Hurricane Katrina: fear and grief tourism

The states along the Gulf Coast of the U.S. have a reason to fear the onset of hurricane season and the inevitable disasters that occur.  Storm warnings had been issued from Florida to Louisiana and yet, many thought this would be just another hurricane.  On August 29, 2005 Katrina came ashore, bringing a storm surge of 35 feet of water and a 30-mile eye wall.  In less than eight hours, entire towns along the coastline were gone, leaving no trace of homes, businesses, and roads in a 70-mile path of destruction.Â

Power and communication lines lay broken in the tide while animals, people, personal belongings, homes, and vehicles were swept away.  The wetlands vanished in the hurricane’s wrath and over 80% of New Orleans was virtually under water.  People clung to rooftops, branches of trees, and each other in desperation, as rescue attempts were made.  From the poorest to the rich and famous, Katrina made no discrimination.  Those with no vehicles, no money, and not even a TV to warn them of the mandatory evacuation watched in horror as their few possessions and loved ones were swept away.  The few who chose to remain could only watch the widespread devastation in helpless frustration, a tragedy beyond their control.  At the convention center in New Orleans, crowds of people filled the arena until the roof began to leak, sanitary facilities became inoperable, and people were turned away at the front doors.  Highways became roadways of more disaster, as people fled inland to higher ground.  Others stood in line for hours in stifling heat, without water and food, fighting for seats on emergency buses, as shelters and hospitals overflowed.  The National Guard was sent in to control the looting and the drug-related violence, as people panicked in the streets and fought for food and survival.  We listened to the urgent pleas for help in finding the missing and opened our homes and our hearts to thousands of displaced people, doing what we could to somehow ease their grief and suffering.

In the aftermath of Katrina, suicide rates tripled and stories of more grief and sadness began to surface, the people left behind, too ill to evacuate, unconfirmed reports of mercy killings in hospitals, bodies in coffins awaiting identification, and families separated from their loved ones.  Slow progress is being made toward recovery, as people return to grieve their losses.  Many others have no way to return and 60 percent of the residents of New Orleans remain in exile.  In some towns and cities, optimism and resilience have replaced despair, but in so many others, the shock, the agony, and the emptiness still remain.

While New Orleans’ huge tourist industry collapsed following Katrina, there were a few who wanted to see the destruction with their own eyes. The bars, restaurants, and souvenir shops are now open to tourists, eager to view the scene of a tragedy.  While the sounds of jazz fill the streets of the French Quarter, the plaintive sound of a trumpet echoes somewhere in the darkness and desolation of the Big Easy.

The Katrina Memorial in Biloxi Mississippi, dedicated to those who perished in the tragedy, opened February 15, 2006 at a candlelight vigil.  At the time of its opening to visitors, piles of debris and damaged buildings still lay on the ground.  Within the 12-foot high Memorial stands a glass-enclosed case containing objects collected by the survivors, a faded photograph, a watch that no longer runs, a string of pearls, bits and pieces of a lifetime.  In time, the names of the victims, many still missing and unaccounted for, will be inscribed on the Memorial.  The National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. plans to open an exhibit in 2008 displaying 60 artifacts from Katrina, including a parking lot exit sign from New Orlean’s flooded 7th Ward, a blue and white hurricane sign posted on Broad Street with an arrow to safety, and a rosary used by a weathercaster forced to abandon his station.Â

Much of the grief we feel is in the failure of the government to act responsibly, the lack of accountability, and the apparent miscommunications.  Somehow, the apologies and excuses we listen to do little to lessen the sadness that we feel.  A year later, as another hurricane season approaches, we hear that some levees have been repaired and rebuilt and some towns have resumed some semblance of normalcy.  Yet, the people along the Gulf Coast live in fear, wondering if they really are any better prepared than they were last year, or will it be the same tale of grief and sorrow.  Buildings and towns can be rebuilt and floodwaters can be drained, but we are left to ponder in our grief the words of Rabbi Wolpe, “…those who only watched the devastation must remember the vivid images of lives upended, dreams shattered, homes and hearts swept up in the storm.  Those who lived through it have the far harder task of clinging to what does last:  to memory, to hope, to each other

Sharon L. Slayton

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