I’m experiencing a curious feeling of displacement this year — a sense of being neither here nor there. I was born and raised on the Gulf Coast of Louisiana, but moved to Los Angeles after college. I’ve actually lived in California now longer than I lived in Louisiana, but Southernism doesn’t fade with time.
I brought Claire, my nine-year-old daughter, to Louisiana to visit her grandparents while Hurricane Katrina was still deciding where she was going to hit. Over the few days we were in the coastal town of Lake Charles even Claire had picked up on the tension. She saw the lines in the supermarkets, the lines at the gas pumps, and heard locals discussing “whether to stay or go.”
By the time we left on Sunday morning Katrina was bearing down on New Orleans and residents were fleeing, heading west as they’d been told to do. Interstate 10 was bumper-to-bumper and I spent the long, slow drive to Houston answering questions about hurricanes and trying to alleviate her fears. Claire wanted to know about the evacuation centers she saw along the way and I told her the fun we’d had as children when we’d stay in a local Red Cross shelter. I told her the adventure of going inland to avoid one hurricane when I was a child and how it felt to stay in my first high-rise hotel. I had Claire laughing with stories of hurricane parties where we’d fill the bathtub with water, board the windows, stock up on food and flashlights and play cards or Monopoly by candlelight as we waited for the storm to pass through.
Claire left Houston slightly sad that we wouldn’t be staying so she could have the opportunity to do one of my favorite pre-hurricane activities – riding a bike while wearing a big shirt. The extra shirt fabric would act as a sail and propel me along the sidewalk as the wind started to blow.
Monday morning was a different story as the news reports came in. Claire looked at me with dismay and said, “You never told me a hurricane was this bad.” I’ve tried to keep much of the horror and devastation from her but as a fourth grader she listens and watches and understands.
There’s a pall over our back-to-school shopping this year. Normally a joyous event, this year as Claire picks out a new notebook and pencils she asks, “What are the Louisiana children going to do about school?”
As we select the perfect lunchbox, Claire is concerned about food for the children in New Orleans.
Claire found a cute shirt for her first day of school and asked if we could purchase another one for “a girl in Louisiana who might have lost her school clothes in the floods.
She’s cleaned out her bedroom of many extra toys, games, and clothes and wants to get them to New Orleans—she’s aware of how lucky she is and she’s seen the photos of little children with nothing. How we wish we could help them all – each and every one.
Claire’s long-awaited double bed finally arrived and caused us to think about those families who have no beds. I can’t stop thinking about the families who no longer have a home. I think of the families who’ve not only lost their homes and beds but, in some horrible cases, have lost the children who slept there.
I’m not certain how deeply Claire, at the age of nine, feels this sadness, this loss. It’s the first big disaster in her life to which she can personally relate. There’s no doubt how deeply I feel it.
My heart is in Santa Monica in my cozy home, under warm skies, and in the excited eyes of children about to begin a new school year.Yet my heart is also in New Orleans, in the decrepit Superdome, on top of the roofs and under the freeways, in the hotels full of worried families not knowing where or how to begin a new life.