I remember the beginning of my senior year of college in 2005. I remember the house I lived in with 7 girlfriends, and I remember feeling tremendously inconvenienced when 2 of our 3 showers broke and our landlord was slow to fix them. I remember a neighbor asking if I’d heard about Hurricane Katrina and what was happening on the Gulf Coast, and I remember realizing that maybe having to share one shower wasn’t the biggest tragedy out there.
I remember hearing about the relief trip JMU’s Cru, the Christian ministry I was part of, was taking over Christmas break, and feeling intrigued… but also thinking it’d be more comfortable to just go to their annual conference in D.C. with my best friend instead. I remember God changing my heart overnight, and I remember driving down to Pass Christian, Mississippi, with 6 other students. I remember seeing a city stripped bare. I remember seeing ruins where there had once clearly been life. I remember sleeping on cots in what used to be a library, surrounded by other college students. I remember spending exhausting days doing physical labor, and I remember eating meals at God’s Katrina Kitchen. I remember the satisfaction in the simplicity, and I remember returning home to a world untouched by Katrina. I remember watching the luxuriousness of Christmastime, and thinking that, despite my attitudes of greed in Christmases past, I actually didn’t need anything at all… except maybe a power drill.
I remember how my heart was changed after spending time being the hands and feet of Jesus, of providing for people’s physical needs, and I remember longing to find a way to be a part of that after graduation. I remember listening to the voicemail I received from a human resources director in Cru, saying, “I think I know what God has for you next year,” and I remember hearing for the first time about the opportunity to move to New Orleans to do and coordinate relief work. I remember asking for 24 hours to pray about it, even though there’d never been a clearer decision in my life.
I remember raising financial support, and I remember the way my heart pinged with a sense of belonging as I shared with potential supporters about the opportunity to rebuild a city. I remember having a sense, even then, that God was using that time to rebuild me.
I remember my first time in New Orleans- the day I moved there, 11 months after the storm. I remember the house that the 8 girls on our team lived in, and I remember the watermark line on the side of the house, showing how high it had flooded. I remember walking around the Lower Ninth Ward for the first time, and how surreal it was to stand on the foundation of someone’s house, someone’s home, and realize that concrete slab was all that was left. I remember seeing buses and cars inside houses, and I remember feeling like no news coverage could ever fully convey the impact of what had happened to this city.
I remember sitting on my porch of our house in Gentilly. I remember looking around our street and feeling the oppressiveness of it, of a neighborhood that was still largely abandoned, of houses spray painted with the X that shared when the house had been searched and whether or not any bodies had been found.
I remember the first time we went to Audubon Park, and the way our whole team freaked out because it was the first time in weeks we’d actually seen live trees and green grass. I remember long, sweaty days of gutting houses, and the ways the physical satisfaction of hard work mingled with the pain of tearing down someone’s home, someone’s life. I remember, Aldo, the neighbor of a homeowner we were working with, who described looking down the street and seeing what looked like the Colorado river rushing towards him. I remember him telling us about the people he rescued in his boat, and I remember that he found his own mother, lying on top of a heating unit, dead from a heart attack. I remember Augustine, the homeowner who lost her home and her husband in the storm, and I remember her faith in God blowing me away.
I remember the way the Lord whispered to me that He was rebuilding New Orleans, and that He was rebuilding me, too.
I remember driving home on the interstate one night, in the midst of trying to decide if I should commit to another year in NOLA. I remember looking out at the city lights and realizing that New Orleans was my home, and I wasn’t going anywhere. Years later, that view of the city from the height of the interstate will always be one of my favorites.
I remember falling in love with New Orleans. I remember realizing that she held a strength, a resiliency, that allowed her to come back, although other cities in her position might just have abandoned it all. I remember laughter and nights playing cards and speed Scrabble with my teammates. I remember the first time I decided I was missing out on New Orleans by staying in my extraordinarily picky eating bubble, and I remember a whole world opening up to me as I discovered shrimp and grits, crawfish, chicken schwarmas, beignets, snowballs, and more. I remember falling in love with running as I trained for the Mardi Gras Half Marathon, and a year later, the full marathon. I remember running by Lake Ponchartrain, up and down St. Charles, around Audubon, and of course, to the bull and back.
I remember those excruciating years of teaching, of loving those kids so much I couldn’t breathe. I remember feeling overwhelmed by the responsibility of it all. I remember the friends who walked with me and held me up when I had anxiety attacks, and I remember delighting in my students on field trip week when they could run through the park and be free. I remember meeting Cori. I remember nights spent with him and friends at the Bulldog, and I remember discovering the charm of Mid City. I remember our first kiss, the night the Saints won the NFC championship game, and I remember the sheer joy and celebration of driving and walking around the French Quarter the night we won the Super Bowl. I remember walks around City Park, and how Cori proposed there.
I remember the weeks before we moved. I remember crying and crying, my brand new husband at a loss for what to do with me. I remember lasts: last times with friends, last time eating a snoball, last authentic Cajun meal. I remember walking home from the store and hearing jazz music playing on the corner, and knowing with a deep certainty that there was no place in the whole world like New Orleans.
I remember how Hurricane Katrina changed everything, everything, for thousands and thousands of people, and I remember that in the good, the bad, the pain, the loss, the celebration, the life, it will always be part of my story, too.