Here we are... 5 years after Hurricane Katrina, an event which remains a sad and tragic scar on the body of our country. Nature is nature, so there was no way to stop the hurricane, but what ensued... Well, it would have been a bear to manage (note recent gulf oil disaster), but my personal opinion is that some of the worst came forth via this moment in history.
My view of what happened during the days of the storm is shaped by where I was while it happened. As some of you know, I was out of the country at the time and I watched it from afar, often in tears and feeling like I could not process what I was seeing.
On Wednesday August 24, I boarded an American airlines flight at JFK airport and headed to Miami where I was to connect with my flight to Lima, Peru. It was my dream of a lifetime trip to Peru and Bolivia. We arrived in Miami on time but our Lima flight was delayed by a few hours as rain began to fall. The one thing I remember about the wait was that I kept seeing rats in the waiting area for the gate.
Finally we boarded and left as the rain continued to pelt the plane and the wind blew hard - the rain and wind that was the leading edge of Hurricane Katrina.
Once we took off I fell into a restless sleep as the overnight flight carried me south and west to my destination. I awoke tired and cranky as we landed on Thursday the 25th. I do not recall having any thought or idea of what Katrina was and how it might impact us all; in fact, I had forgotten it all and was glad to finally be in South America for the first time.
While I am sure that I watched CNN International from my various hotel rooms from Thursday through Sunday, I have no recollection of hearing about the storm. Honestly, selfishly, I was on a journey that I had dreamed of from the time I was 8 years old... that is what I remember mostly.
Lima left me cold - I wished that I had skipped it altogether. I was there on Thursday alone and I left for Cuzco on an early morning flight on Friday. My time in Cuzco was magical and surpassed my expectations... which were significant. Again, I know I watched CNN but I recall nothing of the hurricane news.
On Sunday I left Cuzco and headed to the Valle Sagrado, which was sacred and like heaven to me. On Monday, I boarded the luxury train to Machu Piccuh (hah and now I am in a very different economic category!) and the heart of the real dream that called out to me from childhood.
It was an extraordinary day and fodder for a different blog post. What I do remember - vividly - is that I got into my hotel room after a hardcore day of hiking around the ruins and turned on the television.
Oh. My. God.
What I recall vividly was hearing the voice over of Jeanne Meserve as she described the horrific scenes that showed the result of the levees being breached. I dropped back onto my bed, in this super luxury hotel and watched in horror and with a sense of complete dissonance. Meserve's voice kept cracking - she could not keep it together and that truly struck me.
I had dinner with some people I had met and while I wanted to talk about what I saw, I got the impression that they did not. Upon returning to my room I stayed up way too late, watching, struggling to comprehend and crying a lot.
It was such a bizarre experience to be in a place that many people would consider "third world" and to see what I was seeing happen in the US. New Orleans is a place that I had been to many times and I could not imagine that what I was seeing was real... although it clearly was all too real.
What did this say about the U.S. as a society and culture? My mind and heart were reeling.
With too little sleep I awoke early on Tuesday and headed back to the ruins. What happened to me that day is a story unto itself, not meant for this post. Images of what I had seen on television haunted me however and will always be a backdrop to my dream journey.
Tuesday night had me returning to Cuzco just long enough to sleep. I awoke very early again and so tired from my physical exertion in the high altitude and from too much television late at night and early in the morning. Today I was off to a 10 hour train journey to the shores of Lake Titicaca and I looked forward to the rest and peace of such a trip.
A driver picked me up but we had to pick up another traveler at another hotel and he was running late. My anxiety had me cursing him but he finally got in the van and we started to chat. He was an African-American man in his 30's who had chucked his career in finance in San Francisco for months of South American travel. Unlike me, he was wisely traveling in moderate style.
As we drove to the railway/bus station, we made small talk and I said something about Katrina and how horrible for the dead and missing of New Orleans.
His face went ashy and he looked shaken. As it happened, he grew up there and his mom and grandmother still lived there; he had no access to TV and he had no idea. His fear and anxiety grew as we drove along and the van became silent. I was so sorry that I was the one to tell him and to do so in the way that I had. We arrived at the station and he took off towards the bus area, hoping to make some calls to reach his NO family. I have always wondered what happened.
The rest of the trip contains blurred images of seeing the places of my dreams colliding with the scenes of horror and despair that I would see on TV. It continued to remain surreal and sad that I was watching this unfold from so far away and I could not comprehend the enormity of suffering and tragedy along the Gulf coast.
We all know the rest of the story. It was awful and not much has changed. The people of the gulf deserved better then and they deserve better now.
80% of New Orleans was under water. 1800 people died. Every life in that city and in that region was changed. 18,000 people lived in the 9th Ward; now 1800. Wow.
What has this taught us?
I guess this post does not have a point other than to talk about my own recollection of this event, the strange backdrop and the enduring heartache.
That enduring heartache is however combined with enduring hope. It is never to late to begin.