The ultimate destination for uptown New Orleans girls out on a Saturday night was the Butterfly.
It’s a spot on the Mississippi River, at the edge of Audubon Park, where we could watch the barges navigate through the waterway’s infamous currents and twists. There always seemed to be a sweet breeze coming off the water, and we drank beer long into the evenings listening to The Pointer Sisters and Chicago and the one song that made Billy Ocean famous. What was it? Right – Caribbean Queen.
It was called the Butterfly because of the shape of the bathroom facility, which was like a giant concrete flying nun. Or a butterfly. I kissed many a boy at the Butterfly. I drank a lot of Boone’s Farm Tickle Pink while listening to ship horns echoing. I’m sure I threw up there a time or two.
Five years ago, the green expanse of The Butterfly temporarily became part of the river. It wasn’t the only place. The New Orleans institution where I had my first drink was under water. The restaurant that served the best Trout Meuniere in the city was under water. The house I grew up in was under water. The place where I held my rehearsal dinner the night before my wedding was under water. The live oak trees that had guarded the cracked uneven streets for a century were under water.
But none of this is news to you. In fact, you’re probably over the whole Hurricane Katrina thing, and already have read your quota of 5-year anniversary stories.
I’m not over it, though. I’m not sure I ever will be.
I watched my hometown city being destroyed from my Florida living room. Every couple of hours I spoke to my parents, who live in New Orleans but had evacuated to my sister’s home in Chicago. The hurricane hit on August 29; but it was five years ago the next day when things turned apocalyptic. As that day turned into night, I sat riveted to the television, watching photos and video offering proof that the damage wasn’t just bad – it was unimaginable. Then I saw some boats crashed together, and I sat straight up. My parents’ home is on Lake Pontchatrain; the marina is a half-mile away.
The camera switched to an overhead view; I saw what looked like an island aflame. I knew instantly that it was the Southern Yacht Club. The grand old building was surrounded by water and on fire. Really on fire. Like there was no building left, just orange red flames shooting dancing rays of light over the dark floodwaters.
I paused the tv and rewinded it, and showed it to Husband. “I think that’s the Yacht Club,” I said.
The phone rang. It was my father, and he was weeping. “Someone just told me he saw the Yacht Club burning down,” he said. “You didn’t see anything like that, did you?” I pressed play and watched it again before I told him.
My father grew up at the Southern Yacht Club. So did I. It’s where I learned to swim, and play tag, and pump my legs on a swing. But I’m not asking you to cry because my yacht club burned down. No, what struck me then – and now – was not the destruction of buildings, but the loss of sense of place. Although my parents’ home didn’t flood, it wasn’t habitable for many months. When they finally did move back in – nine months after the storm – their community was gone. The gas station that always checked the air in Dad’s tires. The bank where he cashed checks (because he still doesn’t believe ATMs are safe). The gym down the street where my mother exercised. The grocery store. The coffee shop. The little shoe boutique. Everything. Was. Gone.
For months, even years after Katrina, people would ask me how my parents fared during the hurricane, and after dozens of efforts to explain how they didn’t flood, but they still had damage, and the house is repaired, but life there still sucks….I developed a patent answer: nobody fared well during the hurricane. And that’s the damn truth.
My family counts itself among the lucky few, and not just because our home didn’t flood. My parents also had enough insurance to restore their home. They had the resources to travel away from the state when recovery efforts became too draining. They always had a place to live. Even so – they didn’t fare well. Life as they knew it had receded into the depths along with the filthy floodwaters. They were 65 years old; my father had lived in the New Orleans area for over 50 years. My mother had never lived anywhere else. They rebuilt their house; could they rebuild their lives?
Even that question wasn’t the most painful one. The issue of whether to rebuild the city sat like a festering splinter in the American public’s psyche. It’ll just happen again! Don’t waste the money! Learn from this!
And to this point, I was speechless. Not rebuild? Not restore the city that has given us jazz funerals and shrimp po-boys and the Neville Brothers? And me! Ahh, that’s where the knife dug in for all of us who were shaped by the city as surely as the Mississippi has shaped a muddy crescent into the landscape. Are we not worth it?
I’m proud to watch New Orleans reclaim its rightful spot on the list of great American cities. Its spirit has risen along with its infrastructure. Parts of the city still remain blighted and gutted; but baby steps, baby steps. To be honest, parts of the city were blighted and gutted before the storm, too.
Anyway, I thought you might want to know what I’ve been thinking about as CNN runs continuous footage of those terrible days. I’m thinking that New Orleans ismy place. I wish I was there right now.