I was digging deep into drawers of memories I had purposely left in plastic bins at the back of the closet when I found a thick, folded-over stack of printed instant messages. One of the messages, from a middle-school frenemy, stuck out — there were two words I read like family members. New Orleans.
“Why do you talk about New Orleans and Katrina so much? It’s annoying,” she said. This sounds juvenile because we were. I was 12 years old when Hurricane Katrina hit, and this message was from a girl at my evacuation school that I barely knew. It must have hurt enough to print it out.
We were called “Katrina kids.” The phrase still evokes the same feelings it did 10 years ago, along with “post-Katrina” and “before the storm,” phrases born of a necessity to name the two halves of our lives. They are at once heartbreaking and nausea-inducing for everyone involved.
I have lived in Washington, D.C., only two years less than I lived in New Orleans. I know the D.C. Metro map better than any parade route or the streets of Uptown. I’ve been eating steamed crabs almost as long as I’ve had them boiled. I never had a boyfriend there. I’ve had two here. This is the dilemma of the permanently displaced Katrina kid. We only saw the beginning of the dirty, hot beauty of New Orleans. When we go home, we’re visitors.
At 10 or 12 or 13, or however old we were when the storm hit, it was the first time we were something besides children. I have a photo I keep losing and finding, of me posing with a pink bow wrapped around my head. I was playing dress up in my old room with my best friend Kaitlin. The photo was dated Aug. 26, 2005 — three days before the storm. I can’t remember parts of my childhood very clearly, because Katrina takes up space in the brain that 40-year-olds don’t have. All the years before this memory seem to have gone somewhere, and to my knowledge they are stuck somewhere within this picture.
Katrina kids talk about New Orleans because one day we appeared at a random school in Alabama, and we were asked why we were there. Some kids loved us for our uniqueness, others kept us out of circles in fear of their own worlds collapsing in. Unlike other seventh-graders, we were not just children. We had a story and we cried all through math class and we missed home. We were asked this question of Why, and when we went home to ask mom, it was to a hotel room and she didn’t know. Talking about New Orleans was the closest we got to an answer.
September came, and all of the evacuated Katrina kids started moving back home. My friends I hadn’t seen in months started messaging me, and there was a first day of classes scheduled at my old school.
Kids whose houses did not flood moved back into their homes. Kids like me had to move around and watch while their families rebuild. In March, we moved back in, and I painted the new walls of my old room a bright yellow. One day as I was rolling around the newly laid carpet in my parents’ room, I was told we were selling our home and moving to D.C. I felt like I was moving out before the paint felt dry enough. Time and its lines felt sickly slanted then.
This is where Katrina kids’ stories leak into opposite directions.This is where the kids who moved home got to stay home and stopped writing so furiously in their diaries. This is where all the kids who never went back or who went back and left, like me, started to wonder if they were ever going home for good.
It’s been 10 years, and I’m still wondering. I’m 22, and at 14 I watched my friends in New Orleans go to the high school I had chosen already. At 18, I heard about their trips to the underage bars like the Boot and TJ Quills. Somewhere in between then and now, I watched them date each other, break up, grind in the backs of trucks at Mardi Gras and drink the Abita beer I thought you could only get in town. We inevitably grew out of touch, and I stopped talking about New Orleans so much in my school in D.C. Turns out it’s annoying anywhere you go.
Now when I’m traveling and am asked where I’m from, I give a weird look. I gather myself and say, “Well, it’s complicated. I’m from D.C., but I’m originally from New Orleans.” After I offer my answer, I immediately feel shame and a lot of other things. I always wish I was the person with the one or two-word answer.
People move. They have multiple homes. Some lose their homes or are kicked out, and it’s tragic. But natural disasters are their own breed. There is no person or group of people you can blame more than the storm itself. But it’s hard to be angry with the wind. You resent your parents who did the best they could and your friend whose house didn’t flood. Even the very name of the storm cannot sustain the level of weight we give it, and that is why it is so very nauseating to speak of.
Ten years later, I have yet to befriend another 20-something who was permanently displaced by Hurricane Katrina as I have been. But I know all of you are out there. We live in Texas and Maryland and maybe as far as the Middle East. We remember what it was like to just be a kid without the Katrina. We remember the stickiness of snoball syrup against our teeth, and we remember what it was like to play in the street, hopscotching against the humidity with mosquitoes nipping at our knees. We place too much meaning in places and things like photographs. But we also know the stench of mold and the way parents cry behind doors and the sad sounds of the old that came with the flood.
We have our reasons we have not returned. We are from New Orleans. You can tell by the way we falter when asked. We understand the weight of water that came and the way it inches through doors and wells up in eyes. There is a depth to the city that is immeasurable by conversation. We know what it means, and that’s why it never leaves us.