Professor Donna Patterson is a department chair and professor at Delaware State University. She writes and teaches history and global health, including on Ebola and other epidemics. She visited West Africa during the 2014–2016 epidemic but this is her first time living through one.
When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, I was working in the city at Dillard University. On August 28, 2005—the morning before Katrina made landfall—I evacuated to Houston. I left at daybreak and 16 exhausting hours later, I finally made it to Houston.
To me, hurricanes were mundane. I grew up on the Gulf Coast of Texas. Hurricane Katrina was different—though all of the elements of a hurricane were there. Katrina taught me new things that I never could have imagined learning.
On the morning of August 29, 2005, I was peeled to news reports. The storm had weakened from a category 5 and made landfall at a category 3. We were lucky, so we thought.
Things still seemed normal in New Orleans on the morning of August 29th—until the levees broke. But after the levees broke, New Orleans would never be the same. The broken levees caused insurmountable damage and the effects are still being felt in a myriad of ways in greater New Orleans. Much of the city flooded and whole neighborhoods sat under water for weeks. At the same time, other parts of the city were relatively dry with only varied amounts of wind damage.
Somehow, within two weeks after the storm hit, I was able to visit the city.
I could only access parts of the city, but the damage I saw was devastating. The worst thing, though, was the smell—the smell that everyone described. It was an almost indescribable smell of death: the death of people who drowned in their homes. It was also the smell of pets and other animal corpses that were trapped in homes or lying on the ground. The smell was mixed with smells of destruction—of property, of places, of things. What you couldn’t smell were the broken lives, the broken dreams, the lost artifacts, the lost family heirlooms, the waterlogged photo albums, and the damaged artwork. What you couldn’t smell was the mental anguish of a city and its inhabitants, who were left with memories of a lost world: the city that existed before the storm.
I was one of the lucky ones. Though I was physically displaced for almost a year after the storm, I still had a home in New Orleans, albeit one with some damage. I left New Orleans in the weeks after Katrina struck for a one-year fellowship at Princeton University. Living in Princeton, N.J., was a port in the proverbial storm. Everything there was seemingly normal. Everything functioned—stores were open and plentiful, banks were in buildings rather than temporary trailers, mail service was consistent, and the looming memory of death and destruction wasn’t omnipresent. Some of my colleagues from Dillard and elsewhere were impressed that I had landed at an Ivy League university during that difficult time and assumed that I would be productive, researching and writing all sorts of things. Instead I spent much of the year looking for a job. Dillard University sent many of us our last paycheck weeks after Katrina hit. I also grappled with the sheer trauma of my displacement, the displacement of friends and coworkers, the loss of life and housing, and the uncertainty of the present and future of New Orleans. This made it difficult to focus: to write and to produce.
Just as I felt fortunate to be at Princeton in 2005–2006, I am lucky to be living amid the global COVID-19 pandemic. I now work in Delaware as a department chairperson and professor and I have the privilege of being able to work remotely. So many workers don’t have this privilege. Many of us in academia have been privileged to work remotely during the early months of this crisis. As we all know, health care workers are working tirelessly through this pandemic with great risk to their personal health, given the current lack of protective gear. Cashiers, delivery personnel, postal workers, restaurant cooks, childcare workers, gas station attendants and others are also working with the public. They don’t have the luxury of working remotely if they want to keep a job and job-sponsored health care insurance. Some of them work to the detriment of their own personal health security and that of their families.
Having lived through the aftermath of Katrina, I find it somewhat easier to work during this crisis. However, there are also periods of great difficulty given the sheer gravity of the loss of life, the slow response, and the lingering public health threat. Furthermore, I see what is happened in Louisiana—where the Mardi Gras celebrations in February created a hot spot that infected thousands. I’m also witnessing the lag in response and the preparation of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center to house patients battling COVID-19. The Morial Convention Center housed evacuees in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Many suffered and others died as they waited desperately for help to arrive. There is an eerie feeling of déjà vu.
We are all collectively living through the worst global health crisis since the 1918 influenza pandemic. Our world will look different once this storm has passed. One of the lessons that I learned from living through Hurricane Katrina is that trauma seeps in if you don’t expect it or acknowledge it. It is not possible to live through something of this magnitude and remain fully unscathed. Many people are already describing how hard it is to perform at the same level productivity of even a recent week’s past. This is a normal response and many of us experienced something similar after Katrina.
There will be rough patches ahead but what I know is that we’ll create a “new normal” from the ashes of COVID-19. What I learned from the tragic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is that you can never fully recapture what existed before. New Orleans never returned to “normal” after Hurricane Katrina. It survived with great loss and pain and now swaths of it are transformed into something new. Similarly, it will be possible to take elements of our pre-COVID-19 lives and to create something anew.
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