing.

The day before Katrina made landfall, I fled the city, ending up in Lafayette, Louisiana, with a dozen other evacuees. Together, we looked on in paralyzed horror as the city flooded on the TV screen. The Louisiana Superdome became a refugee camp, New Orleans residents waited on rooftops bearing signs asking to be saved, and the dead lay uncollected in the streets. The storm's damage tally would exceed an estimated $80 billion. When it became clear none of us would be going home anytime soon, we left one by one, heading to points across the country.

When I did return to New Orleans, the city was ravaged, its great oak trees broken, its buildings crumbling, a refrigerator stranded on a dark sidewalk like a ghost. My neighborhood was deserted. A sign on the front of the house where I had lived indicated the roof shingles, which had come off during the storm, contained asbestos. I was in the 20 percent of the city that hadn't flooded, but portions of the roof had come off during the storm. 

Inside, the rain had spawned black, green, and yellow mold that crawled the walls. I could see the sky from the living room through the exposed wooden slats of the structure's bones. The ceiling was in the bed. In the backyard, a towering pecan tree that had stood for probably 100 years had been uprooted from the ground and tossed aside like a toothpick by a bored giant.

I took the boxes and my papers from the mostly undisturbed kitchen. From the rest of the house, I picked and chose from the things that didn't appear to have mold or asbestos on them. The following day, I drove out of the city. There was a boat in the middle of the street. The houses gaped, slack-jawed and empty-faced. I drove across the eastbound span of the Twin Span Bridge over Lake Pontchartrain, and parts of the westbound span of the bridge were simply gone. I drove an hour through a destroyed forest, and when I looked up in the sky, I tried to imagine a thing so big that it could destroy so much. 

*            *            *

Six months later, the shock had worn off, and I was numb, dead, like a plug disconnected from a socket. Somewhere along the way, my brain's neural circuitry had been overloaded. A fuse had blown, but I could not find the fuse box. I grew increasingly unable to think well, then to think at all. Broke, I took a job as a waitress, and life became something I witnessed through the wrong end of a kaleidoscope. I was disconnected, enraged, anxious. At night, I would fall asleep, then jerk awake moments later, my arms flailing as if warding off an oncoming attack.

In my dreams, the city was always flooding, even though I had missed the flood. I withdrew from the world. Sometimes I wondered if I was dead, suspended in a kind of posthumous existence in which everything appeared to be real but was a hallucination. It was hard to discern the root cause: Hurricane Katrina, the nervous breakdown I'd had in early 2005, the reporting I did as a journalist in the years prior covering the adult movie industry. Or, perhaps it was some inherent, unseen weakness in a malfunctioning brain that I could not see but that controlled me.

Over time, I would get better, but it would take several years, and, even then, there would be relapses. On October 13, 2009, four years after the storm made landfall, frustrated by a work-related problem, I walked from the living room of my apartment and into the kitchen. I stopped in front of a cabinet, rocked back on my heels, and slammed my head into the cupboard in front me as hard as I could. Immediately thereafter, I smashed my hand into the neighboring cupboard. In the wake of what had happened, I stood there, reeling.

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