Living in Limbo: A Katrina Story
Kevin Murphy received a B.A. in English from the University of West Georgia in 1999. He has since earned an M.A. from Clemson University and is currently working on his Ph.D. in English at Tulane University in New Orleans. Here, Kevin tells his story of returning to a city devastated by Hurricane Katrina.
When I left New Orleans in mid August to visit my parents in Georgia, Hurricane Katrina was not even a blip on the weather map. I had packed only the essentials: a few pairs of clothes and a few books, just enough for a two-week visit. Not having the chance to take any of my valuables out of my apartment prior to the hurricane made the uncertainty after the storm even more unbearable.
Feelings of helplessness overwhelmed me in the first few days after Katrina hit. Life as I knew it had been irrevocably changed, and living in the moment seemed unthinkable without knowing how or even if my apartment had survived the storm. The next few days and nights became an endless blur of watching news reports, checking nola.com (the online version of New Orleans’ newspaper), and talking to my roommate, the only one of my friends whom I knew how to contact. All Tulane email had been shut down; cell phones rarely worked, and specific information about my neighborhood was nonexistent since I lived in a relatively small suburb, River Ridge, about ten miles west of the city. I had so many questions and very little reliable information. I was concerned about the future of my studies at Tulane, and I still had to think about my immediate financial obligations: rent, car payment, credit card bills. Yet, even as I was dealing with the strain of my
||own worries, I was questioning how I could feel this way when I knew that some people had lost everything, including members of their families.
A month after the storm, information about living in the city was often contradictory; reports of toxic sludge, airborne pollutants, and black mold were rampant, and authorities differed about the danger these toxins posed to the public. Even knowing how to enter the city from the east was difficult since the I-10 bridge over Lake Pontchartrain was impassable. When I finally returned to the city in mid October, I found my apartment in almost the same condition in which I had left it. River Ridge, which is in Jefferson Parish east of New Orleans, had not been hit as badly by the storm, but a ten minute drive into New Orleans revealed a much different picture. The putrid smell of rotting garbage became the invisible marker signaling the beginning of Orleans Parish. Most traffic lights in the city did not work, few businesses were open, and large portions of the city were still without basic services, such as water, sewerage, and power.
In early November, I went on a tour of the more severely affected areas of the city, those places located nearest the levee breaks in the London and 17th Street Canals. Even pictures cannot reveal the scope of devastation in these neighborhoods that had been turned into expansive wastelands. In one place, a wooden framed house had been picked up from its foundation and moved several hundred yards, stopped only by a large tree in its path. Houses were merely shells, their contents often piled several feet high onto the sidewalks. Flooded cars covered in a gray film lined the medians between roads. At one house, I saw the bones of a small dog covered by a light layer of dirt. Parts of the city had become an open graveyard. This city that once bustled with the bells of street-cars, honking horns, and the daily hum of metro life was now silent and still.
The tour confirmed for me in a visceral way what I had known when I watched the horrific news reports about life in New Orleans immediately after the storm. I am one of the lucky ones. I still have my life, my family, my job (at least for now) and all my belongings, but peace of mind will be slow in returning. Seeing destruction on a television screen I can turn off at will is a luxury I naively thought I would never have to give up. Today, living in the aftermath of that destruction, I am deeply unsettled not only by the physical destruction I see when I venture out into the city but also by the acute awareness of how fragile the very idea of stability, both mental and physical, really is.