The first time my older brother Pat told me about something that wasn’t real was less than two months after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. A large number of Hispanic construction workers came to New Orleans from Texas to fix storm-ravaged homes. Pat believed the roofers working in our neighborhood, who communicated primarily in Spanish, were plotting against him. He said they were talking about him, although he didn’t speak Spanish, and he believed our father was conspiring with them in a plot to ruin him.
He claimed the conspirators bugged the backyard of the house my brother and I lived in together. A hole in the wooden fence was definitely where they put their cameras when they filmed and took pictures of him. Anyone driving down our street was a potential spy. None of this was true.
Several studies have shown the widespread impact that Katrina had on mental health in the Crescent City, including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and schizophrenia. A 2007 survey of more than 1,000 residents found that “17 percent of people in the city reported signs of serious mental illness in the month after the disaster.” Followups found that residents continued to struggle with these mental health issues years later.
“On average, people were not back to baseline mental health and they were showing pretty high levels of post-traumatic stress symptoms,” said researcher Christina Paxson of Princeton University, who conducted a 2012 study in New Orleans. “There aren’t many studies that trace people for this long, but the very few that there are suggest faster recovery than what we’re finding here. I think the lesson for treatment of mental health conditions is don’t think it’s over after a year. It isn’t.”
Was Katrina the cause of Pat’s psychotic break? Would he have been diagnosed with schizophrenia if he hadn’t lived through one of the worst hurricanes in history? There are too many factors to say anything for sure.
Although we talked about “The Big One” coming one day, just like Los Angeles still talks about “The Big One” in reference to earthquakes, the reality of a natural disaster that takes lives and livelihoods away forever is not one we’re ready to face. Listening to people on the radio say they don’t think your hometown should be rebuilt because of the possibility another disaster could happen again wounded us all deeply.
Pat and I spent longer than a month without electricity or running water, flushing toilets with pond water, eating canned soup and Pop-Tarts, swimming in a green pool, and heating instant coffee on a gas grill every morning — and by 9:00 a.m. it was already a humid 90 plus degrees. I learned you can take a bath in the same cold water for about 10 days before the soap scum on top is too viscous to use anymore.
We couldn’t make calls on mobile phones and the landline was knocked out. Our only form of communication was via text message, which doesn’t need much of a signal to be sent. It would eventually go through and in another day or so you’d get a response back from someone. We worried about our friends and family and they worried about us.
There was a citywide curfew, enforced by a heavily armed National Guard. You made do with what you had because almost everything was shut down. FEMA trucks brought bottled water and MRE’s to shopping market parking lots here and there, but you needed to conserve gasoline so you could get there.
Six months later the city was still very empty. Some people and businesses never came back. Everything closed early, usually running out of supplies. Everyone had nails in their tires and the roads were still covered in dirt brought in by the flood water.
Near my old high school, there was a large, grassy median with a footpath. It’s called the New Basin Canal Park. It used to be an active shipping canal from Lake Pontchartrain into the middle of the city. There’s a monument there in the shape of the Celtic Knot. It commemorates the 8,000 Irish immigrant laborers who died of yellow fever after digging the shipping canal in the swampy Lakeview area in the 1830s. My senior year, we walked to the median to take class photos and said a prayer for the men who had died there. After Katrina, the median became a dumping ground for garbage and debris from all over the city.
I lost a semester of school because my college didn’t reopen for five months and I worked full-time in property insurance. There was plenty for me to do since 80 percent of my co-workers quit due to the hostile work environment. No one was more well-hated than a customer service representative at an insurance agency. But we were local and my co-workers had lost their homes, too.
Life was hard. It wore me down. In the meantime, I looked at my brother, my best friend for most of my life, and he wasn’t there. Pat was a shell of his former self — paranoid and anxious, aloof and unhinged. The person I went to when I was suffering and needed advice was busy fighting an internal battle I couldn’t even conceive of.
Just like everyone else, the sadness eventually took me. I felt hopeless and afraid. Once something like this happens to your home and it takes days for help to come, you throw out what you thought you knew about community, about safety, and about living in a first world country. Unprecedented, there was nowhere to look for hope and guidance.
In the years that followed the storm, I had trouble doing things that never bothered me before. I was suddenly deathly afraid of flying. Sudden, loud noises are a problem for me and continue to be to this day.
Katrina taught me this: Anything can happen and you’re on your own. “The Big One” can happen and you can’t begin to imagine all the things that it will affect. One day you’re working or going to school and leading a normal American life, but tomorrow you don’t know if you’ll ever be able to refill your prescriptions again because all pharmacies are closed indefinitely.
Everything that has followed the storm seemed to confirm to me that anything can happen: Pat’s deteriorating mental health, our parents’ divorce, even Hurricane Sandy which found me in New York City 2012, the death of my 17-year-old cousin, the suicide of a childhood friend in 2014, and my mother-in-law’s second husband making an attempt on her life. Anything can happen.
But then, I met the most incredible man in the world. My new best friend who helped me to realize my dreams. I have a much better relationship with my mother now. Despite his illness, my brother seems to be happy. Since Katrina, I’ve lived in different cities and experienced new things, gained a lot of perspective, and learned to stop living in the shadow of trauma.
When things get tough, it only seems like you’re on your own. Depression isolates us. It pulls us in by telling us that we have no other choice, there are no options and their is no hope for happiness. It’s a lie. There is always hope.
Today, New Orleans is the vibrant, festive place it always was. No wind or water could ever wash away the deep cultural roots that knit us all together. I’m always homesick for it, even the washed out, grotesque version it was in late 2005. It calls to me every day. With so much of the Gulf coast washed away, it’s our hearts that keep New Orleans pinned to the ground there at the end of the Mississippi, at the beginning of the world.
Image credit: Sarah Newman, 2005