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In New Orleans, we have faced the unimaginable, and survived.

By Susanne Weiner Jernigan | I was almost afraid to tell anyone.

I stood outside of the tiny apartment on a debris-laden street, the new home of my friend Becky and her family. Becky and I surveyed her flattened tire, a frequent occurrence in this town where potholes are lined with roofing nails. Six months ago I didn’t even know what a roofing nail was. I certainly didn’t realize that their unique design, equivalent to a poker chip impaled upon a large tack, rendered them the perfect objets du morte for treads of all sizes. But now I know more about many things.

I know, for example, that the best way for humans to search for a corpse is by smell, at least until the flesh is gone. I know that large black flies are called “coffin flies.” I know that a hatchet in the attic can save a life, and that there is nothing quieter than the sound of empty over acres of standing water. I know that the gum in the MRE [Meals-Ready-to-Eat] is a laxative, and TSP90 will remove markings left on brick from search and rescue teams. I know that buildings without electricity will spontaneously combust, and that helicopters with water bags are no substitute for your local fire department. I know that people who were smacked hard by a storm can survive, and then survive still when their 32-year-old spouse dies in a traffic accident three weeks later. And I know that New Orleanians, for some strange and inexplicable reason, will suffer, persevere, and crawl on their bellies to come home.

As Becky and I surveyed the tire, a neighbor approached. Until the storm, she and Becky lived several miles apart. Now, post-K, they are both living on this narrow street adjacent to Potter’s Field. Both have lost their homes, and most of their possessions; both are in limbo, unable to rebuild without federal flood maps (which were not expected to be available until August); and both are in the unenviable and all too common position of paying mortgages on properties that are uninhabitable, and exorbitant rents for temporary housing that is far too small, even for families who have nothing. As we chatted by the car, I mustered the courage.

I didn’t want to offend. I didn’t want to sound as if I was making light of the awfulness of our plight, but I needed to know. I had to find out if I was alone, or part of a greater, unrecognized phenomenon.

“I feel privileged to be here,” I said, looking down at the gravel, waiting for a response. Silence. I looked up. They were both nodding in agreement. I spoke again.

“The notion of being anywhere else is incomprehensible. It’s not that I’m glad that it happened, but if it had to happen then I feel lucky to be a part of all this.”

Slow nods. “I know what you mean. I feel the same way.”

“Me too.”

We spoke of it no more as another friend pulled up.

Our city represents a litany of government failures, mishaps, omissions, and neglect. Every day we are reminded of death. The landscape reverberates lest we forget, and nothing will ever be the same. How can we feel lucky to be here?

Driving through the emptiness that was my neighborhood, I realize that I no longer focus on the devastation. Instead, I see forms wearing HAZMAT suits digging through mud piles. Their shapes seem human, but in the post-apocalyptic scene I know that they must be angels.

Strangers have left their homes to work shoulder to shoulder with us. They drag molded heaps of what used to be clothing, furniture, or memorabilia. They work with strength and energy, yet also with a delicacy that enables them to spot tiny objects that have survived, whose preciousness has now increased immeasurably because they are the only tangible remnants of what was a household, a home. These items are carefully wrapped, and handed to their owner with the tenderness of passing a newborn babe. Our objects, our things. Post-Katrina we have come to realize that they are only things, and have no independent meaning without their wardrobe of memory and association.

In New Orleans we have detached from the material, because we have had to. We don’t want to shop. We want to excavate. But, forced to start anew, each of us will be a little warier before we permit such strong attachments to objects again. We have become bystanders in the schizophrenic American economy. The liberation of standing outside of the fray is exhilarating.

We work each day to achieve “normalcy” but what is “normal”? I forget what life here used to be. I don’t expect mail, e-mail, or even electricity. A day with all three is intoxicating. As I reflect on those days before the storm, when we were like everyone else, it seems as if we were sleeping. Back then we didn’t question whether our government would act appropriately in the face of disaster. We never thought about survival tools. We expected to have telephones, garbage pickup, and schools. We spent a lot more time thinking about how we were going to spend than how the government spent.

Now we know that, despite our entreaties or our best efforts, there is much that we cannot control, such as FEMA, or the federal budget. Our frustration has caused us to seize that which we can control, fostering an emergence of grass-roots energies.

Concomitant has been an awakening of political activism. “The Big Easy” is no longer willing to keep it so easy. We are demanding a new accountability from our elected officials. We can no longer be lulled by platitudes and outright lies.

New Orleans has always been “cool,” but now New Orleans is cutting-edge. We are ahead of the curve. We are living in the first U.S. city that is truly ready for the 21st century. We have had our collective mettle tested, and discovered how powerful we are, how compassionate and how heroic. We have had to change our priorities. We have been forced to shed the cloak of entitlement and expectation, which may be stripped from all Americans if our leaders do not take care of the environment and the economy, and reverse the antipathy with which we are regarded around the globe. We have been catapulted into a future that requires new vision, new skills, and profound flexibility. Come what may, we are ready.

In New Orleans we have faced the unimaginable and survived. If that’s not luck, then what is? 

Susanne Weiner Jernigan C’78 is an attorney and former healthcare executive who moved to New Orleans from Washington D.C. in 1984 to pursue civil-rights practice. Able to return home after Katrina in January, she is currently writing and rebuilding.

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