‘The storm took pieces of me that I’ll never get back’

‘The storm took pieces of me that I’ll never get back’

I felt a sudden and sharp pang when recounting the loss of my personal library to the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina

BRATTLEBORO — The word “loss” is almost too small to encompass the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. But as if in a game of word association, it is the only one that comes to my mind when people talk about that storm.

I think it's especially true for those of us who were in New Orleans. For us there, unlike for those living in other affected parts of the Gulf Coast, the tragedy seemed to take on an additional dimension every single day.

There was, of course, the immediate loss from the winds and water of the storm.

Then the even-more-monumental destruction and death caused by the failure of the levee system.

Following that came the loss of trust in the government and corporate institutions that supposedly exist to prevent, protect, and aid in recovery following such a disaster.

It's not overly dramatic to say there was also a loss of innocence for our country. The tragedy demonstrated how our legacy of racial discrimination and inequality of wealth and opportunity insulates the fortunate few from harm while exposing so many to unwarranted risks.

* * *

Even though the flooding ruined almost all of my worldly possessions (for which our renter's insurance policy provided virtually no relief), I consider myself one of those lucky ones.

I had a car that enabled my wife, cat, and me to evacuate almost a full 24 hours before the storm made landfall. We first watched the events unfold at a friend's house in Atlanta, then at my parents' home in Summerfield, Fla.

We knew many who stayed and suffered in the terrible conditions at the Superdome, the Convention Center, and on the I-10 bypass. But thankfully, none of our immediate family or friends lost their lives.

Besides, I had only moved there in 1999. I couldn't possibly fathom the loss of culture and community felt by those who had generations of families born and buried in the city and surrounding parishes.

At least these are the kinds of things I frequently say when people ask me about my Katrina experience.

They are not lies. But they are also not the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

They are more like mantras I use to comfort myself and shield the listener from darker, sadder feelings.

* * *

It wasn't until a few weeks after the storm that I even became aware of these other emotions. I was responding to an email from a friend (and native New Orleanian) who had moved to England with her husband a few months before that. She and I were copywriters for the same industrial manufacturing company. Outside the agency, we both labored toward more literary aspirations.

She once said something great to me about “feeling rich” as long as she had books, and that is probably what triggered the sudden and sharp pang I felt when recounting to her the loss of my personal library.

It wasn't a vast collection. But having a B.A. in English meant I kept copies of many of the great books in the literary canon, including annotated anthologies of Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Milton. I had volumes of poetry signed by Galway Kinnell, Barry Gifford, and David Budbill.

There was a book on the history of the Boston Celtics that my sister made a special point to get autographed by Hall of Famer Jo Jo White. There was a Richard Scarry “Great Big Schoolhouse” book that had an inscription from my Aunt Joan and Uncle George commemorating my sixth birthday.

Then there were my own journals and notebooks. I had placed most of them out of the way on the lowest shelves. Fortunately, I had electronic versions of any drafts for stories, poems, or articles on my computer. But losing those raw materials made me realize the storm took pieces of me that I'll never get back.

I kept one journal anyway. There are scribblings from the early and mid-1990s inside, and even now, 10 years later, when I hold it close to my nose, a damp rankness in the pages still makes me choke.

I'm sure that one day I'll get completely past the dark and sad to embrace the lightness that comes from survival and the good fortune that all I really lost was replaceable stuff.

Maybe I'll even let you know when it happens.

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