I was listening to the new nonfiction book this morning, The Fight for Home: How (Parts) of New Orleans Came Back written by Daniel Wolff (and read with great feeling by Cameron Gamble) and as I became more engaged with the story, I found myself feeling slightly anxious and melancholy as the hour passed. A beautifully written book will do that. A reader like Cameron, who can evoke the raw emotions and memories of that time can do that. My family was very lucky in that we didn’t experience the level of devastation and heartbreak that so many New Orleanians did– we fled to safety, our house didn’t flood and we didn’t lose our possessions. The most serious thing we went through was finding a high school in Lafayette for our daughter to attend while hers was being restored. We didn’t return for almost four months, so I didn’t know firsthand the difficulties of the “transitional life” everyone who came back immediately was enduring. Yet through books, newspapers, magazines, television and the internet I tried to stay close to the city and my heart went out to everyone struggling to survive in the unfamiliar and uncomfortable “new” New Orleans. I felt so estranged, living in another place while the true pioneers were working on bringing the city back to life.
As I discovered while listening to the book this morning, those residual emotions are still deep in my memory. There were so many books written about the Katrina experience, and as a reading radio station we recorded and aired quite a few of them, so everyone who worked at WRBH during the that time probably heard more emotional stories of the chaos, tragedy, suffering and grief than the typical radio listener. It was an education. It was a shared sadness. It was a catharsis. It also was something that gradually ebbed away through the years, as New Orleans slowly became closer to normal again and started to resemble our home once more.
Executive director Natalia Gonzalez often tells the story of coming to check on the station as soon as she was able in the weeks following the storm, and finding post-it notes and handwritten messages papering the door, all from worried volunteers who wanted to let her know they were here, they were safe, and they wanted to help in any way they could. I can imagine how strongly those volunteers needed some semblance of their regular lives back, and how generous they were to realize their efforts would restore some normalcy to our listeners’ lives, too. It took a lot of hard work and dedication and donations of time and money to get WRBH up and running again, and we are still grateful to all of those who threw themselves wholeheartedly into the task. We also still miss those volunteers who didn’t or couldn’t return, and have made other lives apart from their former home.
As the ten year anniversary approaches, there has been a second wave of books on the subject of the hurricane and its lingering effects on the city and the people. I think the need to “tell” will always be overwhelming, and to examine and talk and compare is still the best way to process the experience. Whether we like it or not, we went through that time together, and we are connected because of it. I’m sure The Fight for Home will be only the first re-telling that stirs these shared emotions in all of us.