It could have been yesterday; it was the summer of 2001 and a bright eyed, bushy tailed seventeen-year-old girl left her small town in Connecticut for the big city. That seventeen-year-old girl was me and that “big city” was New Orleans aka THE BIG EASY. It was the kind of place that lured every type of person, from the tame to the ever so eclectic. There I was, inspired by the culture and excitement of Mardi Gras seen on the Real World New Orleans, attending the University of New Orleans, a melting pot of teenagers and twenty-somethings.
At four pm, it was pure culture: painters, psychics, church; by six pm, it was pure insanity with three for one drinks and bloodied messes being hurled out of clubs after one too many “three for ones”. Sex was not something to be ashamed of but rather flaunted and drag queens lined the streets of Bourbon, probably trying to make a quick buck but really for my amusement. I had never loved a place more. Meeting people from different countries, races, backgrounds, yet we all had one commonality: a love for life and a love for the city.
I got to experience beads and cups thrown at me, MTV’s first venture to Mardi Gras, the 2002 Super Bowl excitement and everything in between that kept my eyes widened every day and every night. I returned home in 2003 to attend a small, private, Jesuit University which was a far cry from UNO. I had forgotten that there were still small minded, proper people in the world who got off on drunk lacrosse games and not on beads and mimes and, oh that thing called diversity. I thrived off of it and I would return to NOLA to visit friends and kept a special place for it in my heart. That was my second home, my city and I dared anyone to take that away from me, even Mother Nature, but she somehow managed to take my city away.
In late August 2005, I remember celebrating a huge 22nd birthday with my friends in CT. The following morning, looking to catch up on the sleep I lost celebrating, my mother came into my room and told me that I needed to wake up and call my friends in NOLA. She said a massive hurricane was about to hit and this time, it was no joke. In my year and a half there, I had escaped one hurricane with friends, which turned out to be extremely minor. The second hurricane I experienced there, we didn’t even flinch or leave; instead we had a Hurricane Party because we were so immune to the hurricane warnings. The newscasters made every storm seem so devastating with photo images of what Bourbon Street would look like under water; after all, New Orleans was built below sea level so anything could happen. But it felt like nothing ever did…until Katrina. I immediately attempted to get into contact with my closest friends to make sure that they had found safety and that they were okay, but I still worried. My best friend of all, New Orleans was in harm’s way and there wasn’t anything that I could do to stop it. I watched along with the rest of the country as Katrina destroyed the city. The levees we would walk upon had overtaken the city with their water and now NOLA was drowning. It seemed that no surrounding city/state was immune from the disaster and when I say disaster, I mean DISASTER.
Nearly two thousand people lost their lives in this storm; the worst was the houses that were shown on the news with numbers on them, showing the casualties that were found in the house. Eighty-one billion dollars worth of property damage and billions of hearts broken. I had lived through Hurricane Andrew in Florida as a child, but this was something I couldn’t even fathom. Natives were terrified that they had lost it all and I recall a phone conversation with a close friend who lived in nearby Slidell who hadn’t heard from some friends in days and her world was shattered. My college roommate returned to her home in South Carolina to take online classes then when she returned to school at UNO, she went between a hotel and a FEMA trailer. She told me that when she went to her campus apartment to see the damage, she had to wear a face mask along with everyone else who went to claim what was left. She ended up vomiting over the balcony because she was so sickened by the smells, the sights, and losing absolutely everything that meant anything to her. There was a lot of rebellion at this time because natives felt cheated and abused and as if they weren’t being taken care of and I concur. The slogan for Katrina soon came from rapper Kanye West with “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” I don’t know if I can say that’s true because I felt like George Bush didn’t care about anyone during this epic storm.
Five years have now passed and the Real World has once again returned to New Orleans. Celebrities such as Sandra Bullock, Sean Penn and Brad Pitt have given their all for relief efforts. But that’s all Hollywood; yes NOLA is being rebuilt but what is it really like now as opposed to pre-Katrina. For that answer, I went to longtime UNO friend, Allison Hotard, who candidly opened up about her experience. “Maybe some people would see me moving back to New Orleans as participating in the rebuilding, but to me, this is home and there is nowhere else on Earth I would be.” I believe that the more people who return to NOLA, the more rebuilding that is happening whether they see it or not because those like Allison are bringing back the life and the spirit to a once lost city. And she says that she feels that city is getting even better everyday, better than before. “Our streets are becoming safer, our schools are better, and the support the city has received is tremendous.”
According to a friend of Allison’s, gun shots are no longer heard on her side of town since the storm came and the rebuilding started. Everything feels safer; a feeling of tranquility is now covering the city and that, as a former resident, is amazing to hear. The school systems are even getting better, according to Allison: “I think the reshaping of the public school systems will have a fantastic effect on the youth in this city. They are striving to learn and they want to do better. Parents are getting more involved by telling the boards of the different schools what they want for their children. Young professionals are in the classrooms and on the boards setting positive examples. Due to the involvement of different types of young professional, the children now have more positive influences to look up to.”
Allison also accredits the efforts of countless volunteers who have selflessly given of their time to help bring back New Orleans and other parishes back to where they belong. Tourists are also responsible for helping the economy and showing others that New Orleans is an amazing place to travel and that no love has been lost because Southerners are tough people and they will lay down and play dead for no one. Allison does feel that there is more that could have been done to help build NOLA: “As far as what I think could have done better, there are a thousand things. However, looking back would only hinder our forward progressions.” I could not agree with her more. Yesterday is gone and we can never get it back; what we can do is focus on what we can do to help New Orleans continue to succeed as an amazing and beyond incredible city. Send a few dollars, if you can or simply light a candle for those who did not make it and for those still suffering.
I am not ignoring the other cities and states that were affected, but Louisiana had the most casualties and in the end, what matters is the fact that we have watched a huge city totally turn its self around. These people are positive examples of survival skills and how we can all be more appreciative and better human beings in general. Spike Lee has made amazing documentary which chronicles New Orleans from the Hurricane up to the fifth anniversary. We cannot forget that this could happen anywhere, but New Orleans has survival skills.
I feel so grateful that I got to call New Orleans home and that I have someone so amazing as Allison to reach out and talk about something that still probably stings until this day. I personally want to thank each and every one of the volunteers who helped rebuild and make this city better than before, including the natives who never gave up. I also want to take a moment to remember all those who lost their lives in this storm and those that are still missing. You are in my heart each and every day. And of course, the Saints for bringing the Super Bowl home and showing that NOLA can’t be touched! So when you are planning a trip, celebrate five years of hard work, sweat and tears and go down to the Big Easy, where they have proved nothing big is truly easy.
Written by Amanda Nowitz