It’s an odd phrase: the calm before the storm. It implies a sense of intuition, a sense of knowing what’s to come in an increasingly unpredictable world. I experienced a moment like this, a moment of true recognition and amazement, as I stood outside on a balcony in the eye of Hurricane Katrina.
Just a few days before that moment, my life was on the brink of a major shift. I was supposed to be a new freshman in college at Tulane University in New Orleans, just thirty minutes from my hometown. I had a full tuition scholarship, my parents were proud, and life was good.
Like thousands of students across the country, I was ready to be set free, ready to take on the world, and ready for a new environment and new experiences. And yet there I was on a balcony of a three story office building staring at the broken world in front of me, instead of spending that Monday in my first day of college classes.
The spot where I stood was a part of my parents’ office, a sturdy brick building in the center of town. My family and I went there to ride out the storm, since my parents’ status as healthcare professionals necessitated that they stay in our city.
Standing there, looking out at the destruction, my mind shifted to the whirlwind of events of the preceding days. I could only recall shadows of packing my belongings for college and meeting my roommate for the first time. My conversation with my parents on the way to school seemed like a dream. I remembered that it revolved around football and my concern over eligible bachelors that were sure to be milling about Tulane. I definitely didn’t think that I’d turn right back around after putting my things in my first college dorm room to return right back home.
When I was trying to move into my college dorm, the hurricane that was set to enter into the Gulf seemed to matter very little, but at that moment, standing in the middle of its destruction, I realized it meant everything.
All our preparation for the storm seemed fruitless. I recalled the way my entire family scurried around in a crazed state as we scrambled to lift our furniture a few feet off the ground, packed our belongings, and headed to the office – the same office where I stood outside and first witnessed the destruction.
As we settled into our fortress and the day dragged on, I just watched in awe as the wind toppled over a three foot thick brick sign. The water kept rising and touched the first floor of the building. And that was just from the outer bands of the hurricane. The real thing wasn’t quite there yet.
My parents, I’m sure, were terrified but never showed it.
The night before the eye of the storm came was especially restless. I slept on the floor with my family in the central room of my parents’ office building. At one point, the loudest noise I’ve ever heard pierced the air and woke us all up. It sounded as if the entire building ruptured, as the two large French doors that led to the balcony burst open from the force of the wind. My brother, then only 14 years old, and my dad rushed to grab rope and threw it around the handles with gusto, pushing their combined weight against the doors to force them closed. I have never been so stunned. We had no idea what the result of the storm would be, but by that point, we knew it was bad.
In our most desperate moments, sometimes one finds humor in the most bizarre details. It was my dad who alerted me that the eye of the storm was passing over us. Everyone else was asleep, and I went to stand with him on that balcony. Details that would have impressed an interior designer, like the gorgeous ten foot French doors that blew open the night before, were now a safety net and the only barrier guarding our senses from the destruction outside. My dad stood in silence looking out over our town with a cup of sweet tea in his hand.
It suddenly struck me that his glass had ice in it.
There was certainly a lot to stare at, like hundred foot pine trees strewn about the ground like wounded soldiers. But, just as the eye of the storm swept its cold stare over me, I couldn’t tear my eyes away from my dad’s cup of tea. How did he get sweet tea? How did he get ice? The moment was too pure and hysterical and cliché for me to even question it. Of course he had sweet tea with ice standing on a balcony in the eye of history’s deadliest storm. This is the deep south, y’all. We take our sweet tea seriously.
I Felt Numb
My moment of amazement and delirium shifted into the numbness of the days following Katrina’s rude departure. We eventually traveled to a family member’s home two hours north. Our cars were miraculously unharmed. For my first meal after the storm, we ate fast food, and I threw it all up. The shock, it seemed, was setting in. With Tulane closed, I registered for classes at Louisiana State University. I drove there from a hotel room the first few weeks of school. To my parents credit, they immediately made sure my brother and I had a schedule and school to attend, while they drove back and forth to New Orleans two hours each way trying to assess the damage, bringing things like gas and water to our town’s hospital, and in general staying in 100% action mode.
It Never Happened
I feel as if I started college at L.S.U. as if nothing happened, like this major destruction was just a minor blip, an accidental key pressed in the story of my life. I pretended like I was supposed to go to L.S.U. all along and kind of forgot about the whole issue of having a full scholarship and a dorm room and a roommate at Tulane that were all *poof* gone in one life-altering day.
A ruthless overachiever, I threw myself into my school work and began to adjust to a new life. I did not cry after the storm. I did not think about it. I just kept slaving away for four months on my schoolwork while eating MREs for dinner every night.
I Finally Broke
In December of 2005, when classes ended and grades were in, I went to talk to one of my professors who told me I earned a B in his course. He said something like he thought I’d be one of his A students, but I just missed it. I nodded, thanked him, and felt unnerved as I walked to my car. I really hated getting B’s. I tried to tell myself that my transcript did say student displaced due to Hurricane Katrina and the B didn’t matter. But, I was mad at myself.
I finally felt something.
I got into my car just like everyone else who was happy that the long semester was over. I put the keys into the ignition, and as if I had planned it all along, began sob so desperately, I didn’t think my heart could take it. I threw my arms over the steering wheel, letting the tears completely soak my shirt. I hiccuped for breath and heaved for over an hour.
It seemed the weight of the storm, of losing everything, of missing every picture and Christmas ornament that flooded, of leaving the school I intended to go to, all added up to that moment. Yes, it seemed that receiving a B in a class is what cracked me and started my healing process. Yet, unlike the aftermath of Katrina, my disappointment in my grade was completely and utterly predictable. Finally, life was back to normal.
Editor’s Note: My story has a happy ending. At L.S.U., I met my husband. He was a Katrina volunteer who contacted all displaced Tulane students on Facebook and offered to help them around campus. He was my friend, and he helped me piece my life back together. My feelings about the storm have changed over the years. I’ve gone from feeling guilty for being upset about it since so many people died and I didn’t. I really lost it when planning my wedding and had a really hard time with the fact that I wasn’t getting married in my home church and having the reception in my childhood backyard like I always wanted. However, with the hubs’ help and some very talented counselors, I’ve dealt with what happened in a very healthy way. I transferred to the College of William and Mary during my junior year. I went to graduate school, got married, lived abroad for a few years, and started a family. I’m living proof that even in our deepest, darkest moments of despair, hope is always right around the corner. You never know what’s going to happen or where your life will take you, so cherish today. Tomorrow isn’t guaranteed.