Thanksgiving is a time to travel home and spend time with your family, as a family. It’s a holiday of relaxation, food and watching a good parade/football game on TV. My Thanksgiving holiday has always resembled the stereotypical family gathering. This year, because I live in a post-Katrina New Orleans, Thanksgiving lacked the comfort and leisure seen in years past.
Driving home from the New Orleans (once) International Airport, my Dad was eager to point out destruction. Already things were different considering my father, typically at work all day, was at home and could pick me up. At first glance the city looked the same, just as much traffic as when I left. Upon further inspection, I noticed every billboard missed a few boards, every sign missed a few letters, every other store was boarded up, and at every curb lay a giant mound of trash.
The streets were lined with two-by-three foot signs stuck into the ground, reminiscent of campaign signage. Construction, demolition, mold removal, sheetrock removal, tree removal, photo repairs, painting and every other job now needed more than ever was advertised on these signs. No corner existed without 15 to 20 advertisements. Closer to home, I noticed more places boarded up that I had a connection with: my favorite coffee shop boarded up, our CVS destroyed and filling prescriptions out of a trailer, and my old K-12 school under heavy construction.
Arriving at my own street corner, which was covered with a dozen or more advertisements, I first noticed the mounds of trash outside everyone’s home. It wasn’t trash in the sense of normal trash, such as food items, paper, etc. This trash was couches, cabinets, photo albums, refrigerators, sheetrock and anything else a couple of feet of water can touch in a house. My house did not look so bad from the outside; however, a large trailer overtook our driveway, as did the sewage pipe leading from it to a hole in our yard.
Reality sunk in: my upper-middle-class family no longer lives in a two-story house with a pool in the back; we live in a trailer meant for four. In post-Katrina New Orleans, I am trailer trash, and that means I’m one of the lucky ones.
I was put to work immediately. My break would be spent cleaning and working on the house in the morning, spending time with the family in the afternoon and going out with my friends at night. Thanksgiving morning, as families around the country gathered to watch the Macy’s Parade, I was outside chopping down a tree that the wind had uprooted and blown over into our yard, causing destruction along its path. I would have used the chainsaw, but all power tools were kept on the bottom shelf in the garage, where the water sat for weeks.
After a quick shower we walked down to our neighbors for a Thanksgiving meal. Her house had flooded as well. No worries, it seemed that everyone in our area had the same interior decorator. Concrete floors (because all floors had to be replaced) and no sheetrock four feet up. Everything was packed up, except for a table and some chairs, enough for a Thanksgiving meal. It was only fitting that everyone followed us back to our FEMA trailer for a home tour, or better put, a trailer tour.
I drove around one afternoon to the area where the levee breach occurred. The houses you saw on TV with people waiting on the roofs waiting to be rescued are still there. The water has subsided. Thousands and thousands of homes in that area are just destroyed. Cars are strewn in trees and on roofs. Walls have collapsed and entire houses floated yards away. Trees were uprooted and thrown around.
The most devastating homes are those whose search-and-rescue marks reveal the unfortunate death caused by Katrina. In bright orange spray paint for the world to see are marking of the many “dead on arrivals” and which rooms they were found in. A thick brown moldy coating covers anything the water touched. In this area, it’s anything up to 12 feet high.
These areas of New Orleans are deserted war zones. Doors left wide open. Army Hummers full of personnel and M-16s roam these areas of the city. Each destroyed home I drove by was a story, a family, a homeless child now located hundreds of miles from home, a grandparent stranded as the water level rose, or a childhood friend of mine whose home I had spent nights studying or at sleepovers. These areas are not under construction; rather, they are left to rot. The city just isn’t the same.
With Tulane and other university students scattered around the country and a strictly enforced 2 a.m. curfew, the nightlife here is far from familiar. The standard greeting is now “How much y’all get?” (in terms of damage) followed by a pat on the back and a subject change to anything and everything non-Katrina. I’ve never been around in a New Orleans bar for last call, but due to the curfew, I hear them every night at 1:30 a.m. As I drove home each night, I spotted the Army Hummers crawling through the city, ready to arrest anyone out past curfew.
My last distinct post-Katrina experience connects back to everyone at GW and around the country who donated to the Red Cross. As disillusioned as we often are with our government, I’ve never been more proud of the money GW student organizations raised as when I visited the Red Cross Disaster Relief Center closest to my house. Every day, even on Thanksgiving, food is served and boxes of supplies are handed out, including drinks, cleaning supplies, school supplies, clothes, toiletries and anything donated to the Red Cross. I stood in line with everyone else. No one asked how much damage I received. Everyone received the much-needed supplies because everyone here needs help.
Even among the tears and the hard times shared by all in this city, I still have much to be thankful for.
-The writer is a freshman majoring in international affairs.