When I showed up at my sister’s doorstep at 2:00 AM on August 30, she was surprised by how light I had packed. Just a day earlier, I was in New Orleans staring at the inside of my closet and rummaging through my dresser drawers and bookshelves. I had to decide what mattered the most to me. Or as I told a good friend, “What I did not want to see flooded, molded, and mangled when I returned home to a city devastated by yet another hurricane.”
When I fled New Orleans almost exactly 3 years ago to this date, I anticipated an extended holiday. More time to study and read, I thought. So I packed 4 days worth of clothing and my law school books. Just a week earlier, I’d stored personal items in a rented, public storage unit. “Does this area flood much?” I’d asked the sales agent, once I saw that only bottom units were available. “Not at all,” she reassured me. “We’ve never had a flood in this area.”
Months later, when I was allowed back into the city to retrieve my belongings, I knew that I was in trouble when I saw the brown, water mark leveled at 4 feet outside of the storage building. I opened that bottom locker of the unit and discovered that I’d lost more than I’d thought. Photographs. My high school yearbook. My senior thesis. Journals that I’d kept since age 15. Those pages, once filled with words in blue and black ink, were now washed out and illegible. Even now, I can remember some of those entries. The day that I got my first job. The day that I was accepted into college. The day that I broke up with my boyfriend. The thoughts and frustration of a young, black girl struggling through the growing pains of discovering her self-worth. I simply had no idea that I needed to worry about ever seeing those things again.
In anticipation of Gustav, I cleaned out my refrigerator and packed two suitcases, my laptop, and one large plastic bin of items that were important to me. Pictures of me as a baby, as a toddler, and as an awkward-looking middle schooler. Pictures of my college years. Pictures of my deceased grandmothers and of my sisters and I growing up in Virginia.
I also reached for my Zulu Coconut, one of the most prized throws of all Mardi Gras parades. This coconut is from 2005, seven months before Hurricane Katrina. Back when FEMA wasn’t a curse word. Back when I didn’t even know what a levee was. Back when every one in the city didn’t refer to periods of time as “Pre or Post-K.”
I packed my favela paintings from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. When I traveled there, I felt a kinship to the people because their spirit reminded me so much of the people of New Orleans. Brazilians manage to sustain and carve out a special place for joy in their lives, in the midst of extreme poverty and inequality. The spirit of Afro-Brazilian culture is nurtured in these favelas, a vast stretch of shanty-town-housing stacked ontop of hillsides, some overlooking the beautiful beaches of Rio de Janeiro. What struck me the most about favelas, was the paradox of their existence. Against the backdrop of the wealth and privilege of Ipanema and Copacabana Beach are areas of the city that face some of the most severe forms of economic disparity. Much like the neighborhoods in New Orleans most vulnerable to Katrina and Gustav disasters.
I packed my collection of refrigerator magnets. I also packed my favorite high heels. Black and strappy. (I figured that if I had to stand in any disaster relief lines, I might as well do it in style.) I packed essential documents. My birth certificate. W-2′s. Financial records. A utility bill with my address on it. I packed my rental lease with the portion that referred to the “inhabitability” provision highlighted in yellow so that I could be sure to point that out to my landlord should I have to sue em’ to break my lease after this storm. I packed my favorite book, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. Ironically, the main character Janie speaks of a great hurricane that devastated the area where she lived with her beloved Teacake. Indeed, my eyes were also watching God, via CNN and the Weather Channel. However, the burning question that God couldn’t answer for me was how high the water mark would be this time around.
There was also so much that I left behind. My prom dress from my senior year, saved in plastic wrapping. I left all of my furniture. I left the “Katrina” pottery that I’d painted at a studio during my six months of exile in Atlanta in 2005. I can remember telling the owner that I’d evacuated from New Orleans and being delighted by the substantial discount that I received to paint that day. Ironically, the piece is a large plate painted with colorful, swirls.
In anticipation of Gustav, some of my neighbors purchased large U-haul trucks to lug everything out of their apartments. “We don’t have renter’s insurance!” one of my neighbors told me, as I passed them loading up items on dollies. I didn’t have renter’s insurance either. But for some reason, I felt comfortable with that one plastic bin, full of random items that fit neatly in the backseat of my car. Items that are worth zilch on an insurance adjuster’s checklist. But Katrina had taught me that all of the FEMA and insurance money in the world couldn’t replace pictures of my sister and I making mud pies together while wearing our circa 1986 short-shorts. I wouldn’t find any pictures at the Salvation Army of my uncle with his parted Afro wearing thick white socks that stopped just below his knees. Or a picture of my dad holding 5-month old me in the air like a football.
And most importantly, I knew that the Red Cross Disaster Relief Center wouldn’t be giving away Zulu coconuts.