I was seven years old in September of 1965 when Hurricane Betsy, a Category 3 storm, passed directly over the house where I lived. I remember being very scared before the storm arrived, mostly because I could see my mom getting seriously worried. My four year old brother and I lived with my mom in the small two story house on 1301 Lowerline St. ever since she and my dad got divorced. My mom didn’t seem to like living by herself and was usually sort of nervous. The news of a major storm bearing down on New Orleans didn’t help.
In the midst of the chaos that preceded Betsy, a strange thing happened: my father stopped by and offered to ride out the storm with us. This was strange because, in the previous two years, I hadn’t seen my parents even
speak to each other, much less spend any time in the same room together. Frankly, I was more intrigued by this bizarre development than with the threat of a major storm. And, as the winds began to scream outside our house, I began to felt a
strange, reassuring calm as my parents talked easily –and even exhibited
compassion towards each other. In the middle of the storm the large pine tree next
to our house fell and made a horrible crashing sound as it hit our roof. Immediately followed by wind whipping though the house, lifting the curtains as though they were sails. My mother was visibly terrified. But, somehow, I
found myself inexplicably devoid of anxiety. My father never once demonstrated anything but pure calm.
Obviously, being caught in the middle of a strong hurricane can be an intensely frightening experience But, then, so are many other experiences in life.
Flash forward forty years.
I woke up on Sunday August 28th to news reports that Katrina had become a Category
5 hurricane. I knew about the
dire predictions for flooding and I knew that, even if they didn’t come
true, that sitting through a hurricane of that strength wouldn’t be
fun. I was worried that my two daughters, who had stayed with
me, would have to ride out that storm in New Orleans. I knew that, whatever I did, I’d have to remain calm.
So I went for my usual early morning jog in Audubon Park, a tree sanctuary located two blocks from my house. It was unusually peaceful. Birds were chirping and squirrels were going about their foraging as I made my way through the outer jogging path that cut through the stately oak trees. Not surprisingly, there were only two or three other people in the
park. Throughout my 30 minute run I reflected on how New Orleans would soon change if the storm
really hit the city dead on. I wondered how many trees would remain after the storm passed through. My thoughts passed from anxious concern into a state of blissful meditation. Still, even though I was calm I was also keenly aware of the gravity of the situation.
I had initially planned to ride
the storm out at my father’s condominium near Audubon Park since I was
fairly sure it could withstand any storm. I had told my daughters (ages sixteen and thirteen) the night before that if they
wanted to they could stay with me if I chose to ride out the storm. But, after looking at the latest news reports, I reconsidered the wisdom of that statement. I sat them down and told them that they probably
wouldn’t like being in a storm that strong, and described what the experience would be like, both during and after the storm. I presented the information evenly and told them that they could decide what they wanted to do. I told them that the only factor they should consider was their sense of security and that they shouldn’t feel bad about evacuating because that was probably the wisest choice. Then Ieft them alone for 10 minutes to ponder their options.
Bridget and Charlotte wisely decided to evacuate with their mother, who had my son Knute with her and was waiting at her house in Lakeview. I told them that I was proud of them for making a smart choice, and I could sense that they appreciated being given the option of making that important decision (I’m sure many people will criticize me for even letting them have that choice, but those people lack a lot of background information that I’m not getting into here). Anyway, after I dropped them
off and said goodbye, I headed back to make final
preparations at my house. After listening to more news reports and talking with some friends I decided that I would leave too. As I’ve described earlier, I didn’t make it out of town and had to return to my
dad’s condo, where I rode the storm out with a friend who had been staying at my dad’s condo and couldn’t get out of town because her flight had been cancelled. As the storm
approached we watched the TV and we both became anxious as the
commentators continued to implore people to get out of the city in any way
that they possibly could.
It was a nice suggestion, but it was too late. Nighttime had set in
and the rain was starting and so were the wind gusts. We rolled down
the storm shutters and sealed ourselves in. At 2 am on Monday morning
the power went out and we were left alone in the darkness (punctuated
by a few candles) with no sound other than banshee winds and the screams of screeching metal that being sheared off of the building.
to try to get some rest. I found a internal spot in my dad’s computer room
and I laid down and focused on staying calm. I had been meditating every
day for the past few months so I decided to just do that. I closed my eyes and started breathing
slowly with a steady rhythm. I did this for the next 12 hours. With each
long breath I was increasingly aware of two things: (1) even when I’m surrounded by people, I am completely alone on this
earth and solely responsible for my own happiness, and
(2) at any moment my life could suddenly end. I kept thinking these thoughts as the wind howled while my chest rose and fell at a steady pace.
In the late afternoon on Monday the storm subsided and the world became eerily still. Becky and I realized slowly that we had survived and so had our city. We rolled up one of the storm shutters and stepped outside and, from the 10th floor vista, we surveyed the mass devastation. Trees were down everywhere and the still air merged with a strange inner peace. As I looked around I had a bizarre realization: Katrina was more than a devastating storm; it was a powerful agent of change.
That was before the levees broke, and we all know that the widespread flooding has changed New Orleans forever.
So, in the weeks that have passed that feeling has steadily increased. Somehow in the hours before Katrina arrived I knew that massive change was coming, but I didn’t really appreciate exactly what that meant. At first I was in shock at the devastation and horror, but then (for reasons that I lack the power to explain) I began to feel a really weird sense of relief and acceptance. And, I’ve been afraid to share that thought with anyone.
Last night I got a call from my close friend who wanted to talk about the storm and how it had affected her life. I expected the usual recounting of post-Katrina life adjustments, but that’s not how the conversation proceeded. Lisa told me that she felt strange saying it, but she felt like Katrina had lifted a burden from her and actually made her life better. In the months before the storm she felt trapped in an ‘overscheduled life’ filled with incessant nagging concerns about her work life and her kids’ lives. Her kids are now in a rural school in Louisiana and she is spending three hours a day commuting to the new locale where her job is. However, instead of feeling even more beset by tension, she said that she finds the long car ride soothing, and her kids are really happy in a new school setting where life is much simpler. Her work experience is completely different and intriguinging. In short, the world around her has become fresh and exciting and she is fascinated by the massive change that surrounds her.
As we talked about our mutual post-hurricane experiences we laughed and agreed that Katrina had been a strange blessing for us. Yes, we were both fortunate that we hadn’t really had major damage to our houses and we hadn’t had any family members who were hurt. So, obviously, it was easier to find something positive in what is clearly a life-altering experience. But we both had a similar sense that the experience had to mean something more than just tragic images streaming across a TV screen. Somehow, the disruption had awakened some kind of strange awareness. Somehow Katrina had made us slow down and savor the molecules of time that were once racing by us.
Isn’t it funny?
Sometimes you need a catastrophic storm to remind you what is important in life. What did Katrina teach us? Many things: Live for the moment. Live in the moment. And be respectful and curious towards every person that you meet and every experience that you have. That’s a lesson worth learning, and I’m eternally grateful to find something so valuable in the aftermath of such a terrible storm.