You can take the girl out of Nola, but you can’t take the proximity to hurricanes out of the girl.
My last two weeks in New Orleans were indelibly marked by Hurricane Isaac. I witnessed the city I loved go through the pre-hurricane preparation – everyone discussing evacuation plans, frantically stocking up on water and batteries as entire aisles of the supermarkets were emptied, and turning to Twitter to find gas stations that still had gas. (I’m getting ahead of myself, but as my good friend Belen said about her pre-Sandy preparations, “Yes, Twitter, now I get it! It is a valid medium!” Belen, I completely agree.)
When Isaac was downgraded a category, I changed my plans to evacuate, and decided to “hurrication” with some friends. What followed was a much more intense experience than any of us, metereologists included, expected. For me it involved several days stuck inside, trying to read or play board games by the dim light of hurricane-day and the candlelight of hurricane-night, and struggling to sleep because of the unceasing, deafening noise of the wind and the rain and the emergency radio.
In the grand scheme of possibilities for hurricane suffering, my Isaac experience was a walk in the park, and I felt acutely grateful throughout the entire week. The experience was also suffused with a profound poignancy, as I knew that I was rapidly counting down my days left in New Orleans.
What followed Isaac was a blur – a city struggling to get its infrastructure back on its feet, a moving Selichot service, my friends’ beautiful baby naming ceremony at my shul, a debilitating cold that left me in bed for several days, and the crazy whirlwind of wrapping up my job, tuning up my car, closing my bank account, canceling my gym membership, packing packing packing, etc. Throughout it I was supported by amazing friends and coworkers who fed me (and gave me medicine!), offered to sell or donate some of my stuff, gave me rides, and in various ways went above and beyond. I’ve never been so stressed or felt so surrounded by community.
So I moved up north, naively thinking I’d left all that hurricane business behind – and suddenly another hurricane was on the horizon. I treated Sandy with a certain amount of nonchalance. I knew hurricanes, after all. I’d been educated, I’d been trained, I’d even lived through a minor one. I knew the damage they could cause and I knew the work there would be afterwards. I thought I knew what to expect.
And then my friend Jake was killed by a falling tree in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn, and suddenly everything I knew about hurricanes went out the window.
Jake’s death was no one’s fault. There was no massive engineering failure that resulted in this accident. He was not being institutionally oppressed. There was no way he could have been rescued but was not. In short, New Orleans had in no way prepared me for how to handle the absurdity and the tragedy that was his death. As my world took to social media in Sandy’s aftermath, I felt angry about the many posts/status updates/tweets that treated Sandy as trivial; and worst of all, I felt apathetic towards those who called on their internet audiences to BEHOLD THE INJUSTICE. I couldn’t politicize. My emotions had taken my activist hat squarely off.
A large part of me wanted to spend this post elaborating on the humanitarian ramifications of Sandy, on the differences between New York and the Gulf Coast and my strong reactions about the perceived leveling of these differences, on the politics of disaster preparation and recovery disparities. (I’ll direct folks to this excellent blog post by Lydia Pelot-Hobbs on the incredible Oyster Knife blog, which captures a lot of what I’ve been feeling.)
But right now, all of that – Isaac, Sandy, the politics, the recovery – it all seems inconsequential.